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…

Real ID

Image shows a lone piñon tree atop a golden-brown sandstone bluff with cloudless sky behind it. Smaller junipers dot the foreground.

The tree stood lookout. It was no protector, no stern, armed guard challenging all comers. Friend or foe? It didn’t judge.

It just stood, tall and alone, on the sandstone bluff overlooking the campground. Standing still, silent, it spoke of change. It pointed out the nuances of sky and wind, interpreted their meaning anew with every shifting cloud. It heralded the present. It did not want you to miss any savor of shape or color, light or shadow, the passage of time, the hum of eternity behind it.

Image shows the tree with a half-circle of puffy, white cloud rising from behind the bluff. The cloud is like a nimbus haloing the tree.

It never looked the same for ten minutes running. A different backdrop gave it new impact every time you saw it. Yet it never changed. It was only, always, ever, eloquently itself.

Image shows the nimbus cloud, now well above the bluff, looming over the tree to the right. A new cloud is rising to take its place.

It is the feature of the landscape I remember more than any other. My fellow campers remarked on it with affection and even awe. It stood so tall in a place of salience, an exclamation point in a landscape of dots.

Because of this tree, I couldn’t take time for granted. It made the world too intriguing in the now. “This moment is new and will never come again,” it said. “Look. Look!”

Image shows the tree at dawn, silhouetted against a sky halfway between nighttime and morning blue. A few pale pink wisps of cloud surround it. In the upper right, a tiny sliver of moon shines.

What part of you stays the same, and what changes when your backdrop alters? When you stand in different lights? Who are you really?

And how does the word you speak in the world change in different contexts?

Image shows the tree amid a few wispy clouds at midday. Above and to the right, a smaller and larger puff of cloud seem to emerge from the tree like a thought balloon.

Living nomadically has made me wonder that anew, but the question of identity has plagued me for a while. We all have images of ourselves and who we are, but I have come to distrust identities that are contingent on circumstances—that can be taken from you when circumstances change. Health, ability, employment, relationships, geography, communities—all those things can change, most of them without our say-so.

We are also given identities without our say-so. Income, gender, physical ability, race, ethnicity, appearance, sexuality, and more all play a part in forming who the world thinks we are. What a productivity-driven culture thinks of me for being disabled, for example, for living nomadically, being middle-aged, or female, or single—relatively little of it jives with truth. But it is still hard not to fall for the distorted image reflected back to us, to separate ourselves from those partial truths to see clearly.

Image shows the tree at midday under a graying sky. The light is harsh and flat, and the tree and bluff both look washed out. Their vibrancy and warmth are gone.

Maybe the quest for identity—who am I really?—is the wrong quest, an endeavor to root ourselves in sand, which cannot nourish or anchor us, rather than soil or stone. Maybe it is wiser to root ourselves in the depths of what we value. Not in the self-image of being people who value certain things, but in the values themselves. Being. Gratitude. Wholeness. The behaviors that grow from them.

Image shows the tree at dawn, silhouetted against a translucent sky that almost shines. Wispy clouds are just beginning to reflect sunlight.

Maybe the point is to find your place of salience. To be so deeply rooted there that you can stand tall and herald this moment’s truth as it shines around you. “Look!” you say.

Look.

A Rolling Stone

The last thing I have is roots.

The last thing I want is to be earthed in one place. I have burned to fly for years.

So why—why, why?—am I reviving this long-dormant blog that honors trees, whose roots fix them in one place for life? Who cannot move, ever? Who are housebound from birth to death? And why now, when I have finally shed what tied me down and regained at least some of an animal’s birthright of movement?

Let me catch you up on some backstory. For the last five years, I have been almost entirely housebound with chronic illnesses. I could go grocery shopping every couple of weeks and seek medical care, but otherwise I looked at walls. I stared at the ceiling. I rested. I could seldom read, or watch movies, or listen to music.

I watched trees grow—slowly—in my small, much-loved, walled garden. Birds were my companions there, and lizards, and 6- and 8-legged beings whose paths crossed mine. I was a tree, though a poorly adjusted one, planted in the Adirondack chair, envious of the birds who could come and go as they pleased. The lockdown the healthy found so difficult during the pandemic had been my lot for years, with no walks outdoors, no excursions for take-out, no hope of an end.

Image shows the patio of a small garden, with potted plants, a wooden Adirondack chair, and a folded sun umbrella. In the foreground is a birdbath, greenery, a patch of yellow flowers, and a gravel path. The garden is lovely (if I may say so), but you cannot see over the walls.

Then I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a patient (and guinea pig) at one of the best research and treatment clinics in the country. With knowledgeable medical care, I have been slowly, partially freed, improving from 95% housebound to perhaps 80%. Instead of four hours a day of “feet on the floor” time, I often have six. Despite that huge, 15% gain, it was not enough to get me out to the wilderness I love, or to let me travel to visit family.

Then I realized that part of what kept me housebound was the actual house: the weight and heft of foundation, beams, and drywall, the burden of upkeep, the bulk of everything owned to fill it.

Image shows a row of Pueblo-style townhouses in southwestern colors of sandstone, maize, and turquoise in a narrow driveway, as seen through the windshield of a vehicle (with a radio antenna very much in the way). A street sign reads “No Outlet.Symbolism? You decide.

What if I exchanged a fixed dwelling for a mobile one? After two years of thought, research, planning, work, and help, that became reality.

Image shows a white camper van heading up a dirt road on a glorious, blue-sky day through a landscape of juniper and piñon trees. A dramatic, rocky bluff beckons in the background.

Which leads us back to the present. For the last five months, I have been a nomad, doing things I could not when rooted in place: visiting family, exploring new places, listening to thunder rumbling over the mountains, wondering every day what I would see from my back doors. I mostly go to beautiful places so that I can lie down in them, but still. Movement has been glorious.

Image shows a white camper van from behind. It is in the distance, heading down a gravel road through cottonwoods in various shades of (let’s be realistic) uninspiring, autumnal brown. Puffy, white clouds dot the sky.

So why, now that I am a rolling stone, am I reviving a blog whose first premise is that trees have much to teach us?

Because I still think they have much to teach us—lessons I have not learned, let alone mastered. Trees are experts in long-term situations, at thriving when no change is possible, when ”fight, flight, or freeze” don’t apply. They endure and adapt rather than running, denying, or conquering, and to those with conditions that cannot be run from, denied, or conquered, they offer glorious examples of how to flourish. They remind us that we can deepen at the roots and broaden at the crown, prioritize what branches to keep or discard, offer shelter to others, and grow greenly despite incurable hardship.

Image shows a twisted piñon tree. It is growing almost horizontally, with its roots exposed and its trunk spiraling. Half its bark is missing, but the needles are still green and vibrant.

They also remind us of the value of being. Trees do good in the world simply because they are, and they are trees. They do not check things off their to-do lists, or exchange labor for money, or earn their right to live through their productivity. But because they breathe and grow and green, we have oxygen to breathe, shade to cool our planet, birds and earthworms and lizards and squirrels and bobcats and bees to keep this world in balance.

And they give us joy. That is no small thing.

Image shows the white trunks of a lovely little aspen grove growing with lush, green grass and a generous supply of dandelion seed heads.

If there is one message I want to underlie this blog, it is that you have value because you are, because you live and are human. Life is a gift, given and received, and you can give and receive life generously whether you accomplish a to-do list or not. You have value because you breathe and grow and green.

That is the story of trees.

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Note: I don’t know what shape this blog will take. I am not good at niches. So we may cover #vanlife, recipes on the road, wonders and marvels, Trees I Have Seen, chronic illness, and the works. This blog, like me, will be nomadic, and you never know when I might show up on your doorstep.*

*But you are more likely to find out if you subscribe to receive email notifications of new posts.