Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Head of the Dragon

We tell stories in order to live. Joan Didion 

I used to hate yard work almost as much as I loathe grading papers. When my dad would ask me to mow the lawn I would sink into a surly funk. Even the sight of a shovel or hedge trimmers or a chain saw would trigger a rush of rage and aversion that sometimes resulted in my breaking something.

This all started when my father told me I was the man of the house. He was going to Korea. I was four years old. I did not know how to fix things or how to do yard work, but somehow I felt I was supposed to do that. It went pretty bad when I tried to fix a faucet or take out a branch with a pruning saw.

After too many failed attempts to fix things, I took the dark path. You could say I worshiped at the altar of fear, took communion with the wine of anger, and flipped a flying bird at tasks I could not complete.

You could also call it a stage -- a bratty, piss-ant, hard-to-love stage that lasted about 45 years or so.

Last Sunday, after a brisk (read hard and good and full of camraderie) fifty mile bike ride, I decided to dig out a china berry tree stump. While not as thirsty, invasive, or as monstrous as a tamarisk, the china berry is aggressive, opportunistic, and robs the soil of water. There are many species that have spread through the Southwest like a plague; they have pushed out native, sustainable species and threatened whole ecosystems. My china berry is one of them. If I followed my default story about yard work, I would just leave it, let it take over, turn my yard into a gloomy, dust-bowl of a wasteland.

Can't let the tree have that.

As I grabbed a shovel, the dragon reared its head. Mythological dragons, as you know, are not really so much real monsters as they are the twisting demons of the mind. They are the living stories that poison happiness and connection and ecstatic delight of all things, including digging out stumps.

They go something like this: "Hissss. Thissss ssssucks. Thissss is a pain in the asssss. Wee don't like thissss."

One of the perks of aging is that I have learned to change the channel, to pick my poisons, to tune into a different story.

So I wrap  a bandana around my head to keep the sun off my neck, grab my shovel, my loppers, my pick, my axe, my fuzzy security talisman, and head out to do battle with the dragon.

The ground is hard, but those of you have read previous blogs know how to handle that. I break up the crust before encountering the first roots. They are as thick as my wrist and bleed when the shovel breaks the thin membrane covering the woody core.

"It's hhhot out here. We are sweating, tired, grumpy, angry, frustrated. Get mad. Swear at the unfairness of it all. This is just more of why you need to say no, say no to all of them. Tell them to ff -- off."

The dragon does not go quietly and has many heads. I reveal root after root. When they are clear, I take my loppers and sever them. One by one they go down. The stump begins to loosen, but there is a thick mother-of-all-roots, the taproot, that is beneath them all, that goes straight down into the core of darkness, of the Earth, of childhood shadows -- the places where stories are forged, where dragons are hatched.

The battle rages. Roots bleed and moan and spit, threaten, cajole, and flex. The stories vie for attention. A war is fought over the quality of this moment, the timbre and tone of this experience. A newer, but growing voice rises from the fray. "This is not so bad. Stay calm. You can handle this. Look at your progress already. this is a fine thing to do, a way to open your yard, to express your presence in this place.This thirsty stump has to go, or else it will come back, threaten to native mesquite, may kill the aloe."

I dig. Like William Carlos Williams in "The Use of Force" I pry open the very maw of the dragon to cut free the poisonous supply line to the hungry stump. I spread the loppers as wide as they will go, wrap the jaws around the root, and then squeeze the levers together. It takes some strength, but the root succumbs as the loppers bite through with a clean "snap."

I lift my prize from the pit, hold the trophy high, see Hydra, the Cyclops, Smaug, all rolled into one. My treasure is not just the yard, it is contentment. For once in my long life I am taking steps on the long haul toward happiness. It's not so bad after all.

I agree with Didion. We do need stories to live. But I would add that it is better to pick the stories we want to live by, that stories of fear, separation, and control are not the best ones. While I have not yet graduated beyond the need for any thoughts, I like the ones that boost a sense of peace, a willingness to be part, to play a role in rooting out the dragons, unless those dragons take the form of ungraded papers.

Time to again gird the loins, take up the shield, sharpen the sword, and put my pen in my pocket protector. There is another dragon on the loose.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Buzzworm in the Bucket

I find Mondo the cat doing just what he wants, which is what he always does, in the backyard, way past the time he should be inside. Of course, he is still hunting the desert spiny lizards and kangaroo rats in the warm darkness. He doesn’t know it, but there are predators in the same darkness who would like to hunt him – great horned owls, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, for example. 

His yellow, reflecting eyes give him away as I close in on him, my headlamp beaming. He is so focused on stalking something in the aloe patch that he is an easy catch. I pick him up and he starts to purr, the softie. 

I turn and head for the back door, shining my light as I go. Then I see the snake.

“Really?” I think to myself. “Not again.” 

I have something of a history with rattlesnakes. They show up at odd times, just to surprise and mess with me, or so I think. Whenever I expect to see them, I don’t. When I don’t, like tonight, in October of all times, here in the cool dusk, I run into them. I was also bitten by one. They are part my awareness every night, every step I take in the dark in my yard, or on hiking trails, or when I ride a bike in the desert.

“Well, hello,” the snake seems to say, with just a trace of a smirk.

The snake does not seem malevolent or evil as some might infer. He is dangerous though. There, right at the base of a door jamb, half in, half out of a hole far too narrow to accommodate such a beefy body, he is right where someone’s foot would land stepping out of or into the back door. He is in a bad, unlikely place. I wonder how he can seem so comfortable. But then again what do I know of what snakes can do or find comfortable? Heck, a packrat the size of a fat hamster, can squeeze through an opening smaller than a quarter. 

Back to the present…. I need to take Mondo inside, but I also, very soon, need to move my visitor. A wife or a son or a cat could easily be struck by the snake. The potential consequences are such that I am obligated to act immediately. I go around the house to the front door, close all exits for the cat, and warn Megan not to go into the backyard. 

“I was just going to get the laundry,” she says, blithely.

“Hijos…” I whisper under my breath, keeping my errand to myself. 

I grab my snake tongs, go back around the house, and find my friend still there, waiting, it seems, to be pulled from the hole. The only good place to grab him is near his head. As soon as I do, he rattles, writhes, and puffs up. It is a tug of war to get him out of the hole, but eventually, the force of my pulling is greater than his grip and the body emerges – thick and smooth and ghostly in the light of the lamp.

I talk to the snake as I carry him out to the porch where I have a bucket with a lid for just such a possibility.

“You can’t come into my yard. This is my place. If you come back, I’ll chop your head off with a shovel.” (I don’t really mean this, but try to sound convincing.)

The snake drops into the bucket and coils, still rattling. Before he tries to escape the bucket I put a top on it, pick it up, and grab my bike. He buzzes all the way down to the wash as I carry him and the bucket under my arm with the other arm steering my stealthy velo. (Yes, it is possible to ride a bike  through trees and over curbs carrying a bucket with a rattlesnake in it. But you should always wear a helmet and reflective clothing and consult your doctor before starting any snake re-location program. If your snake puffs up for more than four hours, considering getting professional help.)

We find a nice spot, plentiful packrat nests, off the bike trail, in a thicket of tamarisk trees. I open the bucket and dump him out. 

He immediately slithers back in the direction from which we have just come. 

I poke a stick in front of him and he turns to go the other direction.

“That’s good,” I say. 

He might turn out to be prey for a hawk or road runner before he can re-establish a territory. I might get hit by a drunk driver on my return trip. Mondo might catch that desert spiny tomorrow. Something might get Mondo tomorrow. Lots of things might happen, but we have to do what we can to live with the way of things. No?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Days of Drought and Empire -- Chapter One (fiction excerpt)


It began last winter, one night up a canyon in southern Arizona. Ron Hausler decided to get out of town after a particularly trying semester at his college teaching job. The canyons south of Tucson had always been a tonic, a place where the misplaced jigsaw pieces of his life came back together, but this trip would not be the same as those others.

As his truck labored up the steep grade out of Cave Creek, its wheels slipping on the loose rocks, Ron tried to remember the route to the cave. Lugs dug, grabbed, and gained purchase in spite of incline. This old mining road doesn’t do anyone but the smugglers and banditos much good anymore he thought as the road finally leveled out and curved hard around a ridge. From here he could see across the tawny grasslands around Sonoita. The Mustang Mountains cut their odd ball profile against the sky, catching what was left of the winter sun.

Yes, he thought, it will be a long night. This is the solstice after all, the time between semesters when he could go out into the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains and rest. He was looking forward to the quiet, the cold, the stars over the juniper fire. Likely a winter storm would hit, but he had shelter and fuel – much more than the poor migrants who passed through here in all seasons, dying from thirst, exposure, snakebite, broken hearts. The place has become a hell, he said out loud as he looked for a spot to park the truck. He would walk in to an old mine near a cave. There he could spend a couple of days beyond the schedules and the carping of university administrators, beyond the money, the rent, the needs of others. Ron knew too well how the momentum of the country had turned against the state schools. An idiot could see that Old Power knew universities were the last threat to the domestication of the American intellect, at least that’s the way he saw it. He felt he had to fight, to fight yet another lost cause. The fight had hardened him.

But here he felt the armor plates that weighed down on his heart began to lift. One by one, heavy as the copper ingots on flatbeds rolling out of the smelters, lifted not by cranes, but by distance, time, quiet, and above all the evacuation of the endless distraction of working life, they lifted off of him. He threw his shoulders back and circled them to drop the last plates of tension.

He threw on his pack and headed down a well-trafficked trail to a cow path that meandered into a copse of scrub oak along a deep canyon until it petered out, and finally to a boxed-in dead end, a bush-whack up an outcrop of hard limestone bedrock to the cave. From there he could see the sky, the upcoming lunar eclipse, and hear the great horned owls, and his own conscience. Only the last caused him much concern. He had a lot to atone for, but that was his business. A trail of deceits is nothing to be proud of, but he couldn’t help it.

It was fully dark by the time he arrived at his destination. The half moon was high in the sky, waxing. What did they call that again, he thought to himself. No longer crescent, what was it now? The light was not enough for fine work, nor did it help much beneath the roof of the cave. He turned on his head lamp and went about gathering wood for a fire. He found a flat spot inside the cave and spread his groundcloth, sleeping pad and bag. It would be cold, frost in the morning, so he unrolled an extra tarp over the bag.

Camp set, he lit the fire and turned off the lamp. Firelight was enough. He fashioned a chair out of rocks and set about attending to the fire, the sounds of the woods, the desert, the mountains. He let the spell of the place work its magic on him, as he began, slowy at first, to notice his surroundings. He read the sounds of wind whistling through the trees. He could hear the high pitched staccato buzzing of sycamore leaves down in the canyon. The pitch rose and fell with wind gusts. Oaks still held their leaves as well, but kept to themselves, a lower tone. Given the pitch and volume of the leaves, he knew there was something coming in, a cold front most likely, one of those monsters that comes roaring down the Pacific coast out of Alaska. The leaves were chattering. Then there was the softer whistling of the juniper needles. He also heard the nervous stamping of a deer as it caught his scent on its way down to the stream. The noise of its flight echoed through the canyon between the gusts, something a mountain lion would pick up on and follow.

His own movements became more pronounced and less hurried. He felt the weight of fatigue come over him, a desire to sit and rest and do nothing but stare at the fire. Sadness draped over his shoulders like a cloak. He felt it settle on him, something he did not have the luxury to indulge out there in the world of rent and schedules.

Where would this go, he wondered. Where would this go? He said it out loud: Rebecca. The name, an incantation, stirred his pulse, his groin. Damn. Why did he do it? Why carve the heart out of his chest and leave it beating in full sight of a woman he could never be with? Red, hot anger at himself flushed his veins. He swore softly. Pain, more pain. The withering familiarity of falling again. All for what? For comfort, of course, for even a brief release, a moment of forgetting. And there was the flood of raw life that that poured through him at the thought of her. The scientist in him called it the oxytocin rush; the man in him called in being on fire. His heart could reach and touch hers no matter the distance between or the obstacles in their path.

He poked angrily at the fire and added another dry, sharp branch. He could see the rosy heartwood as the flame licked the edges and began to dine on the succulent, hot juniper. It spat and hissed as the flame caressed the edges of the branch. That branch was forged in the fire of hot summers, was hardened by June days that crackled with dry heat. Now, here it was releasing that heat, payback for all the sunlight it had taken.

He let the smells of the fire take him away to other times, other places. The fire told him stories as it danced in front of him. He did not known how long he sat in reverie before drowsiness overtook him. Yes, so many memories, so many memories... He stood stiffly and made his way to his bed roll. He found comfort in the stillness and soon left the rising moon to trace its path without him.

It was late, so late the moon had dropped over the ridge, when he heard the gunshots and the shouting. The reports of automatic rifles echoed through the canyon. The shots were not far from him, but he could not make out the words in the shouting. An engine roared up the road below him. Then silence. He heard voices again below, but this time quieter, but no less urgent. Someone was hurt. That much he knew. More talking, another truck. Later, a helicopter, lights. Men were running through the woods, across the ridges, down trails. Under the moon, a chase, a hunt, cat and mouse. This was what the place had come to, he thought, a scramble for territory and control. It looked like the Border Patrol had stumbled into a drug deal or a smuggler or a group of bandidos. It was hard to keep track of things here now. So many players, so much desperation.

A truck revved its motor and sped off down the canyon road. Other trucks came and went. Then it was quiet again. He would find out what happened soon enough and it did not much concern him he thought. He fell asleep to the hoots of an owl.

Morning light came late. A storm had come in. Low clouds spit rain and gathered around the high peaks. Cold rain pelted the ground, blew the last leaves off the sycamores and slicked the rocks. He would stay sheltered today, tend the fire, read, and try to find some way to make sense of his ragged life. He did not like the forced confinement, but accepted it, settled in to it.

He extracted the journal from his pack and conjured up the words that might lead to a story that would then tie together some of the disparate lines of his discontent. His examination was ruthless, honest, and secret. The writing lifted some of the weight off his shoulders, sent some of the demons packing. He could see the day better, be more a part of it as the skies began to clear.


He packed some water bottles and food, picked up his walking stick, and headed down the slope to the road. Manzanita branches grabbed at this jacket like the bony fingers of harpies as he made his way between the spiny barrel, prickly pear, cat-claw, and loose rock on the incline above the canyon floor.

He would find a trail he knew eventually, but for now, it was all winding through a maze of sharp spines, that tore at anything they came into contact with. He cleared branches out of his path with the stick and adjusted his glasses.

He found the trail and began the long ascent to the ridgeline, and the peak that dominated the valley. The low approach led through scrub oak, juniper, Manzanita, and the occasional yucca, but as he gained elevation pines began to line the trail. He liked the way the pack dug into his shoulders, the way the boots bit into the loose till of the trail. He could still maintain a good pace, not as fast as before, but long. He could go long and the pounding in his chest came measured, the breathing relaxed. He peeled off the jacket even though the air was cool and the breeze promised more of winter.

After the rain down lower, there would likely be snow near the top. No matter. The trail would most likely be passable. He noticed the detritus of migration along the trail. Even here, miles from the trailheads, there were the discards of people in a hurry, needing to travel light, desperate to keep moving – bottles, shoes, crumpled papers that had once served as insulation, torn packs, the ubiquitous baseball caps.

This was a blood trail he thought, a trail of tears and tenacity.

But now he walked alone, in quiet, except for the wind in his chest and that blowing over the ridge. He thought of other times on this trail, back when he was young, when flowers bloomed after a wet winter, and lady bugs swarmed all over the peak. It seemed like it would work out back then. Meredith had been happy, before the boys were born. So hard, then. Why had he felt the need to find comfort outside the marriage.

Yes, the questions, the questions. They go on and on. So many. Never answered, just mulled over, and over, like a rag that a dog chews on until it degrades into so many soggy threads that sink into the soil. But his questions have staying power and will not take no for an answer.

He sees bear scat in the trail. It’s a couple of days old and the tracks are faded but recognizable. “You go there, big guy,” he says out loud. It comforts him to know that the bear is here, somewhere.

He looks up to the peak. Not so far now. Ponderosa pines line the trail now. He can’t help but remember games of Capture the Flag in a park like this. Open ground, tall trees, and thin air. That was when the boys began to overtake him in their quickness and endurance. He tried to play their games, but it was now their time.

Instead of a green carpet, he walks through a charred wasteland. The fires came through here a few years ago. All of the sky islands, the cool, high peaks, that ring the basin, have burned. The heat and drought of climate change have cooked the highlands too. Species of cacti have migrated higher and higher and invasive grasses like the buffle grass have moved in. When they dry between rains, they are a fuel that, when ignited by a wild fire, will burn so hot that native species, like the saguaro, cannot endure.

The trail meets another that rises from the other side of the mountain. Here it becomes well-travelled and cleaner. He sees cheerful, fit yuppies from Tucson out for a day hike and date. Some of them run past him, their long, sleek legs exposed below high-tech running shorts. They are polite and beautiful, both men and women. Their bright colors, lithe bodies, and styled looks both attracted and irritated him. He kept to himself and walked in the cloud and gait of the curmudgeon.

On the summit, he ate and drank from the bottle. He remembered a time here on the bare pyramid of granite when he spent a summer night not so long ago. It was clear with stars and he could see the grids of light that Tucson traced across the valley to the north, copper mines to the west, more mountains and ridges to the east, the glow of Mexico to the south.

Now he looked toward Patagonia and saw the steady line of scrub and wildness that connected the rock on which he sat to the mountains of Mexico. He could see how the elusive trogon could make its way up into these canyons, how the occasional jaguar could push the envelopes of territory into the ranges east and west of where he sat. Hummingbirds, coati, javelina, jaguarundi – all of them pushing their range northward.

He could almost touch the pulse and urge of life pushing into new, unknown territories. It was tenacious, as tenacious as the javelina that wandered onto his front porch, fearless, hungry, feral, and tropical musk announcing their migratory persistence. Yes, they were coming too he thought. They would come in spite of the fences going up, the fear of the dark and tropical South. The retirement town beneath the mine to the east and its fearful threats would not stop the tide. He knew that all the assault weapons in the world, all of the retired landing mats in the world welded into barriers and fences would not stop them. Life finds a way, he said to himself.

A wind that carried the chill of evening reminded him that it was time to return, to descend. He shouldered his pack and as he picked up the staff he looked down the ridge he would travel. He began stiffly now the long walk back. It would be dark by the time he arrived. He would have to navigate by the growing half moon, and it came to him: a waxing, gibbous, solstice moon. It felt good to remember, to have those words. He walked under its light to his itinerant shelter.

What he did not yet know was that his shelter was no longer his alone.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Advice on How to Live With Fifteen Years of Drought

Climb high onto
the naked mountain

Weep over the carcass of a deer
mummifying in the dry canyon

Listen to the stones
the bleached algae peeling back
from the river rocks

Open to the keen of bees
and mosquitos
as they gather
over the scum
of the last of the pools
deep in the shadows
beneath a trickle of a waterfall

Find memories
like crumpled paper
in the pockets of blue jeans
you long ago outgrew

Uncover the rusty weapon
the map
the thorn that tears skin

Pick up the shield 
send down roots
and take your place 
on the vanishing boundary
between hungry ghosts
and wild eyes

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tines Up

My brother-in-law Martin once observed that I had a penchant for doing the hardest work for the lowest wage. I chalk this defect of character up to an unwillingness on my part to take my work life seriously. As a result of not planning, not marketing myself, and not achieving very much, I have been relegated to menial work and an interesting hike along the path of downward mobility.

For example, when I moved to Arizona, all I could find was temporary work that no one else wanted to do, work that paid a third of what my fellow "regular" laborers made. I did a stint culling curled boards under the June sun at Lumber Country, cleaned up construction sites for bosses that were petty tyrants with the IQ of fire hydrants, and I re-surfaced tennis courts. 

The tennis court re-surfacing  gig was instructive for a couple of reasons. The first of which was that the workday ran from 5:00 AM (on the courts) to 2:00 PM, which left lots of time for drinks in the afternoon. The second was that I often worked next to the tennis club’s pools, where lovely, pampered, neglected daughters of privilege pouted at having such a rough life as they sipped margaritas while lounging on their chaise rollers. The third, the one which has to do with this blog, was using a jack hammer.

I had never used one before and wasted a whole day trying to jack hammer out a footing for a tennis net post by hammering from the middle out. 

Not good.

Jack hammering, life many other skills in life, is best done from the perimeter, or close enough to an edge which makes it possible for material to cleave off, or "exfoliate" as geologists like to say, into loosened soil or space. It is best to work from the edges in toward the center, or out from the center if there is a hole in the middle,"chipping away". 

(Most "big jobs," things like how to deal with our carbon footprint and the resulting climate change, are best tackled in small ways, coming at them in all directions (conservation, solar, wind, geothermal, better construction, change of consumer culture, i.e.doing a bit at a time)).

Having mastered this important life skill I entered into the really hard work of marriage a few years later. Today, my bride of twenty-five years asked me to help her with a garden project – breaking up a gravelly, packed patch of yard that needed  to be made suitable for planting.  She patiently pointed out the perimeter and showed me how hard it was going to be to loosen the packed crust. 

Remembering my lessons from the country club (I skipped telling her about the pouting, thong-wearing, spoiled sirens) I went right to the jack hammer strategy in reverse. Break through the crust in the middle and chip your way out, in a spiral, with loosened soil on the inside of the spiral.

The work went fast and took a fraction of the time my beloved thought it would have. I would like to say I impressed her, but given that she has lived with me for so long, it would take more than a shovel job well-done to undo my mountain of spousal shortcomings.

"Since you have some extra time before you go to the prison workshops, you can bring up some wheelbarrows full of sand from the wash," she said, a gave me an appreciative peck and a smile. 

She returned to being a happy soul full of garden dreams, and I moved on to my next task.

As I wheeled my burden down to the wash, I flipped over a rake that had the tines pointing up, a state which could result in a broken nose if someone stepped on it. No need to make things harder than necessary.