I need the earth-life, the ordinary countryside moment, but I cannot make this deep affection seem important to most people I know. On occasion friends look indulgently with me toward the trees or fields that I am showing them, my arm thrown out expansively as we take in the view. They nod, they make affirming comments – try to seem tolerant of my preoccupation with “nature,” as they tend to call it – but clearly what is there before us does not mean very much to them, will never count as anything fundamental to their lives.
I need the El Paso countryside. I need to hear the call of redwing blackbirds from salt cedars along a Lower Valley canal. I need to stand in a pecan grove and feel the breeze that moves through it – a breeze that reminds me of other breezes in other places of trees in other, almost forgotten times. I need to see stretches of plowed land where, in the distance, humans are reduced in scale and become of no greater importance to the eye than a rooster in a yard, a tractor in a field.
I walk about on farmland roads and I have the urge to say it: We are together, these, my silent friends under the sun: the yellowjackets investigating the fenceline grasses, lightly touching – almost kissing, it would seem – the stems and seeds; the leisured, midafternoon drifting about of white fluff from cottonwood trees; the green June corn and the yellow squash in an old man’s backyard garden; the flock of pigeons wheeling upward, coasting, settling again in their smooth formation to sit together in their pigeon community on a telephone wire; the rows of early-summer cotton spread across a field like green spokes of a gigantic brown wheel.
I look, too, at distant trees bordering the fields and they seem to be offering quiet respirations to the countryside. Their tree-shapes lift, flow, move about, shimmer on the ocean-swells of warm summer air, then settle back within the contours of their passive greenery.
The earth: it is as though I were born to be next to it, to see what is growing there: to feel friendly toward grass on the ground, limbs on a tree.
I walk, I smile, I am rewarded. This valley land – these fields within their mountain borders – is my sun-blazed heaven. I need no other.
On summer days when I was a boy I sat on the ground beneath the backyard clothesline and played “ranch” with rocks and sticks and acorns. The clothesline stretched across the bare slope of our backyard – from a post at the corner of the yard to the old wooden garage – and from mid-morning to hot noontime I played in and out of the shadows of the cuptowels and my father’s khaki shirts. I would dig and scoop and tear down the corrals and fences of my little pretend-ranch, then I would stop and sit and look around and just sort of be there in the full blaze of the Hill Country heat and the familiarity of our backyard. I listened to the sparrows in the surrounding oaks. I looked at the red ants crawling in the sun toward their pebbly, whitened holes. I sat for long stretches of childhood time – quiet, watching, absorbed in being next to the ground.
Years later, as I remembered those backyard moments – the way the hard-packed and rocky earth gleamed with a bright, almost radiant intensity just inches from my face – it seemed that the ground was almost capable of speech. It seemed that I – that boy bent over in his sun-blazed play – could have heard the earth talk if I had only known how to listen.
Since childhood I have been waiting, in some way, for just such a moment to occur: to be walking along and suddenly to have the sides of buildings or cedar posts or the earth itself to begin to speak. I have been ready for inanimate objects to break the spell that has held them silent: for trees to start talking in their quiet tree-voices, telling me things I already knew, somehow, but could never put into words.
On late Sunday afternoons I drive down to Clint. I can see the Clint water tower as I turn off the interstate from El Paso and go down in the Lower Valley. The cotton and alfalfa fields, the distant mountains in Mexico, the desert space – they begin to work their late-afternoon chemistry on me. I pass farm houses, lone cottonwoods, canals. As I drive along, the farm-to-market road has a worn, comforting shine, like the smooth skin of an elephant.
At the park across from the Catholic church I stop beneath a row of elms and read for a while. I like to do that: just sit in my car and read and drink coffee from the thermos on the front seat and now and then look out the window. Boys are throwing a ball around in the park. Roosters crow in a nearby yard. The faint smell of barbeque is in the air.
I begin my walk through the neighborhood. At the side of the churchyard a man fills plastic jugs from the church water faucet and puts them into the back of his pickup. Across the street the old man and his wife are sitting, as usual, on their front porch in straight-back wooden chairs, watching the man fill the jugs to take to his home in the colonia. The porch seems to give them their daily life: shade in the morning, sun in the afternoon, the cars that drive past, the sparrows in the tall churchyard trees. They nod to me as I walk by. We are familiar sights to each other.
I pass the Clint houses and their small yards and it is as if they belong to me, as if I have earned the right to incorporate them into my own life because I take such satisfaction in seeing them there week after week: the dogs behind their fences, the Virgin Mary decorations beside front doors, the small boys chasing each other around chinaberry trees, the trucks in the driveways with their Dallas Cowboys stickers in the rear windows.
On the street that leads north out of town doves are sitting on the telephone wires – orderly, like members of a club, facing west and the lowering sun. The old white mare is eating in her grassy back lot. I keep walking, past other lots and other horses, and when I come to the open space of the cotton fields I stand for a long time, feeling I should make a pronouncement of some kind in the presence of such a wideness of sky, such a stretching out of the land. I want to be equal to such spaciousness. But I am not, have never been, and I am forced, once more, to turn around, empty of any kind of summing up.
I walk back into Clint – to the yards and gardens, the shade trees, the silent houses and silent windows, the side streets and long-abandoned stores. I sink into small-town, late-Sunday afternoon-ness. I stand at a street corner as the sun rays angle in from the horizon and light up carpet grass in one yard, cast long shadows across the sidewalk in another. I remain there – waiting, receptive, as if I had lost something important in just such a town a long time ago and – if I remain still and unobtrusive – I might catch a glimpse of it again, might manage to reclaim it and somehow let a puzzling, incompleted part of me finally become whole.
One afternoon I paused at a clump of elm tree saplings growing along a Lower Valley canal. I looked at one of the green stems and at the leaves arranged on it, each leaf a duplicate of the other, the veins finely etched. I pulled off a part of the shoot and stared at each leaf – actually, stared into the leaf, trying to find there – exposed, somehow – the essence of life.
I thought about the leaf and how it had grown so perfectly into the shape of itself – the way all living things, at the proper time and in the predictable manner, become themselves – and I could not help asking my absurd question: What was the leaf’s “meaning”?… I glanced down the canal. On each side of it cottonwoods and elms were exploding into their green summer life with millions of leaves. My question mocked me: What was the meaning of those leaves?
In the distance at the bend of the canal two blue-jeaned teenagers held each other, their bodies fused within the deep shade of an elm. Secret afternoon lovers, they clutched and swayed – the irresistible need that drove their kisses no different from the force that had caused the elm leaves to bud and ascend one behind the other up the green stem.
Leaf life, love life: each obeying its own mindless urgencies.
I stared again at my canal-leaf – trying to read in that neat, symmetrical shape a clue that would let me penetrate, somehow, nature’s invisible hieroglyphics. But it offered me no answers, of course. I could stare at it until I went blind and I would never see into the heart of it: into the hidden pulse of creation.
TWO O’ CLOCK IN THE HEAT
It was 106 degrees at two o’clock, but I wanted to walk in the heat, in the sun-illumined countryside. I pulled my car off the highway, got my straw hat from the back seat, and started down a side road past scattered houses and fields.
Two o’clock on a June day was as intimate to me as any secret: the clean-swept dirt by the side door of an adobe house, the faint smell of road tar, the distant hum of a tractor, the heat-dazed stare of chickens – beaks open, panting – as they stood together in chinaberry shade, the green rows of corn turned a deeper green in the steady summer sun.
I walked, glad to be squinting and sweating because the earth was hot and bright and I was more alive because of it. I walked, and I felt as cleansed as a Greek of old: as if my body was being buried in sand and then scraped thoroughly with a blade.
After a while I crossed to a canal and stood beneath the canopy of a pecan orchard. Doves called from within the trees – gentling the air with their unhurried sounds – and a hummingbird appeared above the surface of the canal. It hovered over the coffee-colored water, drinking once, twice within the drifting water-shadows of the trees, then took itself away – showing in its peremptory flash-and-dash that it came like afternoon lightning: as a gift, a marvel.
It was there, near weathered farmland sheds and with a hawk circling overhead – in a place of timeless desert air and desert greenery – that my nagging need for answers welled up in me again. It was against common sense, but I had never given up on the idea that one day I could simply stop, be still, and know the world: that I would be walking along and come to an ordinary tree or wall or fence on an ordinary road and there I would pull the universe to me.
It seemed I should be able to do that: to find, finally, the Authentic Place and the Authentic Moment: to be so ready, so receptive, so open that I could stand there and have my life and the life of the world finally come together: to touch, to blend, to become one.
I looked west toward the massive, heat-hazed clouds that rose in godly fashion above the horizon. I looked at the sky overhead, pure and blue and impersonal: No epiphanies there, no messages, and no voice from a Burning Bush along the canal.
Just silence, as always. Just the strong presence of the earth and the steady white glare of the two o’clock sun.
Elroy Bode lives in El Paso. His most recent book is Home Country: An Elroy Bode Reader.