Giving It All Away

Zeke stops by. “Hey, I’m cleaning out my rig. Could you use some leveling blocks?”

I hope my dismay doesn’t show. Those things are huge. They can’t be tucked into odd corners like the 2×4’s I use now. “Thanks, but I’m set.”

“Greg doesn’t want them, either,” Zeke mourns, and wanders back to his van.

We are camped in the Sonoran Desert, where Arizona, California, and Mexico meet, and even the landscape doesn’t want extra baggage. Volcanoes shaped this land, spewing shrapnel across hundreds of square miles. Bare, mineral-rich crags surround broad, flat stretches of crushed-stone “desert pavement.”

Image shows a backdrop of rusty, rocky hills with white patches where rockslides have exposed fresh earth. In the foreground a ribbon of greenery shows the darker green of ironwood and mesquite trees, the rusty green-brown of creosote bushes, and the pale spring-green of palo verdes. American Girl Mine Road near Winterhaven, CA, January, 2023

Threaded through this moonscape are sandy washes, or bajadas. They channel rain from higher, harder ground, and they sing with greenery—palo verde and ironwood trees draped with mistletoe, creosote bushes, brittlebush waving with cheery yellow flowers, the ivy-like desert star vine. On their verges, cholla and saguaros grow. Lairs large and small line their banks.

If you were to ask me whether the land were hospitable or barren, I would not give you the same answer two days running.

Rocks. So many rocks. Little rubbly heaps of them, big towering hills of them. They’re mostly dark gray. Very rocky. American Girl Mine, January, 2023

Meanwhile, I’m in a honey drama. Don, the most community-minded man I’ve ever met, likes to buy things in bulk to give away. He picked up six 1-gallon jugs of honey from a beekeeper in Montana, with a long story to boot, and he’s unloaded one of them on me.

“You can give it to people in the caravans,” he says before high-tailing it away. “You’ll meet people that way.”

Sure, I’ve met people. But they’re all nomads living in tiny spaces, and none of them keeps spare containers around just for fun. Eventually I buy some jars, divvy up the honey, and crank up the sales pitch, part forlorn waif, part carnival barker. After a couple of months, it’s all gone except one jar. Tess refuses it—again—and rolls her eyes.

“I’m just selfishly trying to give it away,” I confess.

“I know you are,” she says with a knowing grin. “And I’m not having it.”

A year later, Evan and Zeke still have their jars, completely full. What did I give them, really? This small thing required that they give up a greater resource—space. My gift to them really gave a resource I wanted back to me.

Bright, bare, spring-green palo verde branches against a blue sky with puffy clouds. These trees practically glow from within.

I’ve wondered since then about what gift-giving means. The desert has been a good companion, because plants here don’t want unnecessary things. Not even leaves. Leaves need too much water and offer too much surface area to sun and wind. They are luxuries that cost more than most desert plants have to give.

Many plants here are drought deciduous, dropping leaves during dry spells and photosynthesizing in other ways. The palo verde (or “green stick”) tree, for example, keeps chlorophyll in its branches. Leaves are just a nice perk after rain. The branches grow thickly. Those, too, can be discarded during drought, and the ground beneath an older tree is often littered with deadwood.

Palo verde branches provide a backdrop for one prodigal poof of leaflets at the very tip of one tiny twig in front.

Those dense branches, that deadwood—they matter. Palo verdes are nurse plants for saguaros. Only one in a thousand saguaro seeds will find the right conditions to sprout, and a seedling needs eight years to grow an inch tall. The first blossoms appear at age 35, the first arms at 50 or older. These are slow-growing giants, and to mature they need the water that lingers in shade, and shelter both from winter cold and summer sun. Palo verdes give them that.

Nurse trees die younger than their more “selfish” peers, as the growing saguaros develop a grown-up thirst and drink water the trees need. What did the palo verdes’ gift cost them?

And why, if sheltering a saguaro will kill them, do palo verdes do it? Trees have ingenious ways of defending themselves. They can produce repellant chemicals, drop leaves that smother rather than nurture, use the vast network of underground fungi to share nutrients only among their own kind. The palo verde protects its tender bark with thorns. Why not protect its most precious resource—water?

A dreary photo of a sickly palo verde and a sad saguaro. Dead branches lie thick on the ground, and from the browning limbs on the tree, more will follow soon. The saguaro is about 3 feet tall, but the bottom third has no flesh around it. (I don’t know why.) Apparently, even a nurse tree isn’t always enough. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ, February, 2023

Since Darwin, we assume all species compete. I wonder if that assumption says more about humans. Our perspective on ecosystems and how they thrive is perhaps too modeled on our economies. We have no way of knowing what a tree “knows,” or what decisions it makes. What if a palo verde likes to cooperate?

The saguaro is a “keystone” species of the Sonoran Desert—a plant that carries the health of the entire desert on its shoulders. Between its fruit, flowers, and spines, it provides water, food, shelter, and nesting sites for a disproportionate number of species. The bees and bats that pollinate its flowers also pollinate the palo verde’s. Maybe the palo verde perceives and values the desert as a whole more than we humans perceive and value even our own kind. Maybe it is willing to share a truly precious resource for the greater good—even to the point of death. Is that a selfless gift? Enlightened self-interest?

A happier ménage. A gnarled, twisty palo verde cuddles a 7 foot tall saguaro that has two heads. The desert is nothing if not creative. (The photo angle isn’t great, alas, but a cactus stood in the way, and I’m not a dedicated photographer.) Kofa NWR, March, 2023

Dee got the wrong water. Instead of the filtered, salt-free water we all buy for drinking, she tried the free well water. It’s potable, but acrid with minerals. “It tastes so bad even the dog won’t drink it,” she says in disgust.

My eyes light up. “I planned too much water when I built my rig and was thinking of getting rid of a jug. Do you want it?”


I return gleefully with a 2 1/2-gallon container. Dee takes it with pleasure. “Let me empty this into my own jug, and I’ll give yours back.”

“No need,” I say, backing away. “Just keep it.”

Later, I’m ashamed. Dee lives in a minivan, for crying out loud. The next time I see her, I apologize. “What did you ever do to me, to deserve me foisting that container on you?”

She laughs. “It actually fits better in the space I have. I’ll take my old one to Goodwill. Hey, you couldn’t use some towels, could you? I have too many.”

“No! Thanks, though!” I back away again. Fast.

If you ever want to see selfish gift-giving in action, hang out with a nomad who’s cleaning house. In other ways we give freely—dog-sitting, watching over a campsite, picking up a few groceries in town. But you can tell where we consider ourselves rich and poor, because we do not give things from full and generous hearts, wanting nothing in return. Noooo. We give in desperation. We want to free up a scarce resource. If we help someone in the meantime, well, isn’t that a nice win-win?

Saguaros and palo verdes all hanging out happily together in a wash at the base of a hill. Also: rocks. Near Quartzsite, AZ, February 2022.

So I wonder more largely, in this landscape of dearth and plenty, where do we consider ourselves rich or poor? When are our gifts gifts—true hospitality of the heart, from a place of plenty? When are they selfish gifts of dearth—the need to receive something in return, whether a resource or a pat on the back, the feeling of being a good person, of being needed or thanked?

To me, the palo verde symbolizes gift-giving as pure celebration of life: The desert is good, so let’s keep it going. The gain to the desert—and all palo verdes—is worth the loss of one life, because Life is good.

I don’t know that such drastic measures are called for from us. But I don’t know that they’re not. Where are we willing to give beyond our resources of time, energy, capacity—from dearth and generosity? What will we let giving cost us?

When, in the ecosystems of our lives, is that cost worthwhile?

A forest of magnificent, many-armed saguaros towering maybe 40 feet above the desert floor in late evening light. Near Marano, AZ, November, 2021

The Color of Hope

Every year with the leaves comes the memory: walking through downtown Denver with Alan on a no-jacket day just as the trees were breaking bud. The leaves had not yet resolved into the distinct greens of honey locust and ash, crabapple and elm. They were all fresh, pale, bright, Crayola-colored spring green.

Alan: a huge enthusiasm compressed in a small body. Looking up at the trees he came alight. Between one step and another he rose onto his toes, arms reaching skyward, emphatic, like a bird about to take flight. “That’s the color of hope,” he said. (Language is too poor in italics and underlines to express Alan.)

We were in our early 20’s, and I’m not sure what we meant by hope. Something simple, I expect, but not wrong for all that. Optimism? Renewal? Possibility? The world was our oyster, so probably all of the above.

Each year the memory returns with a different flavor, depending on the sweet or bitter herbs that have steeped in it: nostalgia, affection, cynicism, anticipation. This year the flavors have been bright and savory. I’ve looked out the kitchen window at desert olive, sand cherry, rose, all free of blemish; I’ve ambled through the bosque, where new cottonwood leaves glowed against a rare gray sky, and heard Alan: “The color of hope.” A bird, eager to take wing.


To visit the bosque again was a pleasure after too long away—to walk through the giant metal-and-wire frames strewn like jacks near the levee (sentinels of an old flood control system); to kick up dust on the path between fallen branches and rotting logs; to wander among the tall trunks of cottonwoods. The new leaves were coming in among last year’s remnants. The faded and the fresh rustled together in the wind. To walk the half-mile path again among these friends was a gift.

Hope took a little tumble as my energy plummeted and my heart rate soared. The walk dwindled to a rest.


First bench. Wooden posts, no back, amid broom snakeweed and globemallow. Cottonwood crowns soar among small birds. No view to speak of, until you realize that no view is the view: a glimpse into the heart of the bosque, quiet, open, uneventful. Dull,  until the quiet seeps into your bones. Then, almost sacred.

An Icarus moment has its gifts. In the heady first days of freedom I was ready to fly close to the sun. Having left the working world with disability, I’d felt 50 pounds lighter. To have the burden of balancing work and self-care lifted: I didn’t realize how close I was to crumbling under the weight until it was gone. The world looked spring-clean, the sky bluer than even a New Mexico sky has a right to. I felt as if I had a clean slate to work with, a fresh opportunity. Oh, the novels I could write, the causes I could embrace, the mountains I could climb. So many hopes. The world was my oyster.

This mini-collapse reminds me that it isn’t, or at least not in that way. A fresh start doesn’t change the limits of illness, which is a continuing part of my story. But then, we are never without our histories; we are never not ourselves.

The bosque knows this. In years of drought, cottonwoods shed limbs. Huge ones: thigh bones, forearms. The forest floor is littered with them. They are home to small, creeping things. The shade beneath them keeps the earth cool and—sometimes—moist. Flowers spring up around them.

The trees do not regrow these branches in the next rainy April. Different ones, yes. But their lives are still shaped by the lean years. The bosque grows differently because of them.

Walking again. I think of Alan and wonder how he is. Our friendship tore apart long ago under the strain of cross-purposes. Even a thick blanket of affection couldn’t protect the thin skins that wore it. We’ve each tried since then to re-connect, but at odd moments, when the other had nothing to give. I wonder if re-connecting is even possible. Perhaps not. Instead we’ve taken thicker skins and greater wisdom into other friendships and handled them better. But then, those friendships showed us different flaws and weaknesses. Life is not an arrow fired toward perfection. It follows shifting patterns of woundedness, strength, and joy, like a kaleidoscope: always different, always the same.

Or like a fire.

Like a river.

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” Solomon might have said it cynically. But I say it in wonder, that the present is both its own, clean thing and the heir of all that has come before.

Second bench. Not actually a bench, but a tree, a fallen giant of a cottonwood near the edge of the river. Despite the great wound in its trunk it has new leaves again this year. (They are the color of hope.) I could not be prouder if I were its mother.

The tree’s bark is a landscape of mesas and arroyos worn into it by living. I sit there with my knees drawn up. The river is just visible—glints of light moving behind last year’s grasses. It’s flowing high, which surprises me. El Niño was not that generous with rainfall. Maybe the dams upstream have released water ahead of mountain snowmelt or to meet downstream requirements; water does not just flow in the West.

A century ago the Rio Grande flooded at will—a broad, shallow river in a flat plain, flowing in shifting patterns as silt and sand gave way or resisted. 50 years later, in an era that prized the swift march of progress, it had been dammed, leveed, and jetty-jacked, and it flowed straight as an arrow.


Good things came of that. But the bosque suffered. Its ecosystem depended on slow, meandering waters with seasonal floods:

Coyote willow and cottonwood, roots questing. They cannot go to meet a river
          which used to come to them.
Wildflowers and saplings cannot grow when salt cedar invades,
          blocking sunlight, hogging water, killing soil with salt in its leaves.
Bitterns and avocets cannot feed in deep waters without bulrushes, cattails, sandbars.
Muskrats and raccoons cannot dabble and splash in swift rivers with high banks.
Minnows cannot spawn in rushing water.
Big fish cannot eat their fill without minnows.
Eagles and osprey cannot eat without big fish, without small game.
          Where are the giant trees they nested in?

Now the bosque is being restored—not to a pre-Conquistador model of perfection, but to something that can thrive in its own way.

“The river is finally beginning to be seen as something with intrinsic value. After 150 years in which it was viewed as a means to an economic end, a threat to property, or a commodity, many now see it as possessing its own worth and beauty.”[1]

The jetty jacks that allowed silt to settle and high banks to form are being removed in some places, shallow channels dug in others. Some losses may be permanent. But the ecosystem of meandering waters is proving resilient—forgiving—and springing back to life.

Walking. One foot, the other. Heart beating. Breath moving. I think of the body’s own ecosystem—oxygen, nutrients, blood, nerves, glands, neurotransmitters—all working together to allow this complex organism to function. And of a smaller system still: the gut microbiome. I have been reading about it. Inside our digestive tracts lives an ecosystem of microbes. It is part signature, part biography. Two-thirds of the microbiome is unique to each person, an internal history of foods eaten or ignored, of infections and anti-biotics, of childhood dirt, of genetic inheritance, of pesticides and pollens. Imbalances are implicated in conditions ranging from lymphoma to allergies to depression (and possibly ME/CFS).

To realize that can be daunting: that you carry the consequences of chance encounters with you, and of your choices, good and bad. It is too late to undo the bad ones. We are never without our pasts; they reside in our bellies. But the ecosystem is resilient. It can be pushed to breaking point, but it eagerly wants to function. It offers that grace.


Third bench. Worn wood among salt cedar and cottonwoods. A towhee scratches at fallen leaves. The cottonwood trunks and branches are dark against the greenery. (Jetty jacks parody their easy geometry: industry mimicking life to its own ends.)

As happens on walks, hope, consequences, and microbiomes led me to Dorothy Parker. I’d read an article that described her looking back on her life with bitterness. She had not accomplished what she’d hoped or what she was capable of. The life she had lived with intensity had not produced the Great American Novel. Short stories, screenplays, book reviews, and political op-eds aplenty, but no Great Work.

The review’s author echoed that faint contempt for a life that failed to measure up. Yet Parker had worked tirelessly against Nazism and then racism. She marched. She organized. She spoke out. She wrote passionately in the cause of racial equality.

I’m not proposing these as counterweights in the scale of greatness, just puzzling over the scale. What an Industrial Era thing it is—to value a life for its output. What a Capitalist model—to ask, “What work did this life produce for us to consume?” And then, consumers that we are, to sit back like gourmands, criticizing the flavors.


Parker had been deeply rooted in the ecosystem of her life. She had worked to eradicate its foulest cankers. To have looked back in regret—to say, “Too late to achieve x; too late to be y”—and to count the health of the social ecosystem as nothing… Something in that fills me with horror. I don’t know whether it’s the equation between Great Work and Worth, or the way our culture unthinkingly accepts it as true, and not contingent on its time. Industry, mimicking life to its own ends.

Walking. The bosque yields again to jetty jacks. I cross a bike path buzzing with people who do not have to rest on benches. A pause at the bridge over the irrigation ditch to lean with my chin on the rail and watch the water: it flows straight as an arrow.


I’ve been thinking about all this because of my own transition from “maker” to “taker,” as our politicians kindly put it. What shape does hope take when disability clips your wings? When it limits the mountains you can climb—or the hours in a day you can think; when the swift march of progress as your culture defines it is not yours to take; when your life is less like a shining, green leaf and more like a sturdy trunk missing a limb or two—what is the color of hope?

At this point I have to laugh at myself. We are never without our pasts; we are never not ourselves. Even without illness I would not be an ambitious, driven, intellectual machine who could crank out 2,000 half-baked words a day. I have always been more passionate about balance than about achievement. I have never been as interested in summiting mountains as in admiring the flowers that grow on them—and the play of light under the trees, and the clouds changing shape, and the dashings and flutterings of lizards and butterflies, and in stopping to listen to that chickadee—I miss chickadees—off in the distance. I am now and have always been a mosey-er and a rambler in peaceful backwaters. Even if I had energy to climb a mountain I would never make it to the top, because I would be enjoying everything on the path way too much.

And then the sun would set.


Last bench. Round metal bars, curved back, near the Visitors Center. Uncomfortable but worth it for the cottonwood it shelters beneath. If I have been walking among elephants, then this tree is a mammoth, an ancient behemoth towering over us all and spreading its arms wide. Its canopy is thick with new life.

I think about my parents. They will have been married 59 years come June. My mom says of marriage, “You can never think you have it made; you can never become complacent. Life throws new things at you every year, and you don’t know how you’ll deal with them until you have to.”

Their marriage hasn’t followed a straight path toward ever greater perfection. It has been a meandering stream with seasons of flood and drought, and odd backwaters. They are still the same people they were all those years ago. They have grown, but they are not perfect.[2] Instead I think it’s fair to say that their reach has grown broader. They have grown more forgiving, more generous, more resilient.

This year, that is what hope looks like to me. Not a clean slate, or a fresh start. Not a bright, unspotted green leaf, divorced from the history of its tree. Instead: a greater capacity to take everything in; a broader embrace. Resilience. Grace. An ecosystem with the desire to thrive.

I head back to the car. In the path, a sparrow is enjoying a dust bath. I approach, and it takes flight, disappearing into the leaves.



1 Fred M. Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, and Mary E. Black, Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land, and Water (Albuquerque: UNM Press), p. 150.
2 Sorry, Mom and Dad!