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Fall 2002, Volume 20.1

Essay

 

Matthew CoopermanPicture of Matthew Cooperman.

The Color of Dust


Matthew Cooperman's poetry, essays and interviews have appeared recently in Denver Quarterly, American Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, and Quarterly West, among others. He is the author of the poetry collections Surge, winner of the Wick Chapbook Prize (Kent State University Press, 1999), and A Sacrificial Zinc, winner of the Lena Miles Wever Todd Prize (Pleiades/LSU Press, 2001). A recent Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he is a long-time editor of Quarter After Eight and teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
•  Matthew Cooperman's essay "A Raft of Blues" was also published in this volume of
Weber Studies.

 

By the time we reach the turnout the temperature has cooled to 105 degrees. Sweat pours off us and just as soon dries. My truck pings in the heat. The sun, a dull white ball all day, is lower now on the horizon, less oppressive to be sure, but sharper in the eyes. It's 5:30 in the afternoon. Late June in the Canyonlands desert.

My traveling partner Peter Covitz unloads gear from the truck. He is fresh, or rather worn, from New York City. A doctoral student in microbiology at Columbia, he is a life-time Easterner, but blessed with that particular imagination which savors risk and bodily exposure. It is fourteen hours since he stepped on the plane, trading glass canyons for these red-rock walls. By the bend of his back, the slowness of his movements, I surmise that he is wondering why he came, why he's sweating on this blasted margin of rock and dust.

There is no one else here, and as we listen to the wind, the steady wash of sand against the truck, we organize gear and fill water bottles, already stopping every few minutes to slake our thirst. We are going camping, four days, walking into the gritty teeth of the desert. Though I have been here a number of times, the silence is unnerving, and I question yet again what I'm looking for, what I'm doing, if anything, besides `edge' camping. A dubious marker, Peter's brow picks up the swirling dust, but soon we are climbing the narrow path that leads from the turnout out of the canyon. It is arduous hiking: fifty-pound packs, tenuous footholds, doubt, that merciless sun, a dry, hot wind blowing out of the south.

Wind in the desert is a ubiquitous presence. If it is not sluicing dust into your mouth, gathering in folds of your clothes, or spreading grit evenly across your dinner, it is building, a barometric pressure and sense of direction like an impending event. Raven-winged, brain-clouding, it is a harbinger of change, signaling rain, snow, even greater aridity, or the mental break that accompanies the continuous gusting, gusting. Much like the Eskimos' thousand names for snow, wind here is a various character that must be learned for survival. The Anasazi drew great motion markings on the rock walls suggesting wind patterns like infinitely inscribed cartoons. They look oddly like Keith Herring paintings too, perfectly accurate and iconic. Presumably those winds foretold a change in their environment. But how to read an invisible thing? Early settlers of the area noted the wind as a private affliction, a "wound upon the spirit." The Hopi say that every canyon has its own personal wind.

Our situation is less intimate, and before long we are up on the mesa that looms over the canyon. Vast reaches of sandstone spread out before us, peppered in an intricate network of obelisks, needles, and mounds that fan out in increasingly violet shadow. As the sun slides slowly towards the horizon, everything gains a drawn edge, the monochrome glare giving way to the blood-etch of rock on air. The sky is a patchwork of turquoise and cloud. The La Sal Mountains rise blue-violet in the northeast, their peaks even now wisped with snow. We stop for this sweeping sight and a drink of already warm water. Our backs are drenched where the wind cannot dry us, but on our faces there is only a veil of salt. Fingerprints. I look at Peter. He is somewhere out coloring in this wide place.

 

How do we find ourselves looking for ourselves? More likely losing ourselves. Whatever drift we experience in panoramic places curiously gives us a center. Or better yet, space, like a room, suddenly expands to include something not us. Not being. It's nice to think it's possible, and for me has always been the principal attraction of a horizon. Every summer as a child I travelled the great valley of central California to visit my grandparents in Arizona. The transition from semi-humid agriculture to arid desert was an experience of the horizon as emptiness, sporadic roadside kitsch giving way to saguaro trees. Later, as a somewhat dewey-eyed poet, my early experiences in nature, ex-pat from parents, generally involved male-bonding, the vast plane of the Pacific Ocean, and controlled substances. This conjunction was excellent for adventures, and it took me into places of a refulgent absence I am still slipping through my fingers. More clearly rendered today, it is a respect for nothingness. As a respect for paradox, it requires a kind of attention that hovers between abstraction and observation. Nothing and every thing. Sublimity seems too large a word for it, or laden with Romantic feelings. For here it is not awe exactly that the desert allows, but indifference, a separation from the human, which is tonic. Strangely enough, it returns us essentially to the human, a yo yo of identity and annhiliation. Perspective. Apart or against civilization. Apart or against wilderness. A pitting to wide places and wide minds. As an adolescent, the landscape held this drift out in a very palpable way. It was exhilarating, scary, a need I didn't know I needed. Perhaps at the core of every trailhead trepidation is that look into the brink. Today it finds me ready, willing in a way only my body knows.


We set off again, increasing our pace on the flat plain of the mesa. Pinion pine, prickly pear cactus, and juniper dot the surface as we wind towards what looks like a maze of hooded nuns. The rock here is raw, like worn hands, an ancient body of bruised, teetering forms. Slow nature carving her art, like the wind's long arm, the rain's pointing. Words fail or reach too neatly back into the human. Here our frame of reference is imagination or memory, the odd collusion of TV westerns and seeing clearly. Try personification's elbow, a flock of jostling crows, a covered wagon rattling into shadow.

Less unsettled now, our silence is cut by our footfall, and the human rhythm of walking ties us to the place. More paradox, that our crunching boot soles could seem right, belong. In an hour's hike we cross the mesa and come to the edge of a narrow arroyo that is invisible until we are within fifty yards of it. Like a secret river the canyon fingers through the rock, bends its sheer walls into yawning shadows. Water has done this, water, which is nowhere to be found, cutting through the sandstone, streaming off the rock in dusty braids, nourishing the thick brush on the banks of the wash. It is hard to imagine. And vegetation, vegetation so thoroughly adapted, so patient to withstand months of arid weather for a chance to dip dry tendrils in the brief moments of a flash flood, that, too, is an unlikely force. Salt cedar. Monkey flower. Ironwood. Velvet ash. In this vast quiet the only sound is dust, swishing like waves through the sage.

The first time I came here was on a "couples" camping trip. A new relationship, with old friends. This place seemed appropriately dangerous, initiatory. Bad decision. By the third day my girl and I
were exchanging only the basic civilities. While our problems stemmed from human stubbornness, frailty and unfamiliarity, the exposure of the desert magnified our inadequacies. It was only after a rather harrowing bicycle accident and broken bones that we found ourselves back together, as if the environment had had enough of our squabbling, and so tested us.

Now we descend the mesa. The climb is treacherous. In places we must take off our packs and ferry them one at a time down the steep wall. As we scramble down, the sandstone crumbles beneath our feet. What takes the wind a thousand years we are accomplishing in a matter of minutes. In such an absolute environment the fragility of the rock is startling, our presence here an alien thumb print, a boot mark in the nitrogen-fixing soil that will last a hundred years.

Once down, we head north up the wash. A mile or so up we encounter black slabs of stone, polished by the wind and intermittent waters. Curious in color and texture, the slabs are harder than the surrounding sandstone: pre-cambrian, volcanic, nearly two billion years old, some of the oldest rock on earth. We take off our packs and lie on the smooth surface under the shadow of a juniper tree. The history of layers trembles beneath us. Below this is another age, a completely different climate. Once there was a sea here, and beneath it a volcano. These black slates are older than all life on our small planet. They glow in the coming evening, showing their passage to the sun. Erosion has whittled us back past ourselves. Beneath the volcano is a star, galactic dust, silence. We palm the rock, trying in some atavistic wish to remember.

The sun hangs distorted, a shimmering pear on the horizon, as we climb up the other side of the canyon. With three more miles to go before we set camp, we quicken our pace. We've been planning this solstice trip for over a year, and I'm grateful now, almost suddenly, for the extent of the sun. The light shifts off the canyon walls, and I marvel at how much the colors have changed since we began our hike. The palette of pale rusts and tans has deepened to bloodstone, purples, apricot, madder rose. Contrasts between rock and sky shimmer, a vibration the eye can barely perceive. These colors are millennial, like something I've always known, and they flow into me in a rush of warm wind. Peter keeps stopping to look around, 360 degrees of glowing hues and human absence. He has fully landed now, and I must gently exhort him to hike or we will spend the night on the trail, thrilled by the sights, but slowly chilled by the cool desert night.

As we walk, we talk about passages—my impending move to the midwest to begin a doctoral program in English Literature; his jump to California to start a post-doc studying yeast in another lab. "How will that place be different?" he wonders aloud. "Can the blasé West really deal with an aggressive New York Jew?" I suggest that a lab is a lab, and he looks at me with mild disdain. His concerns, however, are also my own. As a creature of place I derive not only identity but mental stability from the landscape. How will I respond to the alluvial plane of Ohio? To the folded shale hills of upper Appalachia? "People are people," I say, hoping, "and places merely places…."


Soon we come to another steep gulch. Again we take off our packs. At one point there is fifteen-foot drop we must descend by gripping the limbs of an ancient pinion pine somehow growing on the cliffband. Rather than dropping our packs to the bottom of the overhang, and possibly losing our water, we clip them to ropes and belay them down. This takes some time, and the light is failing. More than the temperature, lack of light in this steep and flaking environment is our concern. The other side of the gulch proves less daunting though, and we are soon up on the next mesa which drops gradually into the meadow where we will camp for the night.

Meadow. Land in or predominantly formed of grass. A tract of moist low-lying, usually level grassland. Fescue. Timothy. Grama grass. Prairie dogs. Cows. How a meadow in the desert? A parable? Some act of typology clearing, a "promised land"? Something just shy of a miracle? The edenic sound of the word rests oddly in our voice. Finding it here, a mirage shimmering in the dunes, is as incongruous as the desert gets. Rather, meadows conjure up images of settlement: lush farms, teetering barns, horses, ploughs, a windmill, or perhaps a murmuring mountain stream and the brilliant polychrome flush of wildflowers. Our greenery this evening is nothing of the sort, although from the edge of the mesa the thick sage and vallo weed give the impression of verdancy. And true, in spring there is an explosion of wildflowers: blooming prickly-pear cactus, red and white indian paintbrush, yucca blossom, marsh marigold, wild iris, monkey flower. Tonight it is a spiny verdure.

Yet this was once grazing country, Angus cattle in the days when Mormon pioneers settled the rough land. There are remnants of their ranches checkered through the country: timbers brought from Colorado, hollowed-log drinking troughs, fence posts, intricate webs of rusted wire. As we pass into the meadow, I think of how the land has changed; how hoof and mouth disease, alkali water and sheer distance killed off the cattle; how fencing and over-grazing disrupted the delicate balance of the soil. Once accomplished, the defoliation has dramatic results. The brief and violent spring rains wash away the tenuous stability of the topsoil, and the wind picks up the dust, whisks it fine-grained into the ever traveling air. The result is a shift from larger vegetation to intermittent grasses whose seed is carried easily by the wind. And the nutrient-poor soil, held tenaciously together by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, soon gives up its grip; the delicate system from largest tree to smallest cell lifts up into the wind. Who knows how quickly this place is changing? And how much our presence, with its assumed awareness, contributes to the very change. As if to echo these transformations, we cross a shallow wash strewn with the limbs of dead cottonwoods; as the largest, and most thirsty inhabitants of the desert, these trees are markers of environmental shifts.

Of course, before those 19th century Mormons, Native Americans roamed these canyons. Fremont, Paiute, Anasazi; then Navajo, Hopi. Those ancient voices resident here are more subtle, a mystery occupation that lived in better balance with this place, farming, hunting, gathering, moving with the water. Their intricate villages, pictographs and petroglyphs, and nearly invisible kivas, hang in these walls unnoticed but for the trained eye. As we walk in silence, staring up at the cinnabar walls, the rock barely whispers of their presence.

The way wind and dust spiral round our bodies, I am amazed that anyone could survive out here for long. Barring any unforeseen disaster, we, of course, will make it, bolstered by an accommodating technology and a modern sense that any place is not that far from another. Yet that is a false impression, one of the dangerous conclusions of the twentieth century, and I am wary of the theme of interconnectivity, even as it insists, as an articulation of the planet's very survival, upon recognition. For to collide places by means of their biotic, their touching margins, is to homogenize the notion of place. Particularity is as much a fact of existence as the web that we are woven to. Like a satellite telephone, metaphors of unity easily lend themselves to complacency. For if chaotic counterbalancing returns the system always to homeostasis, it is at a cost to individual lives. Surely the planet will shoulder on, but the miraculous adaptation of this collared lizard, or that canyon wren, will be missing. Hopefully our journeys to uniquely tuned places help us understand time and consequence, our rapid impact on the planet to its diminishment. The erosion of these spires is an empty solace. Nothingness yet again. Attuning our own instruments. This is nourishing, necessary, a return to friable source, concatenation of winds.

As we descend farther into the meadow, we are met with a startling sight: a blood red sun dropping its distended mass into the mouth of a distant canyon, spreading out like liquid fire over the surface of the rock. It feels like symbiosis seen, a transfer of heat and light from sun to rock, as if daily the desert is redrawn, forged again in the belly of stone, then spewed forth nightly in a cough of sky remade by our yellow star. We are stunned still, embarrassed; the image was not cast for human eyes. Rhapsodic apart from our projections, it is a moment of pure earth, element nodding to element, this diurnal passage turning for millions of years, and for a second we are part of it, housed in a world of rust and failing blue.

As color wanes we slowly regain ourselves, our human thinness in this wide place where the earth visibly bends on the horizon. The warm wind continues to blow, but I am suddenly chilled, my back wet and alive with the weight of my pack. Dazed, we trundle further into the meadow and find a spot in the lee of a huge monolith we call, half in jest, half in fumbling amazement, Sangre Madre, blood mother. She burns in the last light as we scrape our bodies of sweat and dumbly dump our gear. Words mumble into the dust, empty sounds in the the audible silence.

After some lowing and reeling and the odd crackling of candy wrappers, we return to the human. It has cooled down considerably, though still in the 80s. We change our drenched shirts, and Peter remarks that he has never seen so much red before. Everywhere a different shade; the clouds overhead are red, our faces, our socks. We walk out from the overhang of our protective mother and up one side of the meadow to a vantage point for the day's last show.

Another paradox. All sunsets in the desert are singular events. Yet on this evening we witness what seems a truly rare moment. Usually, the sun's decline is painted more or less at the point of the sun's descent. But on this night, diffuse with the day's windy particle, the whole sky casts the sun's light as if it had set everywhere. As one patch of clouds catch fire, announces itself and fades, another band on the other side of the sky does the same. Calico swaths animate and disperse. Sandstone jumps and catches on the vibratory margin; there is no center, all the colors bending and swirling around the deep bowl of the sky. We are somehow in this, vaguely a pivot. Soon the moon in a half sickle, strange benediction of passing, rises out of a pocket in the cliffs. Two lights linked body to body, we too begin to shine. In the east the snowy tops of the La Sals catch fire, speak of all the elements gathering and dispersing.

Benedictions, yes, laboratory mice. We look at each other and smile, hoot at our immense luck. We are voyeurs in an inhuman world, absorbing the color of dust. It is the color of our blood, interpenetrates our veins. Time whirls in another dimension, a slow shifting of breath that takes a thousand eons. What is consequential? How to translate? How to remain silent? The desert scrapes on, regardless. Soon we will return to a more complicated world. The questions of moving and settling will expose our various insecurities; the pressures of dailiness, of human interaction, will obtain a sense of priority. And true, the pleasures of our voices will announce their own kind of place. But for now, on this longest of days, the sharpness, the nothingness almost realized, hangs in our lungs, makes us part and parcel of the place. The desert, empty of all our claims, yet so full of ordinary magic, allows us simply to be, echoes our discovery, fades into night in wind and whisper.


"A Raft of Blues" by Matthew Cooperman
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