Land in the Sky: When Circumstances Are Right

Tiny-Ivory-ChestMy study is cluttered. And dusty. A room jammed with all the junk that goes with being O’Grady. Books. Manuscripts. Bankers Boxes full of yellowing letters from old friends. Yes, letters. They date from the days when friends would write letters to each other. I can’t remember the last time I received an actual letter in the mail. It’s just as well. I have enough stuff. “I am myself and my circumstances” says the philosopher. And “circumstances” is just a fancy word for stuff. Especially the older you get. I need to get rid of some stuff.

On top of one of my bookcases is a big ole Jeffrey pine cone—a gentle reminder of the East Side of the Sierra Nevada. On my desk is a granite rock long ago plucked from Walden Pond. I used to have two rocks from Walden Pond. Then one day in the nineties I took one with me to the top of Mount Shasta in California. It’s a 14,179 foot sleeping volcano with glaciers on it. Right near the top of the mountain is a boiling, sulfurous hot spring. I tossed the Walden Pond rock in there. I must have had my reasons. I just can’t remember them anymore.

Maybe the weirdest item among my stuff is the bones of the writer Mary Austin. Well, not really her bones, just a few fragments of her cremated remains. I gleaned them many years ago from a mountaintop in New Mexico, where they lay scattered among the baloney sandwich ruins of a half century of hiker picnics. Yes, mountaintops can be weird places, at least for me.

Mary Austin died in Santa Fe in 1934. She is remembered today mostly for her first book, The Land of Little Rain. It’s a pretty good book. She was a pretty good writer. Literary scholars have written things about her. I’ve written a few myself, including the story of how her remains wound up on the summit of an obscure peak outside of Santa Fe and then were forgotten. That story would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It was published in a little-known literary journal. I forget which one.

Anyway, I had thought I was done writing about Mary Austin, but here I go again. Coming across somebody’s cremated remains forgotten among your stuff is a powerful prompt. I tried to resist it because maybe I write too much about graveyards and how file boxes look like coffins.

Speaking of coffins, the few bits of Mary Austin’s remains in my possession have been kept respectfully in a tiny ivory chest. A friend gave it to me when she discovered what exactly I had been keeping in a vintage Catskill Mountain Game Farm ashtray on one of my bookshelves. She was a poet and not impressed with my literalism. So for the last couple decades that’s where my portion of Mary Austin’s remains have resided, in that tiny ivory chest.

I had forgotten all about the remains till I came across the tiny ivory chest yesterday when I was tidying up my study. It was inside a handsome carved wooden box, where I had placed it some years ago because, honestly, who wants to be looking at a little coffin all the time? As soon as I saw it, though, I remembered the promise I had made to myself to one day return what’s left of Mary Austin to that obscure mountaintop outside of Santa Fe and give her a proper burial. Which is more than she received from the hired cowboys who dumped her ashes there in 1939 when the mortuary that had been storing them went out of business.

Yes, when the circumstances are right, I will go to New Mexico and get rid of some stuff.