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Sunday, June 7, 2015

AREA 51, Nevada, 1987 by Ruth Nolan, from a memoir about working in the Mojave Desert as a helicopter hotshot crew member in the BLM’s California Desert District…

Area 51, Nevada 1987 is published in LUMEN Issue 1 

I’m on top of a mountain, somewhere in Nevada, but other than that, I have no idea where I am.  Just that I’m the vicinity of Area 51, home to top secret U.S. military activities and, some say, inexplicable alien sightings and extra-terrestrial activities.

I’m the only woman on a crew of 12, based out of the Bureau of Land Management Apple Valley Fire Station in the Mojave Desert, a two hour drive east of Los Angeles, but there are only six of us up here tonight.  We were flown in from tiny Caliente, Nevada, 180 miles northeast of Las Vegas, hours ago, as dusk was settling in across the sky, on the 212 Helicopter used for our initial attack flight crew. We are designated as a first responder crew throughout the desert Southwest, on-call 24-7 as a small, first responder crew when desert wildfires break out.

I have no idea what time it is, just that I’m shivering so hard, lying here on the rocky ground next to the rough fireline I cut earlier this evening with the guys on the crew, that I’ve woken up. I can hear a few of the others snoring, and it seems I’m the only one who’s awake.

This is one of my very first assignments. Lightning is the cause of this fire, and we’ve managed to keep it down to burning less than an acre by cutting down blazing Pinyon pine trees and clearing Juniper bushes away with chainsaws and Pulaskis. The Pulaski is a specialized two-headed steel tool with an axe on one side, and a grubbing instrument on the other, designed specifically for fighting wildland fires in terrain such as what we are seeing up here.

On the 30 minute flight here from Caliente, I looked down at the ground rushing beneath us, so that I could avoid getting airsick, and so I could convince myself that we weren’t heading too far from town, but there were no roads, no houses, no sign whatsoever of human life across the parched and moon-like desert landscape below us. Several times, our strapping crew boss, Mark “Buster” Hennessey, shouted over the through his flight helmet and the deafening noise of the helicopter, that the fire we were going to was in Area 51. By all appearances, it certainly appeared that we’ve dropped off the edge of civilization and entered a surreal sort of twilight zone, a sensation made all the more unsettling by how very dark it is out here now, how very quiet and still and lonely.

I look up, half-asleep, feeling stoned and dazed. Glass-cut stars beam down at me. There’s no light at all, except for a very faint smudge of light on the far away horizon, which I can detect when I lift my head off the ground. I realize that must be Las Vegas, and wish I were there, instead, tucked into a hotel room or playing roulette, sipping beer, with my boyfriend Zach.

And I remember Zack’s voice, thick with sarcasm, taunting me as I left the house a few days ago to go to work at the fire station, which isn’t far from our adobe desert cabin, where he lives with me. “You think you’re such hot shit, on a hotshot crew, don’t you?” I see his face, twisted in a smirk, hovering over me.  “You’re only doing it because you want to fuck all the guys on the crew, aren’t you?” I blink hard, willing the image and sound of his angry voice away, but it’s hard to erase.

So I sit up, teeth chattering, pull the Velcro tabs at the wrists of my yellow fire-resistant Nomex shirt as tight as I can, then fold my arms close to my chest and lean forward, trying to pull myself into a little ball to gather warmth into myself. I have no idea what time it is, because I don’t have a watch. This is many years before cell phones are invented, and it’s doubtful I’d be able to get reception anyway in this extremely remote place.

            It’s hard to believe how cold I am, remembering how hot I was just a few hours ago while cutting fireline, drenching the t-shirt beneath my Nomex shirt with sweat. That must be why I’m so chilled. My t-shirt never got a chance to dry off completely after the sun went down and the temperature, although it’s June and the day was hot, over 100 degrees, plummeted. I have no idea how cold it is up here on this desert peak, but it’s  enough to make my teeth chatter so hard it feels like they’ll break apart. Being exhausted and feeling the soreness creeping into my shoulders and arms from the hours of brutal work I did earlier this evening doesn’t help.

I’m scared. I wish I had a blanket, but out here, that’s a ridiculous thought. Each of us only has what we can carry on our backs, including as much water as we can clip onto our belts in one-quart plastic bottles issued by the BLM, a headlamp that fastens onto our plastic yellow hard hats, and, of course, our tools, which weigh a considerable amount. I’m using my mandatory fire shelter, folded and bundled into a pack the size of two boxes of brown sugar – our only defense against a fire blow up and to be used only in emergencies, at the direction of our crew boss – as a sort of pillow. 

I’m thinking of unpacking my fire shelter, also known as a “shake n’ bake” for obvious reasons, to wrap myself in to get warm, but I’m too well-trained to do that – we’ve been repeatedly told that opening a fire shelter without permission is actually grounds for a felony charge.  I’m cold, but I am too scared to defy authority.

I look to my right, and see one of my crew-mates, Josh McKinney, curled in an uncomfortable position, his hand under his head. He’s shivering, too, but it looks like he’s still asleep. He’s only about five feet away from me. I slowly crawl towards him, getting as close as I dare without touching him, hoping to generate a mutual body heat, but not wanting him to think I’m being suggestive. Soon, although I’m embarrassed, and hope he doesn’t wake up and get angry at me, or think I want to have sex with him, I’m curled up behind him, in a spoon position, and I begin to feel a little bit warmer, and not so alone.

Down the fireline, Buster snores loudly, not a care in the world, and getting deep rest. He’s a big, blonde, rough guy, 6’4,” with a pregnant, petite blonde wife at home, and he yells at all of us a lot. He seems to yell even more at me, and sometimes his tone is snide or downright cruel.

“You were scared to get out of the helicopter tonight, weren’t you, Ruth?” Buster had sneered in front of the rest of the crew as we’d devoured our awful, dehydrated chicken casserole dinners out of our military-issue, plastic green MRE (meal-ready-to-eat) pouches.  “I saw you hesitate to jump out. I know this is a lot for a girl like you. Maybe you shouldn’t be out here, you think?”  I’d ignored him, and smiled politely, smoldering inside, and thinking of all the things I wanted to say to him, but was too insecure, and frightened, to voice.

I tell myself firmly to forget about it, and try instead to concentrate on staying warm, on trying not to guzzle the little bit of water I have left in my canteen, even though I’m thirsty, and on trying to feel less like breaking down and sobbing. I feel like hugging Josh, maybe waking him up and telling him how cold and scared I am, and seeing if he can help me, but I don’t. Josh is one of the nicest guys on the crew, and he’s 24 years old, like me, and he’s cute, and I want him to respect me.

I’m glad he’s next to me, especially when I start remembering, like I always do, on my many sleepless nights during the past seven years, the baby I gave away when I was 17. Her face seems especially clear tonight, layered across the Milky Way, and, through my exhausted and spacey daze, I look into her eyes,  which blink back at me,  and I search for some indication of who she is in her newborn awakening. I wonder hazily where she is tonight, and hope she is sound asleep, and safe in her little bed.

I remember what it felt like to hold her in my arms before the social worker took her away, three days old, and hear my father’s voice, telling me I’d soon forget about her and get on with my life, and that I was saving our family from being ruined by the shame of my disgraceful behaviors. I haven’t talked to my parents in over a year, and they don’t even know where I am tonight. They don’t know I’m working on the fire crew.

I know I should try to sleep. We’re supposed to start working again as soon as it starts to get light, and mop up any remaining embers or flare-ups in the charred area that’s already burned, and make sure the fire is entirely out, and that will probably be soon.  I hear a gentle crackling noise, and open my eyes. The fire is still smoldering and just a few feet away from my face, I see a small flame leap up, stoked by the light wind, then settle down, and disappear. It sounds like a soothing lullaby.

I have no idea when we are getting out here, no idea when Helicopter 554 will return.




Sunday, May 10, 2015

WHY I HATE AND LOVE MOTHER'S DAY

Earlier today, Mother’s Day, 2015, I sat with my mother, Beverly, who is in her 70’s, and other family members, at a table at a posh resort in the Coachella Valley, one of the most prestigious vacation destinations in the world. If you’d have happened to pass by our table, you would have seen a family celebrating Mother’s Day 2015 with joy, love, at an all-around happy gathering. We had cards, we had flowers, we had balloons, we had smiles, and it was all genuine. I truly have enjoyed Mother’s Day this year.

But earlier today, I read an essay called “Why I Hate Mother’s Day” by Anne Lamott, and I instantly felt a twinge of recognition and solidarity, and, judging by how many likes there were at the bottom of her story, and how many times I’ve seen this story shared on Facebook in the last few days, millions of other women can also relate. I applauded Lamott, for her usual courage and humor in writing honestly about feelings and experiences that so many women have, but feel unable to speak of, let alone even admit to. 

I applaud Lamott, especially for her honesty. It’s the first time I’ve seen an article like this that speaks to one of the core emotional truths about this yearly May motherhood charade. Because, you see, I have always secretly and self-ashamedly hated Mother’s Day, too. 

Until now.
Now, I don’t just hate Mother’s Day. Now, to my great surprise, I love Mother’s Day, too. I hate Mother’s Day, and I love Mother’s day, because in a world of deadlines and punctuality, where honest feelings are to be hugely avoided where displaying our true emotions is regarded as a sign of weakness, Mother’s Day is a holiday that makes me feel. 

Mother's Day is like the powerful, paradox of the yellow, rose-like blossoms emerging from the bulbous limbs of the desert's prickly-pear cactus, right in time for this maternal holiday: something beautiful and rare, right in the heart of something - the finely-fuzzed thorn pads on the prickly pear -  that can cause great and lingering pain if you don't handle it carefully and with great respect. And I don't know anyone who lives in the desert who hasn't had an unpleasant encounter with a prickly pear cactus at one time or another. 

And as I stare in awe at a prickly pear in my desert garden this Mother's Day, stunned again at how these perfect flowers co-exist within the unkindnesses of the prickly pear, perhaps even thriving on them, I feel a lot of things, some of them unpleasant and some of them wonderful.  Mother’s Day triggers for me, and so many other women, and maybe even a lot of men, a lot of feelings and memories that make our hearts hurt. 

But for all its artifice and overload of flower fragrances, and for all of its tendency to force upon so many of us an overload of “mother” memories and losses and strained relationships and desires that we’d rather not think about, there’s a lot that matters to it all. There’s a lot more that matters, to Mother’s Day, beneath all the commercialism, sentimental greeting cards, and cutesy fluff. And here’s where I want to dig in a little more.
For years, most of my adult life to date, I have hated Mother’s Day. I’ve not only hated it, but I’ve completely lost my shit, year after year, when it came around. My daughter Tarah can tell you how many Mother’s Days have sent me into an emotional tailspins, or how many times she has threatened to nominate me for Drama Queen Mom-of-the-Year on Mother’s Day. There’s the year I threw all the boxes of cereal in the pantry against the kitchen wall, and there is, to my great shame, the year I sent dishes breaking against that very same wall.
And we won’t even mention the time I threatened to run away from home on Mother’s Day the year Tarah turned 11, or the time I had a meltdown and stormed out of a fancy family brunch in Palm Springs in front of 14-year-old Tarah, and my own mother. Year after year, pretty much since I became a mother, the holiday of Mother’s Day has tended to bring out the worst in me. I can only hope that Tarah forgives me, and I think she has.
But the truth is, I never really fully understood it myself. 

I’ve hated myself for not being able to properly commemorate Mother’s Day, to be able to just sit back, enjoy the flowers, nibble on savory omelettes cooked by professional chefs, and happily sip bubbly mimosa from fluted stemware, let alone just keep myself from falling apart. After all, I’ve reminded myself every year, I have a beautiful daughter, surely one of the biggest gifts in my life, and a widely-beloved mother who is still alive. What the hell, I have repeatedly asked myself, is my problem?
Every Mother’s Day, Tarah has showered me with love and gifts, as has my own mother, and even, year after year, one of my own brothers. I’m not the kind of mom or daughter who expects a Mother’s Day gift, or to be treated any differently than on any other day of the year. Because I dislike sentimentality, I could easily live without Mother’s Day, but on the other hand, I’m always happy to receive flowers and cards, just as I was always happy to get home-made pancakes and gifts made by Tarah during her elementary school years, in spite of my tendencies towards meltdowns and malaise. Today, I was beyond joyed to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” phone call from Tarah and 21-month-old Baby Simon.
There is a dark side to Mother’s Day for everyone, let’s face it. I have so many friends trying to conceive, who aren’t able to have their own babies, or who have miscarried, or even lost a child to death, and my heart hurts for them. I have so many friends who have lost their own beloved mothers far too soon, and my heart hurts for them, too. I have friends who may have chosen to not have children, in their younger years, and now crave the comfort of having young adult children, as they themselves face their aging years alone.
And I have friends who are in middle age who are pained by Mother’s Day, understandably, because it invalidates their own choice to not have children; it makes them feel they are somehow not as worthy, in the social scheme of things, as their sisters who have chosen to be mothers. And also, Mother’s Day tends to reinforce, for many women, their own lack of worthiness as women and mothers and daughters in a society that places so much pressure on all of us to be perfect, especially in our roles as mothers and daughters.
I have friends who are mothers who are estranged from their own children, and I have countless friends whose relationships with or memories of their mothers are painful and fraught with road kill, to put it mildly. Today, on Facebook, I saw Mother’s Day postings that made my smile – the picture of friends who are celebrating their first special day as new moms – and postings that made me cry – the picture of a friend sitting by his mother’s gravestone. There is no one who can experience a perfect Mother’s Day. For all of us, this can be quite a rough bag of tricks. And it’s unavoidable, like all of our other major holidays, even if you try.
My own Mother’s Day issues may be somewhat unique for me, but I’m certain other women can identify. For one, Mother’s Day has always triggered a subconscious reminder that I have another child out in the world who I’ve never known, the progeny of a teenage pregnancy that almost killed me so many years ago and that I was coerced by guilt and shame to place up for adoption. 1980 was another time, and teen pregnancy was not as widely accepted as it is now. Mother’s Day was also, for so many years, a pained and infuriating reminder for me at how hard it was to be a single mother, something I didn’t sign up for.
A lot of my rage, I realize now, came from my frustration with my daughter’s father, who has been incarcerated for most of her lifetime; rage at him for not being there for she or I, and rage at him for his lack of financial support, stemming from his lack of functionality. I also know that I had a lot of anger at my mother for so many years, because she was so emotionally inaccessible to me, although physically present; our relationship was strained, at best, until recently, when I started to fully understand how overwhelmed she was by my demanding father and a family of four born-too-close-together children, not to mention the death of her own mother (when my mom was only 32 years old), but for many years, I carried a lifetime of abandonment issues and resentments because of it. 

Finally, there’s the strong feelings I couldn’t shake, when it came to Mother’s Day: that it was a day of hypocrisy, a day to patronize women, as it were, and thank them for doing so much for so little appreciation or praise or monetary compensation. I used to get very, very angry about all of this.
So what’s changed? Why do I now read an essay like Lamott’s, which I cheer for, and identify with in so many ways, but also say, “Wait….!”? I hate Mother’s Day. But now, miraculously, serendipitously, I also love Mother’s Day. I hate it because it feels contrived, and because it makes me feel so much that is so ambiguous. 

But I love it now, too, because it’s now an incentive for me to take a close look at my life in a wider context, and see that the tricky territory of Mother’s Day doesn’t have to control how I feel. It is going to make me feel things, no getting around it, but now, I somehow have found the grace, as I realize that I have a finite number of Mother’s Days left to live through – perhaps through the promised wisdom of my new middle age – to fully embrace this holiday, for all its good and bad.
This year, I hate Mother’s day and I love Mother’s Day. I have laughed a little bit, and I’ve cried a little bit, too, for myself and for women (and men) and sons and daughters and love and loss everywhere. I choose to savor Mother’s Day now in all its bittersweet, not wanting to miss a beat, and somehow, I feel more complete than I ever thought I would. This Mother's Day is, for me, so full. It's so bittersweet and full of the ripe nutrients of life, like the chunk of pomegranate on my plate from today's buffet. 

And so, I choose to face this traditionally difficult day head-on this year, and in doing so, I surprise myself when I find rays of joy mixed in with the pain, and see how the net of motherhood in my life continues to expand; I'm in the middle of three generations of a still-living mother-child chain; I'm both mother and daughter and mother to a daughter who I now see in the role of mother. And all of this is something to be savored, for all its ups and downs. 
And on this Mother's Day, I find a stunning yellow flower, so beautiful it melts my heart, beaming up at me from a cactus plant I know better than to touch or get too close to, because it will bite back; these are things I must admire respectfully and with care.  And I know what I must do today: water the prickly pear, even against the odds of the thorns that challenge me, and enjoy its delicious offering. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

For the Desert: What We've Lost, What We Remember, Where We Gather....The Eagle Rises

Wind Farm - Ocotillo, California -  Mourning Ceremony 

In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
on the morning and following
morning of the long, split moon night
of an all night mourning ceremony
sponsored by Kumeyaay Indians
who for centuries, along with
Quechan and other desert people
have called this desert home
and who mourn the desecration
of sacred desert land, the blading
of old growth Ocotillo and desert
floor and ceremonial places for
a 40-story-high windfarm zone
with blades that kill desert birds,
making circles that fly nowhere
and sluice the desert heart apart
into more broken pieces than two

In June, 2012, I attended an all-night Native American mourning ceremony near the tiny town of Ocotillo, CA - located east of San Diego, where mountain meets desert -  in commemoration of the loss of sacred desert sites for the construction of a massive wind tower zone. and I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to the desert Indian tribes and leaders and bird singers/dancers for offering this highly sacred ceremony to the public.  I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to our desert Indian leaders and elders and singers and people for their tireless and enduring dedication to caring for the California desert. They are an inspiration beyond inspiration to all of us, and it is in their honor that I speak today.


In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
along the long highway
on my way to the ceremony
on the morning of the night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
for the eagles being killed,
for the turtles being killed,
for the tall Ocotillo being killed,
for all that is being sacrificed
in the name of renewable energy
in the name of go green
in the name of destroying things
and we've gathered to heal
the wounds in our desert hearts
to try to stop the bleeding
to try to staunch the wounds
on the sacred desert ground
and so, alone, I drove
and along
the way,
taking nothing with me
on my car's dashboard
and moving into my own
form of road grief and prayer
I was blessed by birds.


In June, 2012, I was a wreck. My only daughter Tarah had just left home to move to Ft. Lewis Washington and was drinking herself into a numbed stupor as a way to cope (poorly) with her aloneness while my son-in-law Alex was on a year-long tour of Afghanistan with the Army. For me, it wasn't empty nest. It was empty life. I was also reeling from the recent loss of beloved boyfriend to suicide and the shattering of a love relationship that came after that. My life was being jerked up and down by severe losses, hopeful moments, then more severe losses, and it had become more than I could bear; all of this paralleled the federal renewable energy  solar land grab. The Ocotillo Wind Express Project, as most of us know, is just one of the many mind-numbing, desert-crushing, ill-founded projects being built. I had just sold my three bedroom house with a pool in Palm Desert, which I'd owned for 10 years, too sad and lonely and feeling abandoned to continue there alone. Not to mention that, like almost everyone else, I'd lost  my homeowner's equity in the 2008 economic downturn. In other words, my cozy nest egg was gone. Just gone. I was living in a furnished hotel room with my cat, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, eating pre-packaged foods from Fresh n Easy and Trader Joe's, and the great majority of my belongings stashed away in a dusty storage unit, except for a few books and clothes.


In June, 2012
The first eagle
had landed in the center divider
of Interstate 60 in the Badlands,
and was waiting there
for me to arrive
and drive by.
He lifted slowly
when I approached,
then powered off
into the distant sky,
heavy with road kill.


In June, 2012, I was devasted to be experiencing, from an inside perspective, the onset of, metaphorically but actually pretty literal onset of heinous stage 4 cancer throughout the entire desert body. It was too much. I was grabbing onto hope beyond hope and trying to connect as my personal life in the desert - metaphorically and literally - was fragmented, falling apart, being destroyed, seemingly, by uncontrollable outside forces.  For me, this is not "the other place" to go for kicks with somewhere else to go back to. This is home for me in the most profound and enduring and beloved way, and this is where my center is. In contrast, everywhere else beyond the desert is, for me, "the other place." I have nowhere else to go. Throughout my life, the desert has provided deep healing and inspiration and renewal no matter what challenges I've encountered in my life. But now, where was I to go? And so I drove to the Mourning Ceremony in June, 2012, looking for much-needed community and healing within my own heart of hearts.


In June, 2012
The second eagle
was painted on the side of a big-rig
just a few miles down the road
on Interstate 10, huge.
It rode alongside me for miles,
with Santa Ana winds
gathering at our backs, larger
than life or windmills
And I passed the giant
blades of towers that behead
so many living things at the
hips and brow of the hills
of the open mouth
of the Colorado Desert
near Palm Springs.


In the June, 2012 article EIGHT TRIBAL NATIONS MOURN LOSSES AT OCOTILLO WIND SITE, East County Magazine Reporter Miriam Raftery wrote, "A sliver of moon and a spangle of stars shone down on the Ocotillo desert last night, where representatives from eight tribal nations joined in ceremonies to honor their ancestors.  Hundreds of people from across the southwestern U.S. came to mourn the desecration of Native American sacred lands, cremation sites and the natural environment that is now occurring on public land."  Among the desert Indian tribal leaders and elders in attendance and participation were Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico and Quechan elder Preston Arrow-weed and his wife Helen. The mood was not one of anger, but of dignified resolve—a determination to unite all Indian nations and the public to understand the magnitude of what is being lost.


"This is not a protest," Viejas Kumeyaay Chairman Anthony Pico made clear. Instead, he called for all to come together in a time of "healing."  Viejas was one of several bands of the Kumeyaay nation represented; other San Diego bands included Barona, Sycuan, and Manzanita.  Some traveled from out of state, such as those from the Navajo nation. Prayers were recited, followed by an all-night wake with ancient birdsongs and dancing to honor the generations of long ago whose consecrated ashes lie in the dust now being disturbed across the 12,500 acre Ocotillo Wind Express Project.


In June, 2012
The third eagle
was a fine piece of art,
carved into the bolero tie
of Viejo Chairman
Anthony Viejo
in ivory white, every
fine detail of feather
chiseled like wind hearts
against the chairman's throat
and holding together hope
with powerful wings
battling the destruction
of wind farms on the
sacred desert floor, of
places we cannot replace
In June, 2012. 


Many of my desert-based friends and associates also attended the June, 2012 ceremony; these are people who I admire greatly for their perseverance, their dedication to caring for the desert and educating others to do the same. It was greatly comforting for me. I've gathered feedback from some of them on what the June 2012 Mourning Ceremony near Ocotillo meant to them.


PAT FLANAGAN is a desert naturalist, educator and science curriculum writer. She has lived part or full time in the desert, like me, since 1976.  She says: "Shortly after I arrived Chairman Pico came up to me and gently told me to search within my heart for comfort and healing during the ceremony. I was - we all were - privileged to be there, but rightfully separate. He was offering comfort and I hoped I could do what he suggested. - because I sure needed it. For me then, passing along the olla and the two baskets made with thoughtful caring hands full of memories - after they were given to me at the end of the ceremony during a giveaway - anchored me in the place and into the stream of the bird songs. Thinking back, I would still have the olla and baskets if you three (myself and two others who she then gifted these present to) had not been there. And I am glad I do not have them. The gifts and the giving were what opened my heart to be a conduit for the blessings and comfort that had poured out through the long night."


In June 2012
I'm telling you this story
because it's true
because all three eagles
flew above our heads
while the men shook rattles
and sang bird songs
all night long from sunset
to dawn, because we all wept
on the hill by the medicine wheel.


TOM BUDLONG says, of the June, 2012 ceremony: "Though I am full European immigrant stock with ancestry in this country since the 1600s, I feel no guilt since I am doing all I can to kill this project. But I am very much ashamed of my government. The project is unnecessary, economically unjustifiable, a violation of our own rules in innumerable details,& most of all disrespectful of our Native American population. We sacrifice this spot, sacred to the tribes & precious to all visitors, without being clever enough to use the vast rooftop acreage available where the power from this project will be used. It is indeed shameful. The wake was a powerful ceremony. We could learn a lot about respect from it."


In June 2012
the sun grew too warm
and the wind refused to howl
in June, 2012


KEVIN EMMERICH says: "the Ocotillo Wind Express Project is was pushed through by legislators in spite of its unanimous unpopularity among just about every sector of the public. The project sited over 100 wind turbines on 12,000 acres of mostly public land. The turbines are all over 400 feet tall and have compromised the sweeping vistas for local residents and people visiting Anza Borrego State Park. They are not only visible in the day. Each turbines has a red aviation light flashing all night. The project disturbed habitat for Endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep and other sensitive wildlife like the flat-tailed horned lizard. Most shocking is that the project was built on land sacred to Native Americans. Turbines were built next to burial sites and destroyed actual artifacts. The concerns of Native Americans were mostly ignored by the bureaucrats who approved this project. The most ironic part about the project is that the wind is lacking. Local residents report that the turbines are motionless the majority of the time. The still days seem to out number the moving days."


In June, 2012
I held a small, handmade
basket in my hands
that was gifted to me
after it was gifted
to someone else
a small basket, so empty,
and so full of bird songs.


TERRY FREWIN, who was also there in June, 2012, says: "The experience of the Kumeyaay Ceremony touched all the bases (it is World Series time).  I was very humbled to be invited and acknowledged, and experienced a profound sense of sadness, as well as one of hopefulness, as I saw the variety of folks, young and old, honoring their heritage and ancestors.  Underlining it all was the sense of what we all were going to lose as the Ocotillo project moved forward.  This was certainly the feeling as I drove home the next day through Anza Borrego State Park.  The beauty that surrounds the Park is safe, for now.  What is happening just outside its border is so typical of what is happening to our unprotected public lands in the deserts.  Simply put, the experience of the ceremony strengthened my commitment to keep doing the right thing for the desert.


Wind Farm - Ocotillo Wells -  Mourning Ceremony
June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
on the morning and following
morning of the long, black night
of an all night mourning ceremony
sponsored by Kumeyaay Indians
who for centuries, along with
Quechan and other desert people
have called this desert home
and who mourn the desecration
of sacred desert land, the blading
of old growth Ocotillo and desert
floor and ceremonial places for
a 40-story-high windfarm zone
with blades that kill desert birds,
making circles that fly nowhere
and sluice the desert heart apart

I saw three golden eagles
along the long highway
on my way to the ceremony
on the morning of the night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
for the eagles being killed,
for the turtles being killed,
for the tall Ocotillo being killed,
for all that is being sacrificed
in the name of renewable energy
in the name of go green
in the name of destroying things
and we've gathered to heal
the wounds in our desert hearts
to try to stop the bleeding
to try to staunch the wounds
on the sacred desert ground
and so, alone, I drove
and along
the way,
taking nothing with me
on my car's dashboard
and moving into my own
form of road grief and prayer
I was blessed by birds.

The first eagle
had landed in the center divider
of Interstate 60 in the Badlands,
and was waiting there
for me to arrive
and drive by.
He lifted slowly
when I approached,
then powered off
into the distant sky,
heavy with road kill

The second eagle
was painted on the side of a big-rig
just a few miles down the road
on Interstate 10, huge.
It rode alongside me for miles,
with Santa Ana winds
gathering at our backs, larger
than life or windmills
And I passed the giant
blades of towers that behead
so many living things at the
hips and brow of the hills
of the open mouth
of the Colorado Desert
near Palm Springs.

The third eagle
was a fine piece of art,
carved into the bolero tie
of Viejo Chairman
Anthony Viejo
in ivory white, every
fine detail of feather
chiseled like wind hearts
against the chairman's throat
and holding together hope
with powerful wings
battling the destruction
of wind farms on the
sacred desert floor, of
places we cannot replace.

I'm telling you this story
because it's true
because all three eagles
flew above our heads
while the men shook rattles
and sang bird songs
all night long from sunset
to dawn, because we all wept
on the hill by the medicine wheel
and then the sun grew too warm
and the wind refused to howl
and I held a small, handmade
basket in my hands
that was gifted to me
after it was gifted
to someone else
a small basket, so empty,
and so full of bird songs
in June, 2012. 



by Ruth Nolan copyright (c) 2013 by Ruth Nolan
photograph by Ruth Nolan copyright (c) 2013 by Ruth Nolan







Thursday, September 12, 2013

Desert Author Event MARSHAL SOUTH RIDES AGAIN: His Anza Borrego Novels

TUESDAY, OCT 29 @ 6:30 PM Palm Desert, CA Library
Come and enjoy an evening of desert literature and lore!

Join famed desert writer Marshal South's son, Rider; Sunbelt Books Publisher Diana Lindsay; and desert scholar/professor Ruth Nolan for an exciting literary event to celebrate the publication of two of desert author Marshal South's long-lost Western novels, Flame of Terrible Valley and Robbery Range, and interactive discussion/Q&A with the audience about these two new books and Rider South's years growing up on remote Ghost Mountain in California's Anza Borrego Desert.


Palm Desert Library Community Room
73-300 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert CA 92260
Contact: Ruth Nolan, Professor at College of the Desert
runolan@aol.com (760) 964-9767

ABOUT RIDER SOUTH & HIS FATHER'S GHOST MOUNTAIN EXPERIMENT.....
65 years ago, Rider South came down from Anza-Borrego’s Ghost Mountain as a young teenager, and his life changed dramatically. Rider and his younger brother and sister had been part of their parents’ experiment in primitive living that was chronicled as a monthly-running series by Marshal South in the pages of the highly popular and legendary "Desert Magazine" for nine consecutive years, from 1939 until 1948.

The South Family poses for a photo in 1946 at Ghost Mountain. Left to right: Marshall; Rudyard; Victoria; Tanya and Rider. Photo Courtesy of Rider South
Today, only the ruins of Yaquitepec remain, slowly melting back into the desert. Visitors to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park climb the mile-long trail to the top that had once been the South homestead and wonder how a family could possibly survive there. The Souths did, for almost 17 years, building their home by hand, hauling water and what they needed to the top, and then raising a family. They had a large following in the readers of "Desert Magazine," published by Randall Henderson out of his Palm Desert offices, who anxiously awaited for their next issue to see how the family was faring in their back-to-nature experiment. The children and their education were commonly the focus of the articles.
Rider South Re-Visits Ghost Mountain Today.....photo courtesy Rider South
Rider has vivid memories of his early life on Ghost Mountain. He was aware that his father’s writings and artistic creations were sources of income for the family and helped to provide some of the necessities they needed to survive on that waterless mountaintop. Rider loved his father and mother, and it was difficult for him when the family separated. As the years have passed, Rider readily recalls his father as a talented poet, writer, and artist, and he believes that his father was harshly judged and not appreciated for his many talents.

Today, Marshal South is hardly remembered as a very talented writer of western fiction. It is Rider’s hope that with the publication of Marshal South Rides Again: His Anza-Borrego Novels that a new generation discovers Marshal separated from the sensationalism of his life choices.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mopping Up: A Poem from the Fireline

A poem from the fireline.... in memory of the 19 fallen firefighters from the Prescott, Arizona Hotshot Fire Crew
It's one of the most unraveled and well-paying jobs
I've ever done, in far flung, burned up wilderness
Areas in the San Bernardino forest,the only girl on the crew.
Hiking along in baked potato hot, foot- deep ashes
That resembled the thick texture of gray on a corpse,
And blew eerily in the wind like a shed snakeskin
To finish off wild land fires by stirring and cooling
And spraying pitiful jolts of water from bags of water
We carried, sloshing like heavy vertigo on our backs.
Struggling, to keep pace along the slow crawling underbelly
Of Rattlesnake Mountain with the psychomaniacal
Crew leader, who manically in his meth-fueled ways
Jabbered nonstop about the dangers we faced for our
$6.72 per hour wages: how many guys just like us
Have been killed by widow makers (trees with burned
Out roots that still look alive and suddenly fall.) Heatstroke,
Perhaps, like the guy they hauled off last season who later
Died on a 110 degree day for lack of water ( we carry only
A few quarts each and we are miles from a drinking fountain,)
The guy who got bit by a poisonous scorpion and developed
Gangrene (and later lost an arm) and not to mention the
On and on of how many guys had fallen down with third
Degree burns, smoke inhalation, you name it, we've got it.
And you could never be sure the fire was out. So we stirred
And sharpened our shovels and stirred some more, covered every
Spot of ground, so satisfied to watch each tiny, unearthed
Ember spark hot and red and sparkly then whoosh unto its
Puffy death. Hike on. He never said what happened to the girls,
Those of us who left behind the aprons of our domesticity.

"Mopping Up" by Ruth Nolan copyright (c) 2013 by Ruth Nolan

Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing from the Magic Desert of Desertlandia: A New Book about Tahquitz Canyon In Palm Springs by Vietnam Veteran, Greek & Latin Language Bible Scholar, Robert “Mountain Bob” Hepburn, Ph.D.

"This is a place of contrasts; it is a place of ancient and new, a place of peace and turbulence. It is a place of power. Come with the right purpose and a clear mind to enjoy its beauty and mystery" -- from the Trail Guide to Tahquitz Canyon, published by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

I enter the mouth of Tahquitz Canyon, in awe,  as I always am when embarking on this hiking journey. Just a few minutes from downtown Palm Springs, the mouth of Tahquitz Canyon is sharp and enticing, frightening and breath-stealing. Tahquitz Canyon, an early village site and home to the foreboding legend of the god Tahquitz, is now managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who for centuries have inhabited and maintained a close relationship to the canyon as a crucial resource area.
Author Ruth Nolan hikes the trail in Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Philip Helland
Author Ruth Nolan hikes the trail in Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Philip Helland
In other words, it's my kind of hike: not only because I get explore deep into the contrasts offered by this raw landscape - from intimidating desert exposures into a canyon that's laced with green sycamore trees and its surprisingly deep, energetic icy-fresh creek and waterfalls - but because I will also be enjoying a literary experience of Tahquitz Canyon, too, thanks to the availability of an amazing new field handbook.  Plants of the Cahuilla Indians of the Colorado Desert and Surrounding Mountains Field Handbook  was published recently by a friend of mine, Robert "Ranger Bob" Hepburn, who has lived in and above Tahquitz Canyon since the 1960's, and now works as a canyon ranger and guide for the Agua Caliente tribe. I don't think it would be much of a stretch to call Ranger Bob a bit of a modern-day Thoreau, with a desert and canyon twist to the famous lore of the great philosopher and his life at Walden Pond.


It's late May, and the desert is offering a respite from the 100 degree heat we've already been enduring for the past few months. Summer comes early here, and by the time Memorial Day weekend arrives, we're well-seated in summer living, just as people in other parts of the Inland Empire are adjusting to the start of the hot season. And, fittingly for Memorial Day, and in synch with the magic that resonates throughout the magic desert of Desertlandia, Hepburn, who earned his Ph.D in Philosophy and Languages from UCBerkely, is not only a scholar of many languages, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and a renowned Biblical translator, but just happens to be a decorated Vietnam War Veteran.
Ranger / Author Robert "Bob" Hepburn talks about Tahquitz Canyon on a guided hike. photo by Ruth Nolan.
Ranger / Author Robert "Bob" Hepburn talks about Tahquitz Canyon on a guided hike. photo by Ruth Nolan.
It's easy to see why Hepburn headed for Tahquitz Canyon back in the 1960's, after one particularly harrowing stint in Vietnam as a Marine. At the time, Tahquitz Canyon was becoming a popular and crowded refuge for members of the hippie generation; after awhile, seeking more solitude, Hepburn purchased land high above the canyon, and actually hiked in all of the materials to build a cabin, where he lived for over twenty years, returning once in awhile down a perilous trail no wider than book in places to get supplies in town.  Even for those of us who are only braving the well-maintained, 2 mile loop trail to the famed lower waterfall - a place visited over the past century by luminaires such as Albert E. Einstein and Jim Morrison of the Doors,-just to name a few - a quick trip into the canyon has a spellbinding and memorable effect.


As I head for the stunning, post-modern architecturally-designed visitor center, I bow my head against the jagged canyon views that rise vertically in one of the steepest pitches on the North American continent.  I'm humbled to think that with every step I take, I'm joining the footsteps of the ancestors of the Cahuilla.  My feet, laced tightly in my hiking boots, are also closely following Hepburn's journey as I make my own Memorial Day 2013 pilgrimage into the healing balm of Tahquitz Canyon in the face of many of the difficult social issues pressing on the world today, including the ongoing Middle Eastern Wars.


After I purchase  my copy of Plants of the Cahuilla Indians of the Colorado Desert and Surrounding Mountains Field Handbook, I take a mandatory time-out to dive into the book on the back patio area of the visitor center. I realize immediately that Hepburn's book is no lightweight stroll through the park. True to the power and magic of Tahquitz Canyon - as well as the foreboding sense of danger and respect evoked by the spirit of the Cahuilla god, Tahquitz, who rules this canyon and figures large and sometimes-frightening in legends of the Cahuilla -, this book is a comprehensive, hugely-researched ethnobotanic guide that provides a complete taxonomy of plant life and resource usage in Tahquitz Canyon.
hikers enjoy the famous waterfall at trail's end deep in Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Ruth Nolan

Hikers enjoy the famous waterfall at trail's end deep in Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Ruth Nolan
True to his high levels of scholarly excellence, Hepburn provides scientific/Latin and common names, listings, and families of every plant found in the Canyon, as well as traditional Cahuilla plant names, pronunciations, and plant bloom, harvest, and usage charts.  In his extensive research, combined with his firsthand knowledge from his  many years in the canyon, Hepburn consulted landmark works such as Tempalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, a collaborative book written by Cahuilla anthropologist Dr. Lowell Bean and Cahuilla elder Katherine Siva Sauvel, published in, and many other publications related to Cahuilla language and plant knowledge as well as current scientific and botanic research related to Tahquitz Canyon and the surrounding deserts; he includes a wonderful bibliography of resources in his book.

A light wind stirs my hair, and I look up: several red-tailed hawks soar against the sun's intensity, juxtaposed against the highest jagged rocks at the top of the canyon.. After losing myself in the moment, I look down at Hepburn's book again, and I'm happy to see that there's a playful narrative introduction to the book - so true to his character, as well - by another writer friend, Ann Japenga, to the book. It perfectly captures the essence of Hepburn's life in and above Tahquitz Canyon, from his early fascinations with the stories of Gypsy Boots, an early hippie of the Canyon and considered by many to be the "father" of the hippie movement, and eden ahbez (name spelled deliberately all lower-case) who lived in Tahquitz Canyon back in the early 20th century and was inspired by his time spent there to write the famous song, "Nature Boy," recorded by Nat King Cole and many others. Hepburn's stories of life in Tahquitz Canyon are colorful, such as his anecdotes about his mountain lion encounter; the joys he had swimming in his own private waterfall; and the time he had a pizza delivered by helicopter to his cabin high above the desert floor.
The trail leading deep into the heart of Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Ruth Nolan
The trail leading deep into the heart of Tahquitz Canyon. Photo by Ruth Nolan
It's time to tuck the book into my backpack; the sun is rising higher in the sky, and I want to hike into the Canyon before the heat of this Memorial Day 2013 - however light-handed it feels today - turns into a life-threatening source heat exhaustion. I want to walk along in the footsteps of Ranger Bob, giving thanks for the recent, safe return of my son-in-law Alex, who just served a year with his Army unit's deployment in Afghanistan; past red pictographs painted centuries ago by early shamans and culture heroes of the Cahuilla; past the ancient village site; past the old water project flume from early 20th century agricultural efforts that's been long abandoned; and into the magical, sparkling light of Tahquitz Canyon that resonates with the stories,  plant life, and a sense of physical and spiritual renewal discovered by so many others, over the years. Hepburn's book will  be my companion reading tonight, a source of shared adventure and a path to the knowledge and understanding of plants and sustainability long covered by the Cahuilla, the early ones.


Plants of the Cahuilla Indians of the Colorado Desert and Surrounding Mountains Field Handbook by Robert James Hepburn, published by Enduring Knowlege Publications in Twentynine Palms, CA, copyright (c) 2012, is available for purchase on the publisher's website at www.enduringknowledgepublications.com  and also at the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center, 500 W. Mesquite, Palm Springs, CA 92262 (760) 416-7044.

This story is also posted on the Riverside CA Press Enterprise / Inlandia Literary Journeys blog, which can be viewed at: http://localauthors.pe.com/uncategorized/writing-from-the-magic-desert-of-desertlandia-vietnam-veteran-greek-latin-language-and-bible-scholar-mountain-bob-robert-hepburn-ph-d-authors-guidebook-to-tahquitz-canyon-in-palm-spri/

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Magic Desert of Desertlandia...my new blog column for Riverside CA Press Enterprise

I'm glad that I was able to push through my "worried-about-pregnant-daughter-Tarah-and-Little-Guy" jitters today to pen my first Press-Enterprise "Inlandia Literary Journeys" blog, "Welcome to the Magic Desert of Desertlandia!" I'm part of a phalanx of terrific writers (and friends!) who writing for this project! ENJOY and feel free to (please!?) comment! Hurray!  Read more at this link: