What a mystery is the air, what an enigma to these human senses! [T]he air is the most pervasive presence I can name, enveloping, embracing, and caressing me both inside and out, moving in ripples along my skin, flowing between my fingers, swirling around my arms and thighs, rolling in eddies along the roof of my mouth, slipping ceaselessly thought the throat and trachea to fill the lungs, to feed my blood, my heart, my self. I cannot act, cannot speak, cannot think a single thought without the participation of this fluid element. I am immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea.
—David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Part One of a three-part post.
August 24, 2013. When I head out today for Crossfire Canyon, I step into a world in motion. Currents of surface wind, smooth in texture, cool to the touch, flood out of the south, curling around every solid body be it person, fencepost, or stone, leaning into every curve in the terrain. Weeds and spindly desert sunflowers undulate in it. As I pass my neighbor’s orchard, waves of wind sound in the apple and pear trees’ leaves, oceanic in temperament, noising like breakers crushing themselves against sand.
Here on White Mesa, the character of the desert air ranges widely from spring’s sandpaper winds that rattle windows and flake shingles off roofs, to the sudden dust-ups of sand spouts or dust devils, to dead still, the odd hour where the air’s quiescence reminds me of a motionless pool deposited in a stream bed after a flash flood has rumbled through. Today’s wind surges without half smothering me. I’ve walked into mesa blasts that grapple with me for my breath. This wind is respiration friendly.
Though it’s late in the morning the day has not yet gotten hot. A thin tapestry of clouds of mixed texture and weave hangs between earth and sky, taking the edge off August glare. Distant, darker smudges to the west signal approaching rain. Between the cool wind and thin overcast, I walk in comfort, but it’s the wind that brings real pleasure to the day. A quality about it boosts my breathing. As I walk eastward, the air streams against the right side of my body, but I turn into it from time to time to draw a thin current directly into my lungs. I can feel these tendrils cool my sinus cavities then pull down through my windpipe and enter my lung chambers in rich drafts. At each breath, I detect a mild rise of energy. My backbone feels alert to touch, to vibrations from behind. I feel something new that I try to name. The first word that comes to me is transparent, but that’s not quite it. Maybe the word I’m looking for is porous.
As usual, my brain wants to work on problems while I’m on the move. As I walk to the trail head, words I read recently in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature come to mind. In his Preface, he maps out six trends he says we humans have shown as we’ve gradually drawn back from what he perceives to be the violence of our evolutionary roots. He calls the first trend the “Pacification Process”. He describes the Pacification Process as taking place over thousands of years. It was, he says, “[T]he transition from the anarchy of hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago.” He proposes this change brought “a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of death” (Better Angels xxiv).
As I climb the slight pitch in the road that brings me within sight of the big prairie dog coterie out on BLM land, I lay Pinker’s proposition regarding hunter-gatherer cultures alongside Amy Irvine’s portraits of it in her book Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land. In Trespass, Irvine draws a straight line from the American West’s prehistoric Anasazi culture’s gradual abandonment of the heightened living of the hunter-gatherer way for life to what she describes as the despair of their agricultural period, prior to their abandonment of their lands in the Four Corners region—in her view, an unfortunate fall, indeed. Agriculture, she says, whenever it afflicts people, makes them belligerent, unhealthy, sexually broken, and incapable of deep-rooted spirituality. Its inevitable end is violence. The hunter-gatherer life, she asserts, was the more completely realized life, the ecstatic life. David Abram makes a similar assertion in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous. In Abram’s tale of our tumble from the garden, apostasy occurs not in the adaptation of agriculture per se but in the adoption of an alphabet and of written language, which removed us from our grounded relationship of reciprocity with what he calls the “animate earth”. This fall from grace put us in mind to do nature unprecedented violence.
The clash between these narratives sounds a moment in my thinking. I want to toy with them, but now—in this wind—not the time. I myself am not feeling so well these days—so deeply tired. For that, I can’t blame agriculture, the thing itself. Or written language. By virtue of its vegetables embedded among wild tangles of alfalfa, prairie cone-flower, and horsetail milkweed, a-swarm with hover-flies, honey bees, bumblebees, tarantula hawks, and at least a dozen other native pollinator species, my garden is one of my wonder worlds, a bit of ground bearing restorative power. My garden and I engage in a constant exchange, including my learning to save seeds (my plants’ hearts’ desire), all for a bit of water and attention. Agriculture with a big “A”: Yes, there’s trouble there, in various forms. But planting and gathering in my yard seems a far less violent practice than hunting and gathering. As for written language—Abram’s warnings of its effects on us seem premature and misplaced. Our species is still quite young to language, especially to written expression. It’s possible we don’t have words and awareness yet to understand very deeply what language is or how it affects our brains, including what evolutionary pressures it may exert upon us.
But enough. My thinking mind wants to play in others’ thinking, but the wind, all tug and raillery, wants my breathing body to play with it. Wind wins.
Belle accompanies me. She doesn’t seem to relish the trips into the canyon as much as I do, often behaving like a distracted child, running around in mad releases of energy, drifting out of sight in this direction or that, not wanting to make use of our rest stops to cool down. I realize that I’m going to have to teach this dog to be still, at times, during our summer canyon walks. She spends herself too wildly, putting herself at risk of heat stroke. Yet in spite of her less-than-desert-dog demeanor, I do enjoy these walks better when I’m in her company.
I begin the descent into the canyon savoring the fresh and constant wind. The air is clean here, especially after a week of unsettled weather that included scouring clouds and rain. I find no empty pockets anywhere; at every point along the trail, the wind has turned out the usual tight spots prone to stillness. I come across the Quercus gambelii—gambel’s oaks—lining my route all looking well, in full scalloped leaf and a mature dark green. But when I reach one of my canyon overlooks, I’m surprised to see that several of the Fremont cottonwoods in the first big grove in the canyon bottom have developed touches of yellow at their lofty temples. Apparently, they’ve taken the cooling weather to heart. As I wonder over the trees, a burst of wind strikes them. They shimmy and glitter, the muted light fluttering and flaking off the rapidly oscillating surfaces of their scale-like leaf blades. I am susceptible to the beauty of cottonwood trees, young or old, sight and sound. Add to their many charms the virtue of the refuge they offer from summer heat. They are without question one of the finest creatures of the canyons. The first year I moved here they stood ragged with tent worms, shedding leaves prematurely. When I walked beneath their branches, it wasn’t unusual to be struck by a falling caterpillar or caterpillar waste. But this year the Fremonts look quite healthy and well off. I head in their direction.
To read Part Two go here.
Patricia Karamesines has won numerous awards for her poetry, essays, and fiction, including awards from the University of Arizona, the Utah Arts Council, and the Utah Wilderness Association. She is the author of The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004), an award-winning mystery novel set in the Four Corners area. Her poetry appears in the anthology Fire in the Pasture (Peculiar Pages 2011). She writes for the Mormon arts and culture blog A Motley Vision and runs the nature writing blog Wilderness Interface Zone that advocates for the “greening of human language”. She has taught English classes at USU-Eastern off and on since 2006 and now tutors English students for the NASNTI Grant program–a job she dearly loves. She lives with her husband and three children a stone’s throw from beleaguered Recapture Canyon (she calls it “Crossfire Canyon”), has put in plenty of foot-time in the canyon, and is currently completing a work of creative nonfiction about her strange and wonderful experiences there.
Photograph, “Crossfire in the Fall”, by Saul Karamesines