Archive for November, 2009


November 26, 2009

It’s impossible for me to see a bit of wildness and not want to be out in it – surely it’s a reachable walk to the Hohokam ruins at the top of a small mountain nearby in the national forest?  I am smart enough to take water with me into the desert, but my friend arms me with a walking stick for snakes.  My route is circuitous – up the path past the sheds to the stream bed, up from the stream bed to the high-wire pylons, up from the pylons to the sticky-outy rocks, and among the careening boulders to the series of foundations at the top – still no more than a couple of miles.

The Hohokam were canal builders who inhabited this desert up through the 1200’s, and the hilltop encampment must have been some kind of fort arrangement overlooking either the village or the canals, for it would have no water of its own.  There is one oval ‘mystery room’ – I have no doubt: a hospital, the medicine man’s room – you have to take them out of their usual surroundings to heal them, so this would be a special round healing room.  But of course I have no idea, and neither does anyone else in our white world, and maybe not the aboriginal world either.  It is very hard to put ourselves into the mentality of even Europeans living 800 years ago, let alone the inhabitants of this forbidding desert.

Walking through such Sonoran desert reminds me of the Don Juan series of books, written by the now-deceased (if he ever existed at all) Carlos Castaneda.  Although I lost my grip on the series five or so books in (I only made it through one Harry Potter, but gorged on the entire Aubrey-Maturin series of Patrick O’Brian), the first three or four, especially the incomparable Journey to Ixtlan, are full of unforgettable life lessons – listening to your death, accepting personal responsibility, the four enemies of a man of knowledge, wrestling with your ally – that have stuck with me all my life in my personal ‘desert’.

The books are written from the point of view of an anthropologist studying the otherworld of the Yaqui Indians’ brand of sorcery.  Whether it is true or not, whether there is a Don Juan or not, took up a lot of ink in the 1970’s, and I am sure some of my generation took off for the Sonoran desert to try to find either Don Juan or Carlos.  Thought about it myself.  In retrospect, I think Carlos was more of an invention than the brujo Don Juan.

In the books, young Carlos is the narrator, the anthropologist who stumbles into this magical find and is inducted into a training most of us would kill for.  His steady maintenance of the Western logical reductionistic head space in the face of all evidence to the contrary is alternately amusing and exasperating.  Nevertheless, the books reveal the inner world of the sorcerer, first through drugs and then through ceremonial vision quests, in such a knowing and complete way that the narrator, who purports to be the writer, is far too stupid and thick-headed to have accomplished.

In other words, the narrator is the fiction, and in fact a very, very clever act of fiction.  Whether Don Juan and Don Genaro and all their antics and miracles are fiction is beside the point, really.  One accepts it or not – but the consummate art of the writer is to get you to accept the narrator, who is clearly a rational impossibility.  Once you have accepted Carlos, you accept the whole premise, and the lessons in the books – timeless, harsh, and aimed straight for the practical and intrepid soul – flow like water.

I won’t go on any more about it, you had to be there – but the the books are still there to be read by another generation should they wish.

I am thinking about the Hohokam shaman and Don Juan as I survey the way back down to my friend’s house, out of sight in the Cave Creek canyon.  She has warned me that the blue-y green desert is rougher going than the brown-y green.  I have to try it for myself, and she’s right.  I saw no snakes or scorpions, but in the blueish desert seeds and prickers abound, catching my clothing and riding along with me.  Ducking through a patch of bushes, I catch a bunch of cholla.

Now there are cactus and there are cactus. In this desert I am surrounded by hundreds of huge vertically rugate saguaro taller than my head, arms lifted in gestures alternatively grandly noble or ridiculously pompous.  There are prickly pears, flat ones and round ones and a hundred others I cannot name, but in all my wandering I have never come across this cholla, which appears to be a little green berry of a succulent surrounded by small thin resilient 1″ spikes.

Little spikes? Little spikes? Within a second these barbed and incredibly attractive ends have buried myself in my finger pads, nail beds, thumb sides, and then into the finger that came to rescue those fingers and any attempt to remedy the situation just makes it worse, and within half a minute I have six digits from both hands tangled inextricably and very painfully in nature’s own Chinese finger puzzle.  From thinking of myself as superior to Carlos in my understanding of Don Juan (you see? that’s his art), and thus a budding desert shaman, I am reduced within a minute to a blubbering helpless landlubbing fool with both (delicate bodyworker’s) hands hooked in a dozen places and no fingers left to extricate each barb – how in the hell do you get these things off?

Others later offer help: Use duct tape (and how do you get it out of your pocket, given that you happened to bring it along on your walk?) and other impossible remedies, like ‘eat peyote’. The best ex post facto comes from a gardener: pick up a stick with your mouth and get the prickers out that way.  That advice I could have used, but after getting past the pain, and then the helplessness, and then laughing, and then considering walking all the way home in cellulose handcuffs, I opted for the tear-it-out model of a quick separation of my hands, which did in fact involve considerable pain, and the last of the barbs did not exit my skin – despite everyone’s subsequent good advice – until I completed some deep needle work a week later.

So, the saguaros aren’t the only pompous thing in the desert, and their little cousin the cholla cut my pomposity down to size in a minute; I arrived back at my friend’s house a humbler man with a rueful smile of respect for the small and tenacious.


A Friend in the Desert

November 21, 2009

Having put away the class for the first good week, I need a weekend out of cell-phone touch, and I get my wish.  Tootling along the endless sandstone strip-mall sprawl out of Phoenix, onto smaller and smaller roads as the phone plinks off and the sunset flares, dies to embers and settles straight into creosote for our last crinkly washboard turns before we rinse our dusty tires in the few inches of Cave Creek and curl around into the house.

My friend has led a hard life with pluck and wit, but without the physical advantages of rude health.  To find her in the last fingernail hold of habitation before miles of national forest is a surprise; to me she’s a city girl.  In fact, she’s lived all over, but I knew her in NY and Seattle, not in Crested Butte, and even in that tiny frontier town, she was director of the local theater.  She’s been out here in this stage-free isolation for more than a year.

That open breath of yawning stillness from the surrounding hills absorbs all sounds and mixes easily with our companionable silence before the small firepot on the porch.  The clouds clear and the stars come out, and one falls.  “I wonder what civilization that was?” she asks, recalling to mind the Asimov short story of the solar system that burned to create the star of Bethlehem.

I start explaining that this is a meteorite, that the death of a solar system would be a supernova, essentially the explosion of a star, only visible… Until in the firelight I see her face of calm indulgence, and I realize I have my literalist hat on – still being the teacher – and let it fall for the dunce hat or the beret of the poet.  What civilization is dying here tonight, indeed?

This is the real desert, muse for D.H. and Georgia and Paul, harsh, sterile, thinly aromatic.

In the morning, a sliver of waning moon gives way to the sun and what was just dark shapes comes into view.  The house is nothing much on the outside, a box based around a trailer – about like a double-wide, though is solider than that.  Inside, she has wrested it away from the shag carpets and ill fitting windows to create an artist’s interior space, lined with soft colors, fabrics, the complete works of Shakespeare, and objets.

Just outside she has the garden she will have wherever she is, and the quail and road-runners and cardinals and goldfinches who feed on her sunflower seeds she raised and shook out there.

Around the house are a few other houses occupied by people I never met, but who are, she says, afraid Obama is going to take away their guns, so they are buying more and practicing a lot – kapow!  My friend, though not that way inclined, says they’re a good sort – living off the land and all.  “Get out here and you start talking to yourself,” she says, and the ranch hand who helps her has a pretty continuous stream of mumble going.  I don’t notice her falling into this, but then I am there for two-way conversation.

Tucked up behind the little houses hidden by the trees that line the creek is a ‘storage yard’ filled with rusting junk that somebody’s gonna use some day, including an old Ford F350 that has seen better days and is probably home to some snakes or scorpions.

This is real desert: people can die out here.  Already the ranch hand has killed one rattler who had wandered into the garage.  Threw a hammer at it and killed it on the spot.  And then there’s skunks under the house that must be trapped, covered, and dispensed.  By now, it’s down to mice, which most of us have to live with, though there are covers over the drains which are designed to keep the scorpions from coming up through them, rather than keeping debris from going down – a bit disconcerting when you eyes are full of shampoo in the shower.

No, neither the harshness of the environment nor the views of her neighbors will turn my friend reactionary.  She has John Stewart for a friend, Tivo’ed off the cable, though she cannot tolerate my new best friend Rachel Maddow, because she has a ‘point-of-view’.  “I don’t watch Fox and I don’t watch MSNBC.” John Stewart and Steven Colbert don’t have a point-of-view?

My friend does bodywork at an alternative cancer treatment clinic (, and has a lot to say on the theater of cancer, how bodywork works in the context of their family’s opposition, the weakness of the body vs the resolve of the spirit.  I counsel her on the simple power of touch, and how to approach the tumor sites themselves, though soon she will be teaching me.

These and other conversations ebb and flow as we come together for delicious raw-ish meals inspired by the diet at the center, and then periods of silence where we both work on our writing.

The father of her children came back form Vietnam a broken man, and his progressive disintegration into psychosis, culminating in his arranging her funeral without the usual prerequisite, was one of those Nietchzcheian trials that makes you stronger by almost killing you.  Between her travails in the VA with him, with her children and herself when they were on their own, and with the clinic, she has a real stake in the health care debate.

It is a deep pleasure to sit with a friend who is quick, opinionated, and has been so tested by life as to be unafraid.  I am sure she has her phantasms when the nights are lonely and the desert winds blow, but each day she aligns her unruly body and her unruly hair and her unruly mind (as long as we understand this last to be ‘anti-rule’ – I cried as I watched her jump out of a very comfortable airplane with no parachute some years ago rather than live by someone else’s rules).  And then she ventures forth to tilt at windmills, and she’s knocked a few down as well.  I will pray for you in the same whisper the desert makes – Parasam Gate, Bodhi Svaha.

Stacking Apple Wood

November 6, 2009

So many of the earlier posts in this series celebrate bucolic pleasures; this year between the lines we feel the pressure of recession: harried relationships, hurried tasks, and for a few people horrid choices, especially around the animals Quan cares for. There are dozens of abandoned horses around the state and the shelters are filling with rabbits, cats, and dogs of people who are moving to find work or simply cannot afford to feed them any more. Of course times are tough all over, but the poorer regions of the poorer states see the effects more deeply. The lobster prices are down, so is tourism, and so is demand for paper pulp, so we can feel the contraction of the economic cling wrap around us Mainiacs, bringing us closer together but hampering our movement.

Though not immune, I am very lucky to still have work, and a sailboat for that matter. But somehow I have not been able to write of my summer sails – it seems frivolous. They were mostly up and down the river in any case, a repetitive and solitary pleasure when, afloat, I could steal a few hours from keeping the business and the place afloat. When I took it down to be stored for the winter before I left for overseas, the eagles I wrote about have left, and the islands are aflame with October leaves alive in the northern blue sea and sky. Tycha and I, a bonded unit with a single mind at the end of the season, make our sails blades to slice the substance of the wind, bringing her across the white chop ahead of the storm. I was shivering solidly as I rowed with clumsy hands ashore to the boatyard against the sere breeze for the final time.

While I was in Amsterdam, the leaves turned to patches of rust, and Quan and a friend cut down the old apple tree. I had not quite consented to this; I have quite a history with those two trees. At about 10 I tried to smoke corn silk under the one they cut, and first heard some dubious lore about sex (“No, my parents never ever did that!”). The second one held my treehouse, and that one I definitely vetoed – many a pirate battle, western last stand, and GI heroism had emanated from that simple box and ladders set in a crook overlooking the garden, and I am not ready to let it go. But with 50 years of growth, they were too much shade for the tomatoes, and the womenfolk wanted them down. The apples were only good for the horses anyway.

I guess we compromised with the one, as it was a bristling plug of firewood stacked against the stump when I came home. It takes a bout one tree each year to keep the fireplace and sauna going, so this year that’ll be this tree. Next year actually, because now comes the wood palaver – you want the newer wood in back to dry, and the older wood in front, but with a minimum of fuss. We created a new front row, and tucked the half-cord or so in behind. It’s an act of respect for the tree, almost fitting it together again with your hands in the stacking – square on square, and the round ones into the V’s.

The tree was centered in dry rot, and needed, I admit quietly as the truck empties and we sweep out the bark and the lichen, to come down. Some of the wood near the rot is already dry and goes on the front row. Apple burns hot, and is good to mix with other wood. This evening, we burn a few sticks to ward off the damp – such a cheery smell! This morning, with snow on the ground, it is hard to pack short-sleeved shirts for a week in Phoenix.

When I was 10 or 11, I remember as I look at the remaining tree with frosting on its remaining leaves, I came upon my little sister and her friend in that treehouse, with a brown golfball of a steaming turd laid on the rough pine floor, the girls’ 4-year old eyes wide with fear fighting with giggly pride. Though one part of me intuitively understood that this was normally exploratory, the other part – it was the 50’s – stood aghast. That part went and told my mother, who handled the situation with relative aplomb. But that I went and told has always been an act of which I was secretly ashamed – at my weak need to seek another authority than my own native common sense.