Tag Archives: nature

finger rock

Finger Rock is a lean, delicate spire, daintily extending out of the craggy Santa Catalina mountain skyline as though it were a little girl’s pinky finger counterbalancing an invisible porcelain tea-cup. This feature can capture the eye from almost anywhere in Tucson, including my driveway. Many novice day hikers have tasted the bitter tang of regret when they realize that the popular Finger Rock trail they have been huffing up for the past 2 hours doesn’t actually bring them to Finger Rock, which after getting closer, closer, slinks out of view like a beautiful stranger at a cocktail party. But for the intrepid, she is reachable; for those that wish to ascend her, 100 feet of easy technical climbing is the reward after hours hiking up the steep, loose approach. And once you make it to the top, standing on a shifty summit flake, you can regard magnificent views of the shimmering Tucson valley below, or the limitless bowl of azure sky above.

But here’s the disclaimer: I’ve never climbed Finger Rock. I’ve never breathed hard on the challenging ascent, skin burning where the ubiquitous shin daggers drew blood. My eager, calloused fingertips have yet to explore her contours, her secret holds.  I have yet to balance on that unstable summit flake, sweat and satisfaction dripping off me in equal volumes. I’ve dreamed of this adventure through. You see, I’m an untalented if enthusiastic rock climber; I am the kind of hiker that’s happiest if the journey takes all day. In short, it would be the perfect adventure for a person like me.

Or, to be more accurate: would have been a perfect adventure for someone like I was.

I shrug away the longing as I unload groceries from my Subaru, my newborn daughter snoozing in the backseat. A year ago, Finger Rock seemed like an ambitious-but-feasible Saturday plan; now it sounds as remote as visiting the moon. I can hardly manage a trip to the rock climbing gym for a few hours, certainly not an all-day excursion up a mountain. Overweight, overwrought and over-tired, my muscles have atrophied, my ambitions to climb mountains transformed into the goal of just trying to get to the goddamn grocery store. I am soft where I used to be hard. I am stretched where I used to be comfortable. I am winded where I used to be strong.

My daughter frowns, half-awake and smacking her lips. I slide her out of her car seat. She is all warmth and softness; we exhale in the sweet relief it is to be holding, to be held by. Her eyes, twin glacial pools, have started to focus on the world around her and she takes a moment to regard the mesquite tree in our yard. I bring her to my breast after I take a seat on the red Adirondack chair jauntily positioned on the front porch, Finger Rock still squarely in my line of sight. She latches on and I breathe in. She is exquisite. I feel the full, ridiculous weight of the love which flash flooded my life the moment I gave birth a few months ago and somehow keeps rushing and rushing from an invisible, inexhaustible spring.

Even in this sublime moment, my eyes flicker north, to Finger Rock. I am content, yet somewhere inside of me a wild cat paces in a secret jungle, silent, patiently insistent. She can wait, she will wait, but she claims the right to remind me of a different path, the wilder world beyond caregiving. No matter how sweet the gifts of mothering a newborn may be, her shadow makes me tingle, a specter from my old life of physicality, of independence, of wildness. She reminds me of dreams I’m not sure even make sense anymore. Afterall, I’m still figuring out this new landscape since my entire life blew open with the birth of my daughter. In many ways I feel like a stranger to myself, my new world a drawn-out zen koan. Opposites find symbiosis; contradictions are the norm. I have never felt weaker, and I have never felt stronger. I am contentedly consumed by caring for this precious and demanding newborn, yet I miss my old life, with all its adventures and micro freedoms. I fantasize about rocks I haven’t climbed, may never climb, and perhaps these flights are sustaining a part of me through this time of early parenting. Or maybe I’m engaged in a reflex fantasy, simply playing out old thought patterns, scratching old itches. Maybe that life is over.

But I don’t think so.The ground under a mother’s foot is never solid, after all. I feel myself sinking as soggy sand beneath me is sucked into the tide. I wobble and catch my balance as I stand on the shoreline of mystery, waves lapping around my ankles. What is true today ceases to exist tomorrow. My daughter is growing, the days are getting shorter, and everything changes, but there is so much more possibility balled into each and every moment than most of us dare to realize. The same miraculous force that pulled me off the mountain to nurse a baby on an Adirondack chair may one day push me back up into the wilderness. And these dreams are the red thread tying together then and now, proof that something original remains after the cracking, the flooding, knitting together a changed woman, a brave new mother in a soggy, strange world.

 

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This post took me ages to write- another casualty of new parenthood, I suppose. My baby is one year old now. I still haven’t climbed Finger Rock. But I haven’t stopped gazing at her and dreaming of the day.

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tadpoles

The annual reprieve is here- monsoon season. We desert dwellers look to the sky, to the dark clouds which form in the afternoon hours with hopeWe need this, the nourishing rains, the plummeting temperature which follows in its wake. In an instant lightning rips across the sky, big fat drops kiss our face and we clap our hands in gratitude. Yes. 

The desert hangs on to nothing, and water rushes and rushes, trying to return to the sea. It flows down alley ways and pooling only when contained. In a flood zone at the end of my street, the dusty embankement has given way to lush Johnson grass stands and puddles. But even in monsoon the water is not always enough.

I noticed the wriggling tadpoles after the season’s first big storm. The desert toad laid those fertilized eggs remains unknown to me; I’ve never heard their mating song at dusk, or seen one hopping around in the grass. But there they were, thousands of tadpoles in the seasonal water stand. Undulating and undulating, some of them clumping together, some perpetually pushing forward, on and on. Countless miracles, nearly in my own backyard.

But then things dried up. The puddles shrank, retreated. The tadpoles become a writhing mass in the small amount of remaining water.  I prayed to the God of Rain to bless us thoroughly and quickly, thousands of tadpoles depended on this. I prayed to the God of Frogs that they may develop preternaturally quickly. My prayers went unanswered; yesterday they had evaporated along with the puddle, leaving behind only a greyish film in the center of a mud ring.

It made me hate the kind of world were thousands of beautiful creatures live and die in a breath. The waste, the injustice.

But then today the rain returned. Again the streets flowed, water pooled, and there are tadpoles once more. Well developed, survivors transplanted from other puddles perhaps. I watch them undulate with a renewed sense of gratitude. With a renewed sense of hope.

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a survivor

I have become preoccupied with survival.  The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it.  I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster.  I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully.  I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea.  The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.

My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light.  I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.

Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges.  They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past.   In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.

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Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.

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Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.

 

books that changed me: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I have been a voracious reader since the young age where, in a flash of insight, markings on the page suddenly aligned to form words and meaning. I don’t know how old I was- four, five? But it seemed as though overnight a reader was born. One day I couldn’t read, the next day I could. It didn’t feel like a process of learning to read so much as a discovery of a latent ability. Like a baby swimming after being thrown into a pool, it felt natural, reflexive. Once I could read the basics, I graduated almost immediately to my parents books and magazines. I was insatiable; no stack of unread material would hold me for long. Still today I read fast, frantically,  and with an enthusiasm akin to how one devours pizza and beer at a Super Bowl party. But of the thousands of books I have gobbled in my lifetime, there are only a handful that have permanently changed me.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was on a long list of possible choices for my summer reading list prior to the start of my senior year of high school. I don’t recall why I picked this particular book, perhaps pulled in by a terse description as a “treatise on nature.” Or by a chance selection, an adequate supply at the local bookstore. Or maybe the hand of God pushed the paperback into my hands. No matter which scenario holds the best version of the truth, read it I did.

I was a 17-year-old city-dweller. I had no experience with most of the creatures Annie Dillard described with loving poetry – the muskrats, the birds, the plankton. But she illumined the mystery, the struggle to find meaning, and the sacred natural rhythms that surrounded me. She explored the land in her backyard and found traces of a divine I wasn’t sure existed, but it made sense to me without giving me specific answers. She voiced what I had felt intuitively, subconsciously, but hadn’t had the words to speak– that the closest thing to a power I’ll call God, for me, can only be found in growing, green things, and in the mountains and the birds and in blazing sunsets and sparkling stars and peeling birch bark and howling winds and the downbeat of a song. She was hungry to see it all, to understand the mystery. I read her words and found in my heart I was hungry too; I wanted to take everything in as she did: the shimmering lights and the looming shadows. Her words enlightened me to myself while simultaneously pushing me forward, cracking open my worldview and reminding me how little I knew, how much of the world I could discover if I dared.

It has now been nearly 17 years since I first read this book, a second lifetime repeated upon itself. I’m reading Pilgrim again, same copy I had in high school. My fingers trace the yellowed pages, the quotes that I underlined with a neon green pen. I don’t know if I see more clearly now than I did back then.  I don’t know if I fulfilled the dreams that were in my heart, the potential I believed was coursing in my youthful veins.  But here I am, again kneeling at her sacred words with my hand on my heart after carrying this book with me for at least 15 moves, thousands of miles, both literally and figuratively. It has sat on every bookshelf I have owned for 17 years. So while to reread something might pull me away from a new discovery, I believe there is a reason I have carried it with me all this time.  I believe it is time to start again.