On the Importance of Landscape, and the Landscape of the Imagination

The other day my friend Sara and I were discussing camp. She went to a number of camps; I went to one camp for many, many years. Neither of us had a particularly good time.

During the first five years of my life, we went to Enosburg Falls, Vermont every summer to stay with my father’s parents. The summer of 1981, though, my grandfather died, and a month later, my father died, and after that we never went back. The summer of 1982, when I was six, I went to the hippie summer school (a bit different then from what it is now), which, despite the fairly free flowing nature of the Montessori school I’d gone to before that, was too free for me. It seemed like going to school with an amoeba, never knowing which way it was going to move next, or when it would gather you in and when it would spit you out. The next summer, I started going to camp in Maine, and for seven weeks every summer (with one exception, when I was seventeen), starting after first grade and ending right before college, I went to that camp, first as a camper and then, the last two years, as a counselor. And then, just as suddenly, I stopped going.

Today I was reading through Booklist at the library and came across a familiar name in the Cookery section: Phoebe Damrosch was a girl a year or two younger than me who went to the same camp.� We were in a play together, and when I was a junior counselor, she was in my cabin.

It was a bit jarring, because although I think about camp quite often, I almost never see or talk to or even much think of any of the people I knew there.

Wohelo was very big into having its campers make lifelong friends. I learned a lot of things there–swimming, sailing, windsurfing–they even tried to teach me tennis, though with miserable results–but I never made any real friends. I spent a lot of time there as the odd one out, and though that bothered me, it must never have bothered me very much, because I kept going back. When I remember things about camp, they rarely involve other people. I remember the day I passed my windsurfing solo. I remember sailing idly by myself, often drifting off whatever course I was supposed to be on: I loved to sail, but I was never very good at it, and I finally gave it up after capsizing an MIT Tech Dinghy for the umpteenth time. I remember swimming miles and miles–we swam, at the older girls’ part of the camp, between two docks far enough apart that it took three round trips to make a quarter of a mile. I remember walking back from the showers once or twice a week, feeling cleaner than I ever have before or since.� And I remember watching the sun set over the lake every night.� In my first cabin, when I was seven, I had to hold my head up to see out the window.� My last few summers there I climbed out onto the rocks and lay back, nothing but rock below me and water around me, and the reds and golds and pinks and purples of the sunset of the sunset spilling into the water.� At that point, it didn’t seem to matter very much to me that the girls in my cabin had asked me why I brushed my hair funny, or told me I had to say swear words or they’d push me out the fire escape door, or whispered among one another just loud enough for me to hear, or made fun of my underwear. All those things bothered me while they were happening, but when I was looking out at the lake, they didn’t seem to matter very much.
My mother went to this same camp for one summer, when she was fifteen, and for all the years that I went to camp, she came at the end of the summer and stayed for a week of family camp, where old campers and their families came back to see how very little had changed. When my mother was there, they still bathed in the lake, but other than the addition of showers, she could find nothing different.

A few years ago I had a dream about a garden that my family and friends had made for me. The garden was a circle cut into four quarters. Sara made one quarter into a prairie with tall grasses and wildflowers. Another friend made one quarter into a southern Utah red rock desert, with juniper and piñon pine. My grandmother made a third quarter into an English garden, with a crumbling stone wall with roses running over it. And the last quarter my mother made into a little piece of Maine, with granite boulders and white pine and hemlock and birch. It is, I think, the loveliest dream I have ever had, but it seems notable to me that none of the people who made the garden were in the dream. I knew they had made it and put it there for me, but the dream was just about the garden itself, and that was enough.

It took me a long time to realize that landscape was the most important thing in the world to me. The landscapes of the garden are only partly real — I have been to Maine and to southern Utah, and they look, in part, much as my dream garden did. The English garden comes from Beatrix Potter and The Secret Garden; I have never been to England myself. And though I grew up in Iowa, I grew up by corn and soybean fields, and in cities and towns. There are prairie restoration projects in Iowa, but there is no more original prairie: my image of that part of the garden comes entirely from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It sounds ungrateful to say that the land is more important than the people, but for me it seems to be true. The people are important, of course. But when Carole King sings “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the windowsill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey you know I will,” I can’t really get behind her. I love and want people in my life, but I need land. I need the dear muddy earth, or the dear dry dust. I need space, and I need to be able to see the sun set. I learned that, or much of it, I am sure, at camp, but it took me a long time to understand it.

Saturday Night Thought

From last night, posted tonight. I thought I might expand upon it, but no, this is all there is:

Every now and then, it dawns on me that Garrison Keillor is going to die, and that I will then have to live the rest of my life without Prairie Home Companion. (I have similar feelings about Gary Trudeau and Doonesbury, but they’re not quite as intense, probably because my acquaintance with them is a decade shorter–I started reading Doonesbury in grade school; PHC I probably heard in utero.)

That Trudeau’s show is not as good as it once was–that it could never be as good as “Snow Home” was when I perhaps four (if, in fact, I heard it live–I could swear that I did, on the old radio that I moved to my office at my first job, on which, for reasons that seem baffling even now, I listened while at said job to all of the Clinton impeachment hearings)–is of little matter. It may, I suppose, make it easier to say goodbye in the end, but I doubt it.

Once and Again

What follows is partially prompted by a discussion over at the Hermits’ place and partly simply my own muddled musings.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

I was told not too long ago that this hymn was removed from The Hymnal 1982 not because it refers to “man” (not humans, or souls, or men and women, or what have you) but because of a theological issue: there is no one time in our lives that we must choose between good and evil–we are called to do so constantly.

Of course, I think Lowell’s lyrics acknowledge that: the choice goes by forever, after all. I am not a theologian or an expert on hymns, or much of anything else.

The hymn comes to me at the moment partly because it is a great favorite of mine–we sang it at my camp long ago, and it shows up in The House with a Clock in its Walls, and Martin Luther King Jr. quotes it several times in his speeches and sermons. It comes to me also, though, I think, because I’ve been thinking lately about moments that occur once and moments that occur again and again.

The incidents at Virginia Tech remind most people of the shootings at Columbine High School, which took place eight years ago today. They remind many also, I suspect, of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which took place twelve years ago this week. For those of us with a connection to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, the thing that comes most to mind is, I suspect, the physics department shootings in 1991, which, bucking the April trend, took place in November, on All Saints Day. Some may recall the many other school shootings in this country–Red Lake, Minnesota; West Paducah, Kentucky; and on, and on–killings that get less ongoing attention but that were no less devastating for their communities. And any act of sudden violence cannot help but bring to mind the attacks of 9/11. One doesn’t equate these things–one can’t–but they come to mind, and one realizes that evil does not happen simply once.

One also realizes–or some, at least, also realize–that we tend to pay more attention to the tragedies that are sudden as opposed to those that are ongoing. We lose sight of the ongoing killings abroad in favor of the one-off sensations. We barely even register the things that kill more slowly: poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, oppression.

It is remarkably easy to write off other people’s suffering. It is equally easy to judge the mourning of others, to believe that the woman who does not cry at her mother’s funeral or the man who does not seem affected by the school shooting that happened in his town are in some way not fully human or humane.

I do not believe that the choice between truth and falsehood is one we make only once, but I do believe that there is for each person one great tragedy–one thing that happens that defines your understanding of sadness. That thing may have already happened to you, or it may yet be coming to you (but make no mistake: it will come). It is one of the great comforts of my life, actually: as a friend once said, the great wheel of tragedy leaves no one untouched. Eventually it swings around to everyone. I try to remember that in a charitable way when someone says something appalling to me, but mostly, I must admit, I remember it in a more gleeful fashion. Oh, just you wait, I think. It’ll happen to you, too.


I started this post a day or two ago but didn’t finish it, and now I’ve forgotten where it was meant to go–if, in fact, it was meant to go anywhere–I call this ramblings for a reason. Suffice it to say that I am always struck, at moments of great national or international tragedy, by how randomly tragedy strikes us, and how peculiar and personal our reactions to it, or our lack of reaction, must always be.

male, female, etc.

How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Luke 13:34 [partial]

I had thought to do a little blogging of the Lenten study we’re doing at my church (which does not have a website–it doesn’t even have a computer) but hadn’t gotten around to beginning. What follows is only marginally related to our actual Lenten study.

The Hermits have of late been considering biology and humanity, sex and gender, topics which lend themselves to diverse pursuits–scientific inquiry, theological reflection, and, of course, the taking of online quizzes.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, meanwhile, have been considering similar questions, although in a somewhat graver and larger fashion. (Background via Google or the NYT, if you are so fortunate as to have a subscription).

Today I heard the following opinions expressed:

  • gays are sinners and should be punished appropriately
  • gays are sinners and need to be saved
  • gays are children of God just like the rest of us
  • gays choose to be gay
  • gays have no choice about being gay (and, in an interesting variation, 3/4 of gays have no choice about being gay)
  • gays are gay because of a birth defect

Despite my years of regular church attendance, I am the sort of person that Ann Coulter would doubtless describe as a godless liberal (although I usually tell people I’m a communist–why not go all out, I figure?). In the course of my eastern education and upbringing (remember, anything east of Cheyenne is “back east”), I had never heard the last of these before.

I mentioned that I did not think that gay people were defective. The speaker said they were not defective (what with all being God’s children and all), but they were not perfectly formed in God’s image in the same way that people with birth defects are. I said that it seemed to me that since we are all part of God’s creation, God probably intended for us to come in a variety of configurations and sexual orientations and so on and so forth. I’m not sure how that went over.

It has occurred to me lately, though, that when we say that gay people are gay because they can’t help it, because they have no choice in the matter, we are doing them something of a disservice. Saying “you have no choice” is not quite the same as saying “you have a birth defect” (and, I should note, this whole discussion is probably doing an enormous disservice to people who have birth defects, who are also no less human than the rest of us), but it implies that you are to be pitied, that you are, in some way, a less than perfect example of God’s creation–sort of like saying that if you are female, you are somehow less able to relate to God, since in his human incarnation he was male.

Last week in Lenten study our lesson was Luke 13:31-35. I noted at some point that I thought it was either interesting or nice or both (I can’t recollect which adjective I used) that Jesus chose a feminine image in the bit quoted above–the mother hen gathering in her young. I have for years–for as long as I have been thinking about it–believed that humanity encompasses male and female and indeterminate and in-between, heterosexual and homosexual and bisexual, and, in general, more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. Is there any reason that God should not also encompass all these?

I don’t consider the people whom I listened to today to be intolerant, on the whole. But sometimes it’s very clear to me that I come from a different place. We have a gender neutral restroom at our church, but we don’t call it that, and I don’t know that anyone thinks of it that way. But I may start to think of it as such–to be happy in the knowledge that there’s a place you can go around here where you don’t have to choose a label.

water story

Last month I didn’t have water for a week, and I decided to write something about it for Writers on the Range. Since they don’t seem to want it, I thought I’d post it here. If you find yourself fascinated with my water situation, rather than that of the larger west, you can read more on Vox.

I am happy to report that next weekend, I’m moving to a house, where, I have been told, the pipes never freeze.


“The West begins,” Bernard DeVoto wrote, “where the average annual
rainfall drops below twenty inches.” The Conservation District where I
live recently released its figures for 2006: we got a total rainfall
equivalent of 6.71 inches. We are indeed in the West, going into the
eighth year of a drought.

You know that simply from looking around at the brown fields, the low
muddy reservoir, the dust that blows through your screens in the summer.
But I don’t think you really appreciate it–at least I didn’t–until
you have in some personal way gone without.

During a recent cold snap, my pipes froze, and for the past four days I
have had no water in my house but what I have brought into it. I called
my landlady to tell her about the situation and mentioned that I had, as
she suggested, left a couple of taps dripping. “Not dripping,” she
said. “Dripping won’t do it; you’ve got to leave them running.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a good thing I don’t pay for water by the gallon.”

Yes–you heard me right–in a place that got fewer than seven inches of
rain last year, I get all the water I want for $35 a month. Granted,
it’s horrible water, much too alkaline to drink. If you water plants
with it, they shrivel up and die. But you can flush toilets with it,
and shower in it, and wash your dishes in it.

I suppose, though, that my water situation is no more ridiculous than
those of Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, cities that owe their
existence to the water they repurpose from western rivers, many of which
start up here in the Rocky Mountains. We know that the desert is not
made to support such a large human population, and that it is only
through the considerable intervention of human beings in the natural
world, mostly the damming of rivers, that so many are able to live there
(and, for that matter, grow lawns there). Even the biggest proponents
of growth in the desert southwest are beginning to admit that it may
face an end. The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that
the Central Arizona Project has said that current water supplies will
serve the nation’s fastest-growing state through 2030 and projected
water supplies through 2045. After that, according to a CAP planning
analyst, growth will depend on “possibly available supplies” and, after
a certain point, “uncertain supplies.”

It is hard to remember when you stand in the cold rushing waters of a
mountain river, nothing like the slow, meandering rivers of my
Midwestern childhood, that you live in a land of little rain. It is
harder still when there is water there, all you want, when you simply
turn on a tap in your home. But of course the plentitude of water is an
illusion, like the mirages you see on the highway on a particularly
sunny day.

In the past few days, I have been thinking about how much we take water
for granted, and about how much water we take for granted. I’ve been
doing dishes in a sink only a few inches full and flushing my toilet
only once a day. I have not wiped down my counter tops or cleaned my
bathroom sink or mopped the kitchen floor. I haven’t made pasta or soup
for dinner. Yesterday I took up a friend’s offer of a shower, and it
felt positively decadent to let all that water run over me and down into
the drain.

I believed when I first moved here that I was becoming more attuned to
my use of water because I had to haul in all the water I wanted to
drink. It was not until my pipes froze, though, that I realized just
how much water I use that I don’t even think about–washing my fingers
off after I’ve cracked an egg, wetting a sponge to wipe off a counter,
rinsing my toothbrush.

In a few more days the temperature is supposed to rise above freezing,
and the water in my pipes will flow again, and I’ll do loads of laundry
and make spaghetti for dinner, and when the temperature dips down again
I’ll leave my faucets running. And I will think, well, it’s not potable
water anyway, and I don’t pay for it by the gallon, but at the same time
I will wonder about water and waste, about human progress and human

it is exactly 0 degrees outside (a sad story that is actually happy)

Fahrenheit degrees, that is.  Last night it got down to -17.

This morning I woke up to discover that, despite having a) left two faucets dripping, b) double-checked to make sure the heat tape switch was on, and c) having left a heat lamp plugged in underneath the trailer, my pipes were frozen.  Apparently, according to my landlady, I need to leave the faucets not dripping but running.  Thank God I don't pay for water by the gallon.  It strikes me as greatly ironic that here in the high desert, where we're going into the eighth straight year of drought, where the total rainfall last year was under 7", that I can have all the undrinkable water (much too alkaline for human consumption) I want for $35/month. 

Luckily, I am not a morning showerer.  Actually, I am not even a daily showerer, which is good, because despite the balmy high today of 9 degrees or so, and despite my landlady's daughter coming over to plug in a space heater under the trailer, my pipes are still frozen.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here. . . .

After deciding that it wasn't worth making breakfast (and thus creating more dishes I might not be able to do), I thought I'd head over to the coffee shop and get a muffin and a latte.  So I loaded up my stuff and headed out to the car, which–you guessed it–didn't start.  So I thought, well, I'll go see if someone can give me a jump-start.  I called my coworker to say I might be getting to the library a bit late.  Then I remembered that, due to the lever falling off and then disappearing, it's extremely difficult to open the hood of my car.  Usually it requires vice-grips, or other tools I don't own.  (I keep meaning to buy some vice-grips–it's so embarrassing to have to ask someone else to open your hood so you can check your oil.)  I grabbed some needlenose pliers (I do have some tools) and gave the little rod a yank.  No luck.  I tried again.  No luck.  The one happy part of this story, though, is that on the third try, I got it, and the hood popped open.

I headed over to my neighbor's house, since it looked like he was warming his truck up, so I figured he was up and could probably give me a jump.  He was, although, I was rather surprised to see, he was not exactly clothed when he came to the door.  No matter.  Anyway, he got dressed and came over with the truck. We then had an interesting time manuevering the truck around to the front of my car.  Another happy part of this story is that that did work, and he didn't crash his truck into the fence.  That would have been bad.  So we tried jumping the car.  No go.  Tried again.  No go.  Tried giving the car some gas.  Nope.  More gas.  Nope. 

"Is that all the gas you have in there?" he said.

"Uh. . . yeah."

"You know you–"

"I know, I know, I should always keep my gas tank above half full in the winter.  My mommy always told me that."

He suggested I get some gas and some Heet and try again later.  He also very kindly gave me a ride into town.  I had him drop me off at the coffee shop, since it's only a few blocks from the library, and I still hadn't had breakfast or coffee.

So I got my coffee and my muffin and told all the coffee shop regulars about my sad tale, and my friend Shane said, "Where's that handyman boyfriend of yours when you need him?" and I said, "No kidding," and Shane said, "He could be there right now fixing stuff for you!" and I said "Yup," and we both sighed, because said handyman is also Shane's friend, and he's gone to rural Virginia for probably most of this year, and that makes both of us, and many of our other friends, sad.

I finished my coffee and headed up the hill to work (it was now up to -4 degrees), where I told my coworker my tale of woe, and called my landlady, and got back to weeding.  I withdrew half a dozen books about global warming from the mid-1980s to early 1990s and remarked that it's kind of amazing that people treat climate change as if it's a new idea.  Then I got rid of a bunch of true crime books and called a woman who said she'd be interested in them if we ever got rid of some, and that seemed to make her day.

And I got a call from the library director, who said that we are going to get some old furniture that is not nearly as old as our old furniture, and that we have a lot of money in our account at the foundation, so if we want, we could buy morne furniture.  Or books.  Or computers.  Or whatever.  So that was really happy.

Just before she was about to leave, my coworker got a call from her daughter, who was driving back to college (and was almost there, in fact), and had just been in a car accident.  No one was hurt, but the daughter was pretty freaked out.  My coworker talked to her for a little while and said "call the police" and "it's going to be okay" and "that's why you have liablity insurance" and all the other things like that that you said.  Then she said to me, "If my daughter calls again, tell her I'll be home in ten minutes." 

The daughter did call again, and I relayed her mom's message, and then I added, "You know, I have wrecked many, many cars" (well, not that many–but I did total a Volvo station wagon (mine) and put a huge dent in a BMW (someone else's). 

The daughter said, "Really?" and I said, "Yeah.  I know sometimes it helps to hear that from someone else."  And she said it did.

And then Shane picked me up from work, and we stopped at the gas station so I could buy a new gas can (because I couldn't find the lid to mine) and some Heet and some gas, and I got home and put the Heet and the gas in my car, and it started right up, and I ran it for quite awhile and then drove into town to fill up the tank and get some water in case I need to flush a toilet or something, and then I came home, and then I called my mom.  And I said, "You know what?  I had this huge catastrophic day and I handled everything just fine and I didn't call you in tears once–and I even got to console someone else who had burst into tears." 

And damn, do I ever feel like a grown-up.

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