Jeweled Jars of Memory

Our garden is laden with countless squash, cucumbers and tomatoes on the vine. The desert’s trees are heavy with fruit. This is the season for setting food aside, preserving summer’s abundance to alleviate winter’s want. So far, we have pickles, jams and canned apricots, peaches and nectarines. The jeweled jars glitter like treasure under our bed — the only available storage space in our 26-foot trailer home — and this food-based fortune grows on a weekly basis. What we may lack in material goods, we make up for in the joys of working directly with sustenance.

Twenty-six quart-sized Mason jars hold the season’s offering of sun-soaked apricots. I picked this fruit at Capitol Reef National Park, home to some of Utah’s most stunning landscapes, as well as the Mormon settlement of Fruita, a place emptied of its residents but still resplendent with their colorful, fruit-bound legacy. The Park Service now tends to trees that once ensured life and livelihood for generations of the community’s residents.

My jars of apricots hold memories within their matrices of syrup and fruit. A dear friend and I went to the park to harvest amidst the monsoon season’s fickle moods. When we arrived in the orchard, so did the deluge. In no time, the Fremont River swelled, the towering cliffs erupted into a chorus of torrential waterfalls, and the orchard flooded in a bubbling murmur of red muck. As we picked fruit, we waded through shin-deep mud, enjoying the best of childhood in the process: climbing trees, stuffing our faces with candy-like fruit, and covering ourselves in sloppy, red earth. We returned home wearing a sticky, earthen residue of summer and joy. This is all packed into my jars. To finally eat the fruit will be to relive the memory. I am mindful that I am storing stories under my bed, my dreams perhaps permeated by their sweetness.

The apricots carry another story as well: the history of Fruita. The canyon’s residents anchored their world to the junction of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River with orchards, the thousands of trees helping to make meaning of a life rife with floods and scarcity. So accustomed to barter and simplicity was this small community that the Great Depression’s lack of cash flow had no effect on it; Fruita’s isolation rendered orchards its treasury and fruit its currency. As the country struggled, this settlement soldiered forward as it always had — with a pocket full of faith and a pantry full of fruit.

And then came the designation of the landscape as a national monument. With it arrived tourists, paved roads and the outside entering in — the death knell for a town clinging to a past that modernity had made obsolete. In preserving a landscape, the government had inadvertently evicted those populating the terrain with story. The Park Service bought out the orchards and forcibly evicted those living in the path of the new highway. Many residents recognized there was no other option but to leave; their remoteness had rendered them an anachronism that would crumble amidst the flood of progress. They accepted government money and moved on. Most of the buildings were quickly razed to make room for park infrastructure. A raging Fremont could have wrought no greater destruction in this small town. And, thus, a rooted narrative was silenced to make room for a newer one of snapshots, scenery and short stays. But, as with my apricots, this preserved place is rife with memories.

Today, 2,600 fruit trees live on to tell a quiet tale of communion with place, of inhabited space being all the richer for its ever-evolving story. And my apricots connect me — if briefly, tenuously, with just a taste — to this narrative. These jeweled jars hold tales of a time when money was less meaningful than the vagaries of frost and flood, and fruit could build or break one’s world.

 

The (Supposed) Madness and Mystery of the King of the World

The facts are few, barely enough to illuminate a life: He went by the name of Aaron Andrew. That was not his name. He was a foreigner. He arrived with horses, goats and body bedecked in self-made medallions. He was artistically inclined, not only crafting coins embossed with his profile, but also producing a detailed relief carving on a large boulder near Moab. He camped at the north end of town in a makeshift tent built of canvas scraps and sticks. On Sundays, he would parade up and down Main Street in full military regalia, replete with sword and .40-caliber rifle. He was kind to local children. He caused no disruptions beyond a puzzled town’s conjecturing. He was evicted from town, arrested in Provo and institutionalized. He was bound with ropes at the state mental hospital. He died there.

The mysteries loom large, shadowing the truth of his existence: his real name, country of origin, age, occupational history, family connections, trials and tribulations leading to emigration, path to Moab, actual dates of residence here, reasons for rock carving, why he referred to himself at times as “King America” and “King World” and cause of death. His medical records are inaccessible, and those who remember him are nearly all deceased.

In the few pictures that exist, Aaron Andrew is a stout man with a broad face and nose, with gentle eyes and smile. He looks Eastern European. He appears proud and happy despite living the life of an itinerant eccentric. He is self-possessed, but even in the pictures of him in his military regalia, raising his sword skyward, there is a hint of mirth in his face, a sense of taking none of it too seriously.

I wish I could have known him.

I can’t seem to get him out of my head. He’s made an impression there — of man and horses and weapons — just as he did on his boulder over 75 years ago. The relief sculpture he made is militaristic and menacing, but his presence in Moab — or at least in my mind — was avuncular, unconventional and shrouded in mystery.

He spent months carving the King World rock. It depicts a man astride a horse — perhaps a self-portrait — with a sword and gun, wearing a Cossack-style hat that bears the world’s continents on its surface. His lapel buttons feature the Americas on one and Eurasia on the other. Between his head and that of the horse is a cryptic inscription reading:

M.C.F. HHAESUS

AMERICA

AHARRON

ANDEEW

KING AMERICA

KING WORLD

Based on his inscription — and a few documented details — I have painted a picture of his life. His name was not Aaron Andrew. That was an adopted name, born of the need to assimilate. He escaped from a war-torn, oppressive place, leaving behind his trade, his roots and his suffering. Perhaps he had already lost his family; departure would be no greater grief. He abandoned fighting and fear to those who had the heart for it.

Upon arriving in America, he became intoxicated with liberty. Compared to his country of origin, here he had the life of a king. King America. King World. He traveled, moving west, exploring an exotic terrain containing a generosity of space and mind. He eventually stumbled upon Moab, entering via the grandeur of Mill Creek Canyon, gifting his handmade coins to young boys gigging frogs there. He decided to make a home.

He camped, he carved, he helped area families with chores, he befriended the town’s braver boys. He paraded, with sword and rifle, along Main Street every Sunday. And with this deplorable habit — practiced on the Lord’s Day, of all days –—he angered Moab’s most-prominent citizens. The local family that had come to love him was forced to evict him from his home.

He was told to go to Provo. There, the police and the mental hospital awaited his arrival. The freest man in the country, the King of the World, was locked up and tied up, subjected to the kind of oppression he had once fled. But guns and violence did not herald this subjugation. Instead, it came quietly and insidiously, fueled by an unspoken clause within our guarantee to freedom, a qualification in fine print: Ultimately, one’s comportment is more powerful than his liberty. Ultimately, we are only as free as our adherence to certain mores. Ultimately, eccentricity may be seen as a battle cry.

With hope and faith extinguished, Aaron Andrew died shortly after being institutionalized. Without knowledge of his given name, his medical records are inaccessible.

Now, beyond a rockbound self-portrait known only to Moabites, there is no trace of King America, King World. It’s as if he never existed … except in my mind, which is constantly calling for the necessary knowledge to breathe him back to life.

Meander: A History

…Hope, Fear. Ruin, Rebirth

There is a buried and meandering channel of history moving unseen through the Moab Valley’s narrow, rimrock embrace. It curves through eras of rock art and warpaint, medical research and industrial warfare, salvation through service and damnation in detention. The substance of its serpentine events — now captured in history’s stony embrace — is infused with the elemental polarities of human nature: Hope, fear. Ruin, rebirth.

Though this channel of stories is now dormant beneath a newly laid desert floor, the curves and turns of yesteryear still tug at the paths forged today.

They are called paleochannels — abandoned streambeds from ancient landscapes, now buried under layers of sediment-turned-stone. Uranium miners followed them. Like ouzels, the birds that dive under cool canyon currents and walk submerged surfaces, these men dove below stone to the canyon bottoms of a previous age, searching for the sustenance that uranium might provide.

They mined around meanders and dug deeper-down pour-offs. They sought the phantom pool below the extinct waterfall for the logjam or dinosaur corpse providing the organic matter where uranium accumulates.

Uranium is a shape-shifting element. Ever lonely, it seeks the companionship of carboniferous deposits. It infuses tree limbs and bones with its essence, slowly replacing the dead matter with its elemental self. It is constantly on the move, from deep in the earth’s mantle outward, migrating on the wings of water. Driving plate tectonics. It is a vagabond. And it resists identification, hiding behind a multiplicity of hues and concentrations.

In this way, it mirrors humankind’s shape-shifting nature, each of us wavering on the tightrope strung between our hopes and our fears. With each falter and overcorrection, we shift the terrain of history. And we fashion the course of our lives.

“We inherit the warlike type,” said William James in his 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.”

In this way, tales of war act like uranium, seeking the companionship of our hearts and minds, seeping into our bones, remaking individuals and societies in its elemental image. Even when we are not at war, the metaphors and memories remain in our lives, livelihoods and literature. Are we ever truly at peace? Is peace an illusion? Is it simply a time of preparation, of readiness? A state of tension anticipating some red glow on the horizon?

“‘Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for ‘war expected,’” James continued. “[T]he battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’-interval.”

Is peace a less stable element than war?

What is the half-life of peace?

In the years leading up to World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps built 23,000 miles of hiking trails, 125,000 miles of new roads and 47,000 bridges. They stocked one billion fish in waterways nationwide, strung 89,000 miles of telephone lines and erected 3,470 fire towers. They spent over four million man-days fighting forest fires, dedicated seven million man-days to habitat restoration and worked for nine straight years on erosion control, water conservation, forest management and rangeland improvements. They are best known for planting over three billion trees.

It was the largest peacetime mobilization of men in our country’s history.

The CCC was phased out in 1942. We needed the manpower to go to war.

Fifteen short months after the closure of Moab’s Dalton Wells Civilian Conservation Corps camp with the advent of World War II, the site was converted into the Moab Isolation Center, a Japanese internment camp. The barracks that once housed men intent on building a better future for themselves and their country now detained Japanese Americans — “troublemakers” from other relocation centers. Prisoners were shipped to this remote desert outpost and held without due process, kept under military guard, given no warrants, no right to defense, no trial and no contact with family. Their mail was censored. The Japanese tongue was not allowed. They required military escort to perform basic bodily functions.

The head of the War Relocation Authority at the time — the agency responsible for Japanese internment — referred to the Moab Isolation Center as “nothing but a concentration camp.”

One man was held there for the crime of referring to a Caucasian nurse as an “old maid.”

The Moab Isolation Center was never publicized. The world was largely unaware of these desert detainees. All photo documentation of the camp was destroyed. It became a hole in the landscape, a gap in the deep history of Dalton Wells, an abandoned meander in its course of events.

The Japanese internment camp in Moab was officially referred to as a “rehabilitation center.”

Rehabilitation from what?

When detainee Harry Ueno was moved from the Moab Isolation Center to another internment camp, he and four other prisoners were placed in a blacked out, four-by-six box with a single air-hole. They were transported this way — in the back of a truck — across 11 hours worth of gravel roads.

What kind of rehabilitation is this?

In peacetime, Dalton Wells was a place of hope and regeneration. During war, the same desert silence, the same modest buildings, the same sage and redrock and dust and wind … these elements forged a hell for 49 Japanese Americans.

In the powdery soils of Dalton Wells today, we find that hope and fear are made of the same raw materials and supported by the same ground. Our collective consciousness and conscience determine the differing outcomes.

The landscape — just like the heart of a nation — is vast enough to hold both realities.

Individuals, too, are raw materials. We, too, can become infused with the elemental — war and fear, compassion and courage — as it emanates from the hot mantle of those in power.

It is a fragile division between peaceful pursuits and wartime atrocities, between the solace of a desert’s solitude and the despair of its isolation. It is a fine line we walk within our own hearts and in our collective capacities for kindness and contempt.

Not far from Dalton Wells, on a remote canyon wall, sits a millennia-old Barrier Canyon-style being who seems to catch comets. He is painted in red, outlined in gold. He is taller than I. This panel’s beauty is one that transcends the truth of its meaning — one which we will never know.

The same reds and golds that give life to the comet catcher are the ones once used as warpaint by the Ute and Navajo. The same reds and golds once used in war were later shipped east to color ceramics like Fiestaware.

This element from the desert that speaks in hues of red and gold was used by Madame Curie in her efforts to cure cancer. Some of her radium came from Moab-area mines. This same element that was used to end suffering also caused more of it than the world had ever seen in a single day.

When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a member of the Enola Gay crew recalled that the mushroom cloud included yellowish clouds enveloping reddish clouds.

One-seventh of the atomic bomb’s radioactive material came from Moab.

Altruism and war. Beauty and suffering. Caught in the channels incised by our chosen leadership and our basic needs, we meander back and forth between the poles.

Of the men who worked in Moab-area uranium mines after World War II, many remained, many became sick, and many died here. Some sought a cure through nuclear medicine, bringing the element full circle. Uranium — a vagabond element, a shape-shifter. A killer and a redeemer.

These men — with their own shape-shifting stories — mined the raw materials of our sense of safety during the Cold War. They also invested in the Moab community. Uranium money built schools, neighborhoods, churches, roads and the necessary infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. Moab was blessed by war.

When the Atomic Energy Commission no longer needed uranium, Moab suffered. When the uranium processing mill finally closed in the early ’80s, Moab all but dried up and blew away on persistent desert winds.

“Global peace has been a disaster for the uranium industry,” wrote Tom Zoellner, author of a book on uranium’s deep history.

Global peace nearly killed Moab.

“A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure economy,” wrote James. “So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war…so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.”

The Dalton Wells site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a ghost of its former self. The cottonwood trees that the CCCers planted remain. The concrete foundations scattered on the desert floor are buckled, cracked, submitting to the elemental forces that shape this landscape. The area is now used by recreationists. They set up their RVs across the foundations of another time, using the site as a staging area for their adventures — atop motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes. This forms the basis for Moab’s current economy: Industrial tourism. A pleasure-based economy. Our antidote to the boom-and-bust cycle of supplying the raw materials of war.

As the two-stroke engines whine across this storied and stony landscape, who follows the flow of stories just beneath the surface? Who studies the oscillations between hope and fear cradled in an unlikely and isolated space? Who studies these ancient, subterranean routes so that we — as a people — might learn to chart a new course?

Who will now walk the paleochannels? And for what reason?

Who will now wander the prison yard? And what will he dream for its tomorrows?

Who will now collect reds and golds? And for what purpose?

What is the half-life of memory?

Here and elsewhere, we continue to walk the tension between our conflicting potentialities, engaging in this daring-and-dreamy high-wire act that we refer to simply as life. And we also walk a subterranean route collectively cut into this earth, our footprints a soft attrition. It is a channel of ruin and redemption incised deeply in the shared landscapes of memory, heart and home.

On this walk, we carry with us our layers of kindnesses and faults — mirroring the rocky strata of the Moab landscape — allowing erosion to determine which echelon we act upon and which serves as counterbalance in our ever-meandering destiny.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert,” which appeared in MG #177. Her monthly blog, “Desert Reflections,” can by viewed at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.

Welcome to the World’s Playground

After a long day of manual labor as a trail-crew leader, I sat in camp near the Colorado River to rest and reorganize the group’s food supply for the week. It was the kind of sunny spring day that reminds a Moabite why she’s sacrificed what she has to live here. And it was the kind of spring day that millions of tourists seek in their sojourns here.

With tasks completed, I set out on a short stroll before the group reassembled to be fed. I soon encountered three young mountain bikers approaching on the gravel road leading to the group camp. They had the look of college kids on spring break. The sum total of their communication consisted of screaming “Yeah! MOAB!” utilizing various intonations and pronunciations. Since the road dead-ended at our camp — and there were no bike trails nearby — I was curious to see what the young visitors would do. They soon ascertained that this route was going nowhere fast, but the boldest of the three was not deterred. With a warrior’s cry that once again consisted solely of the words “yeah” and “Moab,” he pushed his bike up the nearest crumbly, crypto-clad slope and raced down at top speed, slalom-style, before braking at the last possible moment and spraying half the hill’s contents onto his friends. With desert now subdued, shouts of “Yeah! MOAB!” met the conqueror. Momentarily sated, the adrenaline junkies departed.

I stood with my voice caught somewhere between my heart and my vocal chords. I wanted to tell them that this was unacceptable behavior, that there are thousands of miles of pre-existing trails for their use and abuse, that the elegant curves of virgin hillsides were not waiting for their heavy, treaded caress. That this was not a playground. That, to some, this is sacred ground. But as the futility of such remarks welled up beyond my ability to state them — and with the realization that speaking up would make me sound so old — I simply turned back toward camp and busied myself with the needs of the group.

A dusty red cloud of melancholy then hovered over me. I was leading a trip for Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit that organizes service projects to rehabilitate public lands. The ten members of my crew were paying to fill their vacation time with heavy lifting and the use of McLeods, Pulaskis, rock bars and shovels. The week’s work consisted largely of erasing the kinds of scars I had just seen created. We raked out and blocked off a spider-web network of user-created trails. We carefully transplanted cacti and grasses into barren ground that once supported such life. We willingly spent our days in a haze of dirt and sweat and ache. I am constantly in awe of those who give of their time in such a way. But if this kind of intense labor — one that arises from an immense generosity of spirit — can be undone in a mere three seconds, what is the use? Are our actions as futile as the words that never emerged from my heart and throat?

As if to further underscore such questions, Moab’s annual Jeep Safari kicked into high gear just as our service project was ending. This is the time each year when thousands of Jeeps and rock-crawlers simultaneously descend upon the surrounding landscape for a week-and-a-half of backcountry rides and frontcountry showmanship. While the event organizers and registered participants are conscientious about adhering to maintained trails and Tread Lightly ethics, the hordes of Jeep Safari groupies are not as enlightened. The event’s aftermath consistently includes torn-up trees, scattered trash and signs of clumsy intrusion in areas closed to motorized use. Mud-splattered machines out of a “Mad Max” cinemascape parade up and down Main Street waving Confederate and pirate flags. In years past, the drivers have implored female pedestrians to “show me your titties,” and piles of waste (including beer cans, used condoms and piss puddles) have decorated residents’ yards.

While many locals have worked hard to mitigate this spring break vibe — with varying degrees of success — the fact remains that Moab has marketed itself as the world’s playground. And though this status brings us the cash we need to survive, it also comes with costs. As a playground, we abide by the whims of those playing here and the recess bell that sends them all home each winter. As a playground, we cannot expect respect from anyone we host; rather, reverence — as exemplified by the group I worked with several weeks ago — has become a quiet and valued mercy occasionally laid at the feet of this desert and those who call it home. Reverence is why many of us are here. And, paradoxically, both its existence and its lack are what support us through each tourist season.

A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert

Wherever you are right now, drive 14 miles. Depending on the direction you’re coming from, you’ll either turn right or left at the fourth unmarked dirt road. Follow this road until it forks. Turn and drive toward the sun — east or west, depending on the time of day.

After a sufficient amount of time, pull over and park your vehicle under the big juniper tree — the one with the illegal fire ring, shotgun shells and beer cans under it. Be careful so that the glass shards don’t puncture your Go-Lite neoprene shoes. After parking, fiddling with your gear and checking the nifty compass on your key ring that doubles as a faux carabineer (strong enough to hold the weight of, well, your keys), it’s time to hit the trail. Drop into the first wash on your right and follow the coyote tracks. After two hours of brisk power hiking — or 30 minutes meandering — you will come to a large, red rock that is distinguishable from the other large, red rocks by its largeness and redness. Admire it and continue on.

Soon, you will cross an extraneous road. And another one. And then another goddamn road. Curse it, piss on it … and then get used to it. There are many more. Next, when the wind shifts direction, so should you. (And remember, keep drinking water! This is the desert, after all, and there are many more roads to piss on.) Next, ascend — all the way to the top! — the sand-slide that forces you to take three steps back for every half-step forward.

However, if you hit the pristine, untrammeled, untouched area, you’ve gone too far. Stop and go forward in time.

Finally, after hours, days — and sometimes years — of this, after cursing the author, after asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet?”, you take off your Oakleys, open your eyes and realize, holy crap!, you’ve always been there. The whole time you’ve been waiting to get to the money spot that’s worthy of bragging rights and interminable slideshows, you’ve been surrounded by expanses of redrock, fine coral sands, pungent sage, inviting potholes, forgotten drainages full of remnants of the past, canyon wren song and the dizzying swoops of swallows. The first Indian paintbrush of the year is blazing at your feet, and the most beautiful cloudscape that no atlas can map is above your head.

In your search for that one brushstroke of Eden, you missed the whole damned canvas full of paradise.

Now that you’ve reached your destination, don’t retrace your steps to the car — in fact, think about abandoning that hulk of metal — but instead find a way to make a loop or a zigzag or a geometric shape we don’t yet have a name for. Thank the author for your enlightenment. Send money. Repeat as necessary.

Regular contributor Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Hope is the Things with Feathers,” which appeared in #172. She lives in Moab.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

The violet hour belongs to swallows.

This is the evening span when canyon walls glow with an interior luminosity, when the setting sun simply cannot account for the wash of colors across the land — colors that exist for this one expansive moment each day, hues that Crayola finds impossible to ensnare in wax.

This is the hour when light dances out its last breath before darkness descends, and its sweet death throes enliven the world.

And this is the hour of the swallows. Is it any wonder they swoop in circles of such ecstasy?

I have my favorite swallow-viewing grounds near my desert home, places I specifically go for the aerial show and the communion with small, untethered creatures. These places are my air-show grandstands, islands of sandstone high up in the ether, outcroppings that hoist me into the land of wingbeats and wind. It is on these pedestals that I sit in order to look swallows in the eye.

We can and we do share gazes, so curious are these avian marvels. They approach me and hover, staring at the bumbling landbound invader sharing their space. Eye contact occurs, the human side wonders at the rarity of such a simple moment between species, and then the passerine participant

moves into a dip or dive or twirl, requiring another hit of airborne joy before sating its curiosity anew.

The eye of a swallow holds a brightness amidst its blackness, speaking to the species’ immense capacity for bliss.

Perhaps swallows subsist simply on air — and joy — so effortlessly do they fly and play. A life of such seeming ease must require little sustenance in the form of matter-borne calories. Spirit, breath, air, wind — these, I’m

sure, are the main components of the swallow diet. Insect-catching is mere pretext for their dances in the ether.

They make little sound as they rush through their breezy milieu on lithe wings. Only the slicing of air is heard, the sky seemingly rent to pieces with the sound. It is as if the swallows’ flight cuts through this space, creating an opening to the lighter world hiding behind this sometimes heavy one, and we could maybe escape to it, if only we were fast enough to hit the seam that rides the edges of wingtips and tail-feathers.

Such a sky, shredded by delicate and breathing daggers, this is hope’s home. In fact, the continual existence of the wild — whether it is bound up in skyward feathers or corner-dwelling cobwebs — all of this is hope embodied, a perseverance against the odds. And in this, we find that hope is accessible. We can reach its source — that wild seam — because it is our ground. Wildness, hope, feathers—they’re all made of the same resilient stuff. And in times of suffering, we find that our hearts and souls are made of it, too. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul…”

Even at the airport recently, amidst the travelers’ milieu of madness — swallows.

These were not the violet-green evening-dwellers of my home, but they were swallows, nonetheless, hunting and playing above the tarmac and engine noise. They flew in stark contrast to the lumbering planes jockeying for position on the runway. By comparison, our answer to the problem of gravity seems so clumsy and graceless.

They buzzed the windows where I sat, forked tails silhouetted against the smoggy mountains. Their maneuvering was precise, elegant, spontaneous — a kind of weightlessness we can only dream about. Next to all our necessary accoutrements for flight — the literal and figurative baggage that accompanies us in our skyward travels — the swallows appeared as pure, unadulterated joy in motion.

And I was suffused with that same joy as the surprise of the wild infiltrated an otherwise sterile landscape.

I was reminded of Gary Snyder at that moment, a man with an unwavering faith in wildness. Even as many environmentalists — myself included — decry the destruction of wilderness, the end of nature, the silence of all that is holy, Snyder holds faith. And hope. He writes, “Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet…”

For Snyder, wildness refuses to be extinguished, despite our every attempt to send it along without a return address. It lives on in mould and seeds, spiders and raccoon packs. “It is everywhere,” he says. Even above the tarmac at Salt Lake City International Airport.

This encounter acted as a reminder: In being open to wildness, we will find it. Perhaps under the kindling pile, between tiles in the bathroom or along a busy thoroughfare. I say this not in ignorance of the havoc we wreak on our environment — the subduing and subdividing of our wilderness, the incessant razing and excavating in pursuit of energy and economic development, the toxins we unleash for the sake of a stronger plastic bag or a pineapple in Maine in the winter — but I say this as someone who understands that, in grieving for the battered earth beneath our feet, we must also constantly ride the wings of hope. When we lose touch with that wild seam of hope, then we become crushed under the weight of lost ground.

Thus, the tiny bodies of swallows carry me along when faith is in short supply.

Hope is the thing with feathers …

Driving through northern California on a warm June evening — one car among two straight lines of many — I came upon an enormous swarm of barn swallows, all forked tails and finesse, swooping through and under and around the flight paths of one another. There were easily 50 birds in this natural cloud of insecticide, hunting and playing in easy unity.

I slowed the vehicle to better absorb the multiplicity of rusty breasts and blue backs, the riot of feathered confetti at the roadside. They emulated the gnat swarms they preyed upon, mirroring the gifts of life that sustained them.

I turned back to the road and observed the straight lines of vehicles and asphalt beyond and behind me, the unnatural order

to it all. I wondered how we lost our ability to emulate and honor all that brings us sustenance, energy and life. When did we turn the mirror upon ourselves — rather than outward —Âand become preoccupied with our own small images?

Another evening, lying on the sandstone surface of a swallow-viewing sky-island, enjoying the swooping curiosity of joyful creatures, my literary mind struggled with terms to describe the agility and precision of swallows in flight. I kept reaching for metaphors drawn from aviation or the military — images drawn from man-made machinery.

Now, in retrospect, I am thankful for an inadequate military vocabulary, for these words are ill suited to describe wild perfection. It is a substitution of the imitation for the original — like calling microwaved Velveeta fondue, or tearing down the forest to build a church, a house of God.

It is a reminder to stop looking in the mirror, to recognize how much fuller the world is beyond the human reflection. We live in a vastness that stretches beyond the reaches of words, an idea the writer in me will someday accept. And rejoice.

I have never seen a swallow on the ground. I have never seen one walk, hop or otherwise perambulate. From my experience, they are entirely airborne. I know they eat on the fly, drink on the wing and even copulate in mid-twirl. Males attract mates in shows of aerial prowess. Air, simply stated, is their main habitat. In fact, swallow feet are not even designed for walking; these birds come into this world equipped with short legs, partially fused toes and an innate sense of how to get around the stifling tenacity of gravity’s pull. They gave up their terrestrial ties long ago in evolutionary history, preferring instead to soar beyond their own shadows’ reach.

Yet we, for all that we’ve gained while ascending the evolutionary ladder — our immense capacity for creativity and ingenuity, our complex social systems, our philosophical and scientific traditions — we’ve also abandoned a great deal along the way. Most of us come into this world and go out of it without an intimate knowledge of the earth beneath our feet, how these soils are the basis of our stories and our sustenance. We no longer read the pages of landscape for

survival and identity. We’ve lost our sense of connection and belonging to the rich tapestry of life cradling us. The scientific quest to understand our world — and control it — has only served to distance ourselves from the ground of our existence.

We, like the swallows, have given up our terrestrial ties, but in a different manner and to a different end. Instead of soaring beyond the reach of shadow, we hold our shadow tightly inside, plucking its smoky feathers and rendering it tame, flightless and lacking in hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul…

What if we allowed that shadowy creature within to soar beyond our science and our sorrow? Would its absence gift us with the language of hope?

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” said Rumi. The swallows’ way is through flight, kneeling in midair. For us it is the expression of love — love of one’s partner, of one’s kin, one’s work, this land, this life.

Love is perhaps the wildest act in which humans still engage. It is our deepest bow to Other. And in its defiance of reason — the way in which we rededicate our hearts to love despite our accumulated losses — herein lies love’s ever-hopeful wildness.

Like the cobwebs, moulds, rodents and roaches that wildly persist at the periphery of otherwise ordered lives — Gary Snyder’s

“ghost wilderness” — so too endures our un-tamed pursuance of connection and communion. Despite the odds, it rides wings of hope through a landscape of loss, splitting that elusive seam between heavy and light, uniting us with the infinite and wild realm of all that we may never understand.

The violet hour and its swallows are my daily reminder to kneel and kiss this rocky desert ground that I love. And to continually and wildly hope.

Jen Jackson writes from Moab, Utah, where her vocabulary is always inadequate to the task of describing her surroundings. However, she persists, and her work can be found in numerous regional publications, including Mountain Gazette, High Country News and the now (and sadly) defunct Inside/Outside Southwest.