Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What the Southwest Means to Me

An Arizona Highways 2007 engagement calendar rests just beyond my keyboard, open to a photo captioned, “Mexican goldpoppies and hedgehog cactus, Saddle Mountain.” The foreground fills with thin orange cups of tulip-shaped poppies. Their stems are long, bright green, a surprising verdure that spreads unevenly up the mountain. The hedgehogs are not in bloom, but subtly backlit, each spine distinct. In the middle distance, a small grove of shrubby trees—palo verde, velvet mesquite, sweet acacia?—and beyond, a broken column of saguaros. All of this is shaded beneath a high-cloud sky nearly washed into the white border of the image. The mountain rises like the core of an ancient volcano—which perhaps it is—with warm red cliffs above a boulder field softened by the wash of poppies.

The photograph is representative of what the Southwest means to me, but certainly not all-inclusive. I have lived in both Colorado and Arizona, traveled extensively in Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Southern California. I try to overwinter, like the white-winged dove, in Mexico—if only for a week or two a year. So the Southwest is both stark as the scarlet-faced cliffs of southern Utah and as lush as the Sonoran desert in monsoon season. It is as low and scraped as Death Valley, as high and sheer as Uncompahgre Peak in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. There are sand dunes—coral pink in Utah, white in New Mexico, tan among the Sangre de Cristos in Colorado, Sahara-like along the Arizona-California border. There are snowfields in the Southern Rockies and the Great Basin, jungle-like oases along the Cienega Corridor and hundreds of other year-round and seasonal streams. There is never a lack of canyons. There are sky islands, where the tops of desert peaks thrive with pine and fir. Yet throughout, there is a definite aridity, a general sparseness to the vegetation, a vast and often cloudless sky. There are miles between towns and leagues between big cities. Water runs more often in man-made canals than natural rivers. There are more reservoirs, their dams hedging once-free rivers at regular intervals, than there are true lakes. The Southwest is at once bleached and painted, busted and wild, shunned and adored. It is a paradox that brands itself into the back of my mind as the noon sun burns against the cracked desert floor.

The people of the Southwest are transient, both in modern and ancient times. They migrated, more often than not, in search of water, with rumbling herds, and before the pioneers, Cavalry, and highways of the East. The people of the Southwest are rich in culture even if poor in possessions. At one time they spoke many languages, held many religious beliefs, found the sacred among the raw earth. The people of the Southwest swell with the people of the West and Midwest and Northeast and South. They lose their identity, and yet search for it in new cities, planned communities. I have joined them in that search.

Fundamentally, I believe the Southwest is about spirit—whether of the indigenous peoples, the conquerors and missionaries and pioneers, or the people of today. But there are always exceptions, so the spirit is meaner in those who feel trapped in the urban sprawl, who feel confined to reservations or mines or windowless cubicles, who do not find whatever it is they’re looking for when they come to the Southwest, or who find what they’re looking for and regret it. Still, the spirit is undeniable, and I feel it in every evening wash of pink against the Rincons, every rivulet of rain at the roots of creosote following a storm, every rare Ajo lily found in the sandy bajadas of Organ Pipe National Monument. Too, there is spirit in our newer places—the Pima County Courthouse—or newer still: the community of Civano, where I live. There is spirit in the roadrunner dashing along the wall’s top, the lizard that races to hide, the kestrel faster still. And there is, I’m certain, a real spirit to the literature of the Southwest, such as Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—my first entry to the written words of this region. Even before that book, though, I felt the words move through me as a boy, wandering the washes and the foothills of the Santa Catalinas. The words, their symbols, are still here—and I have returned.

What does it mean to you?

1 comment:

jd said...

Beautifully written.