A Gila Woodpecker Rings in 2017

Is it by the least expectation or the most that we discover beauty and joy?  I realize my blogs of 2016 have taken shape through a series of walks, mostly in the same area.  How daring is that?  No trams nor trains, no underground nor light rails; my financial advisor pushes me to take at least one international trip a year, to jump at the change of last minute destinations.  Enjoy while you can, he almost threatens.


And so I’ve rambled–both physically and as a wordsmith–along the same sand-packed trail, really a happenstance path evolved between a suburban environment and older farmland.  An ecotone: a zone, a concept identified years ago by a wandering Walt Whitman who noted the boundary between ocean and land.  A bardo, a place of ambiguities.

The premier nature writer, Barry Lopez, writes of these crepuscular places, and of his own Oregon forested acres he’s frequented for over forty years.  Walking there, though familiar, he says he always finds something new.

Now that’s adventure.  That’s expectation.  What I’ve called “a habit of landscape.”

And so this brings us to the Gila Woodpecker.  New Year’s eve day I identified one pecking away at a thin, wintry, surely brittle mesquite branch, miles away from his usual habitat, the Sonoran desert of Arizona.  Known best for their forays into the giant Saguaro cacti, this dun-breasted and zebra-backed picidae is making the best of his current environment–40 degree scrub Chihuahuan desert–yip-yip-yipping (his call) in between rattling knocks.

He’s so intent I come close and stand awhile, appreciating the racket.  He tolerates my voice.

It’s the even of 2017 and–knock on wood (yes, bad pun intended)–we walk into it perhaps fearful, resisting, but with the hope of not merely survival and adaptability, but a persistent beauty born of surprise, in noticing something different along the same old trail.

We writers must be witnesses, and explorers too.


Sand Blizzards and Rainbows

Last week here in Las Cruces we had two horrible weather days.  The local media dubbed the blotting out of the Organ Mountains a “sand blizzard.”  Other parts of the country were experiencing or readying for a polar blast; a friend of mine in upper New York state rhapsodized about their first real snow.  We had a “sand blizzard.”

Walker that I am, I bundled up, including sunglasses to deflect sand particles, and leaned my way into probably forty mile an hour wind gusts.  Later someone told me that the news reported the equivalent of hurricane strength winds that afternoon.

The birds had fled, predictably.  This was no morning saunter among finches and white-capped sparrows.  Where do these little power houses hunker down I wondered as I was buffeted and battered along the way, barely retaining my balance, a drunk sobered only by the head wind.

I mostly kept my head down.  Less particular matter pelting its way around the glasses.  I imagined myself a Dust Bowl character, as one of those WPA photographs of folks lurching through blackening whorls.

But there was joy in it, the sheer physicality of walking in such wind.  i remembered I had jogged in deep snow in the old days of good knees.  Something about the bracing cold air and the relentless gusts almost made me laugh.  Yes, it was pure joy.  Alive, alive.

But even more so when I looked up to see, through the dun colored sky, Picacho Peak ahead–an old volcanic cone rising out of the Chihuahuan desert around it.  There was a rainbow arching over it, stretching from the cone toward the Rio Grande (also a sandstorm for the river is “shut off” upstream this time of year).

I plodded along, watching it deepen its magenta and rose; it seemed to grow larger as the colors brightened.  And so these lines came, what I call a “flash poem”:

“May we be a rainbow in the world

Ever-arching beauty.”

I looked down to find my way, and when I looked up, it was gone.





New Mexico Morning in Bird Song

Early morning walks near my New Mexico home–especially Sunday mornings– feel like prayer. There’s the slight lift of the faint path as I swing onto the main sandy artery that connects to the pecan tree-lined fields below. Farmer’s daughter that I am, I like checking the crops: there’s the seasonal rotation of alfalfa, lettuce, onions, even watermelon. I stand in the stillness of the moment.

And the crows know it.

This particular morning, the sky is full of American Crows. At least one hundred of them, a moving cacophony and shadowing host as I move, like a character in “The Birds”–head down–along my way.

My way? I read where crows can memorize a face. Yes, they recognize the perpetrators who interrupt their nests, feeding, roosting places. This morning I’ve done the latter: they argue and caution and warn me that I have flushed them from their warm refuge in the mesquite trees. Maybe my knit hat and sun glasses will confuse them as they record my face for further reference. Like a fugitive, I duck my head and concentrate on the smaller birds nearby.

All scuttle. Green-tailed Towhee, flitting ground feeder; Curved-billed Thrasher, a noisy and less cautious host; the even bolder Pyrhulloxia, our own desert cardinal, with a brash call and flirting movements to boot.

I glory in the movement and sound of the birds of morning, even if I regret disturbing them. Their lilting shadows in flight, their sprite-like movements: ground and sky are alive and lift me up.

How blessed to be away from the daily news, cell phones, the human shuffle.

Later that night, in the second of my bookend walks–a dream–I see a nighthawk flying by. I look through a glass window; his back gleams a reflection like oil in water.

A bald eagle appears, but profiled with human teeth, beak peeled back in a snarl–or is it a smirk?

Not natural, not natural, these images.

Awake, and disturbed by the dream, I try to remember previous days when my farm walks took me under the arch of birdsong–meadowlarks calling from one side of the road to the other. And in my farmhouse, the mourning dove, again an umbrella of sound, entreating each other from opposite sides of the house. And I’m inside the sound.

In these troubled days (and nights, as in my dream), I listen for the morning birdsong, more than ever, in their persistent fresh beginnings, like prayers.

Christmas Comes Early at Standing Rock–for now

It was what we consider a cold morning here in the desert.  Maybe 41 degrees, a stout wind out of the north.  My partner and I are dressed like snowmen: I at least have two layers on, gloves, two caps.  We often take early Sunday morning bird walks, but this morning the birds were smartly hunkered down in the scrub mesquite or elsewhere.

Lately, well since last spring, but particularly now it’s winter, we walk wondering: what’s it like at Standing Rock where thousands of people are protesting–protesting the route of the Dakota pipeline through sacred Sioux grounds and its projection to pass under the Missouri River, raising issues of future leaks and contamination.  At the heart of the protest are many issues–environmental racism, environmental concerns, Native rights, Native treaty rights, equitable representation.  For the pipeline company and maybe even the Army Corps of Engineers land is out there, something to be used, developed, commercialized.  Pure and simple, a business deal, but smacking of Manifest Destiny of these long years past.

It’s not clear how seriously the early objections of the Standing Rock Sioux were vetted, listened to, sanctioned in proper hearings.  But today what it’s like at Standing Rock is a high of 34 degrees, now 21 degrees as I write and the celebration of a ruling by the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the pipeline thus allowing for future environmental assessments in seeking an alternative route.  Christmas may have come early at Standing Rock.

For me, the issue is larger than Standing Rock itself, though this has been an amazing and awe-inspiring example of democratic expression, sacrifice, and perseverance, particularly given the history of First Nation peoples in regard to treaty rights and promises broken by the U.S. government.  They have made us realize even more.

The issue is how we view the earth itself.  Is it a commodity to be used and exploited, a commercial venture, something “out there,” other?  Or is it us?  Leslie Silko, Laguna writer ,has said that landscape is not something out there.  “We are part of the very boulders we stand on,” she has said.  To feel a part of the environment–what many native people honor as a way of life–is to not objectify nature but to celebrate it, love, honor, protect it.

Is it wise to run an oil pipeline under the Missouri River?  Was it wise for the DOE to propose “freezing” the Ogallala Aquifer years ago  in order to create the first large nuclear waste facility in the Texas Panhandle?  There are countless examples of technology hubris in our country which account for action that does not take into consideration either the past or the future.

If we love our hearts, souls, bodies, selves and our neighbors’, then  we must care for the land as it is us.  Standing Rock, Merry Christmas, and may we all celebrate with you a deeper understanding of our own humanity.  In 47 days we will all have to keep these thoughts and actions close again for we will have a new president, one who has lived in a tower and not in 21 degree weather on the wind-swept plains.

Thanks Giving at Thanksgiving

It was a busy week, with a lead-up to that day we are all assumed to overeat.  There were the plans to go to David and Zita’s–friends who invite folks away from family to share with their table (and what a beautiful one it always is); the trip to Tempe to see my 86 year old cousin would follow.  We planned to overnight in Tucson, squeezing in a little vacation time too.

But before that, the Tuesday evening before to be exact, I’d been invited to speak about my recent book at “Mining Books,” a book club sponsored by the English Department but open to anyone at the university.  I had some trepidation; I hadn’t “lectured” before an academic audience in a while.  And this was a jury of my peers–former colleagues and some students with high expectations.

But what a blessing that evening was.  Yes, here were my colleagues, but giving hugs, supportive, welcoming.  And in the audience were former students, one whom I had in a graduate class years ago and who now is a tenured professor in the English Department.  There were hugs all around and lots of conversation afterwards.  A professor I’d known from the History Department even brought the book to read a passage out loud and ask about it.  She was going through the decline of her aunt and as a care giver faced what I had detailed in part of the book: not only the grief but the frightening and exhausting responsibility for someone else’s life.  I hope she took some comfort from the book.

That weekend, I was amazed at the stories my cousin at 86 still could tell.  A world traveler, a Quaker, and someone who has partially endowed a chair in Peace Studies at Arizona State University where she used to teach, Annanelle, born in Poland to a Methodist preacher father, is worldly and wry.  We met her man friend who resides in a different part of Friendship Village for more care; they exchanged a kiss, so sweet, when we visited him in his room.  Their combined intelligence scores would likely scorch a normal person, even with Bill’s signs of dementia.  I thought about this generation, what they have done, what they have seen (he talked a lot about his Navy experience in World War II).  Annanelle could say from her Quaker perspective that she could see some signs that gave her reason for hope in the future.  They did seem to have a bigger picture.

Back home, all exhausted, with swollen feet from two days of sitting and little exercise, I felt relieved to have escaped the ya-ya-ya of the television, internet, and (yes) Facebook to actually share time with others.  On the road, my traveling companion had insisted we follow the yellow billboards and stop to see “The Thing,” a hoax we both knew but a comic diversion from the long desert drive.  Yep, it was a fake dried up mummy and with a dried up baby to boot.  Both for only one dollar!!!

The weekend, actually begun in a scary fashion as at the door Zita informed us that David had just gotten out of the hospital, ended with even a greater shock.  David had lost forty percent of his blood due to a physical condition and though very pale and weak, was back home.  The Thanksgiving meal went on although I know we all wished that Zita had called it off or called us to help more ahead.  Maybe she welcomed some company that evening after all the strain?

We were driving and I got a call from Albuquerque–Gayle, my life long friend who has her own health challenges with necessary and permanent dialysis.  Before I could get into my chirpy voice (I am always so glad to hear from her), she blurted out, “Butch is dead.”  Butch is her partner of many years and she had discovered him sitting in his chair when he didn’t answer her call.  Through the teary report I felt not only sad and helpless to comfort, but stunned.  Drained. Faint with sadness.

So the giving thanks is tricky. It’s not just the uptick of turkey and football, of family gatherings and naps.  Because as life and death are part and parcel of one another, always intertwined, so thanks and hope and love among fragility are even more precious.  There is even more to give thanks for.

Running Up at the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards


It was not exactly a wild goose chase, but close.  I drove up to Albuquerque to the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards but visited a dear friend first thinking I had timed it out to arrive at the book awards just in time for a glass of wine before dinner.  Silly goose!

It was the Albuquerque of old, shining in the late afternoon light, stillness of autumn buried in the roar of 5:00 traffic.  When I attended grad school here in the late 1970s, a visitor from New York said, “Shelley, look at all this space; it needs to be filled in.”  It has been, it has.

Googlemaps had said “no problem.”  It’s only ten minutes or so from my hotel.  When had Google last flown over for mapping?  Helicopters in the sky now meant search for migrants but tonight no one made the maps.  The traffic thickened, balked, stopped, dangerously shot across lanes.  The traffic folk helped by coning areas you couldn’t see until getting there.  I was a country bumpkin in a city I hadn’t navigated in a while.  And when put to the test, “OK Google” wouldn’t even answer me.

The ten minutes turned into fifteen, twenty, then twenty five.  As far as I could tell (did I mention it got dark mighty quickly) Eubank Blvd. was going on forever.  I had been to this country club before (Tanoan Country Club) but as I neared where I thought it was, Eubank coursed ahead where I thought it more or less dead-ended into the country club.

Country clubs have golf courses.  I was in the middle of apartment sprawl.  Didn’t it have to be here–obvious–somewhere?

Well, not to belabor.  After a series of U-Turns and turning where I felt I was way off course, my own contributions to driving dangerously in Albuquerque, I desperately asked for help at a 7-11.  One of the check-out girls there whipped out her more modest cell phone which immediately gave her a map and directed back and by five til the time of the dinner, I whizzed into the parking lot and nervously tried to engage other folks walking up to the event.  They hustled ahead with a nod as if I were begging for money.

That was it all night.  I felt I was coming up in the rear.

With tables of ten at a sold-out banquet, I searched for a spot and found a table against the back wall.  The master of ceremonies was a dot in the distance and the servers coursed in front of us all night.  My companions all knew each other, particularly the two women on either side of me who were both from Santa Fe.  As I ate my baked chicken which resembled a rubber child’s toy they talked over me, exchanging SF stores and SF contacts and tales of where they had lived abroad, and how many books they had written and sold (the one to my left sold out of the SF cookbooks every time they were put out in a store).  Are you an author they finally asked?  They traded business cards over my dessert.

At one point I looked up to see that beside one of the other table mates (we were too far apart to even introduce ourselves) a mixed breed bull dog’s head emerged next to her.  Later in the bathroom I saw that she/he wore a pink netted skirt and her owner had that time-worn SF style too: floor length skirt, jumbly overblouse, obligatory turquoise.  Back at the table, I noted a spot where I had dribbled salad dressing on my black pants.  I noted this when one of the SF table mates looked too long at my knee where the stain spread.  She was the upper end of the SF style:  brown suede skirt (floor length), matching boots and rebozo (delicately draped), and of course a hat not unlike that of Mary Austin’s (a 1930s SF writer) I’d seen in a photograph.  This gal was born in Japan, raised in Germany, and had just returned from her upteenth trip to Venice.

When they asked again about my book she said she had walked the llano too, but in Spain, on a famous pilgrimage.  You simply must go.

In the end, we all shared quite a lot. With the exception of two others at our table who left before the event ended, we each stood when our names were announced among the nominees in the many categories.  Truthfully, this was a wonderful accolade, just as the m.c. said.  Over and over he praised the nominees, reminding us all that we were rated by reviewers across the United States and gave us statistics to validate that we were the very few chosen to make the cut.

Yes, we stood and we sat down.  One man in the table in front of us won two awards.  We squinted (as we pretended not to squint) to glimpse the little trophy.

I knew I was in for it when the m.c. began the evening with a joke about forgiving one of the entrants for teaching in Texas.  New Mexico is resplendent in Texan jokes.  The subtitle of my book is “A Texas Memoir of Place.”  I had warned OU Press about that.  But what do those Okies know?

We stood and we sat down.  Running up at the New Mexico/Arizona book awards–finalists all.









That Falcon Eye

Most days here in Las Cruces, I take walks out along the farm road that circles behind the small cul-de-sac where I live. For about two months now a Prairie Falcon has eyed my walk from his perch on the traversing telephone pole.

I’ve come to watch for him.  A camouflaging speckled breast, brown back, and eye streaks–like those intimidating black swipes football players wear under their eyes, only vertical–make it hard to see him.  And he’s smart, hiding in the shadow of the telephone pole crossbar–still, waiting.

Am I prey?  I look up, but not too long.  He tilts his head (raptors can’t move their eyes, they move their heads), his out-sized globe reminding me that if I could see that well I would have to have eyes the size of an orange.

What have I heard about maintaining eye contact with a predator?  An aggressive move and dangerous.  This bird takes his favorite (and mine, but not for that reason), meadowlarks, but mainly feeds on small mammals.  At 125 pounds, I’m probably safe. I keep looking, then glance away.  There’s an impact though, a connection.  We’re uneasy partners, coming to respect each other’s daily path.

What if I had that falcon eye?  Or an eagle eye?  Would I have seen a Trump presidency coming?  Today I feel my heart ripped out; I feel homeless, possibly now vulnerable, helpless.  I think about what Lawrence O’Donnell has said: a president doesn’t automatically deserve our respect  just because he or she wins the office; he or she has to earn it.

Okay, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.  The split country shows that.  But respect could be something we all share.  Mutual respect.

I’ll admit that when I look up toward my fellow creature, Mr. Falcon, I don’t peer through a glass ceiling.  (Not now that I am retired and can qualify to be a K-Mart greeter.)  I see nothing but vast blue sky.  But as a woman I did bump against it most of my baby boomer life.  “You’re not going to try to get a job with that degree, are you?” another academic asked me as I was completing my Ph.D.  Things like having to get tenure three different times when my male colleagues did not.  Things like the devaluing of my work at institutions where over-wrought competition for limited opportunities made for power plays to keep one in one’s place.  And this work was my own modest attempt to give students a path to respecting others’ stories by listening, engaging, learning beyond themselves.

These are tiny things in the world’ eye, sometimes a world filled with genocide, hatred, greed, revenge.  I think of all the young women in the world who risk their lives to even attend school for a few years, if at all.  I think of the suffering and sacrifice of women for their families and communities at the exclusion of themselves. I think of what it means to be a woman–and a man– fully engaged.

This is one of the reasons I was excited about the prospect of a woman president, so long overdue in a country with such a rich history of brilliant women.  And this was not just any woman but someone with great experience, dedication, smarts.  A strong woman, a successful woman, a woman many people hate.  I never understood it–the hatred–because I saw a worthy representative of the cumulative work of women against such odds.  Not perfect but possibly the better for it.  A leader and possibly a visionary if rattled enough from the cage of main stream politics.

It’s probably not right, but for many of us our histories feel wrapped up in her “failure.” In her not quite making it.  When the votes were counted we felt some personal rebuke– loss.

My mother was born six years before women had the vote in this country.  At almost 70, I relished witnessing the tenure of our first woman president.  Amazing bookends of a life lived in the hope of and belief in mutual respect.

I’m told a raptor like Mr. Falcon can see the length of 17 football fields or over a mile to spot mid-sized prey like a rabbit.  I stumble down the trail of my humble human state, but am lifted up when I glimpse him looking into that endless blue sky beyond.