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…

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.

____________________

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.

Crux

Think of the slow trickles of change: water dripping on sandstone. The sun arcing between horizons. The moral arc of the universe bending. Little squabbles getting louder, little silences stretching longer. The nagging ache tugging at your attention. The sapling inching up and out, year by year.

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Water. Sandstone.

And then the onrush—of change, awakening, realization: the sudden sum total of incremental movement. The stone gives way, and waters rush through the gap. The calendar flips (where did the time go?). An old paradigm crumbles, and you wake up to new, fairer laws; divorce; chemo. Hatchlings peep from a nest in the tree high overhead.

The onrush is the stuff of drama. By that I don’t mean emotion—I mean of stage and screen, the dramatic arts. A story, enacted around a moment of crisis, catastrophe, or awakening, when you look up and know the world will never be the same. Drama— serious or comic—comes from that turning point and the question, “Now what will you do?”

The themes of turning are archetypal. Love. Betrayal. Loss. Wonder. Overcoming. The speed or forcefulness of the action has little correlation to the depth of the crisis, the strength of the awakening. The same human can be reached as deeply by a touch as by a tsunami. A car chase, earthquake, or explosion could just as easily be a lifted eyebrow, a gasp, a turned page, a quiet resolution.

Or even a walk through a garden.

The view toward Civilization, November 2016

A garden tells a story around primal themes: civilization and wilderness, safety and adventure. My own garden, as tiny as it is, journeys from indoor ease to the patio’s domestication to a Western “wild” land beyond.

I’m not particularly good at garden design. I cannot envision a “look” of particular plants with heights and colors and bloom seasons all carefully coordinated. But I can picture a mood, an ambiance, and use it to craft a tale.

Lately I have resorted to something simple: naming the garden beds. I used to name them things like “that one bed” and “that other bed.” The garden did tell a story, but more the kind one hears from eager eight-year-olds, with lots of “um-um-um”‘s and tangents and no coherent plot, but plenty of bonus super-heroes. And trains. Endearing, but more because you love the eight-year-old than because the story hangs together.

Focusing the names has helped me to focus the story. (A rough draft of it, at least.) The names themselves are not romantic. They’re embarrassing enough that I never thought I’d put them into print:  the Hot Bed of Intrigue, the Bowl of Sunshine, the Wayside Picnic Area. But they provide the discipline I need when I’m pruning or planting or wandering a nursery.

The Threshold, the Bowl of Sunshine, and the Wayside Picnic Area, November 2016

And isn’t that the biggest difference between a good story and a bad? Or between a story and real life? The disciplined choice of details. No drama includes every moment, every sensation, every thought that led to its heart—to the crux of the action. It weeds out all the chaos and dust and trips to the bathroom. Everything that distracts from the archetype’s particular manifestation in story gets cut away.

 

A few weeks ago I was wandering my garden, coffee cup in hand, thinking of ambiance and story and detail. A slow mosey one direction; a slow mosey the other. A peek at the buds fattening on the sand cherries, the little bluestem’s winter plumage, the seed heads of blue grama grass fluttering. And then I saw it—the tiny counter to expectation, the unexpected blip on the radar. A moment I almost overlooked.

The crocus.

A crocus!

The first one of the year, blooming two weeks early. On a day of drifting clouds, with winter breathing down my neck, a crocus bloomed.

Why was that dramatic? We know it happens every year, as surely as we know the lovers in a rom-com will kiss. It is in the very essence of the thing. We know about change; we believe in it and have hope in it. We clock the extra minutes of daylight after the solstice. But deep down our experience is of sameness. Today is much like yesterday, which was much like the day before. Something in us whispers, “As it is now, so will it ever be.” When hope and continuity are at odds, which one wins?

And then—the sandstone gives way. The paradigm shifts. The flowers bloom. The first crocus is proof: no demon ex machina will come to whisk our springtime away.

With that one exquisitely chosen detail perspective changes. It telescopes out from the tiny to the vast, from immediate concerns to something exponentially beyond your ken. Suddenly you know: the earth moves. And you find yourself clinging to a tree for dear life.

I ended up laughing wryly at the carefully orchestrated paths and discoveries of a garden, at the carefully orchestrated tension of stories. Departure, journey, climax, arrival—what a small drama a story is, to be told once and then considered over. The big drama lies in repetition—the journey yet again around the sun, the pulse of life in response, the heartbeat of the years. The drama is not that a heart beats once but that it beats over and over and over. The magic lies in the cycle, the return.

In the opening, once again, of a flower.