I thought about creating a new, distinct, and concise environmental statement here, but that's as hard to pin down as the environment itself. In a nutshell, let's say that I'm interested in the nexus between the built and natural environments—hence the founding of Terrain.org—, in ways to make human communities more natural, in ways to create and uphold an authentic sense of place based on the natural environment.
Instead of a distinct statement, then, I offer two excerpts of my writing—the first a poem, the second an essay:
You cannot write the poem
ask the mountain—
trout that coil sine-
Ask the wind—giving
fallen elk slow death.
its native dwellers dancing
a goshawk diving
columbines dropping cold
if you can find him,
the pale maned wolf
the mountain lion sprawled
Oh what is the geography
we cannot define it?
from "Calendars of Sun and Moon"
Even now, driving deeper into Mexico, are we not shifting in time and space? Large, dark raptors with white heads and tails and banded white wings trace the thermals. They seem limitless in these dimensions. As I push the van to seventy-five miles per hour on the shoulderless four-lane highway, it is difficult to judge their size. My older daughter thinks they are bald eagles, a reflection more of her menagerie back in Tucson—a homemade eagle’s nest knotted to the top bunk of her room, walls filled with bald eagle photographs and posters—than actual identification. My wife Billie radios the first vehicle in the convoy, and the crackled response from Jerry, our resident bird watcher, sounds like “caca.” We eye each other. “Caracara,” he repeats.
Known also as the Mexican eagle, the crested caracara ranges throughout South and Central America and as far north as California, Florida. My family and I have not seen it before. More than the landscape, which has flattened near the sea and thinned in vegetation, the bird reminds us that we are in a foreign land. At one glance this should not be easy to forget—table-top shrines to the Virgin are found at every stop, as are vendors of freeze-dried shrimp and tamales smelling of corn and humidity. Yet I can barely read the kilometer indicator on the van’s speedometer, so stick with miles per hour. Our music and conversations, the movies the girls watch on the DVD screens velcroed to the backs of our headrests, these are in English. The entire cabin is clearly American, from its Anglo-Saxon occupants to the Trader Joe’s detritus of wrappers collecting between the girls’ seats.
The effect is at once comforting and disturbing. Three-hundred miles south of Tucson, our pattern of travel has changed only slightly. Gas is full-serve, and I request verde or rojo—green for regular unleaded, red for premium. Por favor and muchas gracias are among the few Spanish phrases I know, but I use these informally in Arizona, as well. The ease of traveling into Mexico is a singular goal of Solamente Sonora, Only Sonora, an expedited permitting process designed to increase American tourism, and therefore spending, throughout Mexico’s second largest state. It is working. Yet as Americans infiltrate Sonora, I fear not only for the authenticity of my own experience—the perennial ability to lose myself in a wide and wild place—but also for the Mexican and indigenous cultures and their native landscapes. I am aware of the hypocrisy, the same odd logic of any distinct place worth saving: Welcome me, if you please, but shun all others.
Our group of twenty-six neighbors is traveling to Alamos, the traditional, plaza-centered town of ten thousand founded in 1684, precisely because it is not the Americanized entertainment gateway that larger and more accessible tourist destinations like Ensenada and Puerto Peñasco have become. We cherish the tacos de pescado in both locations, and enjoy too the Coca-Cola made with pure cane sugar instead of the refined stuff north of the border. But the Costcos and Home Depots, the McDonald’s and Carl’s Jrs. are better left in America, where their ubiquity fast becomes a riddle of place: What is the difference between Tucson and Tulsa and Tacoma? On any given street corner, look for the saguaro, but look out for tumbleweed.
Deep in Sonora, however, the intersections are defined by cholla and organ pipe, amapas and palo santos, small-leafed trees tangled in gray and green among thorny succulents. Street signs? They provide no clue, nor should they. Here nature’s calendar quickens, perhaps following the eighteen months of xiuhpohualli, where despite the latitude seasons last only weeks at a time, if the waxing and waning of the flowers are any indication. Just now the barren wood of the palo del muerte, the tree morning glory, rivulets into silver. The two-story tree is leafless, yet white flowers bunch on the thinnest of branches, an indicator clear as named day that we are past the winter solstice. Here, nature keeps its calendar by the seasonal changes of flora and fauna—the migration of songbirds and windstorms, the sparse rainfall above blooming thickets, the keen sentinels whose wingtips flare in the afternoon’s topaz light.
Copyright © 2015 by Simmons B. Buntin. All rights reserved.