Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
Today, please welcome writer
We are surrounded by dormant volcanoes. Ponderosa, piñon, and juniper trees have survived on this hill for centuries, so long that they have made friends with ancients and the holy ones. They birthed a white doe. I’ve seen it. These trees leak from their bark a savory-sweet butter and scotch, brewed with their own blood. How long did it take them to find the right chemistry? I walk around the grasses and trees collecting stories each morning, mysteries abound. I listen and watch for multitudes of anomalies.
Two German shepherds live on my parent’s property; their wrestling and exploring erodes this fragile land quicker than it takes for plants to rebound, further ruins the integrity of the earth. So today I set volcanic rock, snap-happy sticks, broken brick, and chips of sandstone into curved lines against the slope of a dusty hill, and along a small wash, severing tributaries to slow or postpone erosion. In undisturbed areas of this high-desert forest 7100 feet above a rising sea level, you’ll notice how the surface of the earth develops natural berms, like tiny levees, conical bumps and mounds. And when the monsoons dump rain in the waning months of summer, without mulch or natural debris for seeds to cling to, the sand and crumbly stone simply wash away. I try to encourage the land to return to its natural state, before ranchers disturbed its peace, before we and the dogs continue to do so.
I made the first wood-stove fire of the season this pre-dawn morning, then stepped out into a light rain, the redolence of wet dirt and juniper caught in a mist snuck in while I was dreaming of the albino deer. The clouds clear at sunrise. Light opens a lid and up pops the candied orange-red bluffs, grinning. What is the significance of an albino deer? I lean into the image and let my brain do what it’s prone to do: look for meaning, analyze, over-analyze, to the extent of losing the magic of such encounters.
Whenever I come back to my family’s place at Tł’ohchin Tó (Onion-Water), a checkerboard land of Navajo and Zuni near Ramah, NM, it takes a few days to eliminate certain constructs associated with the outside world. For example, I am not as confident using words like distraction or obsession out here. Instead, I sit in the sun and watch the birds, a chipmunk. I rid those words of negative connotation. I think: what if we refer to distraction and obsession as transmutations in consciousness, transcendental meditation, curiosity. Also, time feels, and is, fundamentally different in the West than it is in the East. Time overwhelms you if you dwell on it too much. But it is cosmos, not chronos, that separates the West from any city-dweller; space-time becomes disconnected from our self-centered human brain, and time dissipates. Staring at the bluffs, I think: what darlings words can be.
But, yes, I have been a little obsessed. The word ‘swale’ is a wonderful image, and a practice—I have been using it as a verb as well as a noun. Until recently, I thought swale meant ‘barricade’ or ‘dam’, but a swale is actually the indentation behind the hindrance—a hollow place, a depression. The swoosh of raven wings flaps above me, one of my neighbors off to work, and I wonder if our suprasternal notch counts as a swale. I imagine where the rain will go. I move rocks from one part of the land to another. I arrange them into tiny levees to create swales that will prevent erosion by slowing, guiding, the energy of water. I consider a new verb: swaling—not to be confused with: swailing, spelled with an ‘i’, which is a ‘controlled burn’, but it sounds awfully similar to how I am trying to orchestrate water.
This is how my writing days feel, as if I am moving one stone from this part of the land to another. Breaking up piles of sticks as a kind of mulch, sprinkling them evenly across loose sand. I think about control, our lack of it. The possession of control is often an illusion. Am I moving stones from one spot to another because it is aesthetically pleasing? There must be purpose other than making the property look nice. Even on these five acres, preservation is an act of resilience, I think, as a align a bucket of flat chips of sandstone in a skinny line. Our goal should be to limit our impact on this fragile, generous planet. Something comes to mind as I tidy up fallen oak leaves, this idea that I am cleaning up after my roommate, and I laugh at my own ridiculous thoughts in front of a bluebird.
I see the albino deer again and wonder how it will survive looking all electric like that.
I study the landscape, imagine where the water wants to go, how I can inform its direction.
Tł’ohchinii means “onion-water people.”
I watch tarantulas walk across the culvert, neither of us with hurry or destination.
I climb a tree.
I eat cow stomach lining (Dad made menudo last night).
I move logs, boulders, two railroad ties, several buckets of gravel from here to there.
I get angry at the dogs for tearing up my work with their playfulness, for crushing a brittle habitat into dust, but I will attempt my hollow terracing again tomorrow, keep the dogs on their paths, acknowledging that the joy they bring can be worth the futility of my swailing.
The goal of these swales is not to control, but to interact, converse, communicate, commune. Not to block or clog so much as obstruct, choke.
Hozhó, in Diné bizaad, means, roughly: balance; harmony.
A low or hollow place. A neck’s plender gap.
My office, my writing space, is outside, at least until it gets too cold, but even then I will sit in the brisk winter sun, watching for a white fawn as she bounds over sagebrush as if on springs, and I will continue to dream, learn, write until my hands are too numb to scribble another word.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there something you return to over and over again for inspiration?
- Film, music, playing piano or drums, reading (usually have at least one book of poems, nonfiction, and a novel lying around).
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- See above… I want to know how water thinks. I talk to bugs under rotting tree branches.