The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

After a long hiatus, I've resumed this conversation at a new location. Please follow this link to join in!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Desperately seeking "hozho"

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels, set among the red ochre mesas and dry sheep scrub of Navajo country in the American southwest, will recognize a Navajo word that shows up in many of his excellent stories: hozho. Though difficult to define in fewer than a hundred English words, hozho encompasses the Navajo ideal of living in harmony with all that is, of being in right relationship with the world. It is about balance; about personal and communal beauty that adds its voice to the whole blended ensemble of creation.

Hozho is about real-world harmony and balance in the trenches of life, not the weekend retreat, ”don’t-worry-be-happy varieties.” In Sacred Clowns, Jim Chee—the fictional Navajo detective through whom Hillerman explores what it is like to be born among the Dine’ and live on the reservation—sums up hozho this way:

“This business of hozho…I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought. You see what I mean. The system is designed to recognize what’s beyond human power to change, and then to change the human’s attitude to be content with the inevitable.”

Hozho says that harmony is a real and realistic destination in life, even when times are hard. But, to the Navajo, it is found only on the map of our inner landscape—in the human heart and mind, in our beliefs and expectations. It advises that adjusting ourselves to reality is a much easier (less stressful) and more balanced way to live than trying to bully the world back in line with our program. It holds that harmony is a choice we must make in stormy weather, one that is not dependent on the return of clear skies.

Most important of all, hozho enfolds a concept that we westerners vehemently and vocally reject: inevitability. We are the people of the fabled “fat lady”—nothing is over till she sings, and even then we hold out hope that game officials will reverse the call on further review and deliver a last-minute miraculous victory for our side. The idea that things just “are the way they are”, no matter what we do, goes against our ingrained, up-by-our-boot-straps belief that we are the masters of our fate. If something ain’t right it’s just because we haven’t fixed it yet. We only need to think harder, work longer, swear louder—and, by God, beat some balance back into this thing.

We could call our way “anti-hozho”. Weaponized harmony. Industrial balance. An irresistible psychological force in search of an immovable object like, say, peak oil or climate change. Having cracked the vault of fossil energy a couple hundred years ago, we’ve been able to convince ourselves that anti-hozho actually works. That it always works, like gravity or electromagnetism, without any modifiers such as “if we don’t destroy the environment” or “so long as the oil holds out…”

However, now we’ve entered the time when the “modifiers” we’ve hidden away like illegitimate children are showing up on the porch all at once, suitcases in hand, past-due bills pinned to their lapels, with hungry looks on gaunt and desperate faces. Every outsourced cost, every off-balance-sheet ledger entry is coming home now. As a way of life, anti-hozho has—literally—run out of gas. That won’t stop the true believers from piling out and pushing the rusting heap another mile or two; but there is no escaping reality: collapse is for real and it is here.

The big trick is to resist anti-hozho dogma in all its forms—and they are plentiful, perverse, and pernicious. All your core beliefs about how the world works have been fertilized since the day you were born with the ripe manure of “infinite growth”, “creative accounting”, and jingles about how “you deserve a break today”. Your task is to think the unthinkable—that most of what you “know” is just plain wrong. That’s a hard, dry mouthful to swallow, but it has this going for it: it’s the truth. And truth always travels with a faithful sidekick, the real object of this essay—hope.

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”And yet, understand we must; because today there is more at risk than Sinclair’s “salary”. Everything we depend on for life itself is on the line: food, water, shelter, transportation, health care. Hozho is one way to describe the pathway through this harsh understanding to hope. To explain why, let’s add another English word to the basket we’ve already used to define it: flexibility.

Hozho teaches the art of creative yielding, of adapting to what is in time to survive—and even thrive—under radically new conditions. Do-or-die determination to defend the indefensible may make for exciting blockbuster movies, but it isn’t a good long-term survival strategy. Hozho is. The Tao te Ching puts it like this:

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

What does putting hozho into practice look like in these times? First, accept that, from now on, the most important word in your vocabulary is “local”. Very, very local. Accept that responsibility for your basic needs, which our complex economy has allowed you to outsource to others, will most likely revert to you in the foreseeable future, with no chance of pardon or parole. Accept that your present habits, appetites, expectations, and entitlements are all rooted in a paradigm that will be defunct long before you are ready to stop breathing.

Acceptance isn’t about capitulation. It is about seeing what is, so that your work of preparation accrues interest in the world as it really is, and isn’t wasted chasing the figments of a vanishing past. Acceptance prepares the ground for another hallmark of hozho, and a key to its successful practice: gratitude. When we quit pining for what might have been, are eyes are suddenly opened to how much of what remains is truly good. We see all the riches in a balanced life that are not vulnerable to collapse, unless we offer them up ourselves: friendship, shared labor and celebration, music, laughter, the pleasure of a good story well-told, warm sun on a spring day, the thrill of adventure and achievement, romance, a touch of Spirit in the darkness. There is true freedom and wealth in voluntarily letting go of the trappings of anti-hozho, most of which is illusory to begin with.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

An attitude of grateful, flexible acceptance is not everything. But hozho says that it’s the only place to start if you want to keep your balance and live well, even in the worst of times.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More Poems by Alan Wartes


Come closer to know a secret.
The frog you hear at sunset
Telling his story to
Cattails and red-winged blackbirds
In that innocent bicycle-bell voice
Is no mere amphibian,
No more than Mozart
Was merely a primate.

He is a spy, an agent provocateur
Hidden in the muddy grasses.
His mission? To disseminate
Dangerous misinformation,
To sweetly sing there’s more to life
Than malls and mortgages,
More than profit and loss,
More than ever and ever more.

Beware. He will hint each evening
That magic is alive and well,
Glowing on the tips of dragonfly wings
And in the soft feet of possums
On pebbles at the water’s edge.
At noon under gathering cumulonimbus,
He will smile like a Hindu sage
And whisper “Life is good,” in your ear.

                                Last Night’s Dinner Dishes

There is some beauty
In last night’s dinner dishes,
The way the spoons
Recline at the edge of
Soup bowls like women
On porch steps after
The children are asleep.

On a midnight blue salad plate
A smudge of dressing
Looks like the Milky Way.
“You are here, and all is well.”

This crust of buttered bread
Proves the alchemists were right
To believe in transformation,
While empty potato skins
Declare “We are what
We are – no more.”

The last sip of Burgundy
In that crystal glass
Is the color of conversation
And other precious jewels
We mined from deep shafts
Last night around
The noisy table.

                                                The Pulse Under My Fingers

I feel it here, on my belly
In the grass under willows,
Where peppermint stirs
Itself into the darkened
Scent of soil,
The forest’s memory of
Lost summers. I feel it
In the feet of bees
Dancing on the willing flesh
Of blue harebells dipping
Their heads in
Modest surrender, or in
The reckless beetle diving
Over twigs and
Last year’s yarrow stalks,
Oblivious beneath his
Blackened helmet.
It is a pulse under
My searching fingers,
The earthworm who shrugs
As questions too large
Pass through her
What else could it be
When the flicker
Taps a secret code on
Branches over my head and 
A treasure-filled vault
Opens in my chest?

Not dead and not lost,
As was reported in the
Victor’s history,
Magic is a wide river and
I am a reed
Bending in the current.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A tale of two spoons

A man once asked God to shed some light on the mystery of heaven and hell. God said, “Why not? First I’ll show you hell.”
The man suddenly found himself in an elegant, well-lit dining room. Many people were seated around a table set with a mouthwatering feast. The man thought God had made a mistake. He must have meant to say this was heaven, not hell. Where was the fire and the tortured cries of the condemned? Surely hell would not resemble a five star restaurant. Then he noticed that, in spite of the abundance of food, everyone in attendance suffered from desperate hunger. Their pale skin hung on protruding bones like wet tissue paper. Eyes receded into their sockets, clouded with the faraway look of prolonged agony. The man turned to God with a confused expression on his face.
“Keep looking,” was all the Creator said.
Each person held a spoon with a handle long enough to reach any of the fabulous dishes spread out before them. However, since the handle was longer than their arms, they were unable to reach their mouths with any of the food. Now the man understood: People in hell were doomed to starve in the tormenting presence of enough food to last forever. Like the chain that Jacob Marley dragged into Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, these people must have forged for themselves—by their deeds in life—the horrible and useless spoons that would torture them in death.
“Now I’ll show you heaven,” God said.
Upon arriving there, the man was more confused than ever, for he stood in a dining room that was identical to the one he’d just left behind in hell. The table was spread with the same food, fine crystal, and silver—and everyone held the same long-handled spoons. Yet, one detail was strikingly different: Here, each person was well-fed. Their faces were radiant with health and happiness. Whereas hell had been draped with an atmosphere of despair, heaven was full of lively laughter and conversation.
“I don’t understand,” the man said to God. “How can heaven and hell be the same and yet so different?”
“Simple,” God said. “It isn’t the length of the spoon that matters, but how one chooses to use it. Here, each guest feeds someone else, not himself.”

Christmas has always been a good time to acknowledge the cold and darkness of the Winter Solstice—but to remind ourselves of the far, far more powerful nature of light and love. You needn’t be a Christian to be touched by the story of hope in the form of a humble baby born to poor parents in troubled times. The message—Peace on Earth!—transcends every pretentious limit we would place on it. For our part, Christmastime is when we traditionally think about what is on someone else’s plate, or under someone else’s tree, not just our own.
That point of view has rarely—if ever—been more necessary than it is now. In modern times, you’d have to go all the way back to 1941 to find a Christmas season as darkened by world events as this one. That year, the shock of Pearl Harbor was barely two weeks old. It was truly a liminal moment in the lives of millions around the world, a threshold of sweeping upheaval, change, and death. The fact that all-out war was imminent and unavoidable was obvious to all but the most accomplished optimists.
Sixty-nine years later, Christmas once again arrives in the choppy wake of events that are at least equal in magnitude to the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Actually, it’s a simple matter to argue that today’s challenges exceed those of the “Greatest Generation” by a large margin.) These days it is self-evident to the informed that there are bombs ticking in every direction, but two of them in particular finally exploded in recent weeks.
First, the International Energy Agency released the World Energy Outlook 2010, an annual report that analyzes energy trends in the coming years. In a stunning (and unapologetic) reversal of itself, the agency not only affirmed the existence of peak oil, it stated flatly that the peak of conventional oil production has already happened—four years ago, in 2006. That means that, from now on, the supply of oil that is easy to find, extract, and move to market will steadily decline—while prices inevitably rise. It is impossible to overstate the gravity of this assessment from an organization that has consistently placed peak oil—if it existed at all—decades into the future. For a more detailed analysis see this and this.
Second, the Federal Reserve finally bowed to pressure from the courts, and from Congress, and released a limited accounting of how much taxpayer money has gone into bailing out the world’s banking system—and who got what portion of the pie. Never mind that it shouldn’t have been necessary to force the data out of them, and what it means about the state of the republic that it was necessary, here is the number they grudgingly provided: $12.6 trillion in direct hand-outs and “other arrangements.” Twelve. Point. Six. Trillion—12.6 x 1012 dollars. That is eighteen times the amount  that Congress debated and authorized ($700 billion). Much of this Noah’s flood of your money went to foreign banks. All of it is irretrievably gone.
Movie directors like to employ a camera trick that would come in handy right now to underscore this news. It is used to portray the wobbly-kneed vertigo a character feels when he or she suddenly realizes the jig is up, and the threat they face is orders of magnitude greater than previously feared. (Picture the demolitions expert called to defuse what he thinks is a homemade pipe bomb only to open the shoebox and find an encrypted ten-megaton warhead ticking down to zero.) On screen this is when the foreground races forward while the background recedes, and the world stretches sickeningly like spandex that is four sizes too small.
Unfortunately, in real life there is no director telling you by visual cues that you’ve reached a turning point in the drama. You have to figure it out for yourself, and few people have bothered to keep up with events well enough to do so. If America still functioned as advertised, the ink would have hit the fan by now, as journalists took off like greyhounds after the mechanical bunny at the race track.
Alas. That is not the world as it is. The main stream media have stridently ignored both of these detonations. So it is up to us to connect the dots. Here goes: a) Oil—the essential ingredient in all modern economic activity (including getting the family car to the grocery store and back)—is about to get much more expensive and difficult to come by; and b) any national treasure we might have spent to ease ourselves into these uncertain energy waters has been stolen in the night. Furthermore, the thieves have destroyed the dollar on their way out the door, making traditional recovery and replenishment on par with believing in pixie dust and perpetual bliss in Neverland.
Happy Holidays.

On Christmas Day, 1941, our grandparents couldn’t wish the Japanese bombs back into the air. A new reality presented itself that they had to face and act upon. Now it’s our turn. Like it or not, life, as we have grown accustomed to living it, is coming to a rapid end. Some things about our immediate future may be brutally hard no matter what we do. But, the truth is, the difference between full-blown hell ahead and shared hardship and mutual support will always be a matter of choice. As present day social arrangements collapse around us, we will be left with an economic infrastructure that functions about as well as an oversized spoon. Many who’ve recently lost jobs and homes, have already discovered this fact: This way of living doesn’t work. We can no longer feed (only) ourselves as we were taught to do.
When I am asked what steps I recommend to be ready for what lies ahead, I always begin with the obvious: food, water, shelter, etc. It does no good to neglect personal preparedness while you pursue high-minded global change. In other words, if you can’t heat your own house in the winter of a crisis, the fact that you lobbied your utility company to buy some of its power from “green” sources doesn’t mean very much. That’s blunt, I know, but true. Make a list of the things you personally depend on, then under each one write the question: “What would I do if…” Don’t stop until you have answers for each one.
Yet, sadly, many people mistakenly believe that this sort of nitty-gritty preparation is the whole journey, when it is, in fact, just the first step. Securing your own basic necessities is the very least you can do—must do—to prepare yourself for the coming Long Emergency.
No, there is much more to preparedness than that. Next, you must set about making sure you have something vital to offer your community—not the one presently defined by political boundaries or tax districts, but the much smaller circle of actual people you live with or near. As John F. Kennedy once suggested, don’t think in terms of what your community can do for you. Imagine having to justify your inclusion in a clan of people when the burning political question of the day is how to fairly divide up the hardship of scarcity. Why should you get a share? What do you bring to the table that the community values and needs? Here’s a hint: It had better be something with a direct and measurable positive impact on collective survival, under conditions more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen.
The key word here, of course, is “collective”—a badly discredited word after years of capitalist triumphalism. Nevertheless, by helping to feed (or clothe, or heal, or shelter) the people you live with, you will gain access to all that they can do for you as well, each of you leading the other away from hell, if not into heaven. Contrary to the fear mongering propaganda plastered all over the TV, most people want to contribute and belong to something larger than themselves , and would if shown a viable vision of how it can work.
Yes, there is serious trouble at our doorstep. Yes, society is undergoing dramatic convulsions of contraction and change—right now. But we will make things much worse on ourselves if we fail to factor into our calculations the welfare of others, not just our own. We are only as safe as the least secure of our neighbors--period. Some people respond to that idea by building deeper bunkers. What would happen if we reached out instead? Genuine community may not spring up overnight, but a single act of one-on-one kindness and inclusion can begin to undo years of isolation and fear. One gesture of hope and trust can inspire people to lower their weapons and tear down long-held defenses. From there we might discover that we’re all starving to death anyway, attempting to feed ourselves alone. What would it cost us to give cooperation a shot for a change?
This Christmas it is no longer good enough to mouth a few empty words about “goodwill toward men”. It is time to start living it on purpose and out loud, learning to love and care for each other like our lives depend on it—because they very well may. After all, that’s what the baby from Bethlehem grew up to say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A world made by hand needn't wait

The “growing season” is over at New Leaf Gardens. Considering our location on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, it is remarkable that temperatures have only just begun to occasionally dip below freezing. Most of the time we still enjoy lows in the 40s. But the few frosty nights we’ve had were enough to hang a closed sign on the last of the warm-loving plants. Fortunately we saw it coming and last week harvested the remaining zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, green tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapeños. The tough guys—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, spinach, and arugula—just shrugged off the cold. Fuhgeddaboutit.

Shorter days and less to do in autumn means more time for reading, and I just finished The Witch of Hebron, the wonderful sequel to James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand. The story is set in Union Grove, once a rural bedroom community in upstate New York that had fallen prey, like everywhere else, to the faux culture of “happy motoring” suburbanization: strip malls, tract housing, big box retail, lots and lots of cars, and the roads they drive on. But when Kunstler begins his tale--“Sometime in the not-distant future…”—times have changed, a lot.

And then again, not so much.

Not long from now, the inevitable breakdown of globalized civilization has occurred. Kunstler wisely wastes no time explaining exactly how. Who cares? Plausible triggers abound. Pick one and pull it—and the result is the same: The web of everyday life goes from stretching half way around the world, connecting us to Saudi oil fields and Chinese sweat shops, to having strands no longer than a few miles from home. The word “local” takes on new meaning, carrying connotations that would never have occurred to our ancestors, for whom the word “global” would have meant little.

Kunstler sets himself apart from other writers who’ve tried to imagine such a world—and who usually populate it with cannibals, evil zombies, and a sky that will never be blue again—by remembering the creed of all good novelists: Fiction is folks. In other words, it’s about the people, stupid. Kunstler manages to portray the collapse of everything we presently regard as indispensible, while somehow leaving us with the idea that not all change is bad and not all people are evil. People are just people. Some of them will take from you if they can, but most will surprise you every time by their willingness to give of themselves for what is right.

A true prophet is one who warns of possible, and even unavoidable, dangers ahead, but who prefers to talk about the hope and healing potential that always travel in the company of hardship. With these books, Kunstler has demonstrated that he writes from that tradition, and is more than a mere merchant of fear.

Sure, the people of Union Grove must deal with challenges that modern society had appeared to banish over the horizon: law and order, local governance, health care, religious tolerance, food production, and so on. But far from being a prison of constant fear or drudgery, the life Kunstler imagines also includes beauty, tenderness, compassion, camaraderie, regained connection to the natural world, and even to the mystical side of the universe. Life goes on, Kunstler says, and while it will certainly be different—and really hard at times—it is also very, very good.

As I turned the last page, I must admit to feeling a kind of weird, forward-looking nostalgia. Frankly, most days I’d rather take my chances with ordinary bandits, like the ones the people of Union Grove must face, than to deal with those stalking us now—billionaire debt barons who work at a distance and behind a weak façade of respectability, but who rob us blind nonetheless. I’d rather brave the elements and work directly with the earth for my food, than to remain in the clutches of Monsanto, et al. I’d rather learn the hyper-local politics of getting along with my neighbors, than to ever again enter another voting booth to “choose” which soulless politician will have the right to sell me to the highest bidder in the upcoming term. I want the unbearable noise of this machine culture to stop so we can get on with life that is hard, but good too.

Then it hit me: A world made by hand needn’t wait for the collapse of anything. It is not so much a state of world affairs as it is a state of the heart and the mind—backed up by the labor of my hands. It is the world I’m already helping to create in partnership with my family and neighbors. New Leaf Gardens—our half-acre urban farm—is not an agricultural anachronism —it is a prototype of things to come. By “mapping the geography of home” in these pages, I have already begun to settle in to the landscape here, to feel the rhythms under my feet, to bring the world here and now within reach of my hands to be made anew. We’ve begun to choose on purpose and (slightly) ahead of time, to let go of our belief in the “cult of growth” that Kunstler’s characters had ripped from them forcibly by distant events.

People who have caught on to the magnitude of the changes humanity faces in coming years typically describe their process of reaction as “preparation.” That is an adequate word, but incomplete, because it implies only a future focus. Preparation always looks forward, even when it takes appropriate action in the present. The danger is that this can lead to a life that is forever deferred, waiting for a signal from some external source that it’s time to actually have what you have prepared yourself for.

I resolve to be more mindful of the kind of life I want today. If I choose a world made by hand in the small moments of daily life, then when the future arrives I’ll be ready for it. Who knows? Maybe the people around me will be inspired to do the same—and we may not even remember what all those other novelists told us—that we’re supposed to be terrified and claw each other’s eyes out for survival.

That choice is likely to look quite ordinary--maybe something like this:

With the growing season behind us at the farm, now the “tucking in” season begins. Soon we’ll take the dried leaves, stalks, and vines from the ground where they’ve served so well and send them on the next leg of their journey: to the compost pile. There, we’ll turn things over to the silent alchemists who routinely turn a summer’s remains into gold—black gold. With the right mixture of manure begged from nearby horse owners, unused and rotting vegetables from the church food bank, bags and bags of raked up leaves the neighbors donate, the husks of this season’s garden, and an enthusiastic crew of recycling organisms, we will spend the dark winter by the fire, while the compost pile effortlessly grows food for our food.

Some of the above ingredients will go directly into our sleepy vegetable beds in the next few weeks, where they’ll lie under a cover of leaves and straw, composting in situ—which is a fancy way of saying, “where we want it, so we don’t have to move it again in the spring.” Oh, and it bears mentioning that we will do our best to work with a mindset of gratitude and love for the Unfathomable, the One who decreed that from the death of one season will arise nourishing food for the next—a living perpetual motion machine that takes your breath away when you stop to ponder the debt we owe to its workings.

Back in the kitchen, the “preserving season” is still going strong. My wife, Issa, Queen of the Realm, and Wise Woman of Food, labors each day to fill the shelves in the basement cold room with every imaginable store against the winter. In addition to putting up the last of the straggling veggies from the farm, she recently transformed 150 pounds of apples (that we picked from the trees of an elderly neighbor who can no longer deal with the harvest herself) into jars and jars of apples sauce, apple butter, canned apple pie filling, and dried apples.

In the process she has also done most of our Christmas shopping for the year. Six weeks from now, when others can’t find a parking place at the mall, we’ll be sitting at the dining table with a cup of mint tea listening to Amy Grant sing Emmanuel and  Breath of Heaven on the stereo and putting ribbons on jars and loaves of pumpkin or zucchini bread.

By hand, day by day, we’re discovering an alternative to sinking madness around us. What do you know? It’s not so hard after all.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Three poems

On Windy October Nights

On windy October nights
Composers refrain from
Rising blue-green crescendos.

They lay aside bright sound-shapes
Of water chasing itself to the sea,
Or thousand-voice choirs
In sunny meadows.

On the dark side of equinox
Flutes rest, and strings voice only
Cold wind on fence wire.

Now comes the percussionist:
Dry bones clacking in treetops,
Beggars’ fingers tugging at heaven
For one more day.

Forgotten fields shush in thrashing wind
Like sea waves returning to shore alone
To empty a widow’s heart of any hope
In spring’s return.

This is the music of los Muertos
Played with cold hands against
The breath-thin veil between worlds,
Tracing lost faces in shadow.

Rainbow Green Blessings

The skinny young woman on the bus
is talking softly on her phone.
She speaks in tones
that only foreshadow words,
whole notes of vaguely musical breath.

It is right to call her skinny.
Shoulder bones hold her jacket up
like slacking tent poles.
Something inside shies away from
skin and sinks toward a
vanishing point in her belly,
near her waiting womb.

There is still a trace of little girl left
in the way honeyed hair strays
from the clip at the back of her head—
faintly bright with weary exuberance.
Her hand wanders upward to
lazily tame it.

She sits with her legs drawn up and in,
the toes of her shoes
her only contact with the ground,
as if the world were covered in water
far too cold for a deep plunge.

I want to take her home,
to feed her a meal of handmade hope
then recline for hours by the fire
playing Go Fish, laughing and
pointing to the schools of
rainbow green blessings
darting around us still.


I know a man who thinks
Life is hard.
It is a hook he swallowed 
In school and now
He can't remember
What the still water 
Tastes like under roots
Near the lazy bank.
All day and all night he faces into
The swiftest current and feels
Sharp rocks on his belly,
Afraid to move, afraid to turn
And look into the black mouth
Behind him.
Life is hard, he thinks,
A prison of solitude and lack,
All fallen, man and earth.

Nearby, a fawn steps with reed legs
Into the singing river,
Lowers her head
And drinks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Time travel on Clear Creek

I set out this morning to walk two miles south, to visit Clear Creek. These days it’s just another neglected urban waterway, but in the heyday of westward expansion, this little creek had everything: gold and silver boom towns, a railroad racing to beat rivals over the continental divide, outlaws and lawmen, Indians and the pioneer pilgrims who displaced them like water out of a tub. Today I’m headed for the stretch of Clear Creek that runs through an out-of-the-way county park called Twin Lakes.

On the e-map provided by Google, a slash of monochromatic blue (the creek) cuts through a swatch of empty grey (the park). Apparently there is nothing there worth mentioning, nothing as interesting as, say, the Swiss Tire Automotive Service Station that, according to the map, is conveniently located nearby at the corner of 70th and Broadway. Next door you’ll find Denver County Custom Choppers, a motorcycle shop where you can accessorize your obnoxious hog with endless variations on the black leather and chrome theme.

Across 70th to the north, lie acres of bathed and polished Toyotas waiting expectantly for new owners to give them a home. To the east, Mickey’s Top Sirloin serves a wicked steak and lots of Jack Daniels to wash it down with. After dinner you can visit a gone-to-seed building in the shadow of Interstate 25 with a neon “Psychic” sign in the window. Southbound Broadway is flanked by a strip center of light industrial and retail space. It obscures Twin Lakes Park entirely, leaving the impression there’s nothing more to see in any direction, so conduct your business and move on.

Go a couple hundred yards farther south and you will drive, or walk, (let’s face it, mostly drive) over Clear Creek. It takes three seconds flat. If you should happen to glance out the car window during that precious time, you’ll see what one Wikipedia article about Clear Creek calls, “largely an ignored urban stream, with an undeveloped flood plain. Part of the creek path forms a wooded park with bicycle/foot path.”

Excellent. That’s the part I’ve come to explore. Keep the bicycle path. I want to see the “ignored” and “undeveloped” part. I want to know if the creek has retained even the slightest trace of its former self, before it was Shanghaied, along with Sitting Bull, into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Before the 1859 Gold Rush turned it into a yellow brick road leading fledgling capitalists to the Promised Land. Before arsenic-laced mine tailings overflowed their ill-suited holding ponds, poisoning the creek. Before loggers harvesting railroad ties denuded whole mountains, dumped the trees in the creek channel, and waited for spring runoff to carry them to market (a brutal bottle brush that scoured everything in its path). Before there were concrete plants, Interstate highways, storm water spiked with Roundup, heavy metals and motor oil, before Coors brewery straddled the creek up in Golden and began turning the water into something resembling beer.

Throughout deep time, before anyone was around to give Clear Creek a name, it told the story of here very well. It sighed and rested lazily in this place after its long tumble down the mountains to the west—over granite boulders and beaver dams. Plants clinging to these banks tasted high country snow and pines and blue columbines in the silt. Raccoons, beaver, skunks, coyotes, muskrats, deer and elk all drank water here touched with the scent of heavenly fish the color of rainbows. Great stands of cottonwoods faithfully followed the creek as it meandered across the plains, where it joined the South Platte River, seeking company for a long and leisurely trip to the sea.

Now, the water and sediment tell a new story to a demanding new crop of spectators bent on seeing themselves reflected back everywhere they go.

Today I walk past the “lakes”, which are really only pools of water gathered in an apron of freshly mown lawn. The water reflects blue sky, giving no hint of its own color. A handful of Canada geese waddle around the fringes, picking at the grass. The red-wing blackbirds have left already, looking for warmer times over the horizon. A sign declares “No swimming or boating. Surface ice is never safe.” Another warns me that coyotes are about, and that they are dangerously accustomed to the presence of humans. I should carry a stick, it says. And watch my pets. My kids too, I presume. The tuna sandwich I brought for lunch definitely isn’t safe.

A ditch filled with diverted creek water runs alongside the path. Somewhere downstream there is a landowner with “rights” to this water. If we are lucky he’s a farmer who will use it to grow organic vegetables, or to raise hay for his goats—and provide milk and meat for his kids (and maybe mine). If we are not lucky, this slice of Clear Creek is headed for a golf course surrounded by a gated community.

 I’m happy to see that the ditch is overgrown with dense grasses, wild roses, water hemlock, and horsetail—a shadow and a memory of what I came here to find. I stop to examine a plant I’ve never seen before, one with red berries dangling in a line along the stalk like Chinese lanterns. I reach for it and startle a garter snake lying beneath it—green, brown, and yellow along its back, blended like a watercolor landscape of wooded creek beds. It lurches forward only a few inches, leaving its tail exposed. I search for the other end, but lose the curvature of its body in the tangle of grass and stalks and leaves.

I walk on, keeping to the path a while, sharing it with bicyclists moving at high speed. I sympathize with their need for haste. Maybe they have to squeeze the ride into a lunch hour, or between sales calls offering cleaning products to Mickey’s and Swiss Tire. I also feel sorry for them, having missed out on the garter snake and the woodpecker now tapping out a woodland code on the enormous cottonwood trunks above our heads, perhaps calling back the long-gone buffalo herds that came here once upon a time.

The farther I walk, the more muted the city noises become. The wind blows in the trees and shushes the traffic to a whisper. Time to get off the trail, I think. The underbrush is thick here, but I choose my route carefully and descend onto the floodplain. I am instantly plunged into another dimension, like a priest of Avalon parting the mist and leaving the contemporary world behind. A distant train whistle blows, but suddenly the sound is only a rumor that filters in along with the sunlight, softened by the caress of many branches and leaves.

Just ahead the cattails are so thick and tall, I think I’ve entered a swamp and will have to turn back. The ground is a sponge of horsetail and moss, but firm. I press on through a tunnel in the brush, a game trail, I assume. Birds chatter all around. Soon I emerge in a thicket of willows taller than I am. Here, the going gets tougher. I must sound like a bull elephant cracking my way through the dead branches that interlace with more supple living ones. They grasp at my backpack and scratch my bare legs.

Finally I emerge on the bank of the Creek, just where a tiny tributary joins in. I’ve travelled barely a hundred yards from the path, but if the distance were measured in years, I’d say it was a century or so. I turn and look back the way I came. From this vantage point I can see no power lines, no rooftops, no billboards, no eighteen wheel trucks. I look up. Remarkably, there are presently no airplanes or jet trails in the sky. The wind has picked up so that I hear nothing but tree chatter and the “amen” of dry grasses. Oh yes, and katydids and cicadas clacking and humming along.

Most of the flowers are done for the season—except for a hardy purple daisy hanging on in the early fall. I see dry mullein stalks and wild asparagus, giant thistles that have already turned as brown as a paper bag. A pair of ether blue dragon flies skim the slow moving water. A few yards away a circular ripple appears on the surface, where a fish has risen to sip up a bug. I go looking for a glimpse of who is dining, expecting to see a frenetic fingerling of some kind.

But no. As my eyes adjust to the slightly murky depths, what comes into focus is a huge carp—nearly two feet long—patrolling the water, unhurried. Prehistoric, I think. This entire place is a time capsule preserved in the most unlikely of locations. I know there is a harsh urban world all around, but just now I find it increasingly difficult to believe in traffic signals and office buildings. Yet I also know I am not the discoverer of someplace unique and exotic. There are “ignored and undeveloped” spots in every neighborhood in nearly every city in America. These are the places we build around, rush past, overlook, and disdain, until they might as well not exist at all.

This is where I’d like to bring the college students who wear polar bear suits on downtown sidewalks, to cajole me into loving the earth by donating money to Greenpeace. I’d like to show them that “the earth”—truly in need of so much love—is not nearly as far away as we think. It is here, right under our busy little feet.

Suddenly the spell of my thoughts is broken by the sound of heavy machinery in the distance. Annoyed, I turn and look toward the south bank. In my state of awe I hadn’t noticed that the ridgeline above the creek in that direction is lined by a chain link fence. It is covered in a netting designed to block my view. But the late afternoon sunlight works against it and I can see what is on the other side in silhouette. I quickly realize it is a graveyard for worn out cars, where spare parts are cannibalized and sold. The jarring sound comes from a front end loader carrying the corpse of some late 80s sedan, from the look of it.

I laugh out loud. I sit down beside the creek and savor the image of a massive and contented carp—indeed, dozens of them—alive and well, against all odds, juxtaposed against that of a deceased automobile being carried unceremoniously to an ugly and forgotten “rusting” place. It is powerful and poetic; meaningful, like something in a lucid dream. Gaia versus Hydrocarbon Man. Not much of a match, really.

All this makes me wonder if I have made a mistake to come here looking for the past. The present is marvelous enough, for anyone willing to get off the trail and look for it. As for the future…who knows? Maybe this is it: a bunch of dead cars and life going on, wherever it can.