Monday, October 22, 2012

On Derig Day: Leaving the Grand Canyon

In Flagstaff we inhabit a community tied to the Colorado River with seasonal cycles marked by transition. An average river trip can be two to three weeks long. It is hard to explain the mixed emotions of the last day of the trip—derig day.

On derig day we awake for the last time to the sound of the blaster heating our coffee water in the thin light of morning. We work continuously like a colony of ants to dismantle a river world that fit neatly and precisely into five boats.  We organize everything into piles then we load and strap it all on top of giant stakebed truck. On derig day we proceed, without skipping a beat, from a rubber raft to a 15-passenger van.

In our cleanest shirt we enter the world, slowly rumbling up Diamond Creek Road, the river behind us now.  Pressed together in the van, we savor the sense of ease that only people who have spent the last three weeks living and working together can share.

On derig day we enter the world above the canyon rim watching out the window, passing through an occasional Gooding’s willow, thickets of tamarisk, mesquite, and the stringy frames of cholla cactus, noticing how dense forests of crucifixion thorn give way to rolling pale-colored hills speckled with juniper trees. 

We leave the narrow walls of ancient rock for the plains of Seligman and encounter our first phone, toilet and money exchange in weeks.  We are greeted by the price of gas, a Subway sandwich and the latest disaster on the pages of the newspaper. 

On derig day we leave behind the white-faced ibis stepping gracefully over river cobbles with long stilts for legs.  We leave the flash of a yellow warbler as he flies between mesquite canopies.  We leave the eared grebe and the clever and mischievous ways of raven.

Eared grebe cruising the eddy

On derig day we leave behind all bright treasures that emerge from the ground.
We leave the elegant arch of a Newberry’s yucca stalk, poised on high cliffs, heavy with fruit. We leave the plump, pink flowers of Palmer’s penstemon with their pollen-covered goatees, and the moon-colored spirals of emerging sacred datura blossoms.

Palmer's penstemon pollen-laden goatees

On derig day we leave behind our hand lenses and binoculars, our field notebooks and watercolors and stories read out loud.  We take with us our lists of plants and birds and sites.  We take our cameras with cards full of repeat photography. We take our data sheets, stored carefully in metal army surplus boxes. We leave behind the dark canopy of endless night sky framed by silhouettes of canyon walls and the stars that are tiny pinholes in the universe.

We leave behind the collective strings of instruments making music—minor and bass notes that seem to say everything we can’t about the night and the peace and extraordinary beauty we have found.  We leave the quiet, the rhythm of water trickling off of oar tips, the creak of oarlocks, the fear above Crystal Rapid and the relief and elation below Lava Fall.


We leave behind a random group of people who began the journey as acquaintances and after traveling 225 river miles together, we now consider family. We trade all this intimacy for streets and cars and phones and stores where the possibilities extend to cyberspace and we can buy food prepared and served by strangers for an exchange in currency. 

We return to our lovers, family, friends, and to our communities—to the microcosm of the world that we have created.  We return renewed and fueled by a sense of urgency to make our lives simple, more immediate.  We arrive back in our lives with relief and gratitude, remembering to be more tolerant and gracious with many species, including our own.

We take with us all that we have learned, all the wonder we have witnessed with each day.  We take with us the hope that reverence may find a way into our daily life. We leave behind the deep time of the canyon but carry it with us within our hearts.

All this on derig day.

Redwall Cavern crinoid-really old!

Reclaiming the notion of economy

The government is bailing out scores of big name banks, auto companies and the greedy executives who brought them down, billions of dollars at a time.  You and I the taxpayer are now the shareholders in this disaster.

My sister in Tucson is making pies.  Each week she bakes confections assembled from ingredients sourced from the region, sweet and savory varieties made with Meyer lemons, pecans, or Swiss chard for a collection of shareholders who have invested in the concept of a community supported enterprise. 
Sister Kelly's pie-making headquarters

In a breakdown of the United States economy, one percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. What is the price of letting this whole thing fall? I have no training in economics, but it seems as though even the people who do are no better than hack astrologers.  My gut instinct says step back and let it unravel.

It is human nature to live beyond our limits.  In Flagstaff we are still struggling to undo the early damage of the lumber and ranching industry. Today our economy is built on growth and the value of our real estate. What if our survival was linked to the preservation of our clear mountain air, the Grand Canyon, and the greater Colorado Plateau? As employees of Mother Earth, we are provided an extraordinary benefit package—a healthy planet.

Four-winged saltbush is a highly adaptable shrub of southwestern deserts. When facing environmental stressors such as drought, female plants take on the role of their male counterparts, opting to make pollen over the more expensive and resource intensive task of producing fruit. 

Saltbush, among many other desert acquaintances, serves as a constant reminder that being able to adapt to your surroundings has always been a good tool for survival. 
House Rock Valley landscape-grasses and Four-wing saltbush (bottom right)

A friend of mine lives off the grid in the House Rock Valley, a remote area of the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon.  A river guide and truck driver, he pieces together work to get through the winter months.  He recently discovered that the Bureau of Land Management pays several dollars per pound for saltbush seeds for rangeland restoration.  Armed with a tennis racket and a tarp, he is in business, harvesting from the landscape outside his back door.  He and his wife recently bought ten chickens and now have more than enough eggs for themselves and their neighbors. Their woodstove cooks their food and heats their house.  He is the person who constantly and somewhat unnervingly asks me: what are you doing to prepare?

The answer is not enough. I am not ready. The sound of raindrops steadily pounding on my roof reminds me that my rainwater harvesting system is not in place. I will be paying the City of Flagstaff to water my garden for another growing season.

Growing up our family shopped at thrift stores and inherited hand-me-down clothing from family friends. We lived a lean check-to-check existence on my father’s small salary he earned in sales, working largely on commission. Yet at Christmas my parents felt compelled to max out the credit card to insure an adequate showing from Santa Claus. I anticipated it with great delight, but the morning after, surrounded by the spoils of wrapping and new things I felt empty and betrayed, party to the deception for my younger sisters that Santa had delivered again and we were just like everyone else.

As Americans we understand that shopping is patriotic and if we were to curb our habit, then the Consumer Confidence Index, the “Manifest Destiny” of our time starts slipping and so does the economy.   In hard times go forth and shop!

I tend to side with Wendell Berry in thinking our power lies in protecting our household and community economies.  I can invest in Flagstaff’s Community Supported Agriculture projects for my food and garden starts. I can buy eggs for my volunteer trips to the Kaibab Plateau from my friend’s House Rock hens. I need to adapt like saltbush to the coming economic drought.  Instead of taking a gamble in the stock market, I will continue to be a shareholder in the diverse micro-enterprise of the Flagstaff community.  
Local egg economies are everywhere, invest in one near you!

Driven to Craft

Here I am on another all night craft binge.  I know I should stop, but I just can’t.  There will always be something that is waiting to be made. I crank out five fleece hats in a frenzy, and my craft-crazed haste I smudge the paint by stacking the printed scarves prematurely.  But I press along with hope, picturing a colorful booth teeming with my handcrafted wares on a cold winter Saturday before Christmas.
My art studio the morning after an all night craft binge

But the next day at the craft fair I have second thoughts about all of it.  I want to disappear into my display. I fear that passers-by will feel obligated to buy something from me because I appear somewhat desperate. I ask myself why I feel the need to sell my wares when I have a satisfying day job. I am hooked on that momentary thrill when a person who is not your relative wants to buy something you have created. This is matched by waves of insecurity and a constant need for validation that summarizes the emotional arc of an artist. Maybe this is why I chose sociology over studio art in college—I loved making art, but couldn’t bring myself to call it my profession.
Photoshoot for my Guad handbag line

My neighbor at the fair, the birdhouse man, has made the transition from an electrician to birdhouse designer for white-trash birds.  His creations are ornate, glimmering stuccoed boots, lighthouses and churches each with a small circular entrance for the bird.  They sell for anywhere from 50 to 100 dollars, and they indeed sell.   Each time he parts with one I can hear his overtly cheerful catch phrase: “you just extended my retirement by another day!”  I can only imagine the crime scene of his garage the night before a craft show like this with an explosion of sawdust and sequins all over the floor.  But he is probably one of those people who has everything neatly organized in shelves and bins, and cleans his workspace religiously with a wet/dry vac. Even so, part of me feels a strange kinship to him3. We both belong to a family that spends weekends at on the road at craft fairs instead of ball games or the mall.

I was born into a world of fabric. I was raised in an old stone house in rural Vermont where bits and scraps of calico were regarded as nothing short of treasures to be transformed by my own imagination. As a child I was dragged to craft fairs with my parents.  They both had day jobs but their idea of weekend fun was to tour around rural Vermont town greens and set up a booth and get to work selling their creations. My sisters and I learned early on that crafting staved off boredom and if you were lucky it could earn you some spending money.  I started out making hand-lettered, made-to-order rainbow striped banners for any occasion, then in my teens I reinvented myself as a fashion designer, making miniskirts for a small company I called “Beyond the Behind.”  The logo on my business card featured a sun setting beyond two cheek-like hills.

My parents saved stuff like this to remind me what a freakish child I was

My mother has always been a complete craft demon. During the Christmas season one could never count on seeing the surface of our dining room table.  It was shrouded in a swarm of calico fabric, colored yarn and various doll appendages, stuffed and in different degrees of assemblage.  In the closing hours before Christmas, Bonnie pulled all-nighters to finish doll orders to get the finished product to the post office in time for it to be under the tree.

So it isn’t strange that I can’t seem to escape my craft obsession as much of my passion seems to be genetic. What if I were to make art purely for the sake of it? I find my joy in the creation, and in the concentration of crafting where my thoughts are free to roam while my sewing machine stitches scenes to life. When I work, especially late on winter nights, I turn on every warm glow of a light in the spare room so I can see all the possibilities.  In the quiet of night I unfold great lengths of silks and velvets and drape them together over the back of a chair.  I piece together histories with bits of bright cotton and then transform them into an entirely different story, and I never know where the process will take me. I find that it is the act of creating, traveling that unknown highway, that keeps me forging ahead into the unknown territory.

Mariachi pillow made with random scraps and iron on transfers

A Christmas Memory

My husband Dan and I have a holiday tradition that came about somewhat unintentionally and has now become known as the Misfit Thanksgiving. It began when we moved to Flagstaff fifteen years ago and shared a house with several over-wintering river guides. The Misfit Thanksgiving offers anyone away from family a place to go to share a meal and celebrate our collective good fortune. The guest list grows by word of mouth, resulting in a hodgepodge of friends, friends of friends and the occasional visiting sister or foreign exchange student making us thankful to be a part of the Flagstaff community where anything goes.

But Christmas is another story. It is harder to blend our inherited traditions into a misfit holiday. I struggled for years to find meaning in Christmas as an agnostic adult. Without candlelit church services, a tree to decorate or children of my own writing lists for Santa, the meaning was obscured. 
Trying out agnostic adult Christmas

My early attempts to create traditions lacked the authenticity of those from my childhood. I longed for the anticipation I shared as a little girl with my sisters counting down the days then combing the woods with our Dad for the perfect tree.  For an entire day we would sift through the tangle of tinsel, unwind strands of lights and dust off the needlepoint wise men, a sparkly French horn, and an assortment of crude, handmade ornaments while my mom heralded the story of origin for each of them. For some reason going home to Vermont and trying to revive our traditions with my sisters as adults leaves me inexplicably disappointed and depressed.

Dan poses as Indonesian Santa for Christmas on Seraya Island, Indonesia.

Several years ago Dan and I were on a road trip to visit his family in Wisconsin for the holidays.  We were listening to NPR’s This American Life featuring a story written and read by Truman Capote. Capote’s distinctive high-pitched southern drawl describes a time when a young boy, the narrator, Buddy, celebrates the Christmas season with his childlike and somewhat eccentric elderly cousin, who he refers to as his “friend.” They live with their dog, “Queenie,” and several other relatives who are religious and cranky. They are each other’s best friend.

The story chronicles their annual tradition of making fruitcakes for people who have “struck our fancy,” like Franklin Roosevelt. They employ Buddy’s old wicker baby buggy to collect pecans and save their pennies for an entire year to purchase the finest ingredients, including a portion of whiskey from the feared fish fry and dancing café owner Mr. Ha-ha Jones. The spare and heartfelt handcrafted Christmas world these two unlikely allies create among hostile relatives and limited monetary resources is told with tender, sharply observed details. Buddy and his friend search through the “scented acres” to find the perfect tree, and secretly build each other handmade kites only to later lament how badly each of them wanted to get the other a bike and chocolate covered cherries.

As their kites cavort Buddy’s friend gazes at the sky with a sudden realization: “I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown himself. That things as they are; just what they’ve always seen was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

In the cocoon of our car, staring out into the stark, winter landscape we clung to every word finally reduced to tears when it becomes clear this is their last Christmas together. Buddy gets shipped off to military boarding school and the cousin grows old, lonely and eventually passes on. There is something about the story that wrenches your heart open and fills you with gratitude for all that you have, and all that is yours to share. But it is also dreadfully sad too, because it recollects the longing and sadness in the loss of the past, a time that cannot be revived.

I finally found a Christmas tradition that makes sense to me.  Now every year we listen to Truman Capote read this story and I am transported back to that moment with Dan and to my childhood Christmas memories.   

To listen to this recording visit This American Life's website.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Would Ruess Do? The uncertain fate of desert streams

I can’t think of many things that are more beautiful than the autumn sunlight as it plays off of sandstone.  All the harshness of the sun’s blazing summer self has faded as it makes its way across the narrow piece of sky I can see from the bottom of the Paria Canyon. On this late October day I scamper higher up the wall, following the sun like a lizard.

I have just been dropped off by the horse packer, Justin, a cowboy out of Cedar City, Utah who packs people and gear into the wilderness for a living as well as occasionally driving cows between the high and low country for his family’s livestock operation.  Today he carried the food and gear for our Grand Canyon Trust volunteer crew to spend a week in the depths of the Paria Canyon killing invasive tamarisk trees.  We got five miles in where the canyon narrows to less than 20 feet wide before we encountered the first chest-deep pool—remnants of a mid-September flood that scoured out several like it, making the task at hand slightly more daunting. 

During our ride I discover that Justin is yet another soul who would relish in the death of this greedy tree who has achieved dominance over the majority of our desert streams.  I also sense a quiet fervor for wilderness and cottonwood trees as he talks about the places he works—Kanab Creek, the Virgin River, the Paria. I suppose it isn’t that hard to become passionate about desert streams. The fact is they are pure magic. They are havens from the harsh, dusty desert teaming with life. Today I encountered a tarantula, a hawk clutching its prey, a floating chipmunk, and a sphinx moth larvae chewing on a sacred datura plant.  When you consider the rustling of cottonwood leaves as their goldenness sparkles against the breeze then you understand why some of us will go to great lengths to remove tamarisk from the picture. Luckily we are not alone.  There are many who are willing to sign on for a week of hard labor in exchange for wildness, beauty, fellowship and food.

My thoughts lead me to the lonesome vagabond life of young Everett Ruess, who traveled these very canyons with his two burros. He explored many beautiful places that he did “not wish to taste, but to drink deep.” He lived a life in search of beauty, only to be swallowed by the vast landscape of southern Utah never to be seen again.  The recent discovery of remains near Bluff, Utah was thought to be those of Ruess, but more extensive analysis has refuted earlier DNA evidence.

Part of me is comforted by the abiding mystery of his death. I feel a certain strange comfort knowing that it was possible to disappear and never be found, that such wilderness existed. And it makes me wonder if a person could still meet the same unresolved ending in this same somewhat less wild landscape.  Had he lived, Ruess would be 94 years old today and witnessed startling changes in the land he loved. What would he have to say about tamarisk?  Would he take up a saw in defense of his beloved declining desert streams?

I think he is lucky to have missed out on the last 75 years of “progress” in the West.  Sure, we love our Ipods, and vehicles can get us where we want to go, but I hear him even today, arguing for the music of a trickling stream. In the last letter Ruess wrote to his brother, dated November 11, 1934 he wrote: “I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities." 

Justin said it best as we ambled deeper into the Paria Canyon, as he looked back at his pack horses, loaded with food and a 5-gallon bucket that serves as our leave-no-trace toilet.  “Heck, we got all that we need right here.” 
Indeed, we do.

Rancho Conitaca Ruiz: The Gift of the Pig

When my sister Kelly invited me to a Valentine’s Day pig roast in Sonora, Mexico, my curiosity peaked. The idea was initiated last year when Kelly visited her Tucson friend and neighbor, Marcelo’s rancho in Imuris, Mexico and was gifted a pig for helping to construct a corral, but also because he understands that she is a huge fan of pork. So when Kelly’s cochi came to the end of his time on this earth, a multi-national fiesta ensued south of the border with a wild gathering of gringos and local Mexican ranchers.

Rancho Conitaca Ruiz was named in honor of Marcelo’s mother’s childhood ranch in Sinaloa. Mexico.  Marcelo was born and grew up in Tucson spending the summers on his grandparent’s ranch there. He purchased the rancho in Imuris so his two young sons would also have a chance to grow up and experience the traditions of ranch life in Mexico. His grandmother taught him about the gift of the pig and now he too is able to pass it on.

The butchering of the cochi took the better part of the first day and was carried out by a cadre of neighborhood ranchers, Tecates in hand. Three of the four ranchers are named Jesus, and all three go by “Chuy” for short. We learned to distinguish the Chuys by age, dress and demeanor. Then there was José Angel, a weathered yet spry cowboy whose easy smile is framed by several missing teeth.

When the hard work was finished the only evidence of the barnyard cochi was a pile of hair-stained blood on the ground as the animal was scattered between large cook pots and coolers filled with body parts. When the ranchers bemoaned the lack of a horseshoe game one of the gringas assuaged them with her knife throwing set. “Isn’t that a little dangerous?” they asked as sharp knives hurled headlong at a wood fence post. Meanwhile Doña Alma, another neighbor, orchestrated the rest of the gringas in the task of chopping cabbage, radish, onion, and cilantro for the garnishes while she stewed a big pot of posolé over an open fire in the kitchen.

The sun sank low on the horizon, casting long shadows along the fallow pastures and igniting the clouds in shades of fuchsia and vermillion. Outside the smell of carnitas marinated in the crooked hat Chuy’s secret Sinaloan recipe cooking over an open fire in a gigantic copper pot filled the evening air. At first, communication across our language barrier was difficult, yet as the night wore on beer, knives, food and music became the universal language. The song “De Colores,” was well received and soon enough the Mexicanos were calling for an encore performance of “Wagon Wheel.”

José Angel became enamored with Kelly’s friend Jill when we went on a late night town run for beer, cigarettes and candles. He was in awe of the way she commanded her 4-wheel drive pickup truck, negotiating the rugged dirt roads and stream crossings at high speed. At the liquor store we all took turns posing with the life size tequila bottle donned with a bumper sticker that read: “Boot Bush.”

As our last night at the ranch wore down, fueled by bacanora, the local moonshine tequila, the women took turns dancing around the fire with José Angel, whose 18-year old white horse was tied up to the bumper of the truck, ready for the ride home under the stars. Banda music from Sinaloa blasted from the open cab, songs filled with melancholy lyrics and the soulful cries of trumpets.

This pig represents a great gift, an offering shared across borders, a connection that is that is extended not just to Kelly and her gringo friends, but also throughout the food chain including those who helped care for, butcher and feed us the pig. Marcelo is in a position where he can afford to share with his neighbors, but many of them are not so lucky. Yet Marcelo will continue to struggle with the fact that since his sons are not Mexican citizens they cannot inherit Rancho Conitaca Ruiz and could lose their tenuous ties to Mexico in the future.

In the name of homeland security we continue to build fences along a 2,000-mile artificial border that has been crossed freely by humans and animals for several thousand years, before policies and fear separated us. Despite the fence, we felt the generous spirit of Mexico in the sharing of food and culture. I am ashamed that U.S. immigration policies only allow for this intercambio to be a one-way exchange. The loss is ours.

Time and Loss: A tangled story

When I first landed in the southwest it was for an internship at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I was twenty-one year-old East Coast white girl stepping for the first time on the dusty red soil of the Navajo Reservation. I lived alone in the park campground in a doublewide trailer, in a yard crowded with tumbleweed skeletons. I had a pair of cowboy boots, a bicycle, and $50 in my pocket. 

“Shawna Tso” befriended me and became the closest thing I had to family at that time in my life. Shawna was a butch lesbian Navajo guide at Canyon de Chelly. She wore a Redskins baseball hat with an eagle feather affixed to the top that flickered and twirled in the wind. She was a husky woman, with an ample chest, and when she laughed, her entire body shook with the tremors of it.

My first week at the visitor center, I confided in her that I was nervous about giving an interpretive talk about the hogan because I had never actually been inside a traditional Navajo home.  I felt like a complete fraud. Later that day Shawna took me to her hogan, built by her grandmother, and shared with me all she knew about the traditions.  Over the course of our friendship she told me many stories behind the rock spires, alcoves and mesas, bringing the landscape to life. She taught me how to express exasperation in Navajo in one catchy phrase ”Ya-de-la!”.  She shared the secrets of throwing a rope, dancing the two-step, and navigating two feet of reservation mud in a two-wheel drive pickup.

Shawna was my Navajo superhero, and perhaps elevating her to that level left her nowhere to go but crashing down.  Shawna’s problems were very real.  She was a high school drop out who had been in and out of jail.  She was a victim of abuse who self-medicated with alcohol, the very elixer that fueled her brawls with loved ones. Despite the darkness, her light shone bright enough for me to recognize her as my mentor, a sage and—at times—a prophet. Shawna balanced precariously on the edge of her culture never appearing to care whether she fit in. I admired her sense of freedom. 
Sixteen years later I am looking at a photograph of Shawna taken a month before she died. Her face appears twisted and swollen with a lifetime of pain. I notice the red scars on her neck where her mother tried to strangle her as a baby. I wish in vain to smooth the rough spots, to make her laugh.

She died from a stroke on the first day of this year. I was never able to say goodbye. Now I am left to unravel the tangled story of a friendship that ended 10 years ago late one night when she busted into a downtown Flagstaff house that I shared with roommates.  She was on a bender, rolling through town. At that moment she seemed indistinguishable from the drunks that roamed the streets of our neighborhood, only she was calling my name.

In the end I wasn’t able to watch her drink her pain away and hurt the ones she loved so fiercely. I cannot understand why it was difficult to reconcile Chinle and Flagstaff; two worlds that each shaped large parts of who I am today. The shame of turning away from Shawna has infused me with a streak of darkness that is mine alone to carry.

When I returned to Chinle after her death I saw the way time has played out on people’s faces, including my own. I was overwhelmed by the connection I felt to the landscape and those who remembered me despite all the years that have passed. I witnessed the loved ones she hurt the most, her girlfriend and her daughter, struggling to reconcile their loss swinging on a pendulum between courage and quiet despair.

Tumbleweeds spin cartwheels across the desert plain and come to rest along the fence margins. We leave Shawna’s grave, a fresh mound of burnt orange soil covered in plastic flowers, surrounded by so much emptiness. The spring parsley flowers push up through the cracks in an unforgiving landscape. I imagine that these tender flowers are tiny offerings of hope, beacons of beauty pushing though the impossible, inpenetrable grief.  I wish for them to survive.