Reading: Alison Hawthorne-Deming
34th Annual UND Writers Conference: "Art & Science"
March 28, 2003
© 2003 Alison Hawthorne-Deming and the University of North Dakota
Richard Crawford: This whole week...little bit higher than that? I had, I have my wife sitting back here, and she's, she's always the person who tells me whether I can be heard or not. [Audience laughter] But, so if she says a little bit louder, I will go a little bit louder.
Alison, I'll try and get this setup for you as well, before I leave here.
Anyway, I'm Rich Crawford in Biology. I've been given the wonderful task of introducing Alison Hawthorne-Deming to you. It is a distinct pleasure indeed to do so. Alison is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. Her published works are certainly way too many, way too many, to enumerate in any kind of a meaningful way for you, so I will simply try to hit the high points and leave the rest of the iceberg for, for you to, to figure out as time goes on. But nonetheless, her published works include two volumes of poetry, Monarchs, The Monarchs, and Science and Other Poems, as well.
Monarchs, here, it is here, if you have not seen it, I sus-suspect that most of you have by now, absolutely wonderful summary of a five-year study, of her five-year study of monarchs. Science and Other Poems won the 1993 Walt Whitman Award for the American, for the Academy of American Poets. Edges of the Civilized World, which she subtitles the Journey In, Into Nature and Culture, as far as I'm concerned, is a must reading for all of us, if we are ready to survive in the modern world, and that whole series of essays, she is really talking about how we in the modern world are affecting the world, very world in which we live.
It's rather interesting to note that in one of her essays there, she talks about trying to find the remotest area in Arizona that she possibly could, back far in the mountains. She indeed found a, what she thought was a very remote area back, high the mountains of Arizona, only to find that Arizona Game and Fish had been there not too long before and constructed a trout pond. I think that sums it up. [Laughter] I think that sums it up very well. Even well-meaning people, who are trying to manage trout, in fact are, are in, impacting the natural world in which we all live.
Writing the sacred into real, as far as I'm concerned, is a wonderful journey between that interface between the conscious and the unconscious minds, between the tangible and the spiritual, something that we are, I think, many of us are looking for, to these day.
And her recent collection, Temporary Homelands. Temporary Homelands, seems to me, is making its way now to the forefront of, of nature writing throughout the, throughout the world.
It's always been kind of [of] interest to me how people are introduced, and especially at the Writers Conference, how the, the speakers introduce, or how the individuals introduce the speakers. Almost everybody talks about the published works and on all of this, but they really don't really talk about what the writer’s work means to them individually. So I'd like to divert just a moment and take a moment or two of Alison's time and tell you what Alison's work means to me personally.
It, it’s kind of hard to get your mind around a lot, but nonetheless all week we've been talking a lot about science and art: how they interrelate, how they interplay in, in all of our lives. Seems to me that as a scientist, I first entered the world with, the scientific world with a sense of wonder of, of, of awe that we talked about at the noon panel, in fact, of magic: the magic of learning, the magic of trying to understand, the magic of nature in general, but as I think...but somewhere along the line, and I think this probably happens to almost all of us, as we get caught up in grant writing, the need for writing grants to, to maintain the programs for...the publish or perish sort of an idea, publishing the work that, that you're doing, getting involved, certainly, in all of the committee work and everything else that goes on with this, I found that after several years what happened to me was that science became a job. It became a job. It was work.
I happened to love gardening; gardening is one of the things that I do for pure pleasure. But one year, I found that I had planted way too many plants in my basement for...such that when it came time to plant them in the spring, it became work. I didn't enjoy it. [Laughter] Okay, what brought me, what brings me pleasure, if I get it in the wrong way brings me, in fact, a good deal of pain associated with it. What I have found over the years, however, is that by immersing myself in nature writing, nature writing both po-, prose and poetry tends to bring the harmony back, tends to bring the harmony back in my life. And that is the interplay between science and art that I have so enjoyed on this campus. That I can immerse myself in science, and yet at the same time there’s plenty of opportunity to immerse myself in art, to maintain that harmony. That harmony that is so vital to me, at least, for, for maintaining any kind of good existence here. It tends to revitalize me. It tends to bring the mystery back. It tends to bring the magic back into my science, so in a, in a sense then, nature writing, in general, does this.
Getting back to Alison Hawthorne-Deming, Alison Hawthorne-Deming, obviously, is a marvelous nature writer in prose, as well as poetry. If you have not read her material, please do so. It is absolutely wonderful. So far as I'm concerned, basically, in her, in her own words, what she tries to do with her writing "is to create harmony in a world of chaos, to bring us back to nature, to bring us back to the land if you will." And, in my opinion, she succeeds greatly in this whole process. So with that, I would like very much to, to introduce Alison Hawthorne-Deming to you. And please help me welcome her.
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: [to Richard Crawford] Thank you so much for that beautiful introduction!
[To the audience] Thank you so much Richard for that wonderful introduction! I'm very happy to be here. My thanks to Jim and everybody else. To Katie, for making sure I get to the right place at the right time, which is a job and a half. And my thanks to all of you for coming here.
I'm going to read some poems and a prose excerpt, so you'll get a feel for the range of work that I'm engaged in. I'll say a little bit about some of my considerations, but not a lot. Hopefully, the work will speak for itself.
I'm going to start with, what I think is the first poem that I wrote that really brought a scientific subject matter into my poetry and made me realize how central that concern was and how inspiring it was. It's a poem, it's the first poem from my first book, Science and Other Poems. And it was inspired by a high school science fair.
This is also to encourage the students, who feel they haven't experienced anything yet that is the source of art in their lives. You have.
Then it was the future, though what's arrived
isn't what we had in mind, all chrome and
cybernetics, when we setup exhibits
in the cafeteria for the judges
to review what we'd made of our hypotheses.
The class skeptic (he later refused to sign
anyone's yearbook, calling it a sentimental
degradation of language) chloroformed mice,
weighing the bodies before and after
to catch the weight of the soul,
wanting to prove the invisible,
real as a bagful of nails. A girl
who knew it all made cookies from euglena,
a one-celled compromise between animal and plant,
she had cultured in a flask.
We're smart enough, she concluded,
to survive our mistakes, showing photos of farmland,
poisoned, gouged, eroded. No one believed
he really had built it when a kid no one knew
showed up with an atom smasher, confirming that
the tiniest particles could be changed
into something even harder to break.
And one whose mother had cancer (hard to admit now,
it was me) distilled the tar of cigarettes
to paint it on the backs of shaven mice.
She wanted to know what it took,
a little vial of sure malignancy,
to prove a daily intake smaller
than a single aspirin could finish
something as large as a life. I thought of this
because, today, the dusky seaside sparrow
became extinct. It may never be as famous
as the pterodactyl or the dodo,
but the last one died today, a resident
of Walt Disney World where now its tissue samples
lie frozen, in case someday we learn to clone
one from a few cells. Like those instant dinosaurs
that come in a gelatin capsule--just add water
and they inflate. One other thing this
brings to mind. The euglena girl won first prize
both for science and, I think, in retrospect, for hope.
I, thank you.
I spent a number of years studying monarch butterflies. I still try to keep up on what’s happening in their lives. And I, I have felt that one concern of ours, many of ours who care deeply about the natural wealth of this world, I felt, profoundly concerned about the impact that our species has on the lives of others, the negative impact we have on the lives of others. And I thought I would apprentice myself to another species, and try to see what the, its impact was upon me. And I went by, just accident to the Natural Bridges State Park in California and saw the monarch butterflies there in their winter roosts and began to learn about their migration behavior, which of course is one of the great and heroic feats, I think, in the natural world: the monarch living into the eastern portion of the United States, as far north as Ontario, migrating to the forests of Michoacán, Mexico, in the winter, and, or for the winter, and the monarchs west of, we don't know for sure, the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, migrating to the coasts of California for shelter in the forests there.
I wrote a poem sequence, a book that is comprised of sixty poems, and they all were inspired by my study of the monarch butterfly. Some of these poems are actually about monarchs, and some are about the evolution of intelligence that I was studying, and some of them are about the rather great force in human life, which I think is desire that leads us both to great and dreadful actions.
Um, so I will read a few of these poems to you. I'd like to read, I'll start with one that's about the monarchs. It's set in the Monarch Refuge. If you have a chance to go down there, I would, I would still encourage you to do it, even though the ecotourism is, is having something of a negative impact in that part of Mexico. Nevertheless, you can spend some money in a village that, and in community or group of communities that really need your big fat American dollar. And it would be a useful thing for you to experience this and be able to contribute to that local economy, while getting inspired by these magnificent little creatures. So this is poem number 18 in the book. It's set in Michoacán the forests just above Angangueo.
There's one Spanish word in here vigilantes, it's, it's like, you know, our English word vigilante. I kept the Spanish word, these are the guys who used to be loggers and they've been retrained as park rangers. But I just, vigilantes for the monarch butterfly is just so much more powerful than park ranger. I kept the Spanish word in there.
In Mexico where the eastern monarchs
gather for their winter sleep,
a tide of fluttering orange and black
sweeping over the border and into the trees
of the central mountains, there is
such hunger, that the campesinos,
though their fathers and mothers
believe the butterflies are
spirits of the dead returning,
must cut the forest for fuel and cropland.
Brush smoking, burned pits of stumps,
scrawny pony, burro tethered in the cut corn.
So much of the sanctuary has been lost
that experts have begun to issue
the usual decrees--how many years to go
before centuries of habit genetically
sealed in butterfly cells will be gone.
In the lofty remains of the cloud forest,
the vigilantes guide the pilgrims onto the dark canopy
of ancient trees and into the wind of butterfly wings.
In the heat of the afternoon
monarchs come down from their sleep
to huddle on the edges of streams and
meadow pools, trembling to stay warm,
and they sip, then sit, then fly off
until the air is a blizzard of orange.
The pilgrims watch quietly, lines of
school children from Mexico City,
scientists from Texas and California,
old women in rebozos leaning on the arms
of adult sons, tourists lugging
cameras and binoculars. And together
the visitors drink in the spectacle
with the great thirst they have brought
from their cities and towns, and it is
a kind of prayer, this meeting of our kind,
so uncertain about how to be
the creature we are, and theirs,
so clear in their direction.
Well, of course, a simple little "intelligence," such as what a monarch possesses, is a lot easier to live with than the one we've got I think [laughter], much more problematic. There are a number of poems in this book that really push the use of science and the language of science. There’s seven of them called "Essay on Intelligence." And each of them came out of my reading, trying to understand what the neuroscientists and the philosophers of science and others are saying about where our complex intelligence came from, and how it fits in, and how it's being studied in the whole continuum of intelligence in nature.
And these poems were very challenging for me, some of them are very prosey. We talked about one in Jay Meek’s class today that, and I don't think I will read that one because it's, it's so abstract it might put you to sleep at this point of the week [laughs], but I am going to read a couple of the other "Essays on Intelligence," and I'll read you this one, which is actually number 26 in the book. It's not one of the "Essays on Intelligence," but it too comes from some very careful reading of molecular biology and trying to understand this mysterious process of how the messages are contain in the genes that make a little bundle of cells become the specialized parts that any organism is. This is number 26.
A caterpillar spits out a sac of silk
where it lies entombed while its genes
switch on and off like lights
on a pinball machine. If every cell
contains the entire sequence
constituting what or who the creature is,
how does a certain clump of cells
know to line up side by side
and turn into wings, then shut off
while another clump blinks on
spilling pigment into the creature's
emerald green blood, waves of color
flowing into wingscales--black, orange,
white--each zone receptive only to the color
it's destined to become. And then
the wings unfold, still wet from their making,
and for a dangerous moment hold steady
while they stiffen and dry, the double-
layered wing a protolanguage--one side
warning enemies, the other luring mates.
And then the pattern-making cells go dormant,
and the butterfly has mastered flight.
Anyone who says that science robs the world of wonder is not paying attention.
This, I thought I’d read after Ted Mooney's reading the other day with the language studies, John Lilly’s language studies work with dolphins. It doesn't have to do with dolphins, it has to do with language studies with chimps at the Yerkes Primate Lab, but it has some resonances with some of his thinking and writing. This is called "Essay on Intelligence: Three."
After many years of language training
in the Yerkes Primate Lab (our animals
have indoor/outdoor access and may
withdraw from lessons at will) Sherman
the chimp, after correctly categorizing
as either food or tool,
used the incorrect lexigram
to classify a sponge.
The chimp has one hundred keys
to choose from. First, he was
asked to sort food and tools
into two bins. Later,
instead of bins, to press
the lexigram for food or tool.
He could string lexigrams to say
(Although I wonder about that preposition!)
Sherman's apparent mistake
was subsequently read
as the interpreter's
misunderstanding of the animal's
intent. An active eater,
Sherman is prone to
sucking liquids from a sponge,
often chewing and swallowing
the tool as if it were food.
And this is another of the "Essays on Intelligence."
This, inspired by Gerald Edelman, neuroscientist, I think, who a, oh gosh, what’s the title that book, Bright Fire, Brilliant Air, Brilliant Air, Bright Fire, something like that. Does anyone know the book?
This is "Essay on Intelligence: Five."
Unfold the cortex and lay it
on the table--it's thin and smooth
as a napkin, as in an embryo
until as the animal grows
the tissue begins to ripple and
crush so that the neural tangle
will fit inside the skull.
The number of folds, how deeply
crenellated, and the direction
in which the tissue is pressed
vary dramatically from animal to animal.
To count the neural connections
in the human brain, one per second,
would take thirty-two million years.
How is it then that "I" am one thing,
my life as dear to me as if I knew
each neural pathway by heart?
That jungle, lush and interwoven,
a brief protected habitat
that writes the rules for its survival
in a language I can't read, but must believe.
I think two more from this book. This, coming out of our conversation this morning about cosmology, I was saying, you know, you have to go out and experience the world and have conversations with these scientists, if you want to engage your feelings and wonder.
I, I had a friend Ri, Rick [Shaffer] who's an astronomer, he works on the Hubble now. He did his graduate study in Arizona, and he was a great beer drinker, and he would just love to talk science with me. And I would love to ask really stupid questions, and he was extraordinarily patient with me.
This is poem number 57
My friend draws an x- and y-axis
on my cocktail napkin trying
to get across to me
the concept of asymptotic approach.
He's working on dying suns
and tells me y= 1/x, then 1/x = 0,
to explain how a thing can be
approached ever more closely
but never reached. I had the idea
that with the space telescope
we'd see back to the beginning of time.
He says, no, the universe was plasma
right after the Big Bang,
free electrons bouncing wildly
making everything opaque.
When the subatomic soup began to cool,
hydrogen formed--one proton
binding with one electron--
a metamorphosis from chaos to
the simplest equation. Then
light could travel unimpeded--
the universe became transparent.
But how, from that material
and that process, could such
a thing as a mind and its
dreaming come to be? And how
could we know, or think we know,
its story? Kepler thought
that prototypes exist in the soul
corresponding to proportions
that exist in the universe,
so that he felt he worked toward
an order--Harmonice Mundi--
hinted at only by the desire
he felt for it. He did not discover
or create the laws and music
of motion, so much as he remembered.
And then the last poem in this book, which was read on National Public Radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac. Something happens when Garrison Keillor reads your poem on the radio. Garrison Keillor has such a professional voice, it's like somehow the poem is ripped out of you for a period of time. And it took me awhile before I could read this poem again, I thought, ah, well, my voice doesn't sound anything like that. But I have reclaimed my poem. [Audience laughter] So, here it is, this is number sixty.
This was a, this was one of the fun things that happened when I was writing this book, was that people were would send me their monarch butterfly stories, and I would get postcards and letters and emails and this, this poem came from one of those stories that someone sent me in a letter.
A mother who became an amateur lepidopterist
grew monarch butterflies on her kitchen windowsill.
She showed her children how the chrysalis took shape
like a jewel of sculpted jade spotted with gold.
She gave the creatures shelter until their budlike wings
unfurled, began to swell with color, and stiffen enough to fly--
just an ordinary metamorphic process,
that taught the children how to think about their lives.
Together with ceremony and celebration they set
the new arrivals free to flutter their way
to Texas or Mexico or wherever monarchs at that time
were supposed to be. One hatched late,
the season had turned too cold for it to move.
She called her sister in the South who confirmed
the migrators already had passed along her street.
The woman in the North, folded the late-bloomer's wings,
stuck it in an envelope and mailed it. When it arrived
the sister woke the frail one with the warmth of her hands
and set it free. Who cares how far the little vagrant got,
all the woman could know was that it rose.
So there's some of The Monarchs.
I have got a new book of poems coming out, and I thought I'd read a few poems from that and then an excerpt from an essay. I, as I said, I like hanging out with biological scientists, and one of my best friends is Gary Paul Nabhan, ethnobotanist, also a wonderful writer, who fuses the artistic and scientific. You know, any of you who go out in the woods with naturalists, or out in the prairie with naturalists, sometimes their behavior is a little peculiar. The things that they find appealing, a little peculiar, right? There's a fair amount of humor in what they like to pick up along the trail. This is set in the Red Rock country in Utah. Let's see, so some of these plants are indigenous plants to that area, and cryptogams is that cryptogamic crust, very delicate combination of organisms on the ground. Okay, this is called "The Naturalists."
When the naturalists
see a pile of scat,
they speed toward it
as if a rare orchid
bloomed in their path. [Audience laughter]
They pick apart
the desecrated turds,
retrieving a coarse
black javalina hair
or husk of piñon nut
as if unearthing gems.
They get down on their knees
to nose into flowers
a micron wide--belly flowers,
they say, because that's
what you get down on
to see them. Biscuitroot,
buffalo gourd, cryptogams
to them are hints of
some genetic memory
fossilized in their brains,
an ancient music they try
to recall because,
although they can't quite
hear the tune, they know
if they could sing it
even their own wild
rage and lust and death
terrors would seem
as beautiful as the
that releases nitrogen
into rocks so that
junipers can milk them.
I've always wondered how those plants that grow on those rocks in rimrock country, where do they get the nourishment? Well, that's one of them, endolithic algae in the rocks. Remarkable relationships everywhere out there.
I'm going to read one for the students in Jay's cla...a couple of the students had been teaching in Prague. I've got a long poem in this new book, which is, the book is called Genius Loci: A Spirit of Place, but I'm not going to read this poem, because it's about Prague and European history, and it’s a whole other subject. But there's one section about the Vltava River that I am going to read for you guys who've been to Prague, and since we're in a town named after a fork in a river, it seemed appropriate to read a river poem. This is called "River."
Rocks have the oldest knowledge on earth, rivers have
the oldest names and determine where the cities shall be built
and what shall be their shape. The Vltava here sinuous and slow
so the city turns and turns back into and against itself,
streets winding like folds of the brain so that finding your way
means getting lost--arch, alley, cobblestone--the angels and demons,
descended to perch on rooftop and balustrade enjoying the beauty
and soot that only mortals can construct. The salmon are lost--
gone half a century (who counts fish when half trink- half track tanks
roll into town?)--but the river still does its work, harboring coots,
grebes and mute swans, the river keeping its own clock,
doing its commerce of moving silt and gravel, rafting birds downstream.
Just a little memory of Prague, just a taste of a magnificent city. Well I've also, in this book, been very much a naturalist of my own species, as Gary Snyder describes it, and I want to read you a poem about urban, urban culture.
I took my grandsons--of great tasks of women in this world, mothers and grandmothers, is to wait for kids and grandkids while they're doing something else--I took my kids, I was visiting in May, and I took my grandsons to their modern dance class. And I had, ya know an hour to wander around in Portland, Maine: miserable neighborhood where there was nothing to look at, and lots of traffic. And I had this rather stunning experience, which I, I told the boys about, and they were quite astonished. And they loved the story, and I wrote this as a poem. It does have a phrase in it that I did have to explain to them at eight and ten, which is a little bit tricky, talking about somebody who flips me the bird, but they, they know, they know. This is called "Urban Law."
Rush hour and the urban outflow pours
across the Million Dollar Bridge. I wait
for the walk-light, cross-traffic slight but
caution’s the rule when the city roars
toward all its separate homes. I get
the sign, little electric man, and step
into the street. A woman going
perpendicular to the flow, she's
got the street to herself, turns into
my lane, bearing down, eye contact,
and still she guns it until I stare and
shake my head in disbelief at her
ferocity. She slows begrudged to let
me pass, runs down the window of her Saab
and shouts, "Why don't you wait for the light?"
then flips me the bird. I feel weepy like
a punished child, mind sinking to lament,
What’s wrong with the human race? Too many
of us, too crowded, too greedy for space--
we're doomed, of course, so I head for coffee
and a muffin, walking sad and slow on
the return. I'm waiting again to cross,
picking fingersful of muffin from the
paper sack and watching the phalanx of
cars race by, not even a cell of a
thought in my mind that I might jump the change in flow,
when a man whose got the green stops,
an executive wearing a crisp white
shirt and shiny red tie, and he raises
his palm to gesture me safely across,
making all the cars wait behind him while
I walk, and together, at rush hour that
man and I redeem the whole human race.
Small acts! I'm going to read one more poem, and then I'm going to read an excerpt from this essay, and, well if there's time, I'll read one other at the end.
But I want to read this poem because, like many people I'm profoundly troubled by this war. And, I, one doesn't know what to do about it. Other than, within the area of one’s, the small area of one's influence put a small amount of thought and energy toward saying something. So, I wrote this poem. I wrote this poem on the day before the war started, I think I finished it the day before the war started. This is on the Orion Magazine website now with a beautiful photograph by Richard Misrach.
"Rehearsal Space for War."
East of Gila Bend two jets release payloads
that billow the desert dirt, rehearsal space for war
is what the desert means to military minds, a meaning
the civilian mind will never understand, as it walks
through the details of the day: buy bananas, check
bank balance, water plants. There is a god that lives
in the weapons, a power that exists in the mind
capable of imagining that to slaughter people
is a just way to solve injustice. What fool or monster
would instruct children to launch bombs upon the bully
terrorizing a crowded playground? To be a fool or monster
is to believe there is only one way. Avenging genocide
is an expensive means of focusing the mind.
The civilian mind rehearses taking in the wounded,
the faces sinking below the reflected darkness
of public memory, taking in the warriors who will own
forever their elation in battle, the pageantry of war
that comes home and joins the ticker tape parade.
The Disneyland soundstage of victory, a word
that cannot disguise the suffering--the smoke and blade
fever of destruction that leaves the living to question,
Was it right, what I did? Was it mine, the choice to quit?
I'm going to read from a prose piece a scene in an essay called "In the Territory of Birds," I, in part, in appreciation for my avian colleague, ornithologist. I went to the Seri country, and to see if Cortés, the Seri Indians and had a really wonderful experience. And, I'll read you a little bit of that about this which ends up being an encounter with a, with a bird, and the various ways of looking at an encounter with a bird: western science having one way and what you might call native science having another way. And, of course, the Seri Indians still having some connection with their traditional values and ideas.
"In the Territory of Birds."
Punta Chueca is a dry and hungry village, a clutter of cement block houses, ocotillo rib fences, hairless black dogs and mangy chickens, and a few hundred Seri Indians who have made a more or less permanent encampment on a bleached little crook of sand protruding from the infernal southern reaches of the Sonoran Desert into the Sea of Cortés. Nomadic people accustomed for centuries to moving when water grew scarce, the Seris are pretty new to the idea of staying put. Their parched homeground led them never to camp for more than a month or two in one place. As recently as the 1950s, their homes were built of brush and sea turtle bones, their weight on the land slight and brief. But now they have the heavy goods of civilization: cement, electricity, convenience store, and satellite dish.
I went there to meet a friend who had been visiting the village for twenty-five years. His friendships among the Seris helped to soften the feeling that my presence there was something hard. He had arranged for us to camp on Isla Tiburón with a local guide and a small group of American students interested in learning how the loss of native language was eroding the Seris' natural history knowledge about indigenous plants and animals. What is this animal's name? Where does it live? What does it use to build its nest? What does it eat? Does it lay eggs? When? How many? What stories do you know about this animal? When is this plant harvested? Is it used for food or medicine? They asked the children in Spanish, the elders in the Seri language. Every animal, some plants, used to have a song. They taught us a few. One about the horned lizard who had gone out to gather firewood, loading it on his back as he climbed into the ironwood tree. Come here, come here, the people in the village called, bring us that firewood. But ants had crawled up his legs, ants had begun to crawl up his legs and bite him. With all that wood on his back, he could not get them off, lost his balance, and fell out of the tree. Every time someone sang this song, the Seris lit up, shaking their heads and muttering with affection, "Pobrecito, pobrecito." Poor little one. The lizard, it seemed, carried their burdens, along with his own. He shared humanity with them; they shared animality with the lizard.
A woman told us about a mushroom that looks like a penis but refused to say more, explaining, "I am a Christian."
Poor Christians. [laughing]
Then an older woman sang its song. The others laughed so loud we never caught the words, but the women was too modest to sing it again. She only would say that it was very dirty. [Audience laughter]
It was in this place I found myself an accidental tourist in the territory of birds. I did not plan for this to happen, nor did I regret it. We set out across the Infiernillo Channel for Isla Tiburón, five visitors in all, in the care of Ernesto Molino, our Seri guide. He ferried us in his panga over the gray chop to the island's long bajada, where we stepped onto twenty stark miles of cardón, mesquite, and creosote bush with the Sierra, with the rosy Sierra Kunkaak rising along the island's spine, its shark-fin summit cutting into the bare sky. We set up our tents and hung a blue plastic tarp over arched ocotillo ribs at an ancient encampment site on the beach. Clamshells and clay shards littered the mealy sand--some thick-walled fragments lipped at the top and some delicate eggshells from the large ollas made for carrying water from the mountain. We found a few discarded metates and manos from a black volcanic stone not native to the place, remnants of a time when eelgrass and mesquite seeds were milled into flour near the place they had been harvested.
The Seris have lived in the region for over two thousand years, and Isla Tiburón has been significant to them for its clean mountain springs, wild game, and plants gathered for food, medicine, baskets, and dyes. They have thirteen names for mesquite, seven of which are for growth stages of the seedpod. The names for eelgrass, another important food plant, signify stages of its life cycle: when it first sprouts, when it grows above the surface of water, when it detaches and floats up, when it piles into windrows on the beach. These are the last hunter-gatherers in Mexico and quite possibly the poorest people in the nation. There were once six groups speaking three dialects scattered around the region. According to Richard Felger, the prominent anthropologist of the culture, the remaining Seris are an amalgamation of survivors from these regions. Their longevity on the west coast of Sonora has been established by carbon dating of eelgrass found in an ancient burial site.
Ernesto wanted to take us to a spring in the mountains, a place where the Seris had gathered water for centuries. We hiked inland toward the crinkled heights, Ernesto marching purposefully through the scrub as if there were a path, his blue satin baseball jacket a beacon ahead while we picked our way, sweaty and leery of rattlesnakes, through the thorns and brush. I guess there was a path in his mind, for he never hesitated unless to explain how the creosote bush provided a decongestant and nerve tonic, the sap of the torote blanco served as a cure for cataracts, the roots of ratany were woven into baskets, and blue dye made from the ground-up snails mixed with four or five of these plants. One of our group told him that he ought to become a biologist. "I already am a biologist," he said.
As a community leader, Ernesto had received training in Mexico City in ecotourism. The government hopes that the industry will help to support poor indigenous communities that are less able to live by traditional means because of shrinking and degraded habitats. The Seris have a reputation for being opportunistic. When the Spanish settled in Mexico in the seventeenth century, the nomadic Seris made good use of new resources by raiding and rustling cattle to augment their hunting. In the twentieth century they expanded their subsistence fishing to serve the growing commercial market. But in the Sea of Cortés, as elsewhere, wild resources are strained. There is not much left to fish for except tourists. Ernesto was not naive about the impact of outsiders. He told us about a rich Mexican who had settled on Seri land and killed off plants by the thousands in order to build his enormous house.
"We got rid of him," Ernesto said, "even though the sky threatened to kill us if we did. We used to fight with guns. Now we fight with knowledge."
He was studying the Mexican Constitution, and though he had his reservations about the negative impact of tourists on Seri land and culture, the options being negligible, he was willing to give it a try.
As we walked farther into the heat of the day, our pace lagged and our eyes wandered to the ground at our feet with more longing than to the heights that still lay an hour ahead. We stopped to rest. Someone found a bleached deer rack. Ernesto said that before the Seris had guns his grandfather had hunted with the whole head of a deer, wearing it on his head, hiding behind a bush, moving gradually closer to the herd. The deer thought the interloper was one of their kind and little by little would approach, until one got so close that the men could jump it. In his lifetime Ernesto had seen one guy do it, and he said that the movements were incredible. "It's dangerous," he cautioned. "If you screw up, the animals are right on top of you."
He said little about other aspects of his grandfather's history, except that the place where we were headed was called "the place where we go when the enemy chases us." We had read about the battles with the Mexican army fought on that ground, the slaughter of women and children who had run to a cave in the mountains to hide. At certain points along the way, Ernesto murmured under his breath, "Pobrecitos, pobrecitos," and we sensed that he knew just what terrible thing had occurred in that spot. Even now the Mexican marines maintained a small base on the island, though a government degree, decree had designated the place to be under Seri jurisdiction. Some of the people worried that what had happened in Chiapas last year--the official government slaughter of indigenous rebels--might happen here next. I wondered if leading groups of foreigners over ground hallowed by his ancestors' suffering might feel to Ernesto like a sacrilege. I knew that it must be so and also that for the Seris to survive on their homeground, such tours were on of their best bets.
There were six in our party, three men and three women. Perhaps the cause was the heat of high afternoon, perhaps the fact that several of us already had begun to suffer from an unfriendly intestinal colonization, perhaps the sadness and complexity of history had crept into our idle mood, but whatever the cause, after we had stopped in the shade to snack and sip from our canteens, the women decided we were too tired to go on. The men continued up the slope, hoping to reach the mountain spring. We lay in sparse shade of paloverde and ocotillo to nap and talk about the troubles women save for one another's listening. Mostly it was the subject of men that occupied our conversation, wondering what makes it work or not work between a woman and a man. One told of meeting the man she loves during an outdoor leadership program. After a month in the wilderness they were covered with grime and the stink of their bodies. That's when they fell in love--it was pheromones, she said, I'm sure of it. Another told of her lingering break from a brilliant and charming man who refused during their last year together to touch her. I told of infidelities suffered and the attraction I could not resist for someone new, though I saw in the man the same tendencies that had wounded me before. We lounged in the sweet togetherness of women in which our hopes for love thrive.
While we talked cactus wrens trilled, a Gila woodpecker worked the cardones and high in the perfect sky, a black vulture circled. Lying on our backs, we watched it absently, as we might have watched a small fair-weathered cloud, never considering its presence had anything to do with us. But while the other birds flitted in and out of our view, the vulture stayed directly overhead, circling and circling. I began to think it was homing on some rank thing that lay near us, or on a creature close to dying that would make a fresh meal. I knew, or thought I knew, that the presence of a vulture means death.
I do not know what draws such a predator to its table, whether sight or smell or some synesthetic sense that humans will never know. The Seris have a story that explains the vulture's skill. They say that in the beginning of the world the fly invented fire. They say that now when a fly lands on a dead animal it makes fire by rubbing its front legs together and sends smoke signals telling the vulture where on the desert the carcass lies.
We heard the men coming a long while before they arrived, men we all loved in friendship, and we knew they would play a joke on us. The crunch of gravel slowed, then quieted. A set of antlers rose from behind a bush. We weren't surprised and did not pretend we were. Still everyone got a good laugh. One guy asked us if we'd seen that vulture circling us. Yes, we answered. He joked that after camping out we smelled so bad the vulture thought he might have found something to eat. We all got another good laugh, except Ernesto, who looked sober and shook his head.
"No, no," he said to the other men, "that's not it at all. The vulture was guarding them, because they are beautiful." We were puzzled, the gap between our way of seeing and his, filling up with awkward silence. Then he explained if the men had gotten lost and not returned, anyone from the village a mile across the water would have seen the vulture and known where to find us. It was our turn to look sober, for what was black, suddenly looked white, what was harbinger had become protector.
As we started back to camp, the quiet stayed with us, each holding fast to Ernesto’s way of seeing. It was not our way, and we knew it. That's what made it stick in our imaginations like a puffy airborne seed lodged in thorns. The world looked then both kinder and more dangerous than it had before. We fanned out in search of dead wood for our campfire, hefting bleached gray branches and root burls onto our backs and shoulders.
I'm going to close with one short poem, and then if you would like to ask questions for a little bit we can do that. This is a poem I think about healing, set in the Oregon forest, short piece.
"In Spring: Drift Creek."
Walking into the hemlock forest,
a place where men years ago had left
their work of notching platforms
into giant trunks where they stood
in teams to saw, we found
soft hulks of long-dead timber
rotting back into the earth
with a fragrance honest as rain.
We found oyster mushrooms and peeled them
from the licheny bark of alders.
It was a place where beavers
had changed the way water moves
over the land, where an otter
drew a gentle whirl on the pond’s canvas,
where elk had left the imprint
of their strength in the duff.
We were still there when the rain
began, freckling the standing water and
making the young skunk cabbage leaves
shine as if at the opening of a new world.
And now I am holding that stillness
to give it back to you, because the truth is
so much of the world is broken
and I want to be part of its healing.
Does anyone wanna to ask a question? Are you, you must be just so exhausted and your head so full of words, you must be just, like pinball machines. I'd be happy to entertain any questions. Yes, Devra!
Devra Davis: In your book, you have some ambivalence toward ecotourism,
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Mm-hmm.
Devra Davis: [cause you take us to places that few people have ever been]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: yeah.
Devra Davis: [and yet, as you just said, these are places that become overwhelmed]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Right.
Devra Davis: [you know, in terms of [inaudible]]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Right.
Devra Davis: [inaudible]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Right.
Devra Davis: [What is your view of that process, now understanding also the poverty,]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Right.
Devra Davis: [the abject poverty in some of these areas]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Right.
Devra Davis: [and how do you recommend then...]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Yeah, well its extremely difficult. I mean there are some things you can do. I think, I think there, you know, there is some promise in some remote communities for ecotourism to help desperate economies. But I encourage people to look very carefully at who is getting the money for your trip. If you go down to the monarch refuge, hire the local guy who drives the cattle truck up, you know, to the mountain, and when you get to the little craft booths up there at El Rosario or Chincua, buy a lot of little crafts, even if you don't like them.
You know, buy ma, buy a lot, your ten dollars, your twenty dollars, your fifty dollars is worth a great deal in a community like that. The monarch refuge is a, is a really good example because just in the time I've been visiting there, I've been there I think four times from about '97 to 2002 and the degradation of that habitat is just appalling from the hundreds and hundreds of ponies that are being led up through the woods to get people to the site, because the monarchs of course, don't always roost in an area that is close to the vendors and the tour guides. If they find a nice little remote valley five miles up at 10,000 feet, people want to ride a pony to get there. And of course, that stirs up the dust and further degrades the habitat, so I think that it, it’s tough, it’s very tough, but I still think the money matters there, and there is, there are both Mexican scientists and Lincoln Brower, an American scientist, who has worked very, very hard with the Mexican government to try and to get more protections in that area...I think that, I don't think all of us need to go to the Galapagos, you know, I mean, leave it alone, all right!
There many magnificent places in the world, I think that you know the top ten magnificent natural preserves in the world, we don't all have to go there. There's how many hundreds of National Geographic programs are there on the Galapagos? Read Darwin's the Voyage of the Beagle and watch TV, and don't go there. But there are places where, and I don't know much about the economic implications in the Galapagos, but I do know about the economic implications in the monarch refuge. And there I know your money may help, if you can do that the walk and not take a pony, that's good too. But I would say be careful to know where your money is going and who it’s helping, a lot of these ecotour gro-groups are run by big American corporations and the money just it stays here, where God knows, you know, nobody needs it. These cruise ship lines do not need any more money. So poor rural communities do, and, and spend your money there. So there's, you know, it’s a provisional answer. It’s a real problem. This is what many remote communities that used to live on natural resources now depend on is selling their beauty, and finding out how to do that in a way that has the least amount of negative impact as possible is a good thing. And that even, that not only involves money, it means having some form of exchange with people other than an economic one, you know. Stay in a home, study Spanish when you go to Mexico. Live with a family, so a family gets your money. And you have conversations about what’s for breakfast, instead of you know, ¿Cuánto cuesta?, you know, so I think that there are ways that we can think about what forms of exchange can we bring when we go to visit other kinds of communities. It isn't all money. Um, any other questions?
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Yes.
Audience Member: I don't have this quite formed. Um I, I teach young children,,
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Mmm.
Audience Member: And uh, on two different occasions, we have raised monarchs.
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Great.
Audience Member: Um, and I think what was, what, it was so wonderful to teach kids who really do, always have those questions.
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Mmhmm.
Audience Member: And live in that, looking at the world kind of way, day to day. Um, but we didn’t need to go, as wonderful it would have been
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Mmhm.
Audience Member: to, to have gone to Mexico or California. We didn't need to go there, because sitting around watching those chrysalises quiver and see what happens and watch the growth of those was the most transporting, exciting place to be with children. And during the days of this conference, one of the things I have heard many times is people talking about teachers and educators, as, as having put, put down perhaps or depressed a love of science. And it seems to me as someone who doesn't know a lot about science perhaps, but who knows a lot about children and questioning and wondering, that the way that we all teach children is to help them keep in mind what the educator Beth [unclear] said, when she said we need to look in our classrooms and say whose questions are being asked, and whose problems are being solved. And I guess I'm thinking, this is a very long question, I’m trying, but I'm thinking how do you see as someone whose concerned about our, our world and our children, how do you see us as educators continuing to foster in our children that kind of seeking, that kind of power, I guess, empowering them in their own learning. How do you see us keep doing that?
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Well, that's a great question, and everybody's, you know, has to contribute to answering that. I think, I mean your example is really important. For one thing, we know that many children have their experiences, their first important experiences, maybe their only important experiences of nature in a really degraded place, you know, in an empty back lot in the city, in some irrigation ditch in the suburbs, you know, they, they watch slimy bugs in a, in a, you know, drying up mud puddle. They, they experience and encounter nature not in the great nature sites of the planet and so encouraging them and teaching them how to observe more carefully, it right in their own environment is extremely important. Extremely important.
There is this wonderful program, Monarch Watch, I forget what the website is. Does anybody use that site? This is a great educational site. It has kids all over the country observing the monarchs as they're coming through and participating in this whole phenomenon by making account and then getting reports back from the biologists who are in Mexico, so that they can be involved with the whole process. So there are lots of great things that can be done at home.
I think, we were talking about another thing. I was talking about this, I think, with Richard, how many people in an area like this are leaving to go to the east coast, the west coast, wherever they're going, and particularly people who may have had several generations of history in this place. You know that's, it’s, it’s a terrible loss when the people with a long connection with a place leave, because they take the stories about the place. They take the sense of connection with the land and how relationships and communities relate to the land, how that's shifting over time. And there's a wonderful thing that happens in that sedimentary experience of a place in the mind, where you have grandparents or great grandparents who can tell you stories about the place. So I do think that getting children to tell their stories, to interview people, to do whatever they can to, to tell stories about their place is really, really important. And we're losing stories right and left, so we need to make new ones.
What else? Any other questions?
Audience Member: [I’ll just speak to that for a minute because I’ve spent the better part of a month working on issues like that. We are losing the opportunity to do that in our schools]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: mmhmm
Audience Member: [day by day because our money for education, what little of it is left, is going for testing.]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Oh yes, that one.
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Yes.
Audience Member: [And [unclear] if you want to have any opportunity, those of us who are left in the classrooms with the children, we need to make it possible for those teachers to be able to teach in ways that are meaningful to kids and not just preparing them for tests. And we are getting more and more and more to the stage where we can’t take advantage of their natural sense of wonder because we have to prepare them for what our administration decides they need to be accountable and they don’t]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Yup.
Audience Member: [work together]
Alison Hawthorne-Deming: Hear, hear! I don't know what the answer is, but I, it, it’s a terrible, terrible problem in our education, it really is, and that is, we know in any ways that we can, we need to build those experience that go deeper in kids. And I continue to argue for that. Our, you know, in Arizona we like to build prisons. We don't like to educate people. We like to ignore education and then send people to prison later on, you know, it’s, it’s a madness. So become teachers and form new schools, I don't know what the answer is, but I, I applaud all the work that teachers are doing to try to keep some meaningful relationships with kids going and meaningful experiences with kids. Anything else? You probably all need to go and take a break and stretch, and feel the lovely, chilly air of North Dakota, which probably to you feels warm, to me I'm freezing. Thank you so much for coming.
[Transcribed by Nicholas Gowan; Copyedited by Emily Mell; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 15 June 2015]