Gnawing Worries

(Or: In Which We See the Light)

Rodents chew loudly; I’ll give them that. You don’t have to wonder, after a long day of chores and travel, when the curtains are drawn against a crisp November night while you unwind by lantern light in pajamas with herbal tea and a mystery, whether something is trying to gnaw through the floorboards under the brake pedal.

You know.

Out you go in your bathrobe, flashlight in one hand, spray bottle in the other, to roust out the intruder with peppermint oil and cider vinegar. (Rawr.) After much stomping and spraying, the chewing stops, and you go inside, thinking the intruder vanquished. Just as you relax, the chewing begins again.

But hey—you know when it does.

You might repeat all that a couple of times before you get a direct hit with the vinegar. By then it’s the rodent’s bedtime anyway, so you can both return to your corners for a breather. If you’re stubborn, optimistic, weary, in denial, me, you’ll repeat this two more nights before admitting defeat.

The light—oh, the light. When the sun glances sidelong at the waning day, the very air glows. Colors spark to life. The saguaros seem both close at hand and far away, as if you’re seeing them through a shine of memory. When tales speak of fairy glamour, this is what they mean. You would gladly follow a will-o’-the-wisp of this light into another world.

Image shows a desert landscape with a generous scattering of saguaros. Some of them have no arms, some half a dozen. They are as individual as humans. The sky is huge and blue, the air sparklingly clear. The sun is beginning to set and warms everything with golden light.

This was the second campsite I’d run from in two weeks. The first time, I’d rolled into Las Cienegas with a swagger. I’d been on the road for six months, conquered the Chihuahuas of Worry, and was handling vanlife Like. A. Boss. I left with my tail between my legs, responding to a deep fear whose source remains a mystery. I am still trying to understand what was real and what imagined. I’m safe; that’s all I know. I drove four miles to a busier campground in the Conservation Area, and the fear left completely.

Now I’d arrived, chastened, on Cactus Forest BLM land north of Tucson, only to be gnawed upon in a vulnerable place. Eventually I crossed the road to a quieter area with cleaner fire rings. I put the hood up, spread mint-soaked cotton balls through the engine compartment, squirted tires and insulated hoses with vinegar, put a flashing light under the engine, and hoped for the best.

I had done all that before. With rodents, I find, you can do All the Things—Irish Spring, dryer sheets, mothballs, coyote urine, balsam fir—and they will work so long as the rodents aren’t particularly interested. Once you’re in their sights, they’re coming for you, friend.

I slept the rest of the week with one ear open. I did not unwind in PJ’s or lose myself in a novel. I researched rodent repellants (ha!) and mobile mechanics.

The landscape itself is fantastical. It operates by rules you never learned. Saguaros, towering sometimes thirty feet overhead, stretch all their arms to unknown gods; tree chollas bristle at you. (At the base of each is a warren of rodent holes. Stretching between warrens are highways worn by tiny feet powering perpetual-motion teeth.) Palo verde trees stand here and there, almost leafless, photosynthesizing through their bark. You find yourself craving green eggs and ham, hunting for rhymes with “sneetch,” while coyotes serenade the stars with songs as high and weightless as starlight.

Image shows more of the desert landscape. It is surprisingly lush (to me). Cat-claw mesquite bushes, saguaros, and tree chollas predominate. The chollas are taller than you, with prickly, finger-like branches and dangling fruit pods. They look frazzled, like they stuck their fingers in a light socket.

I worry that the effort of dealing with mechanical failure—and losing my home in the meanwhile—might sink me under the weight of illness and trap me again in a house. I love this beautiful life of discovery, but something as small as a rodent could end it.

I chewed on worry for the week.

Over Thanksgiving weekend the shooting began. You often hear gunfire on public lands, where target practice is permitted. Usually it’s a modest half hour of potshots while people maintain their skills. This began an hour before dawn and kept going until an hour after dusk, twelve hours straight, three days running, pausing only for a pit stop. Single-shot weapons, semi-automatics, fully automatics, small explosives. I felt like I was sitting in a room during an argument.

Even after sunset the landscape glows with unearthly light—clear, as if the planet had no atmosphere; soft with that memory of shine. A gentle, complex palette emerges that you didn’t see in full light. You realize how alive the desert is, that it is everything but barren.

Image shows the landscape at dusk. The “belt of Venus” stretches pink and blue bands across the horizon. The mesquite and saguaros look fresh, almost spring-green in this light, and the sages(?) glow faintly white against the sand.

I’ve lived alone since the last millennium, been isolated in a house for years. I remained part of a network of care, knew my spirit connected across distances to family and friends through strong ties of love. That had seemed enough. I still thought that because I lived alone, I managed the logistics of life alone. “Self-sufficiency” is one of the great American myths, and I bought it, even while living on disability.

I hadn’t realized how much neighbors had contributed to my well-being. Mine had been good ones—not friends, but people you could ask for a jump-start. We kept an eye out for each other, offered rides to the mechanic, made the occasional casserole, propped up the wall between us while we chatted. We were not interdependent, but we shared.

The sunsets—well. Desert sunsets are legendary and need no further praise here. It’s the hour before dusk that taught my heart what light is, to hunger for its purity, to yearn to be absorbed in that glow.

Image shows a saguaro in the foreground, its arms silhouetted against a glowing, orange-y sky as the sun dips behind hills on the horizon.

The week at Las Cienegas had shaken me from serene solitude to frightened isolation. Now, in the distance, a fellow human trained doggedly to destroy other fellow humans. Rodents had gnawed away—yet again—at my self-sufficiency.

Worry picked up where they left off, chewing loudly, persistently, determinedly, until finally it broke through the floorboards of my long-cherished independence. Up through the opening popped this astonishing thought:

“Maybe this is why humans band together in community?”

Ting! The light shone all around.

Image shows cholla fingers backlit by the sun, haloed by hundreds of prickles pointing every which way, all glowing white. A Ting! of lens flare in the upper left brings home the point that the sun is shining, in case you might not have noticed.

That’s what I needed—to find me some sugar-lending, ladder-borrowing, jump-starting, ride-sharing, casserole-making, dog-sitting, wall-propping, coffee-klatching, portable neighbors!

And so the quest began.

To be continued…

Anything

Where did this algae bloom of fear come from?

I have spent my life in love with the sky. With breathing room. I have gloried in being small in vast spaces, found a perspective in them that freed me from fuss and gave me the right to take action. To be out in the open on a grassy hillside, with nothing between me and the sky—that is heaven.

Image shows the sun just touching an open horizon at dusk, with a lone ironwood tree silhouetted in front of it. The sky is tinged with gold at the horizon but blue overhead. Clouds streak it hither and yon.

I have made my peace with silence. After being forced into it for years, I have lost my horror of what I feared was emptiness. It has become a friend that holds me in its embrace.

And I am at home in solitude. It is my native land, my place of fluency and ease.

So what pinned me, quivering, in a serene, open grassland, like a rabbit in a hawk’s shadow?

I had gone for a short walk at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area southeast of Tucson. It is the kind of landscape that sets my heart singing—a gentle one of rolling, interweaving hills and soaring skies. In mid-November, its blanket of sacaton grasses glowed in late-afternoon sun. The bosque of Arizona ash along that great wonder of southwestern wonders—a year-round river—was just warming to gold. In the distance, “sky island” mountains twisted up from the earth, while the hills in the foreground echoed with birds and the cattle on the Conservation Area’s historic, working ranch.

Image shows late-afternoon sunlight turning knee-high grasses on gentle hills autumn-gold in the foreground. Behind them rise knobbly, gray-brown mountains, with pure blue sky in the background. The feathery branches of ironwood trees partially frame the scene.

I had spent the days since my arrival resting. My buggy is a lovely window on the world, and from its shelter the hills had called out. Just across each rise, they promised, a new mystery awaited. Cattle lowed outside my windows every morning, ambled past to the next grazing ground. A kestrel kept watch in an ironwood tree.

When I arrived, I had neighbors one campsite over. I was glad of them. Signs in this border region warn of drug and human smugglers, and I don’t have enough experience to assess the danger. On the second day, the neighbors rumbled away to journey elsewhere. None took their place.

Image shows the sun setting from a different place in the Conservation Area—an over-bright glow disappearing behind mountains blue with distance. The branches of yet another ironwood frame the photo. Dots of texture stipple the foreground where the grasses’ seed heads catch the light from behind.

On the third day, I returned to life and ventured out into this landscape so suited to my heart. I started with a spring in my step. When I turned for home, though, the sight of my van—my world—stopped me cold. It sat alone on that vast plain, a speck of white sand on a tiny island in an ocean of grass. It was so very, very small.

I stood there for a minute, under the huge sky in the silence of high noon. I stood all alone.

The thought hit me: “You are a sitting duck.”

As I said, the border promotes fear. I hadn’t anticipated being on my own in a land tailor-made for traffickers during the week of the full moon. Perhaps I was just jumpy? I didn’t detect an immediate threat; the hackles on my neck stayed low. The anxious hamster-wheel of “what-if’s” lives in the mind and adrenal glands. True fear runs deeper, bypassing the conscious mind to galvanize the body. This fear ran deeper yet, to chill the soul. I was small and alone, and the world was vast and empty. (Meanwhile, cattle lowed. Birds sang.)

I happen to believe that a little existential terror is good for the soul. After returning to the van, I sat with fear for a couple of days to sift through it, sorting what-if’s from reality, imagination from gut, coming to terms with my place in the cosmos. I realized that part of the fear was the sense that, in this nomadic life, anything could happen.

Anything.

With that, my heart leapt high. When I was trapped inside four walls, knowing to the minute what every day would bring, I had withered. The sense that nothing would happen almost brought me to despair. Knowing now that anything could happen—yes, that might be fear. But it also looked remarkably like hope.

Image shows the same scene as the first photo, a few minutes later. The sun has disappeared. The lower clouds streak up at an angle and are orange-red. The higher ones are wispy and charcoal gray against pale, gray-blue sky.

For two mornings I rode that wave, balanced between fear and hope, keenly, painfully aware of the fragile, astounding gift of life. Every morning, the cows ambled by. Birds sang. I came to a delicate truce, where hope and fear shook hands.

Again on the third morning, I went for a walk, while the horizon stretched out on all sides. Again I was pinned with terror. But this time I knew the difference between what-if’s and the now, between body and soul. This time was different.

No cattle lowed. No birds sang.

A pause to listen. Yes, there—in the distance they did. Just the circle around me was silent.

And then I knew the peace of turning tail and running.

To be continued…

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?