Feminine Wilds


What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest

In the poem “Working Cattle,” Carol Fox finds herself in a familiar position-the only woman in a group of men-braced to inoculate and castrate a herd of cattle. Fox, who has worked on a ranch since girlhood, watches her son learning the ropes and asks, “What is this mystery my son is entering into and I am excluded from?”

While Fox must endure the sexism of ranch life, she enjoys a more congenial environment as a contributing writer to What Wildness Is This, an anthology of poems and essays written by women about the American Southwest.

The 100 works were put together by four Texas editors as part of the Story Circle Network, an Austin nonprofit that promotes female writers. The collection includes stories by such well-known authors as Barbara Kingsolver and Observer poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye, and writers with only a few titles under their belts.

Women have been “traditionally denied membership in the nature-writing club,” Kathleen Dean Moore writes in her introduction. These women write about living on the land, solitude, and overcoming obstacles-the kinds of experiences that inspired Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, John Graves, and other notable male writers who have covered the Southwest.

But these female writers break new ground, as Moore says, because “they don’t have to follow the rules” of a historically male genre that has long portrayed man as being “separate from nature, its conqueror, its lover or rapist.” Instead, the writers take a more humble and personal approach, honoring nature, longing to understand it, and, for some, becoming a part of it psychologically and metaphorically. Readers learn as much about the authors as the landscapes they describe.

In her essay “The Land’s Song,” included in the book’s section about living on the land, Judith Ann Isaacs describes her awe of nature. Taking a bath outside at night in New Mexico, she sees stars reflected in the water: “I’m up to my neck in hot water as planets, meteor showers, and constellations spin through the seasons.” Isaacs is fascinated with changing light-she tracks the seasons by marking where light hits the mountains-yet humbly foregoes trying to understand her place in the world. “I feel the transience of this existence,” she writes. “I can live in wonder without knowing why the world is wonderful.”

Embracing nature’s isolation and solitude and leaving behind the stresses of urban life are compelling forces in several pieces. “I shed the dross of certain beliefs and boundaries, customs and niceties, as well as the spell of ‘thingness’,” writes Joanne Smith in “Seasons of a Hermit,” as she describes her off-the-grid home in the Prescott National Forest of Arizona. It is a welcome sacrifice for Smith, who “was called to live, work, and commune with the empty space on the map” to study hawks. Her love of birds goes well beyond the scientific, and she describes them with the enthusiasm of a sports color commentator: “A hawk’s looping flight shapes a huge four-leaf clover in the sky. I gasp at this first sighting of a Krider’s red-tail, angelic in feathers the color of fresh country cream. Exhilarated, I return to the cabin, sit down to a cup of tea, and look up to see spring at my window. Gleaming ruby and white and green, a broad-tailed hummingbird officially announces the season’s opening day.”

Some writers overcome fear after enormous challenges. In “Coming of Age in the Grand Canyon,” Susan Zwinger attempts a harrowing hike along the Colorado River. “My sandals disappear from sight; my feet creep by Braille over stones slippery with algae … The water roars higher and higher on my chest … A slip, a break in the human chain could mean being swept downstream and pummeled on large boulders.”

Others face different contests. In “Writing West,” Nancy Mairs, who is confined to a motor-driven wheelchair, struggles to find inspiration in Tucson where she cannot explore nature beyond asphalt paths. After a miserable camping trip, she gives up the romantic notions of the West that were holding her back. So “instead of loping on Old Paint across the lone prairie, I may be heading my Quickie P100 on down the alley and out to Bentley’s for an iced cappuccino, it’s an honest-to-God western adventure I’m having here.”

Even in the book’s section dealing with urban stories, the writers remain close to their natural surroundings. Judith E. Bowen discovers the satisfaction that comes with a full day of mowing; Connie Spittler makes it her mission to locate a scarlet-colored flower that attracts hummingbirds to her garden; and Lisa Shirah-Hiers offers her appreciation for Austin’s Central Market Pond on a sweltering summer day.

“The People and the Land ARE Inseparable,” by Leslie Marmon Silko, offers a lesson in anthropology. Silko writes about driving past a settlement of Arizona Yaquis, an aboriginal group, soon after a community member had died. All at once, the residents-who possess no telephones or computers-emerge from their homes and walk to the home of the bereaved to pay their respects. “I understood then,” she writes, “that this is what it means to be a people and to be a Yaqui village and not just another Tucson neighborhood.”

In the section titled “Earth is an Island: Nature at Risk,” the authors honor and mourn the passing of precious animals and culture. In “Coyote Mountain,” Julia Gibson buries two coyotes that have been poisoned and come to her property to die. Carol Coffee Reposa is sickened by trash left near centuries-old paintings created by cave-dwellers in “In Parida Cave.”

Some writers reflect on their own survival. Nancy Linnon compares the dismal fate of endangered desert plants to her own fragile mental health in “Surviving: What the Desert Teaches Me.” A victim of severe depression, Linnon follows a tour through the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where the docent explains how invasive grasses are killing native cactus. But Linnon is also amazed at the hardiness of these plants. “I wonder if it is the same with my brain, its delicate ecosystem assisting my survival with adaptations that prick and spear … Is this apparent faultiness in my brain a tactic to help me survive, a way my body has of telling me that something in my life has to change?”

Food is a common theme in the section, “The Sustaining Land.” In Joan Shaddox Isom’s essay, “Gathering at the River,” she recalls growing up in a colorful family that allowed anyone to grow peaches in its orchards “long as you’re fambly.” Sandra Ramos O’Briant describes how she began her childhood dependence on very spicy peppers in “Chile Tales: The Green Addiction.” And in “Poem in which I Give You a Canyon,” Sandra Lynn compares a canyon to an ice cream sundae.

Teresa Jordan’s essay, “Sustenance,” speaks to a different kind of consumption. While on a river trip, Jordan, a painter, learns how to take in beauty. At first, she admonishes herself for being “drunk with visual excitement, engaged in a gluttony of looking.” Then she finds herself becoming more and more selective about what she paints. On the last day, she paints something she finds truly beautiful-black, rubber garbage bags. “In awe, I realized I had never seen them, really seen them, before.”

Growing up in the Southwest also provides these women with lessons about poverty and racism. “Red Dirt: Growing up Okie,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, tells the painful tale of a tenant-farmer family that uproots itself for a better life tending a horse ranch after the landlord promises “two milk cows, two hogs to breed, and two dozen chickens.” The family struggles to live off the land, only to be sent away after a wildfire ravages the area.

The book culminates with the section, “Eagle Inside Us,” which further tightens the connection between writer and nature. Here the authors often achieve such a near-perfect understanding of nature as in Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem”:

To pray you open your whole self To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon To one whole voice that is you … We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us.

In “The Raven,” Marie Unini uses bird sounds to let a beloved bird know its mate is dead. In “Alamo Canyon Creek,” Kathleen Dean Moore at first fears snakes, but then studies them carefully. “So I come the closest to thinking like a snake, to seeing the world through the brain of a toad, when my body reacts to a stimulus with terror or elation and leaves my conscious mind out of the process.”

And in “Water,” Terry Tempest Williams finds redemption. When she was young, her brothers would torment her by hurling frogs at her. Despite her efforts to save them, the frogs died on impact. Then she would wash away the remains in a creek. Years later, Williams finds a dead, dried frog, strings it around her neck and bathes with it in a river. At one point she has part of her body on land and the rest in water. “Half in. Half out. Amphibious.”

With so many rich pieces, the editors probably had a difficult time sorting them. Ultimately, they grouped them by subject matter or location, and this does not always work well. Some pieces do not seem to fit in a section or could fall under several sections. It might have been simpler to name the chapters according to the feelings that the landscapes evoked, such as “love and wonderment,” “fear and courage,” or “mourning and honor.”

But the women who have contributed to What Wildness Is This have been given a channel for sharing their clear, and often startling, visions. In doing so, they have carved out a domain of their own.

Janet Heimlich is a freelance writer in Austin.