Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Redux: What the Southwest Means to Me

The Organ Mountains of south-central New Mexico rise like a granite-ridged hogback, glowing to near scarlet on a cool March evening. With my younger daughter, I cut through the Chihuahuan scrub that masses into a tangled poetry of desert plants at the mountains’ base: ground-dwelling yucca, creosote, cane cholla, prickly pear, sand verbena, lupine, white-thorn acacia, Mexican gold-poppy, mesquite. Curve-billed thrashers and Northern flickers weave through the sharp spaces of the trees. Doves scatter as we trudge forward. Still too cold for snakes, they may be waking under our heavy steps.

Or they may be waking from the growing rumble of tests at White Sands Missile Range, the percussion bombs of Fort Bliss Military Reservation, both just east of the mountain range. To the west lies the college town of Las Cruces, bordered on one side by Interstate 25 and the other by the Rio Grande. To the north: San Andres National Wildlife Refuge, White Sands National Monument. South: El Paso, Texas; Cuidad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

The sub-9,000-foot Organ Mountains and the surrounding area define as clearly as any the modern-day “Southwest.” For here is a place that has changed dramatically, both in landscape and culture. And yet—in the sense of geology and climate, of promise and foreboding—little differs from the time of the Clovis people 12,000 years ago or the Apaches 200 years ago. The Southwest is still a place of transience, of stark beauty and lush paradox: the vermillion cliffs of southern Utah and cactus-lined bajadas of Arizona’s Sonoran desert; low scrapes of Death Valley and bald crags of Colorado’s San Juans; coral and white and wheat-colored dunes of Utah and New Mexico and Colorado and California; snowfields of the Southern Rockies and Nevada’s Great Basin; thick estuaries along rivers and high-pasture pockets; canyons and canyons; sky islands atop desert peaks heavy with pine and fir, diminishing under the blanket of global warming.

Throughout, the Southwest is defined by a definite aridity, by vast and often cloudless skies. Miles between towns become leagues between cities, except in the new West, where subdivisions fester from highways and byways, where placeless towns grow into placeless regions. Water flows systematically through canals more often than rivers, most of which are dammed or sucked dry in the name of progress (providing much of the electricity to type these words). Lakes gleam like jewels, and are just as rare. The Southwest is at once bleached and painted, busted and wild, shunned and adored. It is an enigma that burns into the backlit screen of my mind just as the Organ Mountains now flare against the cobalt sky. Wisps of fiery clouds tether the mountains; soon the moonless night will be so dark that one wonders if the mountains, like the romantic image of the Southwest itself, might disappear altogether.

The people of the Southwest are transient, too, though perhaps less so today. They are rich in culture if not poor in possessions, realizing the act of possessing land is a recent phenomena, its own kind of festering. At one time the people spoke many languages, held many beliefs, found the sacred among raw earth. Today the people are dominated and dominating, their identity guarded then lost.

The Southwest is a place only because the boundaries of the landscape, though constantly changing, can be mapped. The Southwest is a spirit, which cannot be mapped, yet is also ever-changing. The landscape, the spirit, speak though are rarely heard. We may not be capable of hearing—we talk too much, yet our words are mostly meaningless. Maybe we do not sing enough. The Yaqui deer singers of Southern Arizona (and predominantly Sonora, Mexico) craft a bridge of song between this world and the next: sea ania, the flower world. The songs are not so much praise as creation. Even after the singing stops, the songs linger and sea ania remains true.

The Southwest is like that, too—a resonant, chaffing, bittersweet song rich with the angry history of place, drunk in forgiveness and the recovery of spirit, quick to forget. The Southwest is solid and fractured like the great slabs of rock tilted in horrible and beautiful ways, an idea as valid and vivid and vapid as the heaving vertebrae of the Organ Mountains. Look now, for tonight they may vanish.


Sheryl said...

Wow! This is beautiful writing!

It made me homesick. You know, I always thought they were the Oregan Mountains! haha.

Recently someone who shall remain nameless said to me that she was shocked about the southwest, mainly El Paso, and said something like "people live here?" But I agree with your view of the southwest as being bittersweet and some kind of song.

Wonderful to read this!

I was reading a book of essays by Cselaw Miloch (sp) recently and he speaks of how all his life, he wrote to his village. It's interesting that maybe that is who we are always writing for, a few people in our village.

I know this is opposed to so much now days, but I think he's on to something.

Gracias! This made my day.

Simmons B. Buntin said...

Thanks Sheryl; I'm very flattered.