Green Earth

Alone in a wild place, I gradually began to sense to earth as a living being, a relative. Like us, she breathes and has fluids and bones. We have our microbiome; she has us and our fellow creatures.

The wild place where I stood, the dirt dam road at Elephant Butte, isn’t entirely wild. The road is paved, though no vehicles have been allowed on it for years. You’re greeted by a sign that warns you to do no damage, because this is property of the United States. (It’s Bureau of Reclamation land.) People respect that sign. There’s no trash. Everywhere else around here, litter abounds, but those who walk the dirt dam road honor it. Maybe the sign reminds visitors that we the people are the owners. Or perhaps those who come there are a special breed, the seekers of silent, isolated places.

The earth along the road has a green tone, shifting from gray-green to yellow-green. The vegetation is sparse: tiny stubborn, ground-hugging white flowers, cacti with inch-long thorns, spiky shrubs, and brown grasses. The space between them looks alive because of the green dirt. Pink and purple rocks glow against it, pebbles that might look dull in another setting seeming as bright as jewels.

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Contrast

Tourists were cycling in shorts and sleeveless tank tops today. I could tell they were “from away” (a wonderful phrase I picked up in Maine) not only because they were clad for summer in January, but because they wore actual bike shorts—and helmets. A local cyclist is more likely to ride in jeans and have long gray hair flowing out from under a ball cap, while dangling a grocery bag from one hand or pulling some sort of wagon with his dog in it.

Another tourist I saw today, a man with cropped silver hair, was sunbathing shirtless outside his camper at the lake. No hat. No sunglasses. Getting a tan, of all things. I didn’t think anyone did that anymore, but if you’re from some snowbound Northern state, it might be hard to resist a sunny, fifty-seven degree day in the desert. Meanwhile, I was wearing long pants, two layers of shirts, gloves, a visor hat, wrap-around goggles, and sunscreen.

I enjoy winter here in southern New Mexico, but its beauty is familiar. If I imagine what this day would have felt like should I have been suddenly transported here the year I had a job in Maine, and the snowbanks were as tall as I was, I’d have thought I’d gone to heaven. Back then, I walked to work wrapped in a windproof snowsuit, taking cautious steps on perpetually icy sidewalks. I know I don’t live in paradise. Our community has its problems, and we need rain the way those half-naked Northerners need sun. It’s good to see them. They remind me to appreciate the ordinary and to realize it’s actually extraordinary.

Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.

Cold!

This is not a normal winter in T or C. It’s cold. So cold a few flakes of snow fell, enough to decorate Turtleback Mountain with white stripes way up near the Turtle. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand running when the temperature was below forty, but I missed the beauty of the trail, the open space on all sides, and the effect on my creative flow, so I gave it a try, wearing so many layers a northerner would have laughed had one seen me. Not bad after all, thirty-seven degrees. Another day this week was windy, almost like spring. I went out anyway. Half-way through the four miles, I realized I felt good enduring the challenges, better than if I’d done something indoors instead. It was good to be reminded that thinking about doing something difficult is often more stressful than actually doing it.

Shorter Days

The sunset was pink, blue, and purple over my neighbors’ blue-and-purple houses as I walked to the yoga studio to teach tonight.  One of those odd T or C sunsets where the color was not in the west, but somewhere else. Tonight, the northeast. It was beautiful, but daylight was ending already at five-fifteen.

 Waiting until I’ve done all my chores and errands before I do what’s most rewarding is no longer an option. It could be dark by then. I’ve always been the work-first play-later type, the anti-procrastinator, but if I want to walk, run, or do outdoor yoga, I have to take advantage of the sunny hours, the warmest part of the day.

Sometimes I make myself do every tedious task before I free myself to write. Life is short. My days are shorter. I feel young, but I’m not. What am I waiting for? Along with teaching yoga, this is my work and my art. I give myself permission, right this minute, to drop everything else and do it.

Walking to the Lake

Once in a while I need a literal change of pace and take a very long walk instead of a run. Variety is good for the body, mind, and soul, so I explored several miles of Elephant Butte Lake State Park where the surfaces are either too hard (paved roads) or too soft (the beach) for running. Pavement is a great surface for vehicles. Tires don’t tear it up. But walking on it is noisy compared to walking on the natural bare earth, so I started veering off into the desert. To my dismay, it was so churned up by tires that it was hard to find an undisturbed place except in shallow arroyos, firm sandy paths made by October’s heavy rains. It puzzles me why people take their vehicles off the road. The roads are right there, designed for driving. If they want to get out and experience nature—I had an Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire moment—they should get out and experience nature. I can understand using a vehicle if one can’t walk, but otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And it ruins the landscape. Instead of road runner and quail tracks, deer and coyote tracks, I kept seeing tire tracks. So I went back on the pavement.

I finally reached a dirt road, and when I got to the end of it, I found a patch of undamaged land, too steep for vehicles to intrude upon, with a  deep arroyo running through it. It seemed to be guarded by a low-crouching creosote bush that resembled a giant tarantula. Welcome to the wild.

Eventually, I walked down to the water. The lake was stunningly blue under the clear sky, and a few sailboats were gliding across it, none of the noisy motorized craft of summer. The beach has grown due to the reservoir being so low, and the islands look as if they have bathtub rings from the mineral stains marking how high the water once was. The shoreline is a stark landscape, beautiful in its bare way—nothing but sand, rocks, and water, like an alien planet with no plant life. Then it got more alien-looking, and not in a scenic way. I began to notice unnatural shimmers in the sand caught by the low, late-afternoon sun. Half-buried plastic. Snack food wrappers, foam cups, remnants of bags, fishing line, all on their way to the water.

My collection in hand, I reached a small spit of red dirt and dark gravel jutting out into the blue water. On one side of the curve of the spit perched a huge raven. On the far tip, a blue heron huddled with its neck tucked in so much that its beak seemed to poke out from its wing joints. It looked gray again the brighter colors around it. The only sound was the plop of a jumping fish. Then the raven croaked and flew west across the shining lake, a good direction for a raven.

I hiked back to the paved road, collecting more plastic for the dumpster at the top of the hill. Not far at all. Not difficult to do. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that on the rest of the vast beach, there’s more plastic slowly traveling down the slope toward the fish and the birds.

What would make people stop and see it? Walking?

Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.