I first awoke to the Southwest in Death Valley. The coo of a dove I didn't know opened my eyes to a dawn such as I had never seen: behind a jagged black mass of mountains, orange flames licked across a pool of purple light, and yellow beams shot into the stars. Our son was sitting straight up in his sleeping bag, his small back silhouetted against the splendor. That day he would find the track of a snake inscribed across the trail like a river course and discover a chuckwalla so tightly wedged in a crack that he couldn't have pulled it out unless he'd deflated it with a pin, and he would pronounce this day the happiest day of his life. The sun charged up over hills and hit us full in the face, scattering the smell of creosote and all the sounds of the desert morning—cactus wrens clattering, quails moaning, the click and thud of people emerging from travel trailers with coffee in their hands.
I first awoke to women writing about the Southwest when I opened A Breeze Swept Through and found Luci Tapahonso's poem:
The first born of dawn woman slid out amid
crimson fluid streaked with stratus clouds
her body glistening August sunset pink
light steam rising from her like rain on warm
I loved this poem so deeply that I found a place for it in the logic class I was teaching then, understanding that a poem can be a way of knowing more profound than any syllogism, a way of seeing more astonishing than flickers of light at the back of Plato's cave.
Eagerly, I pulled anthologies off my shelves, looking for more women, more deserts, more of these mornings. They were hard to find. Most of the essays in my nature writing anthologies celebrated green valleys, frog-graced marshlands, or frozen white mountaintops, not the sere truth of the desert. Except in the most recent anthologies (Getting Over the Color Green, for example) almost all the writers were men, and of those, most were Euro-American. I realized that much of the work of the women who write in the harsh shadows of the Southwest remained scattered across sand and time and distance—work overflowing the shelves in libraries, museum shops, and used book stores, piled in stacks on the bedside tables of friends, tucked into a letter, or mailed from a distant, sun-scorched town.
So I celebrate this gathering of women's writing about the Southwest. I read with the greatest pleasure as women in all their wild diversity—in the cities, in the Sonoran Desert, in canyons and villages, in wild bosques—raise their voices in the warmth of the new day. By amplifying the sound of women's voices in the desert, the editors—Susan Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Seale, and Paula Yost—have brought the whole ecosystem alive, a desert entire again, a dawn chorus of singing, stinging, lamenting, laughing voices.
All the writers in this anthology are women; all are writing from or to the Southwest. Beyond this, their differences may be more striking than their similarities, except for this one thing: the women in this book write with a heady freedom from definition and expectation, exploring the folds and shadows of the whole geography of language and land, heart and mind.
Truth be told, one advantage women gain from being traditionally denied membership in the nature-writing club is that they don't have to follow the rules. Women can write broken-hearted; we can write naked under blue water or the body of a man. We write triumphant at the top of the trail or trembling in fear; we write bewildered or with sudden understanding; we write as lovers, scholars, mothers, daughters, sisters, animals, ghosts or river guides, memories of the earth.
As we exercise this creative freedom, women writers provide examples of new or newly rediscovered ways to break down the cultural constraints of centuries-old European ideals of "man and nature": "man" as separate from nature, its conqueror, its lover or rapist (depending on whether you listen to St. Francis or Francis Bacon). "Man" as individual, self-sufficient and competitive, distinguished by the presence of mind from all of nature, which is as lifeless as a millstone and without sense or spirit. "Nature" as other, separate from our neighborhoods, our inhalations, the locations of our lives.
In contrast, many of the writers in this book, especially Native American women, point down paths toward a literature of place that whispers of connection, of balance, of north-south-east-west, of ancestral memories, of love and sorrow. I think of Gloria Anzaldúa returning to "los pueblitos with chicken pens and goats picketed to mesquite shrubs," scanning the sky for rain, as her father looked to the sky for rain, and her brother still looks up. I think of Joy Harjo, fishing, the memory of "that old friend Louis" somewhere on the thin stream between the sacred and the profane. And Ellen Meloy, dear Ellen Meloy, comforting us in our sorrow at her recent death with the assurance that "there will always be cliffrose and two mules, and they will always be there." These are human beings who are woven from relationships—biological, cultural, and spiritual. And this is a nature that infuses our lives, in town or in the wilderness or the scrubby places in between.
Our freedom is to tell the truth about all our relations, and to think ourselves no less persons for all that we are connected by longing and regret to men, to children, to grandmothers, to desert rain and flesh and seeds, to old stories and cunning words, the past and the future, what Rachel Carson called "the stream of living things." It's a powerful metaphysics, this unity of body and mind and earth, with powerful moral consequences. If we are all deeply related to places, as we are to people, then we must care for our places as passionately as we care for our human kin. I don't believe it's an accident that so many of these women's voices cry out against the desecration and poisoning of the earth; rather, it is the bone-hard knowledge that what poisons the earth also plants death in our breasts. It is the wisdom of women who know that they, like their neighbors, are part of the Southwest, the way a thunderstorm is part of the place it was born and where it will expend its flashing strength.
I rejoice in the voices of the women in this book, almost a hundred, raising our voices in celebration or warning, the words echoing off the canyon walls and the border fences, whistling through ocotillo wands. This body of work expresses what so many people most deeply feel and most clearly believe: gratitude for the gift of this place; astonishment at what each moment presents—peach jelly on the table, rain on the wind, fear in a standing wave, ghosts in the soil; an abiding love for this sere and mysterious patch of earth; and the terrible understanding that we cannot wreck this place without destroying also ourselves.
We hiked that day in Death Valley, up a sand stream between hot, rocky walls streaked with desert varnish and a single strand of falling water. Our daughter reached to catch a lizard but caught only its tail and put it in her pocket, where it jumped and twitched for longer than you would think a tail could do. The lizard stood its ground, doing pushups, flashing armpits that were vivid blue. Beetles staggered over sand pocked with rabbit tracks. I don't know how far we walked; it seemed like miles. But when night fell, fast and final as a curtain, we were back in camp, frying onions. The smell of onions and creosote bushes, absolute darkness, the clink of dishes in the campsite next to ours, my husband flashing a light toward a scuffle in a packrat's nest, cool night air on sunburned skin: what I wouldn't give to be there now. Instead, I will open this book again and let the voices of women sing me to this beloved place.
Kathleen Dean Moore
The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
This collection is a celebration both of the natural world and of personal story. It gathers together women's writing about their experiences in the natural world of the Southwest, from the Gulf coast of Texas to the Pacific coast of California, from the southern borderlands into the southern Great Plains and southern Rockies. Taken as a whole, these pieces demonstrate and illuminate not only the rich diversity of landscapes of the Southwest, but the extraordinary range of women's voices and women's experiences of the land as well.
As editors working with both unpublished submissions and already published work, we were looking for writers who have experienced the natural world, not as Nature, objectively, artifactually "out there," but in a deeply personal, intimate, and self-revealing way, "in here": as forms of the interior life discovered in the wild, wonderful world of landforms and life forms around us. We set ourselves the task of finding pieces of writing—prose, poetry, creative nonfiction, and memoir—that witnessed both to the ever-changing, ever-mysterious life of the natural world and to the vivid, creative, evolving life of the writer herself. We were especially looking for writing that testified in some significant way to the topography of place and of spirit, that explored the congruence of where we are and who we are. We hoped (although perhaps we weren't as confident as we pretended to be) to find writing that celebrated women's bodies, senses, memories, identities, and spiritual selves within the context of place: plains and mountains, deserts and canyons, farm fields and forests, empty wilderness and the wildness of urban nature. We were not looking for writing that was merely decorative (substance was more important to us than style), or stories with happy endings. We expected to find—and we did—stories of loss and rejection, of pain and despair, of anger at justice denied and rage at humankind's uncaring exploitation of the land. But we also hoped to find writing that suggested how imagination and spirit intersects with the experience of nature in transforming and redeeming ways, and what potential these experiences and transformations might hold for all of us.
We succeeded beyond our most optimistic imaginings. Our invitation (extended through mailings and e-mailings to women's writers' groups, programs, newsletters, and magazines, as well as through our Web site: http://www.storycircle.org/WomenWrite/) resulted in nearly three hundred submissions of unpublished work—some four hundred fifty individual pieces of writing. The authors did not have to be residents of southwestern states or members of the Story Circle Network, the organization that sponsored the book; the only requirement was that they tell a true and meaningful story based on their own personal experience of the land.
The editors lived hundreds of miles from one another—in East Texas, the northern Hill Country, the southern Hill Country, and the Rio Grande Valley—so it was impossible for us to meet regularly. Instead, we worked via e-mail and the Internet, reading the writings posted to an editorial Web site by our talented and dedicated assistant, Peggy Moody, without whom this kind of communication would not have been possible. For months, the four of us read, discussed, and considered all the submissions, gradually narrowing the possibilities, until we felt we had chosen the best—some fifty pieces, nearly fifty thousand words (or the equivalent) of prose and poetry. As we worked, we tried to be attentive to the possible organizations that seemed to grow out of what we were reading. When we finished, we saw that the work seemed naturally to arrange itself into eight different sections: the way we live on the land; our journeys through the land; nature in cities; nature at risk; nature that sustains us; our memories of the land; our kinship with the animal world; and what we leave on the land when we are gone.
Then we tackled the other half of the job: selecting already published work to complement and extend the unpublished pieces that had been sent to us. Gathering up every bibliography we could find, we made lists of authors, books, and journals in which we might discover the sort of women's writing we were looking for: not just "nature writing," but writing through which the writer revealed essential parts of herself, describing the transformations brought about by her experience in the natural world. Eventually, we would choose an additional fifty-some published pieces. We played with these selections via e-mail, sorting through dozens of possible placements and organizations, until we came up with the arrangement in the Table of Contents.
This book has been a long journey, but never a lonely one. As editors, the four of us were separated by distance but as close as our computers. And we were never alone, for our journey has been accompanied by the voices of hundreds of women, singing their lives, singing their stories, singing the land. And then there has been the land itself, described in the hundreds of pieces we have read: the land of wide skies and high mountains and vast deserts and open plains.
Barry Lopez has said that, as a people, contemporary Americans have learned the potentially disastrous trick of ignoring our local geographies. We eat imported food, wear clothing constructed on the other side of the globe, fly across the continent without setting foot on the earth, and light up the night sky as if it were day. Not knowing the land itself—its geology, topography, climate, flora, and fauna—we find it only too easy to romanticize it, exploit its resources, and market it as a backdrop for entertaining adventures.
But when the land becomes known to us through our ability to observe, to taste and smell and touch and hear and feel, it becomes real to us, in all its complexities and contradictions. The women's writings contained in this book reassure us that it is still possible to know the land, deeply and intimately, if we make that our purpose: to experience the land in the same way that we experience our bodies, our minds, our spirits. These stories of transforming encounters with the natural environments of the Southwest suggest that we can still have a profound connection with the earth and that our engagement with it can change our lives. We can still find ourselves at home in the world.
Susan Wittig Albert