River Muses

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As the river rises with spring melt from the mountains, Abiquiu dam opens flooding the river to overflowing. The men come to clean the acequias or ditches that will bring life bringing water into the fields to irrigate the crops. All the farmers share this precious water, and having “water rights” determines whether crops will thrive or perish…

Every morning a shimmering golden orb mirrors the river whose serpentine shape and echoing voice welcomes me as I walk out to feed the birds and walk my dogs. I respond to her rumbling roar of water on stone with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of water, the rising sun, and a new day spent in this place of unimaginable beauty.

I have fallen in love with a river.

What Spirits decreed that I might live here for a time?

For months I climbed to the ruin of Poshuouinge to glimpse the serpentine path of water meandering below wondering what stories the river held close to her heart. Generations of Tewa speaking Pueblo peoples lived here along the river’s banks, women digging mud, shaping pots out of wet clay, creating art with agave brushes, men carving swiftly flying arrows, clearing the acequias, planting, harvesting, hunting giving thanks for the river’s generosity…people struggling to live in harmony with the land they called “Mother.”

Yet there was much suffering too. Too much blood was shed. Children and women were stolen by those who believed they had more “rights” than others, people who used other people and earthscapes for personal gain. Yet the People endured and some live on today in Pueblos scattered along the river.

Is this why the river tells me that I too must be steadfast, make peace with a troubled past, leave land that I love deeply, come to live here as a child would, trusting the river’s ebb and flow?

Is this why I have met such generous hearted people, people I could come to love?

Did the river draw them to her just as she calls to me now?

These questions haunt me because Place has a kind of Power that works invisibly through Fate and body/mind pulling a person into relationship with a particular element – like the water of this river – but this power never uses words to communicate. Instead, Nature calls her red winged blackbirds to sing their hearts out as I listen fervently for confirmation.

These black robed muses are answering my call.

It is up to me to make the choice to believe these birds whose Presence I see and hear, but whose message I cannot as yet feel.

Kinship and the Powers of Place

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What do I mean by the word kinship? I believe that kinship is the idea, and the belief that all aspects of nature from photons to galaxies are connected to one another. Practically, I think of kinship as my feeling/sense of being intimately linked to place/landscape. In my mind Kinship and Place are not only related, each is shaped by the other.

The powers of place are invisible threads that work by exerting a kind of physical and psychic pressure, pulling me into relationship; place acts like an attractor site. My body behaves like a lightening rod or perhaps a tuning fork picking up information from the landscape. Once I have heard the “call” the door opens through my relationship with elements, trees, animals, stars or stones to name a few possibilities. As this presence manifests through its individuals place begins to teach me what I need to know about an area and how I might best live in harmony with a particular landscape, if not its people. This learning occurs in bursts or very slowly just below the threshold of everyday consciousness. Either way, information seeps in through my body as I listen and pay close attention to what my senses are telling me. I allow animals, trees, plants to speak to me in their native language, and I note synchronistic occurrences. Information also comes to me through dreams. Eventually a discernable pattern emerges. My body acts as the bridge between my self and Nature; my body is the vehicle that keeps me connected to the whole.

Ironically, I never heard the phrase “power of place” used until the 90’s. Yet, this force has driven my entire life spanning almost seventy – one years. As a toddler I was already “reading” and absorbing landscapes through rain, flowers, the presence of deer, stars, dogs, the moon. This first intimate relationship with place occurred on my grandparents’ pre -revolutionary farm with its attendant fields, brook, and forest. During the day my little brother and I spent hours in the woods playing by the brook, watching birds, catching frogs and salamanders. At night we learned the names of the stars and caught fireflies which we kept overnight in jars… My grandmother often awakened me to watch the deer grazing under her golden apple tree. I also have a sharp memory of my mother and I gazing out my bedroom window at the full moon. When clouds scudded by shrouding the moon I apparently remarked, “the moon has gone under her covers.”

As an adolescent power of place fatally snagged me with Monhegan Island, an artist’s paradise located off the coast of Maine with it’s beautiful cliffs and raging seas; I moved there after college, married a fisherman, and my two sons were born during those years (I use the word “fatally” deliberately because accompanying the call is a sense of being pulled into the “right” place for unknown reasons. To live one’s Fate is another way to express this calling).

On Southport, another island, 300 year – old apple trees cried out to me, and a diminutive 1700’s cape style house embraced my children and me after my divorce.

After the children were grown I heard the sound of “wilderness” keening and I moved to the western mountains of Maine seeking the source of that call, the one I called the Mountain Mother. I did not understand then that I was being called to witness the desecration of the earth from ‘my land’ and then to become Nature’s advocate. I was called to this patch of earth to begin my most important life’s – work: to write honestly about my experiences in nature with the hope that I might be able to sensitize others to the destruction of the earth through stories about individuals and my relationship with them. When I first arrived here this mother swept me off my feet! She flowed through me like a great underground river, rooting me to this particular ground with a love so powerful I had no words to express what I felt. When she continued to communicate with me I experienced ecstasy, and later during longer and longer silences I felt profound overwhelming grief.

My initial experience with place follows a certain pattern: first I feel joy and wonder, followed by a visceral feeling of belonging, the best kind of natural high. After a time the joyful aspect continues intermittently, as I become more deeply enmeshed in a landscape through relationships with its particular features and creatures as I have with this brook, forest and field, the birds and animals that live here with me… Experiencing joy also opens me to sorrow (For example, moving to the mountains of western Maine brought the mindless destruction of trees to the center of my attention). To love is to experience loss of the beloved; the two are intimately related.

In recent years although I continue to write, joy has absented herself from my relationship with this land… There are many reasons I could give and all involve change. The massive tree destruction, noise, gunning, chaotic neighbors etc. are concrete examples of negative changes that have profoundly impacted me. I still experience deep pleasure in particulars like the unfurling leaves of ferns, the first mayflowers, my love of birds, the few bears that continue to visit now and then, my wild gardens on fire with bee balm, delft blue delphinium, and fragrant yellow lilies, the changing seasons but I feel a deep penetrating sadness overall, though I retain a deep love for the land as a whole and my small log cabin. I believe the powers of this place understand that for whatever reason I am in crisis, (I turned 70 last September) and that I need to leave at least for a time in order to regain my perspective. As I continue to converse with the land that I love I feel that She is giving me permission to let go for now.

Running parallel with all these feelings is the powerful sense that I need to return to the desert. I first visited this timeless world in my early twenties just after I lost my only brother. That first time the desert was unable to penetrate the haze of this young woman’s grief. It wasn’t until mid-life after another series of losses that returning to the desert helped me re-capture my lost soul. How this happened remains a mystery to me but it has everything to do with the powers of place. The desert has a healing aspect to it that is unlike any other. What I did after my divorce was to surrender myself to the Desert Mother while asking one question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? After six months in the Sonoran desert, I returned east feeling whole, having recaptured my joy, and ready to return to college. That was 20 years ago and in retrospect I see that the choice to return to school was a sound one because it helped shape my teaching and writing life and it gave me my first experience with a community of like-minded people.

During the last year, a year of deep depression and loneliness I began dreaming about the desert again. I struggled to give myself the permission to allow myself to make another pilgrimage to the desert for healing – to re –dress the imbalances in my life, and to re-capture my joy. Although I couldn’t afford it I made a decision to go to New Mexico to visit a desert that I have never seen before. I chose Abiquiu, a small mountain village in the high desert because the artist Georgia O’ Keeffe lived there during the latter part of her life and painted some of her most astonishing desert paintings in this amazing world of wide open blue sky, stars, and stone. Although I never met her, Georgia has been a mentor to me, a beacon of hope, because I believe that she experienced Nature in much the same the way as I do, and she allowed the powers of place to influence her decision making too. I admired O’Keeffe’s tenacity and refusal to live her life according to other people’s expectations. She lived an authentic, self -directed life.

As some of us know, while making a pilgrimage, time stretches out like a rubber band, and once the threshold has been crossed one is catapulted into sacred space where the present becomes all there is. That first morning in Abiquiu I awakened at dawn and ran out into the surrounding desert in my nightgown possessed by joy! The dusty gray sage laden hills were round, peppered with sea green spiked pinion pine, fragrant Juniper and mountain cedar. These beautiful small trees provided a stunning contrast in shape and color to the dusty red Earth.

On the peak of a nearby hill I was drawn to a solitary Grandmother Cedar, an ancient gnarled tree whose thick, rough, and wavy gray bark had been shaped by harsh winds and summer rains. Her lace-like fronds were few. Most branches lay dead, strewn around her trunk like bleached bones providing her with nutrients that might be helping her to keep on living long past her time. Startled by her probable age and tenacity, I picked up one of the dead twigs; I saw the shape of the whole tree mirrored in that one branch, just as the sparse but fan -like evergreen “leaves” that still lived reflected the same fractal patterning. I could sense a presence around and within the tree’s ashen body as she bled into me; I was reminded that if she could live on so could I as I entered old age. Did I imagine a new sense of self emerging from out of the rubble?

When I returned to the adobe house I was renting I was stunned to encounter a wild African collared ring necked dove sitting on a branch of a nearby snag. I am very familiar with these doves because I have one. Lily B has been with me for 23 years. Hundreds of these birds (who are imported because they are such good egg sitting parents for exotic species) have been released into the wild after they are no longer useful as egg sitters. With a shock I realized that some apparently survive here in Northern New Mexico where temperatures drop well below freezing during the relatively brief winters. I called out to this ring necked dove as I approached him warily, not wanting him to fly away. He cocked his head in what appeared to be curiosity but he didn’t respond to my voice with a song. I was disappointed. Perhaps this dove was a female; females adopt a shorter version of the male’s song but only respond to the voice of their mates. I experienced the appearance of this wild ring neck dove as a powerful link with my home in the mountains of Maine.

My first trip into Abiquiu village was bewildering because it seemed as if the winding road was one sinuous red serpent snaking its way down through the peppered hills. The clear untroubled Chama River flowed beneath a bridge in front of me as I made my descent to the place where earth met concrete. The cottonwoods were sprouting lime and chartreuse and mountain blue birds and three kinds of doves were singing to each other and perhaps to the sound of the river.

Once across the bridge I visited the Inn and church compound where Georgia O’Keeffe eventually bought and managed her second house, a once abandoned hacienda. Here too I experienced another rush of pure joy. My love of O’Keeffe’s paintings had been part of my longing to visit this particular desert, so why was I so surprised when I opened the wrought iron gates of the church courtyard around to find it eerily familiar? Georgia had once painted this edifice. I found the fragrant herb Rue growing in the garden and picked some to take into the church with me. Rue is traditionally an herb of protection used by Meso and South American Native peoples to ward off evil. Inside, the lovely chapel had stained glass with lots of traditional Christian images but when I approached the lily strewn altar I saw to my right a statue of the Virgin, and on the opposite side of the enclave I was stunned to come face to face with the Black Madonna! In Arizona I had found these images outside or behind the churches, usually in little stone grottos. The country folk come to these shrines to light candles and pray to an older goddess than the one Christianity knows as the Virgin.

The images of the Black Madonna and Guadalupe that I had seen in Tucson and other places in the southwest were usually Indian looking; in Europe they are black. Oddly, this figurine was also black, embossed in gold, and seated. There was no place to light a candle for Her, this Mother of Us All, so I took a votive candle from the Virgin and lit it in front of the wooden carving. The hair prickled on my arms… After a while I left the church, leaving an offering of Rue at the foot of the Black Madonna’s robe.

Everywhere I went people told their stories about how they came to this thriving artists’ and writers’ community and how much they loved the area. With the exception of Native tribes like the Navaho, most folks seemed to have arrived here from all over the country. Some spoke of the spiritual energy that permeated the place, and I knew what they were talking about because the energy charge I experienced was so fierce that I was having a hard time staying in my body.

I met a group of women that called themselves the Intrepids who regularly hiked in the seemingly endless high desert, most of which was protected by National forests that stretched out all around this small village. While hiking I couldn’t help comparing this true wilderness to Maine where the wild places are under siege and virtually disappearing. I learned that the logging industry was dead in Northern Mexico. Thanks to the “Forest Guardians” this land would remain untouched; no doubt the reason the silence struck peace like a bell.

The following day I went to see where Ghost Ranch was located, the first place that Georgia lived, (and bought), where she painted many of her landscapes. I was not prepared for the astonishing depth and breadth and the visionary quality of the seemingly endless beauty that surrounded me. Ghost Ranch blended so well with the scenery that I could barely see the structure tucked into the base of one of the cliffs. I spent four hours staring at the austere mountains that changed color every second as clouds passed by and shadows fell in new places highlighting red, ocher, lavender, even deep purple and green until the night closed in. The landscape around Georgia’s “home-place” was so astounding that after my initial experience and attempt to describe it, I decided that O’Keeffe’s mountains must remain as stark impressions in my mind:

Sand, white clay, ivory, buff, orange and yellow ocher, brick, Indian red, violet and purple, even a pale moss – all colors running together against a background of Indian red rock and stone. The stillness is deafening and sweet. Fantastic formations, a roaring gorge, and one long deep blue lake – a sand stone floor teaming with life – raging gullies – slippery sands – and layers upon layers of clay forming pyramids that are painted in every conceivable earthen shade. The Great Goddess of the Desert Wilderness is a living presence here; the powers of place rooted me, clasped me in their embrace, and soared above me like great black birds vanishing into the deep blue firmament…

For artists and perhaps mystics like myself, the “value” is in ever changing color and truly this place embodies the Navaho spirit of “Changing Woman.” She continuously shifts clouds and sky, stones, sands and water – arroyos overflow, even reverse directions under thundering rains – the driest cracked red earth is alive with sage, juniper, cedar and pinion pine – all the colors except the red cliffs run together – pastels, each bleeding one into another. Desert Silence is like no other, and at night a bowl of silver stars stretches round over the night from horizon to horizon.

The fifteen – mile drive in to the Benedictine monastery requires both courage and focus on an unbelievably narrow winding dirt road that slithers its way above an impossibly deep gorge on one side and meanders around flaming orange cliffs or towering rotund sandstone castles on the other. The roundness of these Sandstone Beings, sculpted and curved by wind and time seemed infinitely wise and the sight of them left me dumbstruck. How could stone be chiseled and smoothed into such a fantastic myriad of shapes? I felt as if I needed eyes in the back of my head to take in all this wonder.

I was actually relieved to reach the monastery, which was tucked under its own mountain, shaded and sheltered by many surrounding cliffs; rich red soil had already been turned for spring planting. Walking into the chapel for vespers stunned me. Above all the usual ecclesiastical images on the altar there was a huge bowed window that stretched across the front of the church and reached the top of the building. This giant window was angled like the prow of a ship and opened directly on a towering burnt sienna cliff with a solitary mountain cedar rooted to its pinnacle. I let out an involuntary gasp as the golden sunlight streamed into the building and lit up the room. Whoever had done this architectural work clearly understood that the Stone People were the first earth beings. The image of the stupendous cliff turning red, orange, and gold in the setting sun was so breathtaking that I was speechless. It’s impossible to write more about this place beyond stating that it must be experienced.

Later that afternoon I meandered around the Indian red hills. From the top of a craggy red rock a solitary raven crowed. Because this was virgin desert I didn’t expect to find a creative homemade wood and tin birdhouse lying on the desert floor. Was this a second message about home? I picked up the bird -house and decided to keep it.

The sparse and spiky vegetation suggested that this area was a bit drier here and I wondered how much water was left in the underground aquifers. The average home well was 400 – 500 feet down. Masses of juniper, cedar and a few pinion pines provided some protection from the wind and the dirt road wound its way up the nearest mountain. Nature sculpted circular sandstone paintings on the rough stone eroding on the ground. There was a steep red gully that ran through the west part of the rolling hills and across from that arroyo stood another group of sandstone Desert Beings. I imagined I could hear the water tumbling down that gully during the summer rains. Birds of all kinds flew in and out of the holes of these cliffs.

To the north a nearby softly rounded mountain range speckled with pinion and juniper rose in austere silence. To the east the imposing snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range stretched over the horizon as far as I could see. I wondered which peak was 14 thousand feet high since all seemed equally immense. To the south I saw another blue mountain range with its solitary mesa or Pedernal rising in the middle. Georgia had painted this configuration of rock with its flattened top, and her ashes were scattered on the top of the mesa. She once said that god told her that if she painted this mountain enough he would give it to her! I wondered if O’Keeffe knew that according to Navajo Myth, Changing Woman was born on this mesa. The contours of the land rose and fell around the mountain ranges, flowed over gullies and shallow arroyos. The Earth seemed to be whispering to me in an ancient language that flowed out of stone into thin air. Late that afternoon I wandered back to this higher terrain and eventually ended up at the crest of the mountain where I witnessed a miraculous sunset on fire.

Early dawn would find me at the airport headed for Maine. Reflecting on the powers of place I realized that the high desert of Abiquiu mirrors my life through wild beauty and my fatal attraction to it, through song and scarcity, tenacity, loneliness, and death, my need for silence, wonder, thorns, bones, and for flowers.

I thought about the particulars that stood out from the whole: the mountain cedar, the brief appearance of a ring necked dove, the bird house, the Black Madonna, flaming cliffs seen as if from the prow of a ship, and the sense that Georgia in some magical way had accompanied me throughout this entire journey. The message seemed obvious – She was calling to me again, this Mother of Stone. For the second time in my life I had discovered a spiritual home in the mountains. A part of me is attached to this land by invisible threads; I belong to this place and to learn what this desert has to teach me, I will have to return.

(This picture of the little red hills came from one of Georgia OKeeffe’s art books…one that I own)

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The Mountain Mother

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When I picked berries in the mountain field that first summer I could sense wave after wave of feeling rising up – seeping into my feet from the ground below. The sun spread blue heat over the hills and I bathed in summer’s glow. For the first time in my life I felt visible, witnessed for who I really was and accepted: I was loved –unconditionally loved by a Mother. That She was a mountain field didn’t seem odd at all. I loved her back – fiercely. I marveled. To be in love with my goddess, the one that lived in this field, brook, young forest, the one who inhabited each of these rolling hills and mountains seemed so natural. Remarkably, She celebrated my presence not only by gifting me with a love that ran like a great underground river beneath me but because She created a palpable sense of belonging. I belonged to Her. She loved me just because I was. I couldn’t get over it. My gratitude knew no bounds. All I wanted to do was to serve her…

She was visible in so many ways – in the riot of purple and green jack in the pulpits that sprung out of the sphagnum moss behind the camp in the moist valley that often filled with water, through the solitary pink lady slipper that appeared by the bridge that crossed the brook, the tiny white swamp violets, the blue fringed gentians and pearl-white turtleheads that popped up in the meadow fed by it’s own spring in the center of the field.

I glimpsed her face in the cedar that sprung to life in the rich wooded soil that bordered the brook, she sang to me from the wild apple branches that bowed over rippling water, she blinked through each firefly night, burst into a “high” when thunder and lightening churned up the waters and the brook overflowed – White Fire crackling out of her clouds and slamming into me.

I moved here from the seacoast to live at the edge of the wilderness so I thought. The “power of  place” had her own agenda. She decreed I had come here to re-claim childhood memories in these beautiful round tree studded granite mountains, and later to endure and make peace with the Dark Mother. During those first days I was flooded with images: My little brother and I playing in the brook, finding frogs and salamanders in the woods, chasing butterflies in the field, watching blue birds and fireflies, sinking into sleep under a star swept sky. How much I missed Davey! Sometimes it almost seemed as if he was hiding just out of sight. One blue morning the hawk circled over my head and I heard my brother calling. When I discovered her feathered wing in the field I believed that he lived again through me. Miracles happened here. Even his ashes found a resting place by this brook after 32 years spent in my mother’s stifling attic. Here the Mountain Mother will watch over him until the earth is no more. Is it any wonder I felt peace?

Whenever I walked down the hill through the field the intoxicating scent of fresh water pulled me like a lodestone towards the brook. Water, my first love was water; without it I shriveled like plants do in the late summer heat becoming dry lifeless heaps. Spring was my favorite season in the mountains because water was the only music I could hear around the camp – sometimes deafening in intensity it tumbled over the falls and cascaded over lichened stone – granite boulders rarely impeded the flow. The sounds of the swollen brook soothed me, quieting my racing mind, allowing images to flower into words, poems, or prayers of gratitude. Oh, I loved her so. And so it continued for a number of years…

I began to experience a darker side of the Mountain Mother when two intolerable family losses piled up on me like a cairn of heavy stones. I first saw her in the stark cliffs, in the ice that came too early and lingered to long, in the fierce winter winds that blew mercilessly, split tree limbs, in the mountains of snow that froze solid ripping off roof tops and caving in old homes. My dreams became dark and ominous full of dark men and darker women. I was full of rage and sorrow.

When the rape of the forest began I was in a state of disbelief, unable to process that so much tree destruction could occur with such relentless precision, could blot out ‘the peace of the wild things’ so absolutely without anyone noticing what was happening. This is when I learned that the “Tree of Life” is not a metaphor: rather trees are life because they not only provide most of Nature with the oxygen needed to breathe but they support  wildlife by creating a “home place” for all. While the trees screeched and shuddered as they fell, owls and hawks disappeared. The gouged out earth flooded and the rain swept rich topsoil in great weeping rivulets down the now distorted face of the Mountain Mother. Many birds were silenced; all suffered habitat loss. Bears, deer, coyotes, beaver, woodcock and grouse, ducks and wild geese, fox and moose continued to be hunted down, shot and trapped by those who believe they had “god-given” rights to kill – not primarily for food, but for the thrill. A cranky mob of crows croaked and cawed from the tops of old snags, their numbers stable, perhaps a testament to Nature’s tenacity? Or were they a caucus of old bird women in disguise uttering unintelligible omens of what lay ahead? Nature was under siege and I couldn’t bear it. Her mirror was cracking. When the Mountain Mother turned her darkest face toward me I questioned my own sanity.

Year after year I struggled to make peace with the ongoing slaughter of trees and animals, with neighborhood bullies, with myself. When the gunning began in the valley, despair mushroomed even as I closed my windows to keep summer out. Hours of mindless target shooting, roaring trucks, earth-gouging machines, and belligerent thugs devoured the silence. Peace was on the run. Noise shattered what was left of the mirror. I grieved. Leave taking became reality. I put my house up for sale.

A month ago feeling overcome by sorrow I co-opted a song and re –wrote it. When I read it out loud with my two dogs, dove, and log cabin as witnesses, my voice cracked.

My Lady of the Shadows

 

All year long she touched me

Gathered me to her soul

Shrouded in moon and stars

She held me thorns and all

 

And the Light came through her body

And the Night fell through her grace

All year long she touched me

And I knew her face to face

 

 I find her in the Shadows

Where I thank her with my heart

For keeping me so close to her

When I believed I stood apart

 

And the Light comes through her body

And the Night falls through her grace

All year long she touches me

I know her face to face.

I wrote the words in the past and the present tense to remind myself that I do know her as the benevolent Mountain Mother, although it is getting so much harder for me to reach her beneficent side. I need relief from personal suffering and human induced noise to hear Her voice. It was late in the afternoon when I hung the words up on the wall next to Guadalupe’s shrine. When I walked over to “her “ window as I call my plant window because it looks out over the eastern mountains, I was stunned because those glorious mounds seemed to light up of their own accord – in all these years I had never gazed at deep golden light so intense that the mountains seemed to have been lit with it from within. I gasped. The sight affected me on such a visceral level that I just stood there with my mouth open…miracles still happen here.

Later I understood: this Lady of the Shadows is the sorrowful side of the goddess. Because rage and sorrow are conjoined as one, together they encompass the dark aspect of the Mountain Mother (Demeter’s rage and sorrow express this aspect well). Although her joyous side has been suppressed in me for many years I was comforted.

I also think that this narrative is about something greater than my own story. I believe the Spirit of Nature has been separated from her Soul. Her body is in mourning, her body is burning. We have stripped our Mountain Mother of sentience – of deep knowing, deep feeling, and natural wisdom. At present Her only function is to serve the devouring maw of patriarchal culture as a commodity, or worse, as a sacrificial mother. Is it any wonder that grief pours out of me? What happens to the Earth is happening to me.

I will always love this land but I have reached the conclusion that I must find another place to live. At 70 I plan to visit the mountainous region of Abiquiu, New Mexico where I hope to meet the Wild Goddess in her desert form. There are rivers there that flow down from the mountains… A desert is by natural inclination open space but it is also a place where the earth meets the sky, a place perhaps where a wounded spirit, soul, and body can heal? Deserts, I recall, are blissfully silent most of the time. ‘The peace of the wild things’ still exists in cactus flowers, roadrunners and ravens, lizards, pinion pine, mesquite and rabbit bush. Perhaps a mountainous desert made from crushed stone, the first life form on earth, is a place to start over?