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Spring 2001, Volume 18.3

Essay

 

Rebecca McCormick

Letters HomePhoto of Rebecca Burggraf.

 

Rebecca McCormick (B.F.A., Vermont College/Norwich University) is a writer, artist, and book illustrator. Her poetry is published in The Oil City Review, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Pennsylvania English, and Perspectivas. These three nonfiction pieces are part of her current book project, Arroyo-Coyote-Speedway. Her first nonfiction book, Jezebel and the Peterbilt Mack Truck will be published by Mammoth Books this year. Contact her web site at //www14.brinkster.com/southwest/.

 

Arroyo-Coyote-Speedway

…of bone, soul and water where great grey clouds slate down to earth in a tumult, taming it, calling its name; returning it. Oceans left mountains of silken shadow calling through the twilight of this dust-arid land. Shades of muted, endless earth where delineation between sky and earth wavers past a long, thin line. Arroyos, draws, mesas, canyons, abras; endless vegas pooled up with playas under the child-blue sky, glassing-out. This land where the sun shines almost every day and clouds pileup like voiceless souls over endless drab-brown flat plains of winter grass.

The East, where I am from, is doled out from under the deciduous forest of oaks and maples in little pieces; small hummocks and hills divvied up by the concrete of shopping malls and Suburbia. Where fences are for privacy and cows don't grow on roads penned into place by wildness.

This New Mexico, this arroyo-coyote-speedway, lays out flat and horizonless under legends of ardor, anger and desire along the Santa Fe Trail, Los Alamos, the Pecos River. This land fends for itself and coyotes feed from the riches of neighbors' greed. White-Texan and Californian folk pulling up fifty thousand acres apiece under their hand-tooled belts; visitors flying in for weekends at "The Ranch." Kellogg, Marsh, Philip, Swayze, Imas accumulating vast cornflake, celebrity and oil riches, buying up this wealthy land, spending their money somewhere else. Fertile acequia-fed bottom lands, verdant cottonwood stands holding the ground damp; long rolling stretches of prairie grasslands where the cattle lay in the shadows of billboards and the eye takes its measure from "Aeromotors" pumping up wind-water.

The native people here are poor; it is like a third world country. Hispanic ranchers' skin and bone New Mexican cows hemmed in by cattle guards, the gentle, moo-eyed calves skittish in front of the car. This rich, river-canyon land graced with green mulleins, thistles, wild sunflowers, aspens, hay. The Morales still own some of the land owned for 400 years by their family, here. Little pieces not sold out; but it might be true that anyone will sell anything if the price is right.

Two thousand pheasants, trucked up the narrow, winding bottom-road in a semi, let loose; then the hunt, the sport. The rich neighbors and their friends shoot pheasant out of the dry, rustling grass. Then the cooks make a feast of the wild game. The maids tell us this, picking us up by our broken down van, driving us seven miles to the nearest town and Ernie's Garage. Watrous, NM—a post office, a pop machine and a garage. Michael hasn't been able to find work since we got here—it is hard for outsiders, hard for Anglos in an Hispanic culture that still holds on tight to small pieces of land and tradition, afraid of losing what they have. Change is not always kind.

Another day driving the thirty miles home from work, dodging pheasants gobbling up pebbles, too stupid to move out of the road, I see two coyotes, strung up like trophy-skulls on the walls of ancient Celtic battlements, hanging on the door of the Marsh's outbuilding barn. But the coyotes the Varmint Killers didn't shoot are particularly well fed. Vermin, coyotes, heathen-dogs, part earth, sky-voices, wild-tame. The coyotes live close to us, denning in the salmon-flesh-pink of Shoemaker Canyon's walls, yapping and howling up and down the fields and lane on bright nights, the stars a bowl-shaped brilliance overhead. Shadows fleeting across the road—the Trickster grows fat on pheasant.

 

 

Wapiti and Fort Union

The sky today is perfect baby-eye-blue, like almost always. On the way home from Fort Union National Monument we see three antelope, their colors divinely matching their surroundings. Their wheat coats, juxtaposed against the
zigging white stripes and bellies, seem so absurd in photos but are purely at home on the plains. Pronghorns they call them, here.

The delineation between the animals found on the prairie and those down in our little canyon sometimes mystifies me, as does the continual sky and wind. Jackrabbits on the mesa, cottontails down here, by the river bottom. I'm not sure where the West becomes the West, but the Mississippi seems to be one of the great divides. I'm also not sure where the animals stop and start, but I do know that we have no whitetail deer here, just multitudes of muledeer. Michael and I sometimes count 90 in the herds while out walking in the rush-chill of dusk. Joe says that sometimes the whitetails come up the Canadian River from Texas and do breed with the mule deer. But I can't tell; the mule deer are pure West—they hop, bouncing along like pogo stick creatures with spring legs.

Sometimes we'll see the fast blur of a coyote, almost as much illusion as wind. Michael says, "How would you like a tanned coyote skin?" Much maligned tricksters, hard to see in the day—better to be heard, night skies untamable. No, I do not want a skinned coyote—even though they did eat four of our wayfaring geese. Michael and Joe walked the canyon rim, scouring around for the remains—and found them, a few downy feathers stuck tight to bushes, prying loose to floating winds.

But the elk, the wapiti, are totem animals for me. I used to think of whitetails as spiritual kin, until I saw the elk. Something about their airborne nature as they navigate the fences, the soft earthen hue of their fur flowing from grey to brown to black to white and their magnificent size, draws me inexorably to the elk. Wapiti, shadow animals hardly seen through morning twilight, giant antlers measured by hunters in Boone & Crockett are beyond my measure, bringing in almost as much meat to the freezer as a butchered steer, yet somehow remaining integral to the prairies, unlike the long-extinguished buffalo, only present out here in the West behind the fences on rich people's ranches and in grassland parks. The wild elk's high eerie flute-voices call down steep canyon walls in fall rut; cows whistle their fertile replies. One bull, only one per herd, with the smaller, lesser, spiked males queuing together; cows dropping calves in early June beyond the reach of any late frost. Wapiti. How can I resist their lure? I find their antlers in my paintings, their grass and rock colors in my dreams. They herd up in the twilight that is morning, half seen, driving tracks through my nighttimes.

The elk remain the same, but how different the world would have looked to those soldiers, lieutenants, and enlisted men stationed at Fort Union, sheltering haven to the Santa Fe Trail, but miles and miles from their homes. Prairies: buffalo and elk and pronghorn and mule deer; coyotes and wolves; rattlers and racers and garter snakes; lizards; roadrunners; hawks and eagles and vultures; kangaroo rats; scorpions and spiders. But mostly a vast elongated nothingness, horizons sky-full with ocean-grass. I understand the West's allure, now.

The enlisted men had a room about 10'x10'—and a fireplace made of adobe. A fort built of adobe, not the cement of the "new adobe" poured on frames, then stuccoed over and painted to look like adobe, but real bricks made of mud dug up from out of the earth. The only building still completely standing on the Monument is the stone jail built of hand hewn rocks, 1'x1'x2'. Can the dead be as filled with wonder, as the living? Can those generals know that their fort was left as a monument to history, a national park—the privy pit and the ten jail cells carved out of mountain-stone itself, standing as these men's immortal remains?

That's the thing about the West—the history of the peoples still seems alive in a land breathing dust and wind. There are no cars zooming by the Fort Monument. Actually it is at the end of a long, lonely road climbing a dusty mesa, the only thing at the end of eight miles, besides a cattle ranch, besides salt-flats and brown grass. It is still the same land that the Ute, the Comanche, the Pecos Indians settled ages ago. They would still recognize it, if they could come from the dead, if they join the ranks of the other dead peoples on Los Dias de los Muertos. They would still walk the same paths and find the same water; as would the Spanish settlers and Anglo soldiers, their wives, children, whores, shopkeepers, farriers and enlisted men; here on this vast open plain that remains true and the same, flat and huge enough to allow eyes to see history and visions of future merging and shimmering in the ever present heat of day, the shadow calm of night, ringed by mountains immortal, coming out of the sky like monoliths.

 

"Just Wait 15 Minutes…"

You probably don't know this, but in
of ritual, gravity and science that brings damp, moist life to these brown fields, filling up with the weather in the spring, but drying up through the summer, leaving the crawdads digging deeper into the mud to find moisture, leaving behind only their empty holes.

Michael ties a rope around the last goose's neck and takes him for a swim in the ditch. The goose is not smart enough to be thankful—for the swim—or to realize that Michael is saving him from becoming coyote fodder. The other geese were as flighty as grasshoppers, and really one is enough—they honked garishly every time people came, brassy voices filling this canyon's solitude with their racket.

Sometimes I am as flighty as the geese, imaging myself as a ranch wife, out here where the incessant wind blowing cold off the prairie makes women lonely for the voices of kin, making me want to fly off to Pennsylvania or Vermont or anywhere that there are lights and music and smoky conversation, especially during the stark winter. I've spent much of it at the window, watching Joe wearing rubber boots, carrying shovel, channeling the water out of the acequia. As he tramps through the brittle-grass diverting water into his barren fields, I wonder if he misses his wife Patti when she goes off to Philly and Texas and Chicago, while he, nurturer of pastures, animal husbander and father, stays put out here next to the middle of nowhere, struggling through the silent-still dead spells of winter within my own intents, with my own visions of self as a house builder, chief cook and bottle washer and wife. But then the hollyhocks and roses bloom spring-pink outside my window, bringing New Mexico they say, "If you don't like the weather, then just wait 15 minutes and it will change. It snowed enough here on Friday that only two students showed up to class. Elisha drove the 25 miles south down into town and said that there was three feet of snow where he lives near Mora. His family caretakes a Saudi Arabian's ranch up there in the Sangre de le Cristo Mountain by Morphy Lake. Jorge, the other avid English scholar, is from Colombia and he was ecstatic to be out and about in the snow. People travel long distances to cross this vast land to get to where they are going. Oddly enough, the town students didn't show up that day when the snow ran melting rivulets down the streets by noon.

Some people's bumper stickers say "Visualize Rain," others' say "Visualize Turn Signal Use." I try to avoid town as cautiously as other cars' back ends, because I've given up wishing for turn signals but still make the 32 mile drive three days a week to teach at the university. But afternoons driving home, I watch the great, dark storm clouds pile up over the mountains in the west, filling the sky, then roil up over the rim rocks of our canyon and give guided imagery my best shot.

It is 70 degrees all weekend, and today it thunders, lightnings and hails—for about 20 minutes—the parched land sucking down all the puddles in two hours time. In our valley—Cherry Valley— Joe relies on that snow to fill up the Mora River, diverting the water into his acequias, greening his fields for the steers' hay. His water-measurer is tied to his fence and all this year has only filled up to the nine inch mark. These acequias are magical to me, some ancient combination the humming birds, and I stay, calculating the price of solitude.

 

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