Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My new eco science fiction Knocking on Heaven's Door is just released. A number of early reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What This Animal Body Knows

Terry Song

Now is a good time to begin—to say what place has meant to me, who I have been in certain places. It is a good time to write out of my love and deep connection to the land, as I sit here in this little house made of earth, loaned to me by the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation so that I might be still and rest in a space off the clock, off the calendar. Outside my windows, the wind hurries the season along. If I look to the north, snow falls thick and fast on Taos Mountain. To the south, the sun shines in clear blue sky. Here in this in-between place, the trees are wild and generous, the world a flurry of gold leaves.

I enter into my last week here and soon must leave this casita nestled in cottonwood and elm, this nest where I folded in my wings and took refuge. In this place, I have cleansed myself with tears and sleep, have walked in the mountains, marveling at leaves and sky. I have sat without purpose, lit candles just to gaze at them. On my desk is a picture postcard of a kiva. The ladder in the center, propped against stone, leads up from the dark womb of it into daylight. In giving me the space to reflect on my experience of the midlife passage, this place has allowed me to climb the ladder out of the kiva into the light of new Self.

Each moment of who I have been in Casita #4, in the season of my residency here, is housed in image: the desk I made myself outdoors in the center of the meadowy backyard, tangle of alfalfa gone wild, its purple blossoms in a space ringed by trees that changed with the rhythm of the earth, just as I changed. Bright goldfinch, black iridescence of magpie wing, light on tall grasses, buzz and hum of everything, insects, the silence of butterflies. Each moment a house I can live in for the rest of my life. Even when the outdoor desk is long gone and I am gone from here, in me will still be the whole days I sat at it in the luxury of writing among trees and birds, alfalfa and insects, my books and papers all spread out across the bright blue Mexican oilcloth, the sun warm on my back, in my hair, and every fiber in me fully present and grateful for days of feeling undivided, not fragmented, but a whole person doing the work I love in my natural habitat.

One day when roofers appear to repair my casita, I pack a lunch and set off on an adventure, driving north and west of Taos to the hot springs of Ojo Caliente for an afternoon of soaking and swimming. I drive at my leisure, pulling off the road to soak up the incredible landscape, the play of light and shadow on high desert plateau ringed by mountains, and where it plunges into the Royal Gorge of the Rio Grande, impossible hues and textures. Later, where the plains give way to mountain foothills, I get out of the car and walk, sit on a rock, catching images in my journal: wild sunflowers and purple aster along the roadside; tall grasses that could tickle the belly of a horse; desert scrub oak, rabbitbrush, and juniper mingled with mountain mahogany and piñon—everything purple and yellow and silvery sage. In the distance, cathedrals of clouds drape lavender veils across the mountain. As the Navajo say: Today is a good day to die.

A week later, after another outing, I wake in the night and cannot go back to sleep. Fresh from the nest of my bed and warm glove of covers that hold me cupped in dreams, I rise in the dark, go to my desk, and light a white candle. Images coalesce into lines of a poem:

I walk with women, a high desert
path along the gorge, through
sweetgrass, threadgrass,
peppergrass and blue gramma,
four miles through chamisa and sage.
We sit on the rim in silence,
dangle our legs from a rock ledge
above the winding river.
Silence settles over the land.
The sun slips behind us
like a lover out the back door,
leaves the canyon flushed rose.
Evening tucks its lavender and indigo
secrets into the land, and we hurry along
the desert track. Birds
flutter in the scrub, settling
in for the night. Later,
the moon finds us laughing,
feasting on bread and cheese,
apples, cashews and olives,
chocolate and wine by the flicker of candlelight.
A white half moon, nestled
in the crook of Scorpio’s tail,
scatters its light on the river
where we linger,
hold our cups out for more, captive
in the clear night of a thousand stars.

Many, the luminescent moments where I am held, soothed, lifted by the land: Standing in Taos Pueblo on the feast day of San Geronimo, in the September morning chill, I witness the ceremonial footraces as dawn comes into the mountains and lies itself across the land and red earth walls of the pueblo where the women stand wrapped in bright shawls facing the sun.
Another: on an afternoon of combing through journals of a painful time in my life, I leave the work to drive up into Taos ski valley. I drive for an hour, late sun in brilliant yellow aspens, the flutter of leaves and light a balm. I stop to kneel beside the rushing mountain stream and splash my face. Something lifts as I stand and stretch, face dripping and cold, taking in the sky, the piney mountain air, a lightness in me as I get back in my car and drive to town.
Housed in the place of Nambé Pueblo is a day I bask with others in the Indian summer afternoon heat. We stand at the edge of the Corn Dance unfolding—children and elders, men and women, dancing ancient patterns to the rhythm of drums. Later, after the dancers descend into the kiva, we take a back road home through small villages in the mountains, a drive of heart-stopping beauty—bursts of yellow aspen in the evergreen hills. We stop in the village of Truchas to talk with a weaver from an old family of weavers, beautiful rugs on his looms. Last, we stop in Chimayo at the sanctuary renowned for its healing dirt. The impulse toward a poem begins.

My Cristos
At the Sanctuario de Chimayo
I could not find the pilgrim’s
reverence and awe in the small
church of plaster saints
of virginal women with downcast
eyes and covered heads, nor,
forgive me,
in the image of the bleeding
Christ on a cross.
Not even the candles were lit there.

yellow-leafed cottonwoods
whispered,“Wake up!”
their alive branches arching
a shady bower sanctuario
underneath a blue sky.
On the sunwarmed banks,
by the little rio, we took off our
shoes and socks, rolled up our pants
and waded into that holy water blessing

flowed down from piney mountains.
In the women, virgins none,
in the milagritos of their
blue and pink and copper painted
toenails, flashing like fish
in the cold October waters—
bare-headed, golden,
afternoon light catching in their hair—
my Cristos.

On my desk is a picture of me in a canoe, rowing the Jackson Fork in Missouri. It is one of three, out of a lifetime of pictures, I recognize as an image of the “real” me, if I don’t count the dancing-as-if-no one-is looking photo. Another is my Sacajawea photo where I stand in round-bellied, full-breasted nakedness on my 29th birthday, eight months pregnant, at the top of McKnight Peak, one hand on my walking stick, the other shading my eyes as I gaze out over mountains. The third is the photo where I am looking into the camera, in my straw sunflower hat, green sunglasses, and tie-dye tank top, smiling the relaxed smile of a woman in her element. Desert hills stretch out behind me.

In this one on my desk, the afternoon light glistens on the water. River willow, large old oak and sycamore trees along the banks are still green, but the first gold and orange leaves floating on the water hint of a season about to change. In the photo, my back is to the camera as though I am rowing away. The image reminds me that when I row away from Missouri, returning to my heartland in New Mexico, I will carry with me golden, lazy days on the river and in the woods with women friends, nights of stars and trading stories by the fire, coffee in a hot tin cup, smell of woodsmoke, and sense of restoration and homecoming, coming into authentic self, canoeing the river, walking in woods—these particular woods of maple, oak, sycamore, and dogwood, with fern and fungus and that loamy, musty smell of leaf mold and rotting bark that I will always associate with Missouri. Embedded in the heart of that image is the palpable sense of who I am—healthy, vital, in relationship to sky and water and land.

In her book Red, Terry Tempest Williams says that “Each of us belongs to a particular landscape, one that informs who we are, a place that carries our history, our dreams.” Perhaps that intense sense of belonging is what made me weep, when crossing the border from Colorado into northwestern NM the summer my friend Karen rode with me from Missouri, and we stopped at Sugarite State Park for a picnic by the Cimarron River, a lovely small river flowing fast and cold over rocks. As I sat at the picnic table, lifting sandwich to mouth, my eyes taking in the boulders and rocks of the hillside, the piñon, scrub oak and blue sky, my body flooded with recognition. I let the tears flow. Landscape of my bones—it was the embrace of a lost love.
I experienced what Frances Meyers describes in Under the Tuscan Sun, that “pure surge of pleasure, flash flood of joy—to find the electric jolt of the outside place that corresponds with the inside.” Later I found a spot to leap out to a large flat rock in the stream to sit on and dangle my feet in the water. Like a tree drawing nutrients up through its roots, I soaked it up.

This is who I am.

One spring night in the loft of a primitive little cabin deep in Lake of the Ozarks State Park, I lie awake pleasure reading Under the Tuscan Sun by kerosene lamplight, about place and how it enters into us: “The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it,” she says. “Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave“—this fire in the woodstove, path up the hill through moonlit woods to the bath house. If what she says is true, that “where you are is who you are,” I am the woman of the woodland cabin.
I am woman of the sea on the night ferry to the Cycladic island of Paros, the summer I travel to Greece, sea breeze on my face, in my hair, washing everything away. Here and there a sprinkling of lights on a far island, then long stretches of nothing but the sky and night black waters.

Adventuress, woman in the world, rescuing myself from aridity, choosing something deeply craved, I am writer housing images in my red silk journal of this place that enters into me: June 21—On the peninsula of Methana, we hike to the volcano where I find wild mountain thyme and lavender blooming, pick oregáni and something wild and delicate I can’t name; in the shade of olive groves and vineyards, I listen to the sea lap against the shore. Green hills rise out of the Aegean where we swim at sunset. The sun sinks into the sea, shooting golden rays across the water, straight into my open heart. That I have lived to see the sea and the color of the sea at sunset, to be rolled in its embrace, something buoyant and alive!

The air is laden with the sweet scent of jasmine and lemon blossoms as we walk the path up to dinner. We eat outside as night falls, a fingernail moon hanging in the sky, the silky sea shushing, unfolding itself against the shore. A thin Greek tune wafts over the white houses and hills of Methana.

The next morning when I find a garden where the rosemary grows so large that I can break a small branch and brush my hair with it, the words of poet Adrienne Rich ring true— “sensual vitality is essential to the struggle for survival.” Later, I write in a card to my husband: “With my hair scented rosemary and sunlight, my lips all olive oil and Greek wine, my body salty from the sea, I think you would like me.”

Time in the natural world reminds me: I am spirit and creature, vibrantly alive. In the presence of earth’s wild places, I stand in the presence of what is most authentic in me, unmasked, the whole of me fully present.

On a golden autumn day eight years ago, I first got a mind to write a personal essay that speaks to our connection to the land as humans, to explore my love affair with the natural world, one of the deepest relationships, both physically and spiritually, of my life. On a day too glorious to contain ourselves within four white walls, I sent my creative writing students to find a private nook outdoors, to sit and write—out of silent observation and out of their own experience, which is, after all, what gives us the authority to write on a subject convincingly. I found my nook, too, and began to write:

October—and sap in the maple and oak begins its descent. The one thing this blood knows, blood of my farmer father and his father before him, what this animal body knows, as it instinctively picks out a mottled patch of sunwarmed ground to rest on, is that we are meant for this earth to pass between our hands, to be felt by our bare feet. We must not pass over it too quickly or pave over it too solidly.

The leaves flutter down from the trees on campus today. I choose the spot where they rain down the most heavily. They shower in my hair and over the open pages. A tree trunk to lean against—oh, luxury! What other job would allow me to embrace a mid-day hour of autumn—to assign my charges to go where they love and write. I am where I love, the ground slightly damp still from the weekend’s rain. If I could whisk myself back to all those places where I have loved the land . . .

And that day I began to think if I had any hope of convincing a reader or listener that it’s our job to love the land, I must examine what gives me authority to speak. And so—my vita—the facts that lend credibility and, thus, the right to your ear:

1. Daddy was a farmer. Summers found me on the end of a hoehandle, skin nutbrown from sun. I watched the sky for rain, prayed against hailstones, picked peaches in August from my mom’s tree, shelled black-eyed peas from her garden. Other qualifications include: hanging from the willow tree; summer camping trips to mountains, fresh trout, glorious pines and aspens we didn’t have on the Texas panhandle; lazy hot vacations to my grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma—the orchard, the vinerow, the cane patch, and peanut fields. From swinging on sand bags across the creek, making preserves from apricots warm with sun, loving my grandma’s tall gladiolas, and dreaming in the hayloft—I am acquainted with the land.

2. My own garden every year of my adult life, no matter where I find myself living. I replicate for myself the thrill my father felt of putting seeds in the ground, looking across fields of fresh-turned earth, tender green plants springing up where before, there was nothing. Even if my plot must be small.

Every January when the seed catalogues arrive, it’s the same: maybe this year I won’t order, I think, then drool over the catalogues. I mark the possibilities and make my list—a forest of flowers, a few herbs, and such an abundance of vegetables we won’t have to buy groceries. It will be Eden this year and—yes! we will get ourselves back to the garden—until I tally it up: over $100 in one catalogue, $70 in another, and $38 in the third. And that doesn’t even get to the catalogue with all the native plants, or the bulb catalogue—or the one with berries and fruit trees. I release my dreams of being Jeannie Appleseed and scratch from the list the most exotic flowers first, then the veggies least likely to be eaten by my family, and keep scratching till it reaches the threshold of affordability. I used to justify by telling my husband the 29 reasons for such an investment: We’ll save money growing our own food, right? For health then—and for a taste of heaven and the sake of beauty (oh, Keats, marry me!). It is my service work, I claim—bowl of cherry tomatoes for the neighbors across the street and, for friends, a colander full of delectable green beans (whose violet flowers will please the mailman’s eye), a fresh bouquet of flowers brought in every week (and one for your office!), pesto for our pasta and extra for the college girls next door. Calloo! Callay! To squat and dig and sweat in the garden is cheaper than therapy! And dreaming over the seed catalogue, so like reading poetry . . .

Found poem: Cook’s Garden Seed Catalogue
Who wouldn’t want your seeds,
your certified organic Tromboncino Cristoforo
or Sundance
and Delicata squash,
perfect for tempura.

I'd take your golden tomatillo, Toma Verde,
serrano, habañero, Corno di Toro,
your Bulldog Paprika with Plum Purple
radishes or Fluo Fluo,
French hybrid breakfast with Red Cloud
Rose Finn from cultured seed stock,
and petit pois
or tendersnap sweet pod heirloom
for nitrogen fixation
or stir fry,
with Southern, curled, Osaka purple tatsoi
mustard green plain cress arugula
selvatica arugula!
Winter Marvel,
Lolla Rosa, perpetual
bestseller Bibb four-season edible salad garden
drizzled with Ellen’s homemade salad dressing
served with wine
and cheese,
by candlelight.

3. It’s true that I am a product of the late 60s and 70s. We believed if we unplugged from the establishment, which included growing our own food instead of paying the gas/oil cartel to spray it and ship it pre-packaged in plastic, that we could make the world a better place. It was a dream some of us had. The only electricity we used was for our fridge, stereo, and one clock. In the evenings, long walks by the river, card games by kerosene lamp-light, homegrown music, stargazing. It wasn’t just us, being eccentric; it was whole communities all over the land.
Ray Bradbury once said, “The only part of the world you can change is the part that passes directly through your hands.” So we traded corn and melons to the honey lady for honey, tomatoes for eggs. We ground wheat for bread and tortillas, milked a goat for yogurt and cheese, canned and dried from the bounty of our garden, and cut our own down-and-dead wood for heat. Much of this was done in community: a salsa canning party with women friends, complete with salsa music and margaritas; a wood-run and picnic in the mountains with another family. We believed in free lunch. If you need one, come walk with me through my garden.

Rock House Poem

There will never be another like it,
the old teacherage on the hillside,
built by the WPA in '39,

a view of Cook's Peak, the velvet
cutout of Black Range Mountains,
splintery wooden floors,

no closets, no hot water at first,
and the well that kept running dry.
The drunk landlord

bursting through the front door,
thinking nobody at home,
shouted,"Viva Mejico!"

But it was only 75 dollars a month,
six rooms with many windows. We built
shelves in kitchen windows, lined them

with plants, and sunshine
filtered through to warm the kitchen,
where we huddled winter mornings

with a cup of tea in the thin light
while the woodstove came to life. As early
as February on the long porch facing south,

we lay nude in sun. At night
constellations would
swing across, friends would crank

ice cream in the White Mountain ice
cream bucket, singing the moon up, a little
wine on the side.

It was a house for newlyweds.
It kept us together. From there I would
walk to Bear Canyon to fish.

In Christmas snow, we wandered
the hills behind the house for our tree, always
a small pine growing

in the shadow of something larger. Our needs
were small: a porch and windows,
a place for our bed. We had our first

child there, in that house with its own large
belly for us to grow in,
forgiving mother with eyes

of memory,
skin and stones and breath—
its voice,

tonight I can almost hear it.

When we moved to the city in the mid-80s, for my husband to go to graduate school, it was, for me, with a sense of loss and a splitting from values held dear. I wept the first night in our suburban rental, the little white box of a bedroom off the dog-run hallway, and houses on all sides. It felt like staying in a motel. Leaving the hills, the river, the big garden, the funky old house was like cutting away a part of my body.

I identified keenly with the character Clemente in Rudolfo Anaya’s Heart of Aztlan, who is reluctant to sell his land and move his family to the promise of a better future for his kids in the city. His heart and soul are in the earth which has nurtured his life. Clemente thinks, “Without the land, the relationship a man created with the earth would be lost . . . they would be like wandering gypsies without a homeland where they might anchor their spirit.” He fears becoming “separated from the rhythm of the heartbeat of the land,” which is the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, of seasons, tuning us to natural human rhythms of daily life and to our own cycles and seasons.

I remember feeling that rhythm, that heartbeat, at various times in my life. After college, when I began teaching high school and opted to rent a farmhouse about 30 miles from my job, it was a sanctuary. Evenings after work, I would walk at dusk across the llano, the breeze on my skin, feet steadily progressing over the land, my breathing becoming deeper and fuller. I would feel my inner gears shifting as I climbed an old windmill in the pasture and watched the sky put the land to sleep and the stars wink out. It was a slowing, a re-tuning to the inner rhythms . . . a coming into the quiet surety of self—the heartbeat of the land my heartbeat, breath of the land my breath.

In the city, I found myself losing touch with a pace conducive to health and wholeness. When we moved to Missouri, city life was fun—going out to hear jazz, going to plays and concerts, dance performances and literary events, art shows, and good restaurants. The going, going, going provided such constant stimulation that little by little and big by big I became cut off from my own rhythms. The self that has always been revivified in nature began to lose her balance. At night I would step out on the porch, walk down the sidewalk into the street away from the house to try to be alone with the sky, to gaze at the stars—but Missouri humidity and the haze of city lights make only the tiniest sprinkle of brightest stars visible.

My sense of loss in the city has been, in part, the feeling of being cut off from the sky, the vast night sky with its awesome company of stars. To be cut off from stars is a severing from our enormity. We lose the sense of mystery of the whole that is larger than us and yet that hints at our own immensity. When earth is paved over and sky blanketed with light, both microcosm and macrocosm are obscured, our biogeneology is lost to us, and we forget who we are: stardust, children hosted by this wet, green planet—dust to dust, mineral and water, substance of the mother’s body. Without the stars, which have always provided a means of orienting, something of perspective and sense of direction are lost; we lose our ability to navigate a path through the darkness.

Our journey away from the land, I am convinced, takes us further and further away from ourselves, in ways that we may not recognize, in ways that are complex, away from what it is to be human on this planet. While our relationship with the earth, in modern city life, may not be completely lost, it does become diminished or sometimes irrelevant. We forget about it. As Clemente says, “A man must work the earth with his hands, he must keep in touch with it, or else he forgets.” And like Clemente, who, on arriving in the city, turns to a corner of yard with enough sunlight to grow tomatoes and pours out the coffee can of soil his wife has filled from her flower garden to bring with them, I too I have tried to overcome the sense of loss by carrying the land with me.

When we left New Mexico I brought a stick of desert willow and a few clumps of herbs from my garden. One of my first acts on arrival, after kitchen boxes were unpacked, groceries bought, and kids registered for school, was to dig a small 4’ x 6’ plot in the clay soil and put lettuce, spinach, and arugula seeds in for a fall salad garden. That little plot helped me make it through the first awful winter of longing. I would tromp out in deep snow, lift the sheet of plastic I had thrown over it, and pick greens to bring in. Like Clemente, I have tried to carry the spirit of the land with me, housed in images of lived experience. Everywhere I go, I am accompanied by NM. In me, I carry the smell of creosote after rain—and sometimes in Missouri, when the dogwood blooms glow white at dusk, I touch down into the place of desert twilight, the ethereal white blossoms of the yucca.

No matter what efforts we make to counter loss and try to be whole, at some point we must return to what we love, to what is in our bones, or we lose ourselves. And if we cannot return in a big permanent way, we must make every effort to return as often as possible to the wild places on the earth, to create and preserve sanctuaries, refuges, parks, greenbelts, and gardens in the city so we do not forget, so we have places to commune, renew our connection, and restore ourselves.

The gift of this time, sitting at my little makeshift desk in the borrowed backyard in the mountains, leaves raining down on the page as I write, magpie chattering in the tree, will carry me through the busy winter and spring ahead. Even if the essay I dance toward in these lines doesn’t ever find audience, just to be here in the rhythm of season changing, contemplating my own connection to land, its impact on me, saying it definite, is enough. To look up at the incredible blue October sky, that no matter how many times I see it still makes my mouth hang open, is a way of embracing my values.

We are tied to the land, and when we maintain our connection, in whatever small and large ways available to us, when we attune ourselves to its seasons and cycles, we grow more mindful of our own cycles and learn to ferry more gracefully between inner and outer life, spirit and flesh, bringing each important messages from the other that allow us our balance in daily life. In the presence of the land, in the company of mountain and desert, woods and river, we can descend into the valley of ourselves and learn what we need to be whole.

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