This is an essay I submitted to the 2014 Sowell Collection Essay Contest held by the Southwest Collection at TTU (www.swco.ttu.edu/Sowell/Contest.php). I was selected for first place. It covers some of my fieldwork and an author that has been a great inspiration for me. I hope you enjoy.
In the morning the jungle had taken my socks. It did not intend to let me have them back either. I had just slid out of my hammock and was trying to slip on my socks from yesterday. I had left them on the guy-rope of the hammock to try and air the socks out overnight. There was no chance of drying them out here. The shoes you put on over them were soaked anyway; why waste them? I was preparing to pull them over my pruned feet when I noticed that something was on the inside of the cuff of the sock. It was a small egg case. I figured a fly had laid it there that night. And I was right. I just didn’t know how right. On further inspection, the socks had been taken over. Someone was already wearing my socks. Squirming egg cases were attached to each and every stitch of pile on the inside of my socks. Another pair lost to this job. Nature was having a good one on me and I wasn’t appreciating it this early in the day.
I had just woken up from a series of light naps strung together. I had not made much headway in the way of sleep that night and the dawn light filtering through the canopy was unwelcome. Its warmth, however, was. The jungle gets surprisingly cold at night when your camp is situated in a wind-blown saddle set high in the volcanic ridges of interior Pohnpei. I had been laying in a hammock with a cheap blue-plastic tarp slung over to keep the rain from falling onto me. The wind just carried it under the awning and onto me from other directions instead. Throughout the night the wind, rain, and shivering kept me awake enough to read from the book I had packed up there.
It was a collection of coyote trickster stories, Barry Lopez’s first book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter. Appropriate topics considering the laughs the jungle was having at my expense. I had brought it along to the island as part of a small collection of reading material designed to entertain myself for 5 months. I was out there on a project collecting data on birds and vegetation – trying to get the only in depth survey of avifauna for this area completed. This was to serve as a baseline of information before the effects of raising sea levels changed the islands of the Pacific and their plants and animals forever. One in a series of field biology jobs I have had.
And that was all that came from the first experience with Mr. Lopez’s work. I was entertained, the book was finished, and then it was put back into my bag. It flew back across the Pacific in an airplane and was placed on a shelf at my parents’ house back in the Midwest. I traveled some more until I got another temporary field biology job in Northern California. Near the end of that season, I found myself at a small bookstore in a coastal California town. I picked up a couple books to read when we weren’t working 14 hour days. I picked up Arctic Dreams in that pile. The cover had fallen off and the pages were yellowed but the price was right: $1. I recognized the name of the author from somewhere I could not quite remember. I figured I knew nothing about the Arctic so I would give it a try. I tossed it into my truck but again, that is where the book sat. I tore off on another cockamamie road trip to southern Arizona where my next field job was waiting. Across the Sierra Nevada, through Death Valley and into the Grand Canyon I saw vistas too big to describe, trees named after Presidents, and saw so much of nature’s bounty Ansel Adams would have run out of film. All that the book saw was the underside of my driver’s seat.
When I finally reached Ajo, Arizona, I immediately got sucked into the unique wilderness. I worked almost half a year on the job, chasing desert rains and the ephemeral waters that follow. I was working in the middle of the Sonoran Desert on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which was managed by the United States Air Force. Some of the largest tracts of open land available for animals are housed on military property. I was recording information about new ways to find isolated waters, determining water quality, and recording information about the animals that use these rare waters. This work would eventually (unknowingly) lead to my pursuing my Master’s Degree at Texas Tech University.
A day would start at 0400 and end whenever we lost light or access to the Range. Our working group had a security code name and was required to sign forms removing the Government from responsibility in the event we accidently blew ourselves up with the old unexploded ordinance that litters the range. We had to travel through dunes fields and desert mountain ranges. The landscape was austere, beautiful, and often painful. But to those that were willing to look, there were things to find.
This was not my first work in the desert, but it was this time working in the Sonora which made me fall in love. The desert was setting up shop in my head. It laid down bedrock, aquifer, and roots. From the fissures of unknown cracks in my logic sprung forth the plants, animals, and waters of my enchantment. I had no reason to love the punishing environment I was working in but I did. I would go out at night just to watch the stars and scorpions crawl across their respective sides of up and down.
Besides late night animal tracking, evening entertainment at our field housing consisted mostly of siestas in the hammocks we had rigged up on the back porch. It was the only way to cope with late afternoon highs that reached into the 120’s. Besides it was hard to beat those seats for watching the sunset, especially when you had a beer to help wash it down with. I found the book on one such afternoon, looking for anything in my truck I had not already read. I plucked the copy of Arctic Dreams from its hermitage and plopped down in the hammock. 3 hours later I woke back up having never actually started it.
The next day I picked it back up and started reading the book. Before I had finished the preface, I was able to find passages that still loom in my conscience, because I was trying to find a place for myself in the desert just as the desert had found a place in me.
“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as the turns of the mind and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind full of curiosity and analysis disassembles a landscape and then reassembles the pieces – the nod of a flower, the color of the night sky, the murmur of an animal – trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.”
He compared the Arctic to a desert. In many ways they are very similar, but it wasn’t the environmental cues that were sticking out in my head when I read the book. There were too many human elements that could be strung together by a long thread from the far north to the desert.
I had traveled by foot and by truck and by airplane across this landscape. Each level of technological removal also encouraged a psychological removal. Going across this landscape can be daunting. And the emotional comfort that is afforded by the technological and psychological removal is alluring. Removing the human from the landscape does neither landscape nor human any good. It is something that often eludes conservation discourse and the subsequent management decisions it brings about. This insight was surely something I lacked. The presence of modern humans in the Arctic was readily observed and seemed very out of place, according to Mr. Lopez. It is a sentiment I can readily vouch for in the Sonoran. 2-track crisscross the saguaro fields and human trash stands out among the tans, rusts, and greens.
During field work, when it was not my time to drive, I would read as we bounced along in the truck through desert arroyos and old access roads. I would stop every couple of paragraphs just to stare out the window and take in the scenery. I would mix it with the words I had just read. Passages full of broken schooners sprawled out across the ice, hull crumpled and holds empty. Wooden ribs standing out against the landscape. I would remember descriptions of overland travel across the desert and of the great Conestoga wagons left in the empty wastes. The imagery was the same. As I walked through the desert I saw the human remains of this day and age, cars with engine blocks rusted together and the doors torn off the body and tumbled across the desert. And old military equipment, forgotten and useless, dotted the landscape we moved through.
The farther into Arctic Dreams I read, the more I felt I understood the desert environment I was actually in. Lopez’s descriptions of physical phenomena, like mirages, would have still been enlightening if that is where it stopped. The human history of the Arctic was deeply linked to the physical phenomena and Lopez is a master at communicating this connection. We know that the arctic region experiences drastic seasonal shifts in light. It was his detail of a cultural response to experience the depressive loneliness of darkness, the perlerorneq – a word with no English equivalent, which stuck with me. It illustrates how the human and landscape are products of each other. Mr. Lopez quotes an anthropologist that the word means, “to feel ‘the weight of life.’” But he continues and expands so that we can truly understand the darkness of the depression, and how much it resembles the sunless days of arctic winter.
I have yet to find an equivalent for the desert to this last notion, except maybe in regards to water. But that would be a reach and I would have to try. This in itself is another reason Lopez has provided an invaluable addition to my understanding. Not everything translates but if I keep looking and trying to understand, I might just catch a glimpse of understanding. Anything that helps spark curiosity and a drive to sate that curiosity is a gift. I have given away my copy of the book to a friend to try and share that feeling, that gift.
This book deepened my love for the natural world, humans included. It provided insight into a region I knew very little about. Not just the arctic, but also the desert. The book moved across its designated landscape and the messages that emerged helped the desert communicate with me. The desert got into me. It wrinkled my skin, and cut my knees. The desert air parched my throat and the desert water quenched my thirst. Words for unique features in the Sonora invaded my speech, and changed how I looked at the world around me. Tinajas and charcos are my new water sources, and the rains that fill them are also the rains that bring flash floods. Now, I cannot hear rain without considering my traveling route. Maybe I would not have had as strong a reaction if I had Arctic Dreams in the jungle with me instead of in the desert, but I do not think that is the case. Arctic Dreams also tempered my passion so that it gave me a more useful and deeper understanding of the sense in which humanity is not and should not be removed from the natural systems. Without knowledge of place, we have no sense of place. We become lost. We are icebergs drifting slowly, melting in a sea foreign to us until we disappear and no longer resemble what we once were.
If you are interested in reading more about or by Barry Lopez, please consider visiting: http://www.barrylopez.com/ and check out his work.
All images and text © 2014 Joseph Drake