Archive | March, 2012

Down & Out on a Desert Mesa – [Retrospective]

25 Mar

Not far outside of Taos, New Mexico, there’s a stretch of raw, scrubby desert inhabited by the oddest assortment of people.  Here you’ll find young eco-yuppie families living in yurts and earth-ships, burnt out war veterans in sheet-metal shacks, gun-hoarding wingnuts, cultish hippies, freedom-loving anarchists, ranchers, ramblers and rogues.  They’re drawn here by dreams or desperation, hoping to start fresh, paint new lives on the desert’s wide, blank canvas.  Some are just hoping to play out the rest of their days unnoticed and unfettered, quietly drowning in their own histories, demons and addictions.  And some have simply washed up there by chance, relegated to society’s fringe by circumstance or lack of options.  This somewhat uncivilized off-grid realm is known locally, and often with a tone of disdainful mystery, as “the Mesa”.

Now I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I lived there, the Mesa was considered by the “townies” of Taos to be a lawless and chaotic Neverland.  The roads were packed, rutted dirt, that mangled axles and became an impassable mess in bad weather.  We’d often walk or hitchhike those treacherous roads, sooner than drive them – even when it meant hauling water or food back home on our backs.  Dwellings were spaced far apart, dotting a drab landscape of sage-like silvery wormwood, spreading monochromatically like asphalt in every direction.  I compare it to asphalt because the plant is an introduced species, overly-proliferative, smothering what little diversity a high-desert ecosystem might normally have.  It suppresses the growth of any other desert vegetation, thwarting the potential of beneficial grasses and vibrant flowers: squashed before they could even bloom.

Pulling up sage became a daily job on our half-acre of land, the humble patch of dry, scraggly Earth which I had bought with my closest friend, right at the onset of winter.  We had bought this land as an antidote to the trappings of the culture around us, a chance to rebuild at least our own subjective realities.  We were young and full of ideas, pursuing self-sufficiency and sustainability and freedom.  We wanted to build houses out of dirt and grow corn and beans, write books and push boundaries.  So we pulled up those scratchy sage bushes to clear areas for building, pulled them up to dry for firewood, pulled them up because we were sick of looking at them.  For me, the sage became a ubiquitously irritating metaphor.  But at least it smelled good when it burned.

I had loved the western high-desert at first sight.  Some combination of the crisp, thin air, the endless skies, an indefinable sense of directness and truth.  It felt boundless – an ocean of possibility, and we were ready to dive in.  We purchased our half-acre from a rather shady character, bundled in a puffy coat, shifty and mysterious behind dark sunglasses.  He had made it clear that he needed to get out of town.  Fast.  And was thus willing to give us a pretty excellent deal on his property.  We handed him a wad of cash at the county clerk’s office, and relished our apparent good fortune.

We didn’t ask questions.

The half-acre had good drainage and a nice view of a nearby hill, actually an inactive volcano.  It came with some tools, a run-down RV, a basic shed, and a smashed-up SUV.  The tools were a blessing, as was the RV, since my friend had a wife and a baby to worry about, and adequate shelter was something they had been sorely lacking.  After we installed a wood-burning stove in it, the RV became a pleasant and relatively safe little home for their budding family.  The junked SUV left on the property was less useful.  It was an ugly eye-sore, and at times we would go at it with a pick-axe or a sledge-hammer, enjoying the satisfying crunch of metal meeting metal – our cathartic, symbolic revolt against the suburban culture we had grown up to despise.

While my friends now had the RV, my only home was still my van, furnished with several plastic storage bins, and a large sheet of plywood laid over top for a sleeping surface.  The storage bins contained mostly books.  A lot of books.  Way more books than someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a homeless traveling bum, would ever actually need to keep on hand.  I also had a bin of clothes, though that one stayed shut most of the time, since it was winter and I was pretty much wearing everything I owned.  The New Mexican high-desert is, technically, part of the Rocky Mountains – the lower foothills.  Our elevation was around 7000 feet, and the winter was bitter.  Luckily, I had a quality down-filled sleeping bag that a friend in Virginia (I’ll always be grateful, Hap) gifted me when I first started traveling.  That, combined with multiple hooded sweatshirts and three layers of socks, kept the threat of frost-bite at bay. But the chill nights did offer one spectacular compensation – the most amazing, mouth-gaping, breath-taking starry skies I have ever seen, and maybe ever will.  A fair trade, I say.

Living on the mesa was, at first, a liberating but challenging adventure.  We were free from the utility grid-system, the duties and despair of consumer/wage-earner culture, and the oft-oppressive constraints of society at large.  Ensuring our supply of things like adequate water and firewood was a daily concern, but there was something satisfying in working for our immediate survival.  We had big dreams about growing our own food, building with sustainable techniques, using wind and solar, learning new skills, et cetera and so on.  My friend had been my closest cohort for a few years at this point, my hetero-life-partner I liked to say, and this was our dream coming true.  I felt optimistic about everything, like we were truly reinventing things – not just with arm-chair theorizing and reactionary protest, not just with letters to Congress and pamphlets and angry music, but by actually going out and creating the lives we wanted.

Three Peaks

Three Peaks Mt., as seen from our half-acre

But something happened out there.  The disconnection from civilization, while a welcome respite for me, seemed to gnaw at the happiness and sanity of my friend.  His less-admirable tendencies began to take over, and he became isolated, a bit neurotic.  Meanwhile, other people  had come to stay on our land with us, a turn of events that didn’t turn out so well for me.  Without divulging messy details, I can only say that I saw some dark sides of human nature during these months.  It eventually became clear to me that it was time to move on.  My friend and I had a falling out, culminating in my escape from the desert, and the abandonment of my emotional and material investment therein.  The dream, unceremoniously, came crashing down.

My exodus from the desert was, in retrospect, a good and necessary thing.  It allowed me to grow, though I was sorry that it came at the price of a friendship.  We’ve since made amends, and perhaps he is stronger for having faced the “abyss” and returned.  Me, I had a new chapter of life ahead of me.  Because fortunately (and thank the gods!), it seems the old adage is true – when one door closes, another always opens.  During that strange and dramatic period out on the Mesa, I had also met a girl.  My love.  And we soon began our own dream together, on greener pastures with happier endings.  We traveled insatiably, all over the country – first cramped with a dog in a sub-compact car, then later wandering the country again in another van, vastly more comfortable than my last (this one had an actual bed installed – goodbye plywood!)  Nowadays, we’re a bit more sedentary, and we’re saving up to buy another piece of land, our own version of paradise.  So that particular dream, bruised and tangled as it is by the past, does smolder on.  Dreams can be resilient things.

When I think about the mesa – with its population of the untamed, the hopeful and the hopeless, with its bleak landscapes and extreme conditions, its drug-addicts and activists and lost, aging souls – I think about dignity.  Simple dignity, the goal that I believe underlies many of our decisions in life.  It’s the hunt for dignity which pushes us into low-paying jobs and car leases we can’t afford.  It’s dignity we long for when arguing with relatives or fighting alcoholism or talking our way out of a speeding ticket.  And it’s dignity which has me still hoping to one day own my own bit of Earth again, to create a home and a name and a purpose in this crazy, chaotic, beautifully confounding world.

“Without dreams, there can be no courage. And without courage, there can be no action.”

– Wim Wenders


Romanticism and the Return to Terra Mater

20 Mar

So I’m taking this world literature class, and last week, we covered the major Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron, et. al.  I had previously sort of snubbed these guys, having an innate aversion to their high-flown styles.  But lately I’ve come to really love a few of ’em (Shelley and Coleridge, foremost), for their personalities as well as their art.  Percy Shelley, for example was an atheist and a vegetarian, at a time where such terms were almost unheard of.  Takes some guts. The Romantics were proto-environmentalists who practically worshiped nature in their poetry, and after reading some of their exaltations of Mama Earth, I got to thinking of some of the beautiful places I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my travels.  It’s really an amazing continent we have here in North America, epic in its breadth and diversity.  And there’s this general agreement in today’s fast-paced culture that life should have more reconnection with nature, less modern distraction.  You know, the well-worn lamentations of the “rat-race”, and the yearning for a “simpler time.”  Although, as someone who once abandoned all (well, most) of the trappings of civilization in search of that “simpler” way of life, I do have a sort of ambivalence about this romanticization of the natural world.  I’ve spent several years in various modes of travel, lived in environments both strange and beautiful, and have felt moments of true connection with the wider natural world.  But I never felt that “nature” needed my devotion or attention or praise.  Nature simply is – timelessly and indifferently.

Now, I’d say most people in the modern world would definitely benefit from more immersion into what we call nature.  And that the typical first-world consumer-citizen should have more awareness of how civilization affects the planet, and act accordingly (admittedly these days, that awareness has become more common). But I also think that it does little good to idealize nature, put it on a pedestal and perpetuate the myth that it is something “other” to ourselves.  You’re already in nature.  You already are nature.

The Romantics wrote poetry that was utterly enraptured with Nature, capital N. Part of their infatuation came in reaction to the industrialization, intellectualism and political turmoil of their era (we’re talking mid-18th to mid-19th century Europe here). During the Industrial Revolution, London was such a literal cesspool of pollution and disease that it’s no surprise that poets would look to “greener” pastures for inspiration. There was also a decidedly mystical bent. Often, their approach smacked heavily of puritanism and zealous idealism, and they were in truth generally religious, and to some degree anti-intellectual.  They saw the developments of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution as something that needed to be countered.  They found the French philosophes too coldly rational, and resented that the emergence of science was taking all of the divine mystery out of the universe.  Consider the most famous line of Keats’ – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [emphasis mine]

It’s interesting to look at history and see how sentiments like this respond to technology, such as in the case of the Romantics. Me, I’m happy these days to star-gaze in a field or spend the day tromping around a gorge, but in the past I was much more the environmentalist, and that came from frustrations with car-culture, trash-culture, television-culture, and the general industrial pillaging enabled by our lifestyles. It was reactive personal politics, the all-or-nothing principles of youth. A noble thing, even a necessary thing, yet the more I experienced, the more I grasped the world’s complexity. As I traveled about, spending long, uninterrupted periods in feral simplicity, letting my wordless surroundings monopolize the conversation – I realized that I had idealized much, and listened very little.

It’s the process not of outgrowing perspectives, but of simultaneously widening and refining them.

My point is that nature is not an idol, or a playground, or a factory floor or a toilet bowl.  Don’t misunderstand me; it’s great when people appreciate the environment and want to advocate for it, or write stirring verses about it (hell, I’ve certainly tried).  And it’s understandable when we dream of going off, Thoreau-like into the wilderness (not that Walden was actually very wild of a place), to get “back to the land”, away from the tedious “hustle and bustle” of modernity.  But as much as we in the civilized sphere romanticize a return to Terra Mater, I can tell you that the novelty fades when you’re trying to chop up logs with frozen finger-tips after the sun has set and subzero temps are on their way.  Just some devil’s advocation for ya’ll.  The Romantics made Nature into a temple, but they also respected its chaos, its dramatic and temperamental sovereignty. Love nature, protect it, understand it, but be careful not to sentimentalize it. Nature is a magnificent and indifferent nebula – a dynamic game of life, death and all the change in between.

That said, I’m still looking forward to getting “back to the land” myself, buying some property and regaining some self-sufficiency and peace.  It’s still my goal, and I still consider it a good one.  And of course, civilized people should consistently respect and defend the environment, and strive to live smaller lives, being aware of the immediate and philosophical impacts of our civilization.  This is old-hat of course, not just for environmentalists but for society as a whole.  But more than this, I think it’s important to learn how to exist, as animals (however sentient), on this planet.  To be part of the environment, and not just a tourist or conqueror or even advocate of it.  If I ever have kids, I’d hope for them to gain not only an understanding of the world around them, but also the ability to actually survive in it in the most basic sense; to appreciate and protect it because it is their home, which they know and love.

I think we’re moving in a good direction.  Nowadays we have these “green” movements and homesteading families, local-vores and eco-yuppies and a growing social conscience of eco-politics, covering everything from corn to carbon.  It’s an interesting time, and it’s nice to see society take this deeper look at itself and its place in the world.  The basic force of civilization has always been control, and of course you can’t control something while being a part of it.  That’s why we’ve built these very elaborate (often illusory) barriers between the “civilized” and “natural” worlds – high walls of technology around our shining city, to keep out the dangers and discomforts of the deep, dark wood.  But increasingly these days, people are questioning the wisdom of those walls, climbing over to really see what’s on the other side, and I am glad for that.

Today’s the spring equinox!  Enjoy the extra-symmetrical day!



Some poetry volumes lately occupying my attention

16 Mar

I have a weird relationship with poetry.  95% of what I read seems manufactured, tedious, whiny, pedantic, or all of the above.  Yet I often find myself writing what could only be called poetry, and I’ve been doing it since middle school.  To steal an idea from Kundera’s The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts – poetry is a selfish art, compared to prose.  Where fiction (good fiction, anyway) explores the universal, poetry is the projection and plumbing of one’s own inner world.  “…a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard,” Kundera observes.  I agree with him, and I suspect it’s one reason why I have such a hard time with poetry itself.  It is not an easy thing to really inhabit another’s inner world, even for only the length of a poem, and it’s a rare feat to produce poetry which can transcend this natural obstacle.

There are a handful of poets whom I really love.  Perhaps my nature is simply especially compatible with their natures, or perhaps they are just gifted enough to stand out.  In any case, poetry is admittedly not my field or my forte, but these are some folks who make my probably-too-short list.

Jim Harrison – Probably the one living writer I’d most like to meet in my life.  I’ll sound like a gushing fan boy here, but Harrison has a well-defined appreciation for all of the right things: red wine, good women, rivers, crows and garlic.  He is a suitor of the natural world, walking and wooing the forests of Maine, the deserts of Arizona, and the mountains of Montana.  And he transmutes these appreciations into poetry which can by turns exalt, provoke, levitate and then cut to the bone.  His volumes of verse are the ones I read most regularly, and the ones I most often recommend.

“There is no “I” with the sun and moon.
Time means only the irretrievable.
If I mourn myself, the beloved dead,
I must mourn the deaths of galaxies.”

Saving Daylight

Federico Garcia Lorca – Lorca was a beloved Spanish poet of the early 20th century.  He is a treasure for the Spanish-speaking world, and the literary world at large.  Lorca was a man of deep passions, and his poetry ranges from love sonnets to tales of gypsy life to revelries of the sea.  His death at the hands of Spanish fascists at the onset of the Civil War inspired a worldwide opposition by artists around the world to Franco’s tyrannical regime.

“The sea
smiles from far off.
Teeth of foam,
lips of sky.”

The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca

Hermann Hesse – Hesse is definitely my favorite German writer, and possibly my favorite writer period.  His novels The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund were life-changing for me.  So naturally, when I stumbled upon a slim paperback of his poetry many years ago, I had to snatch it up.  But what began as a completist’s impulse soon became a surprising pleasure.  Here is my recent review, on

PoemsPoems by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Wright has done the world a service in translating this slight but potent volume of Hesse’s verse. The dreamy tone and fantasy of Hesse’s poems are well-reserved, and his lyricism shines brightly as ever through the translation. While some will find these poems to be simplistic, even juvenile, I think that seeming naivety and emotional honesty is exactly what gives them power. Where his novels explore the heights and depths of the mind and spirit, his poetry is pure, heartfelt and impulsive. My only disappointment is the meager size of the offering. I’ve no doubt that Wright chose well when selecting which poems to translate, but it would be nice to see a new talent take the baton and translate all of Hesse’s poetry for an English audience.

“The Lake has died down,
The reed, black in its sleep,
Whispers in a dream.
Expanding immensely into the countryside,
The mountains look, outspread.
They are not resting.
They breathe deeply, and hold themselves,
Pressed tightly to one another.
Deeply breathing,
Laden with mute forces,
Caught in a wasting passion.”

View all my reviews