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Moving hearts

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Bow Tie Arch, Moab, Utah

If places were men, Portland, Oregon would be the guy I met at a farmers market. We both like to hike, and read, and travel. He talks about his feelings. He recycles. It’s all very satisfying, but a bit damp. Moab, Utah would be running away with the cowboy who comes to town occasionally, never says a word, looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, and one day shows up with an extra horse so I can ride away with him. Hot, but after a while the dryness would get to you.

If home is where the heart is, then southern Utah is one of my homes. But I don’t see myself living there. Moab, the most likely candidate in practical terms, like a thriving library and access to foods I like, is indeed a cowboy town, dealing with a constant avalanche of people, tons of whom fan out into the wilderness on all-terrain vehicles instead of horses, making Moab the ATV capital of Utah. It’s a lot of hubbub, and there are only two months of the year — cold January and blistering July — when it calms down.

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Silver fleabane (Erigeron argentatus) Snow Canyon, Utah

For most of my life home was a physical place, a building, both shelter and oasis. Now, taking my home with me, and discovering that there are places that are home even if I have never known them, expands the idea, makes it clearer that home is resonance rather than space, however suitable and even wonderful the space is.

Take California and South Dakota, for examples. California is a place of great compatibility for me — incredible beauty, a constant avalanche of fruits and vegetables, acupuncture easier to get than a slice of (artisanal) pizza. I know and love wonderful people there. There are thirty times more wildflowers blooming there than, say, Utah. You can have desert, mountains, meadows, cities, small towns, valleys, vast lakes, ocean, all without leaving the state.

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Fort Pierre National Grasslands, central South Dakota

But I’ve never felt in California the way I felt driving into southeastern Utah for the first time, or the way I felt one hot July day in South Dakota, when I stopped the car on a lonely road along the Native American Scenic Byway and stepped into the prairie, the sun overhead, the sky cobalt, the grasses flowing over my feet, calves, tickling my knees in the constant wind, the heat pressed against my skin, almost dizzy with the sense that this was my place on earth. That the curves of my body were part of those vast rolling hills, with their waving oceans of  green and tan grass, their endless breathing of air.

I doubt I’ll ever choose either Utah or South Dakota as a place to live permanently. But they are home, because my heart was already there, waiting for me. This is a great mystery. Many of us, including me, say casually of these experiences, ‘I must have had another life there.’ We feel that we’re walking into echoes. I have no clear vision of how our energies mix in this universe as they come in and out of the plane we call life. Perhaps we’re part of a universal consciousness, potentially making all histories and stories our own. Though, if so, why do some places, people, situations so reverberate with us, while others don’t at all? Why do I find echoes in the prairie of South Dakota and the desert of southern Utah, but not in the mountains of neighbors Montana and Colorado?

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Fernan Lake, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In the past, I had the old saying backwards. I made a home I loved, and put my heart there. Now I see that enduring phrase also acknowledges the heart’s ‘homing’ ability — the resonance that tells us where home is, where our heart belongs. Right now I’m at home in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, because this where my son lives, and so part of my heart is always here.

kalientoI’m privileged to be able to live this mystery, to wander from place to place, finding echoes, surprises, beauty, wildflowers, companions. It’s both mildly antic and quite wonderful to travel through the world towing chairs and forks and my favorite rug, making home wherever I feel like it, wherever I’m drawn.

But I have a lot of company on this journey, whether on wheels or not, because we’re all living in moving homes, as we carry our hearts from place to place.

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Idaho’s camas lily (Camassia quamash)

 

 

Cactus lingerie

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Staghorn cholla (Cycylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park, Arizona

I had never been a fan of cactus. Prickly, tough-skinned, ungainly. Leaves so attenuated they’ve become sharp-tipped spines. Interesting shapes, perhaps. Fascinating as examples of environmental adaptation, but nothing to love.

Things have changed. I first came to the desert in 2012, and there, in the spare open spaces, living with sand, rock, spindly, dark-leaved, creosote, and spiny ocotillo, cacti began to make sense. The first to woo me was the teddy bear cholla, somewhat endearing despite it’s dangerous, bristling spines, the outermost ones virtually invisible. But those translucent outer spines, however treacherous to skin, catch the sun and make chollas a blaze of glory.

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Gander’s cholla (Cylindropuntia ganderii) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There were prickly pears, slightly less lethal, spine-wise. Their small ‘jumping’ spines are easier to see and harder to brush against, since their longer spines will discourage you. Set among the rocks, they began to seem interesting and handsome. Barrel cactus, too, it’s broad ribs creating a deeply pleated surface, with long, curving, colorful spines, fit well among the boulders and sand. The less obtrusive, even hard-to-find fish hook cactus were almost pretty, with a delicate network of curved spines.

 

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Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

But nothing reconciled me to cactus the way their flowers did, when they showed up on a longer visit in 2013. First come buds that look like they’re plated with armor. The bud then opens into a wrinkled mess that looks like the flower has already shriveled up. And, then, from this daunting start, a flower so lovely, so delicate, so translucent unfurls that you can hardly believe your eyes. It’s as if your tough-talking, cigarette-dragging, hard-as-nails but intriguing neighbor suddenly answered the door in the softest, silkiest lingerie, floating gorgeous colors.

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Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) Saguarro National Park West

Startled, you forget you came to borrow her chain saw, and you’re dying to ask whom she’s expecting. Cacti use those beautiful, filmy colors and textures for the same reason we do: allurement. They expect bees, mainly, though some expect bats and hummingbirds. They produce a profusion of pollen, and need their creatures to share it as widely as possible, since they aren’t self pollinating.

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Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmanii) Saguaro National Park Arizona

Just as you will never look at your neighbor in the same way, having seen that side of her, it became impossible for me to look at cactus and not know what they are capable of, come spring. So that went a long way toward learning to love them. But there’s something else that fostered the change. When you see them where they are supposed to be, where they have grown and adapted for millions of years, they fit into the landscape in a way they don’t anywhere else.

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Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) n the Anza Borrego Desert, California

I love most flowers. I have a passion for them. But my greatest passion is for flowers in their native place, which is why I love wildflowers so much. There is a deep ecological and historical connection between a plant and the place it grows naturally. Cacti evolved to be tough and prickly so they can fend off predators and conserve water in an arid environment, where temperatures can be freezing at night and 115 degrees during the day. In wetter, cooler places they would have full-blown leaves, deep roots, more delicate skin. They wouldn’t need the waxiness that can give their skin a silver-blue hue, a desert color, or the spines that create an air buffer against the drying heat.

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Fishhook cactus (Mammillaria dioica) Anza Borrego Desert, California

As a landscape designer, I planted wonderful plants that originated far from the northeast coast of the U.S. They were gorgeous and sturdy. But I loved most the native plants of Long Island, the ones I could find on long walks in the woods, or that showed up in summer meadows, or held the shifting sand dunes together. On my travels I don’t tend to go to botanical gardens, though I like them. I would rather climb the hills around town, finding the wild flowers.

There’s something different about their spirit, their connection to place, their adaptations of color, size, leaf shape. They have a sense of belonging to the landscape, the texture of the air, the life of that particular soil. It’s not just about the way they look, although I love that part, but about the way they feel, up there on their dry escarpments, or in the shade of tall trees, or flowing down a hillside toward the ocean, filling the air with their spicy scent. These are the plants most connected to the magic and mystery of the powers that created them. They are my direct connection to the soul of the earth.

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Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

Mysteries at my feet

Mysterious linear tracks in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThe lines showed up one morning, on a section of my walk where the sand, driven over by a tractor, is unusually soft and shows an imprint easily. Lizard tails, I thought. I checked carefully for any sign of tiny lizard feet but didn’t see any indentations along the lines.

About a mile on, they showed up again, this time in the dry desert sand. So it had to be something with enough weight to mark that crustier sand. Still no footprints. Snakes, I thought, and, when I saw that several lines converged at a hole in the desert floor, I took that as confirmation.

Mystery tracks in the Desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordMore lines showed up each day. They kept converging on holes. They often led to the base of bushes. They hadn’t shown up until it was pretty hot. All that pointed to snakes, who like the warm weather, though coil themselves in the shade of desert shrubs when it’s too hot. They live in holes in the desert floor, protection from both too much heat and too much cold.

Then I remembered that snakes move in curves. I checked. They can move in straight lines, by straightening their scales and scooping themselves forward. That sounded exhausting; something a snake would only occasionally do. Then I was back to lizards. I took my pictures to a ranger at the State Park office, and she went through the same line of reasoning I did: lizards, then snakes, then back to lizards. Except where were the feet? The cluster of lines around the hole made her think it might be a family of snakes.

Raven Tracks in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI showed her other lines. Ravens walking in the same soft sand. Something with small, round footprints that, she said, might be a young coyote.Young coyote footprints in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI don’t see a large variety of creatures on those acres. Tiny lizards occasionally zip by. I hear coyotes calling and yipping at night. There were a couple of vultures sailing overhead for most of Easter, which was intriguing.

An ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThere are lots of roomy anthills, with armies of industrious ants, like this one, who, with a dozen compatriots, was taking seed heads from one place to another. I’ve seen one rattlesnake but would have missed it if it hadn’t given me a mild rattle to keep me in my place. I’ve only seen one lizard big enough to make these lines — a handsome white one, eighteen inches long, with a sculpted head and back, regally crossing the street one hot afternoon.Rattlesnake at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert By Betsey CrawfordWhite-winged doves coo and forage, two ravens perch on a telephone pole on a semi-permanent basis, hummingbirds routinely buzz the back of the trailer and then disappear. Speckled beetles move swiftly in varied directions.

These are profound energies that I walk among — lizard, coyote, raven, snake, hummingbird — acknowledged by their long and deeply held roots in many cultures’ lore. Though I don’t often see them, I see the lines they leave as they weave their lives with mine, our song lines intersecting as we pass through the sun and shadow of the desert.

Various footprints in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordWe are woven together by more than our interlacing footprints. Evolution holds us all in its patient embrace. I share 85% of my DNA with the coyote whose call heralds the desert night. Though my ancestors and the lizards’ ancestors parted evolutionary ways a few hundred million years ago, we are still tied by many strands of DNA, governing the most basic elements of our mingled lives.

When I was looking at pictures to include with this post, I found this one of a desert thoroughfare: Siegfried’s tractor, my footprints, my dog Splash’s paw prints, some other small round footprint on the lower right. Lots of lines.

A variety of animal and human tracks in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordStudying them, I realized that the lines on the mid and upper right do have feet on either side of them. So now I’m back to lizards. But there are many that don’t look like that, so snakes are still a possibility. Or both. Or something I haven’t thought of yet. It’s a mystery.

And will remain so. I went out on my last morning to check again for footprints along the lines. But another profound energy had swept in — a 35 mile-an-hour wind — and all lines and footprints had been softened into gentle undulations in the sand, all distinctions erased.

Desert mountains in Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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