Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dust Bowls

I watched the first installment of Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl on television. My eyes started to itch with grit, remembering my years in eastern New Mexico. It wasn’t in the Dust Bowl time, of course, but I remember the sand and the wind, the unrelenting wind.

One of my closest friends in high school told me recently that my descriptions of The Land of Enchantment are a bit less than enchanting. One might think I was negative about the place.

To my eyes, it was a flat and featureless place, plagued by dust storms and tumbleweed. It was dry. Of course, the contrast in my experience was lush and flowery Florida where little thunderstorms could happen daily and hurricanes were not uncommon, where the water table was about one foot below the surface in our back yard and alligators were in the lake around the corner. It was like going from the washer to the dryer, so I couldn’t help noticing.

I tried to love it, but the Llano Estacado is that impossible relationship. No matter how hard I searched for the thing to love there, it was hard. It did not love back.
“The greenest it ever gets here is brown,” I would say, perfecting my disappointment. The state park nearby was a group of sand dunes. One of the kids’ hangouts was a dry lake, a place that must have had water in it sometime. It was either that, or the real dust bowl winds had taken every bit of topsoil away decades earlier to expose caliche, the chalky natural hard layer of limestone that was the barrier to deep layers below which tantalizingly sometimes held water.

The Dust Bowl series on PBS shows the effect of the combination of climate change and poor agricultural practices. It’s hard to blame anyone for what I grew used to there. I marveled how farmers tried to grow cotton, sorghum and peanuts there. The sand was coarse and reddish-brown. Dried cotton bowls are hard and sharp, a thistle relative. I remembered how people picked cotton by hand in the South and thought of all the cuts, scrapes and scratches. Cotton bowl cuts not only hurt, they itch, too. I did not wander too far into the cotton field behind my subdivision. Under the shifting scratching sand in the field lay hidden cotton stems and bowls waiting for unsuspecting and tender toes. Only “horned toads,” actually lizards like little dragons without wings, scuttled among the sharp stems. They were endangered by the time I arrived there but just considered “hard to find” and “not as many as there used to be.”

My parents bought my Mom a new car while we lived there. It was an Oldsmobile station wagon, one of the first with electric locks and other electric gadgetry, which, as far as I recall, never quite worked right. The windshield wipers turned on when you hit the bright lights. Its most memorable feature at the time, in my mother’s eyes, was the color.

“It’s the color of dirt,” she despaired, “just like everything here.”

Dealing with my mother’s depression was an added feature of getting used to our high plains experience. To be fair, my mother had been depressed while we lived in Florida. It’s just that Florida had so many natural escapes, like flowers and lizards and birds. We watched moon rockets launch from our front yard.
There was no escape. The constant reminder of the color of the sand, indoors and out, the ceaseless wind swept the finest grains into the house, no matter how tightly closed. It felt like the very sunbeams were turned to weapons focused by a magnifying glass.

The 5 of Cups in Tarot speaks of loss and sorrow, of focusing on what was gone, what was wrong, even though there may be some things going right. The loss has overwhelmed the remaining good. What were cups of plenty had tipped over, spilled and quickly dried perhaps without even leaving a stain.

Of course, I was getting older, too. I couldn’t escape my mother’s unhappiness partly because I now started focusing on analyzing relationships of all kinds. I no longer played with toys. The walls of my room were always in danger of closing in. I couldn’t stay there. It was the place where my stuff was, but only that. I started putting banana stickers on the inside of my bedroom door, like some kind of advent calendar counting down in banana math the days until my release. I was in sixth grade, then seventh.

It snowed, oh, marvel! It was snow that would not stick together to make a snowman, not deep enough to make a snow fort.

“It’s dry snow,” those who had come there before me explained. I had heard of dry ice; that was the stuff my father would buy on occasion that never actually melted, just turned into fog. Instead of snowflakes, the dry snow was made of tiny frosty balls with a grain of dust at the center of each. It melted into mud which quickly dried and blew away. Was dry snow just more dust disguised with an unlovely coating of frost? There were no snowflakes in mandalas, only snow balls, dry snow.

I could tell the change of seasons there. One day, without warning, the wind, which blew cold in the winter and went through my brown corduroy and plastic patch coat, blew momentarily warm, then hot. Where were the blooms? Where were the birds? Where was spring? Not even the cactus bloomed. The brown grass became almost green, and then dried with the heat of summer.

I prayed for a bicycle to take me away from home. Then I prayed for a car to take me away from town. My friends were kids who had lived somewhere else, anywhere else, who knew that there was more out there. I prayed for a house that didn’t have little sand dunes on every window sill. I prayed a lot. And I added more banana stickers.

We moved to a nicer house, one built with a deeper understanding of its setting. There were no windows on the west side, so no sand-blasted window panes. Some green grass actually grew in the back yard, grass and two cherry trees. There were still sand storms and dust devils. There were giant beetles that hopped in the lights of the parking lot in front of the hospital across the street, strange antlered creatures delighting my cat.

On a Thanksgiving Day, it was unseasonably comfortable, strangely pleasant. We had been there for years by then, grown used to the despair and anger and disappointment. I had established a pattern of coming home late after my curfew when out of my friends. The year before, we had grabbed friends who were eating TV dinners out of aluminum trays, who were in the doghouse with their parents or who were just wandering around and made a “family” Thanksgiving.

This year, we could not muster much in the way of dinner, family or thanks. But it had been a quiet day, a day when the setting sun warmed the concrete drive and the brick veneer. I had the world to myself for a little while.

I sat on the driveway facing west. By then in high school, I was oddly unconcerned with what someone might think should they see me there. No sand blew into my teeth or my eyes. The wind did not freeze-dry me. The ever-present dust instead made a glorious show in the sunset in gold, bronze, rooster-red and purples.

I was suddenly happy to be there, to be anywhere that day. After the tears and anger, the defiance and sullen silences, the resentments and the constant urge to chew my own foot off to get out of the trap that was this place I had not chosen, I gave Thanks. I was filled for the first time in years with a sense of peace. I had stayed long enough to find the beauty. All I had to do was look up.

Best wishes.

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