Alone With the Greasewood and the Sage
I move along on my own two good feet down an Upper Valley road, the sun mildly shining after an early morning rain, the air a bit muggy but full of the smells of grass and weeds and wet dirt, the sound of water tumbling in a nearby canal.
As it happens from time to time when my inner psychological coffee pot is perking nicely, I begin to sing. At first I just tootle snatches of a song to the roadside—a bit of “Till There Was You” from The Music Man—but before long I am in full throttle, letting rip a Robert Preston, straw-hat-and-striped-coat tribute to the pleasures of being alive: a thanks for still being able to walk my personal glory roads.
I walk, whistling, past a yard where speckled shade lies beneath a cottonwood. The yard has a vacant, solitary air—just the sun about, and weeds, and a worn tennis ball—but it’s my kind of place, my Sunday morning church-of-the-Earth. And I am still whistling as I pass a cluster of small white butterflies. They are moving about like wobbly, white-frilled children trying to find their way back home inside the maternal expanses of sweet-smelling bushes along the road. Across the road, in an alfalfa field, I see a man and a little girl standing together, trying to catch the butterflies with their nets. They look as if they have gone into the ocean to wade in the blue-and-purple surf.
Then—as it always happens—my buoyancy begins to fade, my steps slow, my song dies, and I am staring ahead, grim-faced, thinking: I can never leave them alone—moments of beauty, scenes of bliss. I always end up wanting to do something with them—preserve them, celebrate them, get them down on paper.
But I am never equal to the task. Bliss cannot be transferred to a page.
In every ordinary, daily act—cutting an apple in half, closing the refrigerator door, answering the phone—we are in the middle of life. We will never be more in the middle. If we do not know this, if we ignore the importance of the passing moment, we are lost. Life will always seem to be the momentous something out there—waiting for us—that we keep hoping to find, some radiant grandeur rather than the obvious that is always before us: the blinking of our eyes, walking across a room, sitting in a chair.
Life is in every unheralded space. Every bit of it is at our elbow—our constant, patient companion even as we scan the horizon for signs of drama, some astounding aurora borealis that will illumine us, overwhelm us, make us glow with rich significance.
Life—we might say at some future time, regretfully: It was here all the while, right next door, and we never quite fully looked its way.
Today the Earth is, as usual, solidly in place: meaning, revolving in air in the middle of nowhere.
My life on Earth is equally solidly in place: meaning, suspended for a while between my origin out of nowhere as a dot-sized sperm-and-egg and my end into nowhere as a decaying mass of flesh.
So it goes in the life of a sentient being.
But despite it all—the uncertainties, the unknowns—what a remarkable interlude it is, this strange human sojourn. For example, consider the subtle transitions we are a part of: each hour sliding into the next, a day passing to another and a year to another, from childhood to the middle years, to old age. These unnoticeable mechanics of change, of movement, never reveal themselves to us. They work their mysteries with an amazing sleight-of-hand, and we seldom take time to focus on how it happens: how shadows lengthen; how we breathe in and out—so rhythmically, so unconsciously; how cells grow and how they degenerate; even how at 5:30 in the afternoon the summer sun, billions of miles away, lays the whitened imprint of itself inches away from the same spot of bark on the same trunk of the same tree that it had touched the day before.
The process is forever hidden from human understanding. We never really know what is going on, or how it happens. We just keep moving about in our daily routines, accepting as normal—as ordinary—the infinite and incomprehensible orchestrations of the natural world.
My cousin David: I never knew him well. His life among well-to-do sons of South American families was always a curiously veiled affair.
He came through El Paso only once. I remember him standing that afternoon in the hall doorway after his bath, carefully drying his hair and chest with the towel. He had his pants on, but no shirt or shoes. David’s two young anthropology-major friends from Berkeley, Hector and Guillermo, were in the living room playing records and drinking iced tea. I was looking through my collection of old LPs.
David watched and listened as we talked, not joining in, not wanting to intrude into the mood of the living room. He rubbed and re-rubbed his long blond hair and made careful swipes across his chest with the towel. Recent sunburns on his almost plaster-white skin looked painful and extended in a deep V below his neck. Since he wasn’t wearing his thick horn-rimmed glasses he seemed to look almost bewildered as he peered in at us from the hallway.
After a record had stopped playing he finally asked, in that careful, resonating voice of his: “Tell me something. Why is it that when a cartoonist draws an outhouse he always has a crescent-shaped moon on the side of it? Why not round or square or triangular?”
He was smiling, and we laughed and shrugged. I put on a record by Virginia Lopez and David went on to the bedroom to get dressed.
Years have passed. David disappeared somewhere in Guatemala, and all my Virginia Lopez records are scratched or lost.
David’s whimsical question—still unanswered—lingers above my memory of him like the smile of the Cheshire cat.
I drive the back roads of the Upper Valley, looking out the window, shaking my head, saying my God, my God, until finally I cannot stand it any more. West of Canutillo I park my car and stand beside a cotton field, the midmorning sun coming down, the mountains etched in the distance, the cottonwoods stirring in a breeze.
I think: “I don’t know what to do except stand here. I cannot plant rows of cotton; I cannot shape a curving farmland road. I cannot cause the trucks to pass so soundlessly, smoothly on the distant interstate—like toys pulled on a string. I cannot create the sparrow noises that come from beneath the eaves of St. Luke’s church, or those scissor-tails sitting in a row on the telephone wire, or that blackbird flying up the canal, or the white butterfly drifting across the smooth roadside dirt, or the salt cedars, or the pecan groves …
“I cannot create any of what I see, and I have no words that will do the scene justice. I am inadequate for the job of reporting on paradise. All I can do is stand and look, paralyzed with awe.”
I begin to walk, drawn closer to the field, the cotton rows, the bordering canals. I want to see my shadow following along beside me on the ground; I want to look across acres of green plants. I want to hear the familiar drone of summer flies. I want to stop, and turn, turn again, keep on turning, and see it, in a continuous sweep, stretched around me: the sky, blazing blue.
I want to stand here by the canal in a hugely personal way—with the sun shining on uncountable, separate surfaces—and see every dirt clod and culvert, every blade of Johnson grass: see each clear and perfect thing that is, radiant and timeless in its moment under the sun.
I get into my car and drive back to town, sobered a bit after a morning in the fields. I park, and take a hike to the hill above UT-El Paso and sit on a pile of rocks. It is good here too, alone, with the greasewood and the sage.
I start watching the sky and become cloud-struck.
I look—and the clouds become a shifting, expanding, sun-crafted fantasia.
They are Himalayas and archipelagos … then huge fetuses swelling, dying within amorphous white mothers. They are brains and viscera, exploding, changing into furnaces of white lava, then drifting into layers of gray-white thoughts, wordless and powerful.
They become waterfalls and strange African trees, corpses of dead, ancient heroes, revolving slowly on their backs in satin coffins. They are beautiful women, faces slowly wheeling, mouths opening, distorted, toward the sun.
The clouds continue to shift, masses of them: They have come from far places and loom now above the desert—awesome, interplanetary.
They are what humans have thought gods are, whatever creation is: silent in their blue crucible of heat and light.
Elroy Bode is a longtime Observer contributor and the author of, most recently, In a Special Light (Trinity University Press).