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Creation Turtle

15 Jan

Wiley, the Midget Coyote, and She took a break in their routine to hike in Closed Canyon along the Rio Grande del Norte.

“Wow! This is a neat place!”

“Yup. Canyons, like many land forms, are like books. When you open a book in the middle and read the two flanking pages, you might wonder just how the story led there and where it goes. You might thumb through previous pages, or perhaps those leading to the end. Unless you read all the pages, you are left with pieces of narrative, dialogue and pictures that lie in wait for the whole story. That is what canyons are.

Canyons are slices in the upper layers of the planet we live on. Yet these levels we see were once buried deep in the earth’s crust, flowed from places  far away, or crashed into by other layers and heaving them up. As in Santa Elena Canyon,  there may be bumpy levels of stone made of accumulated bodies of minute sea animals. Or, as in Closed Canyon, they might be hard sleek cliffs of what was once flowing molten rock.

In essence, Wiley, canyons are open books, their steep cliffs pages of time and accumulated activity, far far greater than we can imagine. Layers of differential stone and rock, colors and form, tell us pieces of stories, events long before mammals and humans walked the surface. Remains of living entities that precede us may lie in wait to provide a dialogue enriching the story. Canyons talk to you if you listen.”

Wiley stood still. “Well, I hear things, but not sure what canyons talk like. Do they growl like me? Yip? Grunt like Josephine? This is like my Home where I was a pup.  Sort of.”

“The canyon is a bit different than those you remember, aren’t they?”

“Yup. This one is only big enough for two of us coyotes to run in side-by-side.”

“It’s called a slot canyon, Wiley.”

“Hey, remember I am ‘Coyote‘!”

Sigh. “Yes, Wiley; you are that, too.” She and Wiley sat on a big boulder.

Wiley took a deep breath and then……. “Okay, so this is my turn to tell a story. They say…..  Are  you writing this down? I can’t hear talking pages, you know.”

“I am writing your story, Wiley.  I will read aloud the talking pages to you so you can hear them.”

“Okay. So.

They say this is the way it was, long ago. When Sky  Woman fell from Sky World and down towards the Great Water world, Turtle saved her. He swam underneath her and she fell on his back.

When she did, Turtle’s feet pushed mud up underneath him so they would both not drown. The mountains, valleys and oceans formed underneath them. Where his claws dug into the mud, water flowed and they grew into rivers. So the world grew from Turtle’s back, the mud underneath him, and Sky Woman’s songs.

Some of those claw marks in the mud lost their water. Some are narrow, like this here, and some are wider, like those where I grew up. Yet, when waters fall from Sky World and call on Turtle and Sky Woman below, that water will run through these gashes in the mud that is now rock. They look and search for Turtle and Sky Woman. And they take pieces of the rock mud with them when they go. That is how they remember how this world was created.

That was how it happened, they say. A long time ago.”

“That was a good nature story, Wiley.”

“What is this ‘nature’ ? What do you mean?”

“It is many things. It is the water in the well that was there before any of us came to be. It is also the bucket into which we put things, or ‘the’ things we call ‘Nature’. And it is a leaky  bucket.”

“What do you put in the bucket?”

“We put in things we meet: lions, thunder, wind, water, rocks,  you. Some people see only a bucket with one thing and call it ‘Nature’. Or they see only certain things in the bucket that they call ‘Nature’. Or things that have already been called ‘Nature’. ”

“But how did all those things get in the well?”

“Ah, well, that depends on who you ask, or who is looking. Some of us humans believe that things have been in there long before we could see them, and probably many things that we can’t see or even know about. Yet.

Many of these things were not created in the human mind, or in any living thing’s mind. They just ‘are’. Or ‘are not’. ”

Wiley said, “I don’t know about this ‘Nature’ thing. I only know I have to find food to eat. If I don’t, I may starve, maybe even die. Or I might become food for something else. Is that in the well, too?”

“Well, that is more an interaction with other things in the well. That tends to be put into the bucket, too, sometimes. Just as sometimes that tends to leak out,” She replied.

Wiley paused, then asked, “So, is Nature only those things that we see, touch, smell, taste, hear, and….?”

“Yes and no. It is all those things. We put all those things we encounter matching our world into a container. But Nature also does things on its own – with no containers. It did so long before we arrived with our buckets and it will continue to do so long after we are done with our looking and investigating and leaves it alone. Because it is a only word in our language. And a very leaky bucket.

Shall we continue on our hike?”

“Yeah. But can we leave the bucket behind for now?

I’m going to teach you how to stalk. You need to learn how if  you are going to hunt rabbits like I do. First you have to get low to the ground. Then move slowly and quiet, so the rabbit won’t know you are there. Hide behind a rock or tree, or slide along side this canyon side. See those rabbits up there? I’m watching your back.”


“Those aren’t rabbits, Wiley. Those are people.”

“So! You can pretend they are rabbits! That way you can practice for when you do see a real rabbit.”

“Okay, Wiley. Can I get up now?”

“It sure took them a long time to crawl around that deep pool of water. I’m getting thirsty……”

“We’ll just sit here and watch them. Here, have some water from my bottle.”

“Good, ’cause I don’t think I could get out of that pool. I wonder if Turtle is in there……”

(Original story written by this author in 2011 and published in issue of ‘Alpine Daily News,’ Alpine, Texas, 2013)


Seeing the Landscapes

25 Jul

“It’s why those of us who write about landscape are so interested in science, too. It’s not in order to categorize the wildflowers, to make lists of things, but to make our vision…go deeper and deeper. The more I learn, the more I see. And the more I see, the more I learn.” –Gretel Ehrlich,  Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing. Trimble S, Ed. 1988.


19 Mar

Home is a place that settles the whirling dust inside you in the midst of a sandstorm. That wraps you in tranquility to the point your body and mind expand and relax to the gentle movement of the circling planet. Home melts the walls erected by others and yourself, allowing the exterior place and the interior landscape of your mind to meld and become one. It is where you feel safe even while staring at the mirror of uncertainty. And here you can gather strength while embracing your weaknesses. It is here where our past and future fuse into the present, to be accepted without question, without doubt and without expectations. Here we are as tiny as the molecules clashing and changing inside us, and as large as the timeless mountains and the atmosphere that circles the globe. We are nothing and everything, full and empty, all simultaneously.

Home is where we are what we are. It is just ‘is’.


A Big Bend Sense of Place

5 Mar sunrise
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).

Column 2: Tricksters Visit Closed Canyon

27 Jan

In Closed Canyon along the Rio del Norte, TX

Second column for Alpine Daily Planet. Byline:

Editor’s note: Elzi Volk, the Alpine Daily Planet’s newest columnist, offers a trickster story about a visit to Closed Canyon, a revision for context outside of the series “The Green Lizard Cafe.” Volk says she likes this for several reasons: “It is informative in our scientific acceptance of the field of geology, and it contains a version of an Eastern Native American creation story that I revised with respect to offering a myth that counters scientific narratives, but is valid (and applicable to our location in Big Bend). The style is in itself a trickster to the Anglo conventional styles of stories, in which animal voices are not ‘acceptable’ (pah, I say!). And because, in the trickster fashion, it questions our philosophy about and our views of ‘Nature’ — innate [intrinsic] versus anthropomorphic value. I may be a scientist/biologist, but I love stories. And even science, all science, is comprised of narratives and contains many stories that are subject to interpretation and change. I like to be, and am known for being, the Trickster in science, as well as in other subjects; I like to challenge people to think. And we need Tricksters now more than ever. For how else can we ask questions of each other and ourselves?”

Publishing again!

14 Jan

It has been seven years since publishing anything in the lay media: A long curse of writer’s block, very little free time, and lack of motivating inspiration. Now, with time to do many things I have put aside for nearly a decade (knitting, hiking, riding with no particular place to go, reading, and, yes, writing), I am now a contributing columnist  for a Big Bend area online newspaper/magazine, the Alpine Daily Planet, edited by Mike and Cindy Perry, a couple extraordinaire. I thank them, and Voni Graves,  for the opportunity to regain momentum.

My Desert Smells Like Rain.

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