Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting Over the Color Green

Although I loved the mountains...

Barren, Wild, and Worthless; Living in the Chihuahuan Desert, by Susan J. Tweit (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003).
You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.
                                                                    ~Wallace Stegner,  "Thoughts on a Dry Land"

Although I was born near the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Maine, I was soon whisked away by my parents, who sought the good jobs in a growing economy out on the other coast. I found myself growing up just a block away from the Pacific Ocean, learning to ride my bike in the cool fogs of San Francisco.

Later, when I was eleven, we moved to the golden, rolling, live oak-studded hills of Marin County just over the Golden Gate Bridge. Because these landscapes were all I knew as a child, they seemed pretty "right" to me.

However, the older I got and the more books I read, the more I sought a different world--a place where the houses were old and creaking with history, the winters were snowy, the maple and birch tree woods hid mayflowers and fiddleheads and jack in the pulpit, and the gardens were full of lilacs, violets, and lilies of the valley--the land of my birth, New England. After moving back East in my forties, we lived in New Hampshire for over 20 years until the winters got to be too much for my arthritic joints, and that is how we came to be living in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Here in southern New Mexico, I find myself in a landscape so different from that of New England that I might be on another planet altogether. When we first came here, although I loved the mountains, I wanted to run from the desert. I couldn't see its beauty or its hidden life--I just saw rocks and dirt.

This book--Barren, Wild, and Worthless--spoke to me. It follows Susan Tweit, another non-desert dweller, from her shocked denial on arrival--the desert was "harsh," "unloveable," and colored in "a thousand shades of dry"--through a gathering of knowledge, understanding, and experience to a new feeling of being at home, at last.

A wash of green 

My own journey has been much like this one, so I read each page with recognition and delight. It has taken me a while, but now I don't think that I could live away from these open spaces and endless skies.

Here are a few quotes from Barren, Wild, and Worthless, just to give you the flavor of the book. The photos are mine.
Green is as rare as shade. The desert is neither soft nor appealing. Its shapes are hard and angular; the plants are studded with spines and thorns; the animals armed with venom and stingers...
Despite its enormous size, the Chihuahuan Desert is not well known. Nor is it a popular place. It does not inspire T-shirts, sun visors, or "I ♥" bumper stickers. Rarely do its landscapes grace calendars and coffee table picture books. Tourists do not flock to visit this desert. Deserts are hard to love, and the Chihuahuan is especially difficult... 
Plants grow, but only sparsely, each keeping to its own space, a decent interval of bare ground dividing it from the next. Green requires water, and water in the desert is scarce, ephemeral. Only after the infrequent rains does the earth blush with a wash of green... 
Each keeping to its own space


Beth said...

I love the description "a thousand shades of dry."

There's a show we watch on PBS called "The Desert Speaks" and, I must admit, I've often said to Tom that I would truly hate living in the desert. I think I would just feel so THIRSTY all the time---for green, for verdant, for lush. But I will say that reading your blog has given me a real appreciation for why people love the desert. Enough appreciation that I do want to see it someday---perhaps when we retire. If you're still in the desert then, maybe you could take us for one of your mountain hikes!

clairz said...

Beth, the first time we lived here--for a year, in the 1990s--I went scampering back to my New England because I was, indeed, thirsty for green, trees, and water in the landscape. This time, I was ready for the experience, I guess.

I would like nothing better than to see you here and take you to my favorite spots. Let me know when you are coming!

clairz said...

And, Beth, thank you for telling me about that PBS series. I've just been watching a bit of "The Gadsden Purchase" show from The Desert Speaks. What a wealth of information!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Clairz. This is exactly the same way I still feel... longing for the green of Maryland. :)

JC said...

How did you arrive where you are ? You mentioned the 1990's. Work related ?

I've travel on what we call, road trips. Been to Carlsbad Caverns three times.

I love the blue skies that desserts seem to have. (I live in the clouds most of the time)

We have talked about maybe getting a place in Arizona when we retire but I think your dessert would be nice to see.

All the hissing creatures though ... I'm not used to those.

Do you ever get snow ?

When we go to Bryce Canyon in the Summer they always show photos of what it looks like in the snow.

And, I think I've seen that PBS show.

clairz said...

JC, my husband requested a transfer here in the 90s, at my suggestion, originally. As it turned out, I just wasn't ready and made sure we went back to New England for several more years. Now I feel very lucky to live here in New Mexico, and am thankful every day that we made our way back here (another job transfer a few years ago to eastern NM, then retirement here in Las Cruces).

We don't really see those hissing creatures in person, although I've seen a few tarantulas. And, yes, we do get snow--the best kind, just a dusting that goes away quickly.

I love the weather here--we get some unbelievable number of days of sunshine here per year.

If I were you, I would give New Mexico a chance before buying in Arizona. Both are beautiful places, but I really like our city a lot--just the right size, and not too much traffic.

becky said...

It's funny, isn't it... the different places that call to us at different points in our lives. By the way, when I was down by Carlsbad in June & it WAS green. Green like only the desert can be after much rain. I've seen it like that down in Baja, too. I can't say when I decided I wanted to come to NM, perhaps in 2007. My first trip was in 2008, and it grows on me more & more each time. I just keep thinking "there is so much beauty here!" As I crossed the border into AZ today, I was sad... I wasn't ready to leave!!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Oh my! There are hundreds of coffee table books showcasing stark and beautiful photos of the desert. Black and white photos show it off to it's fullest, showing all the intricate contrasts and textures.

For myself I find photographing lush green, tree covered vistas difficult because of all the clutter.

When we had to move away from my beloved New Mexico, to South Carolina, for 7 long years, I was miserable. I fell into a terrible state of depression. Moving back home was like a thousand elephants had stepped off my chest. I could breathe and my soul soared!

I cannot bear to ever move away again. Living where we live now I feel we have the best of both worlds: the mountains and the desert.

Wonderful post to remind us to see the beauty in things that aren't always apparently beautiful.


Sandy ~~~ said...

I, on the other hand, have moments of green toxicity here in Washington state. Smothered in green trees, green grass, green moss, green mold on green! I love shades of tan and brown with the green thrown in for variety. I know, I know...I'm sick, but when you live here you understand!

clairz said...

Sandy, I DID live there and remember green and wet and slugs. Actually, when I first moved to New Hampshire from Washington state, it was even worse, and for the first time in my life I found myself wanting my own personal chain saw so I could cut down a few trees and figure out where I was!