Friday, March 13, 2009

Garden In The Dunes

Maybe it was the weather. Or "Gardens in the Dunes" by Leslie Marmon Silko, the book I was reading when the thought first popped into my mind. In any event I suddenly remembered the desert hot springs in Big Bend National Park, Texas that Mars and I visited several Septembers ago.

It was our second excursion to this part of the southwest -- a land deserted in both senses of the word (1) arid, dry, moistureless, parched, scorched, hot, barren, bare, stark, infertile, unfruitful, dehydrated, sterile and (2) uninhabited, empty, lonely, desolate, bleak; wild, uncultivated.

It is one of our favorite places on earth.

Interestingly it was on our initial trip to that area that we were first introduced to the writing of Leslie Marmon Silko. We were attending an Elderhostel exploring the history, geology and paleontology of the Big Bend area. On the final morning of the program a local bookseller spoke to our group about the literature of the southwest. After the lecture we met him at his store and together selected several works to introduce us to a geographic genre of which we sequestered New Englanders were totally unaware. Among the books we purchased were "The Three Little Javelinas" by Susan Lowell, "Drug Lord: The Life & Death of a Mexican Kingpin - A True Story" by Terrence E. Popper, and "The Almanac of the Dead" by Leslie Marmon Silko.

The first two tomes were about exactly what their titles said they would be, and "easy reads". The "Almanac of the Dead" "follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot... the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

It was not a book to be taken lightly, particularly at 768 pages -- and I never successfully negotiated my way through it. Or maybe I did and just don't remember doing it. Back in my working days I had an unfortunate habit of selecting books that required more attention than my tired eyes and mind were able to provide. Now that I am retired and doing at least some of my reading during what used to be my working hours I find I can now handle these "more serious" works without falling asleep somewhere in the middle of the frontispiece.

"Gardens in the Dunes" at 479 pages is a relative sprint compared to the marathon "Almanac of the Dead". Yet, this shorter work still covers "American Indian tradition, economic imperialism, the material excesses of Victorian American culture, race relations in the early American West, European folklore and mythology, sexism and sexual repression, early Christian Gnosticism and the Brazilian rain forest. And gardening... desert gardens, English gardens, Renaissance gardens, Italian gardens and imaginary gardens -- and the characters who plant, tend, dream of and are defined by them."

At the time I was up to page 335, enjoying the story and perhaps even understanding it. Although my ability to follow the narrative may have less to do with newfound perusing abilities than the fact that the book jacket inexplicably provides a blow-by-blow summary of the entire plot, up to and including the ending. Where were cover notes like these back in the days when I had to do book reports?

Anyway, one of the four or five hundred themes of this book is the ability of the Native American Sand Lizard people to create food-and-flower-producing garden terraces in the sand dunes of Arizona. And it is that image, plus the recurring snake motif that slithers through the book, that reminded me of the hot springs at Big Bend.

We found out about the steaming mineral waters at the Big Bend National Park Visitor Center so we knew this walk explores the remains of an early resort built around the healing waters of the hot spring here. And that "You can still soak in the 105°F waters that bubble up from a hole in the ground."

Mars and I brought our cameras, our water bottles, and our hot-soaking aspirations -- but not our bathing suits. We had been to the park with our earlier Elderhostel, and several times on this trek. Other than our fellow travelers on the first trip, and the folks at the Visitor Center on this one, we had never seen another person. And we did not spy anyone on this spa trek either. Isolation is one of the reasons that we like this place so much.

"Nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans." the natives told J. O. Langford, the developer of the resort that inhabited the area back in the 1910's.

We did not see any outlaws, even though the area is near the location that the above-mentioned drug lord Pablo Acosta and others conducted their cocaine business.

It was also pretty well devoid of any vegetation -- except right along the Rio Grande River and next to the abandoned limestone trading post with its trucked-in, totally out of place palm trees. And then there was the bamboo jungle.

The dense patch of giant woody grass was probably a quarter mile long and one half that in width, seven to eight feet in height, and, totally impenetrable, other than via the Park-Service-made path.

I was wary of the possible presence of what we have heard called "friends without shoulders" and as a result probably did not spend as much time looking up at the feathery tufts as I did peering down at the base of the plants. And trying to be aware of anything that sounded like scales sliding over stomped down stalks.

There were none, and Mars and I emerged from the shade into the unremitting sunlight and the remains of the ninety year old stone bathing tubs.

The air temperature was probably not that different than that of the steamy, mineral waters -- but still we had come this far; and no one else was around -- or likely to be. As we pondered our next move Mars heard a ground-level rustling noise moving rapidly through the dry vegetation -- away from us but toward the crumbled pool walls. And I spotted something long and black crawl out from one of the limestone lairs and rapidly disappear into another. It happened too quickly for us to see anything that would have answered the "poisonous or not" question so -- even though we had our trusty and totally untested snakebite kit with us -- we opted not to "take the waters" and simply take a few pictures instead.

I exited through the bamboo forest much more quickly, and significantly more cautiously than I entered. But still not so rapidly that that I failed to luxuriate in the incongruous joy of being engulfed by fertile, vibrant vegetation amid the dry, sun-baked Chihuahuan Desert -- and to burn that feeling irrevocably into my psyche.

A good book, like a good vacation, takes you to places that you have never been before. But some things, liking growing gardens in the dunes, are so unique that you need the real life experience in order to even remotely understand the written word.

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