Return(ing) to Landscape

Sometimes I feel the old house calling to me through its almost 100 years of existence.  Through its builder, Jess Giles, its subsequent owners, my great Aunt Alice and Uncle Vern.  Through the no doubt mice ridden electrical system and sputtering toilet, the kitchen’s hot water barely warming the dinner dishes as it makes its way from the basement water heater upstairs.  Nighttimes there I can sometimes hear something in the old chimney (the red foxes occasionally spotted? a squirrel? what?), a comfort rather than a scare.

This past summer two dear friends of mine from earlier Hawaiian days  wanted to visit.  They wanted to see what Vega, my hometown, was like. They had heard stories and read Walking the Llano. They wanted to see the old house, my home since the late l970s and now only occasionally occupied, walk the land of my father’s and grandfather’s farm.

I panicked.  What could there be in this old homestead and relatively flat farmland, now CRP grassland, to entice them?  Them.  Now making their home in upstate New York along the Hudson, on the edge of a forest that could remind you of Rip Van Winkle, classically historical.  They, one of whom is an internationally acclaimed fiber artist and her partner, a gifted writer and activist who spend years in South Africa and worked toward the end of apartheid. Accomplished women.  Urban women.

I went home a few days early (notice I always say this, “home” though I spend most of my time now in New Mexico)–to sweep out the dirt, I not completely joked.  “Bring your shovel and dust mops,” I told them, in some small way trying to discourage them, make them see that the old place was just that.  Would it hold up to an outsider’s scrutiny?

After spinning and then replacing the dead bolt lock which promptly broke upon my arrival, I spent two days cleaning, scouring a bathroom that had not been used all summer, sweeping up dust that completely stymied my vacuum.  Each knob and furniture flourish held memories, but a present too.  I was back there.

But I remember most the opening of the door.  It’s always like this, a spicy smell I can only attribute to two cedar chests and the lasting memory of my great aunt’s spices maybe absorbed by those thick wooden walls.  Hello, I always say at the door, asking for yet another welcome after a long delay, talking to this place which has sustained me like an old turtle shell for years.

My friends arrive.  They have traveled from Haverstaw, New York to Vega. Pat, the artist, had two shows in Durango, Colorado and they made a trip of it, staying with friends all along the way, with only three nights in a hotel.  Vega’s one of them, my bed in the house too lumpy for guests.  They look a little road weary but are charmed by the house and even more excited about going to “the farm,”

I am reminded of a long poem by the New Mexico poet, Peggy Pond Church, entitled “Return to Landscape” in which she traces the meaning of place she shares with another friend also raised on horses and wildscapes.  Read it in its entirety if you get a chance, but here is a lyric taste:

“Now we, two aging women,

wrenched from this  land before our youth was over,

still feel the imprint of its seasons

like rings that mark a tree’s growth.

Strangers to one another through half our lifetime

we share no kinship,

no ancestral memories unite us


closer than kinship

the current of the earth’s music that flows through us.

At the end of our separate pilgrimage

we come together in time’s single focus

and mingle our memories.”

For Pat what was remembered was her own hometown in eastern Colorado.  “It was just like this,” she said. And her work, inspired in part by her father’s job as a butcher, features hog casings, gut.  For Gail, as later she revealed she had been invited back to Hawai’i on a project involving interviewing the kapunas, the old ones, about cultural stories, remembrances inseparable from place.

The land could not have given us greater gifts.  It’s a wet year.  The CRP grasses and sorghum are fence high in the fields.  We spotted a mother pronghorn hidden with her young in its reaches.  A mule deer flushed from a deep patch of bear grass, yucca, and grama grass, a lone male with the flip of that brilliant white tail, gone.

HelloHello the land said.   Welcome home.


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