A Big Bend Sense of Place

5 Mar
Big Bend in the northern Chihuahuan Desert

Big Bend in the northern Chihuahuan Desert

The air is still, hot and oppressive. The glaring sun scalds rocks, sand and exposed skin. Dry lips stick to your teeth. Plant thorns surround you and the silence is deafening. Jagged mountains rise like angry fists, arroyos gasp with thirsty seams and canyons gash the surface like gates to Hell. There is no green grass, babbling brooks, nor shady tree canopies. This is the desert.

A subconscious uneasiness creeps in while driving through the desert in your comfortable and cozy vehicle. Vacant stares reflect a barren landscape and emptiness. “There’s nothing here,” you say. And move on.

Yet something –inexplicable, indefinable, and unforgettable- touches you, lingering in your subconsciousness, imprinting memories, tickling curiosities. And sometimes, it tethers you with an elastic rope which pulls you back –again and again.

Big Bend is a banquet, a buffet, where scientists, humanists, ,outdoor enthusiasts, artists, and social misfits can feast on diverse curious delicacies and come back to the table over and over again. You can gorge yourself and remain hungry for more.

Why? What is it about the Big Bend region that affects us so deeply? Is it the mystery, the natural history, the romance? Could it be the solitude and remoteness? Or perhaps the extremes, the diversity and its ghosts?

If I disengage myself spiritually from Big Bend, I would write how other people see it. Or present Big Bend so that others can relate to it. I would be establishing a virtual rendition of Big Bend. Then a ghost rises out of me and taps me on the shoulder, asking me again, as it has for so many decades in so many places: Why do I feel at ‘Home’ here?

Why Big Bend? Why this northern area of the Chihuahua Desert?

I’m a creature of my surroundings. Ever since I can remember my environment has been a part of me, no matter where I am. And that has not always had a positive impact. In the Maine woods I was as much a natural occupant as all the life forms I shared it with. On my Oregon ranch I reclined in pastures with the sheep and horses on a spring day. I felt the caress of the fog on my body and spirit as it slithered over the Pacific coastal mountain peaks and slopes.

In California the ravaged land disturbed my spirit for months before I realized why: its silent wail of overuse and abuse never left me alone and haunted me to the point I had to leave. Areas of the Northeast and Central U.S. seemed complacently weary; the old vigorous and wild mountains and forests of New England were sublime. Ohio and West Virginia are suspended in time, an indecisive staggering of going forward or backwards. The man-made concrete canyons of cities, their congested roads, the cacophony of noise and lights left me anxious and nervous. Over too many years in crowds and the human-dictated environment, I became numb and functioned on a daily autopilot orchestrated by clocks and schedules.

Centuries of natural and human trials and conflict, against each other and amongst themselves, echoed in the canyons of the Dakota Badlands. There, long ago, the portal into the world of the West was my final parting from my Eastern past. And without a look behind me, I stepped into the West; transformed.  I felt I was finally ‘Home’.

Barney Nelson writes about a ‘sense of place’; accumulative and subconscious, possibly a ‘sixth sense’. [1] Anyone living or has lived in a place where they sense the changing weather by shifts in the wind or a scent on the air, intuitively find resources to survive off the land, look down at their feet and ‘read’ animal tracks and sign, look up into the trees and clouds to predict drought or bountiful rain, find water in the desert by spotting cottonwoods, detect ‘stale’ or clean water by smell, anticipate seasonal cycles by changes in color of rabbit and mink fur, anticipate rain by the red flower tips on ocotillos……… you know, that ‘sense of place’.

As Nelson comments, that sense ‘comes with adaptation and surviving’ in a particular place. It may derive from accumulative observation of the surrounding wildlife, flora and fauna, from trial and error, or from a sense of community and belonging. Consequences always follow decisions, and choices may be few. Nevertheless, those consequences inform and develop a sense of place.

But it’s more than just a sense of ‘place’, it’s also a sense of ‘time’. Not only do we build upon our past and present experiences, positive and negative reinforcement, but also the knowledge of time that we ‘read’ in the land. Seashells on mountaintops indicate the land underneath your feet was once buried under massive seas teeming with aquatic life. Fossils of plants and animals that once flourished on the same ground you walk possibly thrived in conditions contrary to what you experience around you now. Mountain ridges were once buried deep below the earth surface only to be thrust upward and out by movements in the earth’s crust as continents ripped apart or collided. The magnificent red-hued arches and yellow canyons were once solid rock, worn and sculpted over time by wind and water. And you wonder where that water came from and went while standing in a blistering hot and dry desert.

To help understand the meanings of land and time, listen to the voices that were there before you. Stories, written and oral, connect ghosts from the past to those that live there now, for places are joined by land, weather and living creatures. They are all inseparable from the lives, perils and longings of men and women that shaped and were shaped by these places.

Even in the cities you might contemplate what the land looked like before concrete and asphalt ribbons cut it into strips and pieces, now jotted with cement and wooden boxes we call ‘homes’, and people who lived there before you. We might question what it will all be like a decade, a century, or a thousand years from now. And if someone like you will be standing in the same spot asking the same questions.

Place and time go hand-in-hand like lovers in bed. They are coupled for eternity, or only a moment in their time, which equals thousands of years in our time. We are only small grains of moments in universal time and place.

To me the deserts and its canyons are the harbingers, the epiphany, and the representatives of this sense. It’s almost unfathomable, incomprehensible and sometimes overwhelming. The expanse of time over which these magical places formed extend the gamut of seas vibrant with life, even in the smallest scale, then evolved dramatically or slowly, sometimes both, to its present state. They are the yin and yang of this environment.

Contrary to many people’s perception of the desert as being empty, barren and dead, it teems with life. But it has different rules than what we are used to. The only real rule is adapt and survive. It’s very simple, really. If you are attentive and observant, you will see how all the other creatures survive. And you learn from them. Survive, perish, or go home.

Yes, the desert can be harsh and unforgiving. But it is also a place of beauty, peace and power. And I know what attracts me to Big Bend. The chaos, the unpredictable, and the extremes; the Eden and the Hell. The magnificent sunrises and sunsets, vivid blue expanses of sky, the wildly flowering cacti, and softly curved hills of clay. It’s mountain lions, coyotes, falcons, thorny shrubs, water scarcity, heat and cold, the uneven and rocky terrain, and the silence that is not of lambs.

I am not in control; I am responsible for my own welfare and life. I have to work and provide for myself: water, food, shelter, and heat. Many times it is uncomfortable and hard progress. I can fail. I can lose my life. But at least I used my own hands and feet, my head and my heart, to do something for myself rather than have it all done for me or dictated how it should be.

Money and things I can buy don’t give me the satisfaction in life that I want. Neither does living in cities. But being responsible to myself, others around me, and to the environment that challenges me means everything to me. Learning to derive a life from only that which the environment can support. And the intense wonderment and awe of a land that refuses to be controlled.

That is what attracts me to this area in the desert. I am Home.

“When we fail to understand the real nature of our connection to place, and refuse to understand that connection other than in terms of ownership and control, then not only have we misunderstood ourselves, but we have also lost any real sense of place as such. To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.” – Jeff Malpas, “Place and human being”. (in Making sense of place: Exploring concepts and expressions of place through different senses and lenses. Eds. F Vanclay, M Higgins and A Blackshaw; 2008)

[1] Nelson, Barney, ed. “A Big Bend Sense of Place” in God’s Country or Devil’s Playground (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002).

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One Response to “A Big Bend Sense of Place”

  1. Kenneth Proudfoot March 8, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    You are a great observer. This line: “Areas of the Northeast and Central U.S. seemed complacently weary;” I am in the Northeast [Rhode Island] and you are right. It is complacency and it is something else, something sad, even beyond that — it is an acceptance of mediocrity.
    I hope someday there will be time to visit where you are at home.

    I am glad the wondrous Holly Tucker put me onto you.

    -Ken Proudfoot

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