What Wildness is This:
Women Write About the Southwest

What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest


I first awoke to the Southwest in Death Valley. The coo of a dove I didn't know opened my eyes to a dawn such as I had never seen: behind a jagged black mass of mountains, orange flames licked across a pool of purple light, and yellow beams shot into the stars. Our son was sitting straight up in his sleeping bag, his small back silhouetted against the splendor. That day he would find the track of a snake inscribed across the trail like a river course and discover a chuckwalla so tightly wedged in a crack that he couldn't have pulled it out unless he'd deflated it with a pin, and he would pronounce this day the happiest day of his life. The sun charged up over hills and hit us full in the face, scattering the smell of creosote and all the sounds of the desert morning—cactus wrens clattering, quails moaning, the click and thud of people emerging from travel trailers with coffee in their hands.

I first awoke to women writing about the Southwest when I opened A Breeze Swept Through and found Luci Tapahonso's poem:

The first born of dawn woman slid out amid
crimson fluid streaked with stratus clouds
her body glistening August sunset pink
light steam rising from her like rain on warm
I loved this poem so deeply that I found a place for it in the logic class I was teaching then, understanding that a poem can be a way of knowing more profound than any syllogism, a way of seeing more astonishing than flickers of light at the back of Plato's cave.

Eagerly, I pulled anthologies off my shelves, looking for more women, more deserts, more of these mornings. They were hard to find. Most of the essays in my nature writing anthologies celebrated green valleys, frog-graced marshlands, or frozen white mountaintops, not the sere truth of the desert. Except in the most recent anthologies (Getting Over the Color Green, for example) almost all the writers were men, and of those, most were Euro-American. I realized that much of the work of the women who write in the harsh shadows of the Southwest remained scattered across sand and time and distance—work overflowing the shelves in libraries, museum shops, and used book stores, piled in stacks on the bedside tables of friends, tucked into a letter, or mailed from a distant, sun-scorched town.

So I celebrate this gathering of women's writing about the Southwest. I read with the greatest pleasure as women in all their wild diversity—in the cities, in the Sonoran Desert, in canyons and villages, in wild bosques—raise their voices in the warmth of the new day. By amplifying the sound of women's voices in the desert, the editors—Susan Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Seale, and Paula Yost—have brought the whole ecosystem alive, a desert entire again, a dawn chorus of singing, stinging, lamenting, laughing voices.

All the writers in this anthology are women; all are writing from or to the Southwest. Beyond this, their differences may be more striking than their similarities, except for this one thing: the women in this book write with a heady freedom from definition and expectation, exploring the folds and shadows of the whole geography of language and land, heart and mind.

Truth be told, one advantage women gain from being traditionally denied membership in the nature-writing club is that they don't have to follow the rules. Women can write broken-hearted; we can write naked under blue water or the body of a man. We write triumphant at the top of the trail or trembling in fear; we write bewildered or with sudden understanding; we write as lovers, scholars, mothers, daughters, sisters, animals, ghosts or river guides, memories of the earth.

As we exercise this creative freedom, women writers provide examples of new or newly rediscovered ways to break down the cultural constraints of centuries-old European ideals of "man and nature": "man" as separate from nature, its conqueror, its lover or rapist (depending on whether you listen to St. Francis or Francis Bacon). "Man" as individual, self-sufficient and competitive, distinguished by the presence of mind from all of nature, which is as lifeless as a millstone and without sense or spirit. "Nature" as other, separate from our neighborhoods, our inhalations, the locations of our lives.

In contrast, many of the writers in this book, especially Native American women, point down paths toward a literature of place that whispers of connection, of balance, of north-south-east-west, of ancestral memories, of love and sorrow. I think of Gloria Anzaldúa returning to "los pueblitos with chicken pens and goats picketed to mesquite shrubs," scanning the sky for rain, as her father looked to the sky for rain, and her brother still looks up. I think of Joy Harjo, fishing, the memory of "that old friend Louis" somewhere on the thin stream between the sacred and the profane. And Ellen Meloy, dear Ellen Meloy, comforting us in our sorrow at her recent death with the assurance that "there will always be cliffrose and two mules, and they will always be there." These are human beings who are woven from relationships—biological, cultural, and spiritual. And this is a nature that infuses our lives, in town or in the wilderness or the scrubby places in between.

Our freedom is to tell the truth about all our relations, and to think ourselves no less persons for all that we are connected by longing and regret to men, to children, to grandmothers, to desert rain and flesh and seeds, to old stories and cunning words, the past and the future, what Rachel Carson called "the stream of living things." It's a powerful metaphysics, this unity of body and mind and earth, with powerful moral consequences. If we are all deeply related to places, as we are to people, then we must care for our places as passionately as we care for our human kin. I don't believe it's an accident that so many of these women's voices cry out against the desecration and poisoning of the earth; rather, it is the bone-hard knowledge that what poisons the earth also plants death in our breasts. It is the wisdom of women who know that they, like their neighbors, are part of the Southwest, the way a thunderstorm is part of the place it was born and where it will expend its flashing strength.

I rejoice in the voices of the women in this book, almost a hundred, raising our voices in celebration or warning, the words echoing off the canyon walls and the border fences, whistling through ocotillo wands. This body of work expresses what so many people most deeply feel and most clearly believe: gratitude for the gift of this place; astonishment at what each moment presents—peach jelly on the table, rain on the wind, fear in a standing wave, ghosts in the soil; an abiding love for this sere and mysterious patch of earth; and the terrible understanding that we cannot wreck this place without destroying also ourselves.

We hiked that day in Death Valley, up a sand stream between hot, rocky walls streaked with desert varnish and a single strand of falling water. Our daughter reached to catch a lizard but caught only its tail and put it in her pocket, where it jumped and twitched for longer than you would think a tail could do. The lizard stood its ground, doing pushups, flashing armpits that were vivid blue. Beetles staggered over sand pocked with rabbit tracks. I don't know how far we walked; it seemed like miles. But when night fell, fast and final as a curtain, we were back in camp, frying onions. The smell of onions and creosote bushes, absolute darkness, the clink of dishes in the campsite next to ours, my husband flashing a light toward a scuffle in a packrat's nest, cool night air on sunburned skin: what I wouldn't give to be there now. Instead, I will open this book again and let the voices of women sing me to this beloved place.

Kathleen Dean Moore
Corvallis, Oregon