The Strength of an Oak

The yucca were charming. They played peekaboo from behind the oaks; they huddled like puppies at big dogs’ feet. They stretched wooly-bear caterpillar legs across the boulders, or radiated cool perfection in the shade.

Image: The patterned bark of an oak trunk dominates the foreground. A toddler-height soap-tree yucca photo-bombs it, peeking around the trunk. (Note: All plant identifications are iffy at best.)

Of course, they were also ferocious in defense. With spikes, spear-points, knife-edges, they could cut soft flesh to shreds. Succulents have a resource the rest of the desert wants, and they will protect the water in their leaves with every fiber of their being.

I was smitten by the yucca at Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona, by their whimsy and perfection and ferocity, by the gentle blues in shade; at the way they could delight and repel with equal strength.

Image shows a long, slender soaptree yucca growing horizontally above a group of boulders. Years’ worth of old, dried leaves dangle down from the trunk like caterpillars legs to brush the tops of the rocks.

The Stronghold itself moved me with its opposites. I can see why the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise chose this area as his base of military operations. It has everything a good general could want: water, food, shelter, watch places, crags where skilled defenders could hide to wage war unseen. You sense the strength of the place, in the massive walls of stone, in the sturdy oaks that ring them.

Image shows a rounded, rocky mountain surrounded by Arizona white oaks in a plain of autumn-whitened grasses.

I can also see why Cochise chose the Stronghold as his home when the years of warfare between the Apache and American nations had passed. It has everything a heartsick warrior could want: shade or sun at will, a garden of tranquil greenery, gentle serenity. It is a warm place, hospitable and gracious. When the wind blows through the leaves of those strong, sturdy oaks, they don’t clatter or rustle or roar. They barely whisper: “Hush. Hush.”

As I read more about Cochise’s history , those opposites—the defense and hospitality—moved me to sorrow. Cochise chose this place from necessity for warfare, but he also chose it, with its warmth, whimsy, and graciousness, for love. A person’s loves says a lot about their values. Who would Cochise have been, without a false accusation, a parley turned ambush, and the torture and murder of his family?

For a yucca the cost of bearing weapons is nil. Its soul does not suffer from that violence. For humans there is a price. Yet there is also a price for gentleness. We have to choose between defense and hospitality every day, in small ways and large, and we and everyone in our wake will pay for it, sometimes for generations.

Image shows a ravine in shade. In the foreground are two perfectly symmetrical, blue-green banana yucca. Behind them grow yet more oaks amid a grouping of cool, white boulders.

What is the cost of gentleness, of strength shaped to blessing? What is the cost of conquest or defense, of strength shaped to warfare? It’s perhaps the most fundamental question before us: which we prize more, our lives and our loved ones’, or our wholeness.

On a personal scale I ponder that as a woman traveling solo. Statistically I am exponentially safer in the wilderness than in a city, and alone than living with a man I love. But leaving the familiar wakes you to the danger of the unknown. (A reminder: The familiar is a great lullaby. The future is equally unpredictable for us all.) At Cochise Stronghold I met yet another well-meaning camper who encouraged me to go through life armed to the teeth to protect myself. I have also met people who assure me I won’t encounter danger if I don’t expect it—a kind of magical thinking I find suspect. It seems to me the point is to face the possibility of risk and ask, “Who am I willing to be in self-defense, and at what cost?”

The name Cochise means “Having the strength of an oak.” In its natural habitat, an oak’s strength nurtures a forest’s worth of lives beneath its boughs. It holds firm and whispers peace in harsh winds. What are the consequences for a human, of being a nurturing oak amid those who do not wish us well?

Image shows the mountain’s top just beginning to catch the first rays of sunshine. It is partially framed by branches of oak leaves still in shadow.

When can we afford to be gentle, to shape strength to blessing?

When can we not?

On Gossamer Wings

I suppose you could stop seeing the Organ Mountains. If you had lived in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley for years, your eyes could begin overlooking them, your brain tuning out their grandeur as old hat. There is nothing we cannot take for granted, no awe we cannot shrug off eventually. Mountains, our loved ones, our lives—whatever.

At Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Image shows the jagged teeth of a mountain range silhouetted against pre-dawn light.

When you see the marvelous for the first time, though, you stop to marvel. The Organ Mountains rise from neutral ground—a green screen of creosote bush and cats-claw mesquite, the visual equivalent of the locusts that buzzed all day or the endless chorus of crickets by night. Pleasant, uniform, forgettable.

From neutrality the mountains shoot up to challenge the sky without warning. They are knife-pointed spires, defying the birds to perch. Their buttresses cast towering shadows until the sun is high. In noonday glare, they glare right back. Yet they have crannies of loose stone, relenting to greenery in search of a home. And they blush like any old softy in the flattery of evening light.

Image shows a closer view of a craggy peak. Swathes of greenery appear here and there, scoffing at the laws of gravity.
Image shows the mountains turning rosy as the sun sets. A white camper van in the foreground is already in full shade, though the peaks will continue to receive sun for a while.

Still, after a few days, there they are. They haven’t done much. Your attention wanders. What I actually remember most about the two weeks I spent there in early November is the butterflies.

Don’t ask me what kind. Mourning Cloaks I knew, and a Reakert’s Blue kindly posed long enough for me to photograph and identify it. Otherwise, they were flashes of light and color, glimpses of motion on the periphery of sight or even right in front of your nose. Few flowers bloomed, but the air was alive with butterflies like a summer night with fireflies.

Most were small, the gossamer-wing types, in copper and blue, saffron, lemon, and marigold. Light shone through them, shimmered from them. They’d be here and gone in an instant. How can they flit so erratically and still cross such distance in a heartbeat?

Often with wonders so speedy, you only have time to gasp in surprise before they’re gone. The shooting star, the stag leaping across the path, the quail startling up from underfoot. Delight happens afterward. “Did you see that??”

The butterflies should have been like that—quick, vibrant glimpses of magic. But there were too many. I’d barely had a chance to recover from the surprise of one before another appeared. Erratic flight caught my erratic attention again and again and again.

Eventually my heart decided it was easier just to live in a constant state of surprise. In that open-hearted state I could anticipate the delightfulness of butterflies and live there for a while. Open-heartedness, surprise, and delight began to tinge the green-screen blandness of everyday life: cooking, bathing, resting, tidying. Surprise gave new life to the sturdy, massive sameness of rock and spire. The little awe and the big awe claimed kinship and infused the everyday with wonder.

Image shows a close-up of peaks in silhouette. A ray of morning sun is breaking between them.

So as this new year begins, I call a toast to the erratic and fleeting, to the shimmers of gossamer just at edge of awareness. May they surprise us, just for a moment, into glimpsing the towering awe behind them.