We were a group of writers at a University of New Mexico workshop in Santa Fe. Ten of us poured over xerox copies and computers; the workshop leader, a faint redhead who looked vaguely like a recreational hiker–khaki shorts and pale checked shirt–shared our reading of the day: “Raptorous” by Brian Doyle.
The piece had appeared in Orion, a prestigious nature/environmental magazine, and it had all the hallmarks of perfection: great voice, pacing, vivid language, and ever present surprise. Doyle began by discussing facts about hummingbirds and riffed on the stupendous actions of raptors, ending with his revelation of the meaning of his play on words in the title: raptors and rapture. Nature even as tooth and claw, ever transforming our pedestrian notions, wowing us large and small.
We dutifully identified his achievement of all things William Zinsser (Zinsser, the popular guru of Writing Well, one of the many bibles of writing teachers). And no doubt we were as awed by the pyrotechnics of his style and thought as of the birds themselves. It was enough to make us turn in our workshop badges. . .almost. Here was a WRITER writ large. Could we ever fly so high?
I slipped out for lunch, an over-heated salad now wilting in the back of my car. I needed to squeeze in my swim on our lunch break, the only time available during the day’s busy schedule. Swim, then a quick walk at the park, then the flattened salad, now mostly oil and balsamic vinegar left.
Doyle’s piece made me notice the natural sites of Santa Fe more. Driving up Ft. Marcy Street, I had to be reminded by the SUV’s crowding me to focus on the human-made world, but I wanted to dwell on the pinon dotted hills beyond.
Later in the day, I had that chance. I stayed at a small casita out of town, nestled in the pinon and pin cushion-looking mountains, a guest house behind the big house. Out the side of the patio (the casita was only about 500 square feet in size) there was an unobscured view of the mountains, sky, chamisa, and pine trees. I placed my journal on the table there, thinking to rejoin the lessons of the day: pacing, voice, imagery, conversational tone, description and reflection. My notes said so with their brackets, circles, underlining among the cryptic day’s record.
But in my mind was the hill I had climbed to get there and the slight blaze of a rainbow over the road.
Later that weekend, I drove back south, out of the high Santa Fe desert where there had been blessed afternoon rains, to the Chihuahuan desert. My home, just west of the Rio Grande as it makes its way through the Las Cruces valley, is dryer–mesquite, creosote, sage, cacti, and ocotillo.
Those waving stalks–the ocotillos–like the arms of a green and red-tipped octopus, grace the xeriscaped yards of the cul-de-sac. Taller than other succulents, they appear stiff and prickly, yet close up their wand-like branches are layered with sea green elliptical leaves. And hiding behind them like some predator, there are long thorns between each cluster of leaves–disappearing in their pale camouflage. Atop, red blooms complete the skyward reach so that the plant looks something like a red-hot poker, but not to be confused with that other ground hugger.
Hummingbirds know this plant, favor it, top it in split second frenzy, a hovering hunger. Something this sharp is also sweet.
I think to describe pinons and rainbows, hummingbirds and ocotillos–like our model writer of last week. But what I’m left with is just this simple declaration, what is without my imbroglios or his: hummingbirds and ocotillos, hummingbirds and ocotillos.