A Place for the Genuine

Poetry and the Wilderness Within


Weathering the Storm

Fires have, within recent memory, sprouted up in New Mexico every summer, but they used to be small and  were extinguished within a few days at most. Some days fire crews could go out and be home for dinner. But now the fires burn hundreds of thousands of acres and can’t be contained for months. Each year the number of acres burned surpasses the previous year’s record. And each year fire crews are gone longer and longer. My friend Anamaria’s husband is a firefighter and summers have become the hard, hot season when she cares for the children alone. Even when fires are under control in New Mexico, firefighters are being called further and further way to Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. As I write this the 1,000 acre Vallecito fire has at last been contained in Colorado. Rain – not snow – is helping to put it out this weekend. It is November. Our “summers” in the Southwest have no determinable end.

And as I write this people in New Jersey and New York City are still reeling from the aftereffects of Superstorm Sandy and the snowstorm that followed in its wake. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power or heat. Friends who live there describe the city as “apocalyptic.” The photos I’ve seen of flooded subways, submerged piers, and underwater taverns confirm this. A particularly haunting image of a floating and illuminated merry-go-round, encased in glass, has become my own personal interpretation of the tidings Superstorm Sandy has brought.


Jane’s Carousel, Brooklyn, October 29, 2012

This image brings many musings to mind about the unsustainable nature of our way of life, but it primarily reminds me of the simple joy I felt as a child, mounting a plastic pony with a pink mane and riding in circles to a jingly tune straining through crackling speakers. It was a rare treat for me. In the ’80s I was the girl who roamed 99 acres of piñon, juniper, and scrub oak in the Sangre De Cristo mountains. And while most scientists agree that the climate was already changing then, the world as I knew it then seemed only to shift with each passing season. With each goodbye, a promise of return. I knew the curled green leaves of parched summer chokecherry bushes would welcome July monsoons, and I knew crisp, scalloped oak leaves would blanket the ground in the fall and acorn caps would rain from the branches, providing fairy cups for my imaginary tea parties. I knew the winter would bring snow we would measure in feet and that sometimes our mile-long driveway would be navigable only by foot. I knew the hummingbirds and raccoons would return to our porch in the spring, fresh and twitching with recharged energy in emerging from winter. And I knew the cycle would then begin again.

Just as I cannot recapture my childhood, I can no longer revisit these seasons or landscapes either. Snow is measured here in inches if we get it at all. 70 degree Februarys are as commonplace as the Februarys that dip to negative 20 and shatter plumbing. Which is to say, there is no normal, no cycle. The new normal is much drier in the Southwest but we can’t be certain of what each new season will bring. Farmers who live downstream of the trickling Rio Gallinas in San Miguel county are moving; the river has dried out and their farms cannot survive without water. To add insult to injury, oil and gas companies are coming in looking to start hydraulic fracturing – a process that is devastating in its own right, but one that also requires millions of gallons of water we don’t have.

Photo of Las Conchas fire at 70,000 acres burned (less than half of its final burn area of 150,000 acres) near Los Alamos, June 29, 2011

How do we find the balance in embracing what we have and fighting for what we hope might be a meager future in which we might survive? How do we bear witness to the tenacious animals, plants, and landscapes that are still here and allow them to fill our hearts and root us to the earth? I don’t want to look around me and see the charred remains of apocalypse, even as I stand in the still-present radiance of snow capped 14,000′ peaks and thick, healthy vegetation. For now, it remains, I remain, and gratitude may be as vital in moving forward into an uncertain future as activism and civil disobedience are. But hurricanes and fires wreak havoc on my perception and it is easy to despair. Despair is mirrored in many of the poems I write. I share one here, written last year:

Profit Prophet

The sky does not belong to Exxon. They cannot keep using it as a sewer where they dump their carbon. If they do, we have no future on this planet. –Bill McKibben

We were all heavy smokers last summer,
wheezing and hacking through hazy
charcoaled air – or barely breathing
as Las Conchas raged through sacred land and licked
the line near Area G, barrels
of nuclear waste exposed above ground
while Fukishima’s  reactor discharged waste
into water, spewed into air and sea, radioactive eddies
wafting on North Pacific currents, and California
popped iodine tablets like black bears ate
chickens this year, fighting
for survival.

And still, BP sludge shifts in the gulf, slick
smothering black blanketing fish, birds, and coral,
another disaster fickly forgotten by the public too busy
buying, filling the void where strong sun,
flowering cactus, and clear water
once ran.  And still, the Keystone pipeline prepares
to plough through Pine Ridge, that “uninhabited”
blood stained terrain where we can all gaze
at the white forbearers of the dominion
of the Grand Area – including the earth,
sky, and water.

Two hundred more nuclear plants planned
by 2030 and no place to store the waste
but Yucca Mountain – the sacred Snake
Mountain for Shoshone and Paiute, ground
destined to split and spill its poison. Or
so legend has it. We are all Ghost
Dancers now, donning posters for
Occupy Wall Street as if they were
bullet proof.

This despair is intimately linked to the personal for me. Circumstances in my personal life are forcing me to retrace old memories and wounds and unearth feelings I thought had been laid to rest for good. An internal superstorm is thrashing, unseen, inside me and is forcing through barriers and washing up unsightly detritus. Pernicious questions of direction, worth, and meaning circle my lungs, heart, and mind. How do I sustain myself? And how do I help to sustain the earth? I see myself holding my arms out, palms extended forward, as a tsunami approaches. Resolute and easily submerged.

Even as a poet I can forget to turn to poetry in my despair. There is a connection to a deeper truth in the best poems, and they hold space and time, allow me to re-root and recenter. Poetry provides a refuge from the raging superstorms and fires, both external and internal. It reminds me of what matters underneath the debris. I have just started reading A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders and he begins the book with a poem that reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Among all creatures, we are the only kind
that frets, the only kind that asks forgiveness,
or needs to. Meanwhile, the crows palaver
in the pines, crickets sing in the high grass,
cottonwoods wag their leaves in every least wind.

Having held our tongues to listen, having fallen asleep
to the barred owl’s call and wakened to fog over the Mad
River, having seen the pond shiver like the taut hide
of a horse and the dew ignite with dawn, freed now to break
silence, we might find words to speak our love of Earth.

Chicago Basin, Weminuche Wilderness, September 2012

Yes. Love is vital. I want to practice gratitude for the gifts of red-wing blackbirds in the tiny marsh on El Llano Road, the laughter of my children, the way a wood fire feels on a cold day, the way I have risen up, again and again, despite the extraordinary challenges I’ve faced. It is not hard to criticize myself or our global structure or to feel paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of things that must be done to heal myself and heal the planet. But I suspect that the real work in manifesting change requires gratitude, love, and connection. It requires taking the time to read Joy Harjo, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wendell Berry, taking time to inhale the vanilla scent of Ponderosa bark and dig my toes into the dirt, and taking time to stop the incessant clutter of distraction and doubt to simply tune in and listen.


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Winding Lanes

Pashmina goats by the road to Pangong Lake, Ladakh, India

Adventure and far-off places are on my mind today.    

I was in Leh a year ago and the memories keep flooding in at unsuspecting moments. The maze of mud-walled paths and lanes, winding around and around and ending abruptly, the far-off blue snowcapped peaks and the closer brown ones, jagged and treeless and striking against the 12000 foot rarified air. It was hard to breathe there. The air was thin and my diaphragm was contracted also by the aching for the people and the country that claimed me as their own ten years prior.    

I lived in India for two years during high school and traveled to Leh last year following my ten year reunion. Though I had traveled India extensively during my student years, I had not been to Ladakh – and still, Kashmir is on my list of places I must see. Ten years was too long to be away. Friends I had lost touch with in that time were speaking in instant confidence with me about the intimate dreams and fears and longings only shared between kindred spirits. Reunited on a hill in Taluka Mulshi in the state of Maharashtra, we barely slept. Every moment was precious and our hearts were as swollen as the monsoon clouds, releasing years of struggle and growth before we were all pulled back into our far-flung corners of the globe.   

In Leh, I mourned my separation from these dear friends but tried to revel in my last few days in India. I wrote a paper in college once that perhaps I will share here in the future, but the title is the most relevant here: Mera Bharat Mahan. My Great India. India, with it’s smells rolled into one contradicting, complex concoction – smog, fried pakora, paan, excrement of every kind imaginable, dust, exhaust, sweet julebi; it’s sights – water buffalo, bicycles, Tata trucks with yellow signs on the back reading “horn OK please,” cars of every size and variety, blackened buildings (and patchwork fields dotted with gold and white temples outside of the cities), motor rickshaws, sidewalk dwellers, betel nut stains, sadhus, glamous women in western dress riding in cycle rickshaws; and it’s sounds – the cacophony of different kinds and volumes of vehicle horns and bells, shouting, buzzing, thrumming, peddling, begging — all of this had overwhelmed me at first. But gradually, over two years, I had fallen in love. But I did not understand to what extent I’d fallen in love until I returned last year. In the deluge of my recognition for this place that will always feel like home I came up drenched and filled with joy and longing for this place I could only visit for a short time.    

One of the first poems I published is about India. A real experience I had there that brings me back in time to that moment and to the person I was at 17 when I first arrived in India. I share it here.  

Tea Time on the Jaipur Express

“Chai chai chai garam chaiiiii …”
“Best price, for you only madam!”
“Panibottle, panibottle …”
I wipe the sweat off my white
face with my dupata thickening
its coat of black train grime.
“Ha, ek chai please.”
A paper cup, too sweet
watery milk, a taj mahal
tea bag. I fork over the two rupees and the little girl with kohl
painted eyes stares up, radiant,
devastated. The menacing man
behind roars at her delay. Quickly
she contorts, double-jointed,
frantic, a whirlwind bending
through her hoop with grotesque
rapidity to the rhythm of the man’s
hollow clapping. Her eyes are unmoving,
fixed on my face. Wary of Mumbai
begging rings and slave driving slum
rajas, I offer bananas. The man
sneers, kicks her forward
into the next car, where, perhaps, more
benevolent angrezi await.
Her eyes wash her face away.
I hide in my paper cup of chai.
It is no longer sweet,
but bitter.

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Big Wind

I am immersed in poetry today. It is a quiet Sunday and I am at a small coffee shop in a tiny town in northern New Mexico. I am seated opposite shelves of books people leave and take. A free library. Photographs grace the walls: a large scalloped stone cross on a grave covered with carnations, Hermit’s Peak reflected in a lake, aspen tree trunks as seen from the ground up – the tree tops stretching endlessly toward a periwinkle sky.

Other patrons chatter and the espresso machines thrum and woosh. Fans rotate slowly and silently as light spills from windows in the next room and across the tiled floor and through the opening to my adjacent room, but it doesn’t reach me. I am many things today, grateful and impatient. Filled with dreams, longing, and frustration. Poetry grounds me.

I share one of my favorite poems, by Theodore Roethke, here:


Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped? —
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
that broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

I imagine this poem as a metaphor for the earth, a greenhouse with a cargo of humans, bison, armadillos, cobras, chipmunks, fire ants, columbine, pinon, cattails… but unlike this poem, the storm has only just begun and we cannot anticipate its ending. I recently read Bill McKibben’s latest essay “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in the online edition of The Rolling Stone, august 2012. Terrifying is an apt description and I waver between acceptance of human’s impending extinction and a strange mixture of outrage, hope, and activist aspirations – what can I do as an individual to slow the heating in some small way and to teach my daughters how to be strong, creative, and resilient in the decades to come?

I love the language in Roethke’s poem and the extensive alliteration and assonance he uses. I love the way the sounds build, the present continuous “ing”s pinging like the start of the rain, and the “w”s working with the “o”s to create a howling sensation at the height of the storm, followed by the tapering off, the hushed sounds of “s”s and “th”s, and the resolute hard “c”s, strong and enduring at the end. And the end seems so final, so clear. There is no hint of another, future storm. This is refreshing for me at the moment. Silence after the storm.

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In Media Res

Beginnings confound me. As far as I can tell there are no beginnings or endings, only a vast infinity of middle. Every story begins in media res – but it is the choosing of a particular moment of middle that is the most challenging. But does it matter ultimately? Time appears to behave as the tide does, rushing forward and pulling back, spilling shells and slick strands of seaweed in one moment and reclaiming stones that had remained rooted for decades back into the depths of the sea. It is all told eventually and the omissions, the silence, often carry the most meaning of all. The silence in me is the faint echo of the sea in a conch – amplified and roaring. But I cannot begin by rushing in. I will start with a few drops.