It's mid-Springtime, now, here in the Sonoran Desert. The Palo Verde trees whose branches remain green, true to their name, are celebratory yellow – humming with bees and slowly shedding their bright flowers onto the ground. Over time, this forms a yellow spot on the earth mirroring the size and shape of the canopy above. It's extraordinary. Entire streets and rocky crevices are covered in vibrant trees with colorful trails below.
With the spring comes wind and this year, she's been relentless. There are temperatures into the 90's, then back into the 70's with rain, then howling wind and dust; repeat, repeat. I can't sleep because the wind is so loud. I can't sleep because I'm worried. I can't sleep because of what the Mountain said. An early heat, perhaps signaling a hot summer. Each year, they're hotter. I think every being – plant, animal, or otherwise – prays in their own way for rain.
I spend my time walking in the mountains. I don't hike. I'm not recreating. I won't summit anything or track my mileage. No, I probably don't want to hike with you so we can chat about human things. I'm walking and in conversation with the land around. This land is not a thing, or really even a place, but a being. Any being is a collection, a cacophony, an intermingling of collaborative energies. Any being has a voice.
The arroyos⁽¹⁾ are the teachers. Walking within them, you have no option but to slow down. The sand below slows footsteps and the winding encounters in an arroyo catch anyone's curiosity. They are the passages, the compass, the arteries of the desert landscape. The feelers of the mountain, the linkages between micro-ecosystems, the nutrient-dense entryways into the beyond, homes of the psychopomps, the shapeshifters, the crepuscular, the night travelers, the lost, the located, the hiding, the sleeping, the eating, and the moving. They breathe, they listen, they respond, they speak. They contain homes within homes – burrows, bedding, and belonging.
A hike is a human-focused mission when one is going somewhere. It is often predetermined, decided, final. It can be completed or failed. It can be done entirely without the hiker being in relationship with all they pass along the way. An act which may seem benign, and perhaps is some of the time, but not always. What happens when one enters a place they do not belong? Where is the opportunity for the mountain to grant permission to the visitor? Who does this act serve beyond the hiker themselves? One hike along a trail might not cause harm. But how far does the idea of a human being(s) as the authority of a mountain or forgoing any consent from the mountain go? Far.
What I'm trying to reflect is the seed that grows into a respectful relationship starts very, very small. The disregard of another's agency⁽²⁾ often begins in a way that seems harmless – one small footstep, in the case of the mountain – but can result in a dynamic and worldview that shapes and swallows everything. The most dangerous part is the way that things that become so ubiquitous somehow become invisible to the masses. The common becomes the norm and the questioning or deviations from this are viewed as strange or suspect. The story is forgotten as such. For example, you might find it odd to consider a mountain as a being, as a person. But for 98% of human history⁽³⁾, mountains were understood as people just the same as humans are people, as are the Mockingbirds, the Palo Verde flowers, the Coyote bones, the watering hole, and any particular arroyo. It was commonplace to experience "the world as full of persons, only some of which are human"⁽⁴⁾; all of which are imbued with spirit. All of which are inherently worthy of respect. All of which have agency and need one another to thrive. This truth has not changed – the dominant story has.
South Mountain, or Moahdak Do'ag, as named by the Akimel O'odham people of this region, stands over 16,000 acres and three ranges long across the western outskirts of so-called Phoenix, Arizona. Now scarred with trails, buzzing with recreators, and hosting at least twenty communication towers that bolt tall into the air – red and flashing into the desert night sky – the ecosystem remains in some small fraction of what it once was. Petroglyphs spotted about speak to the human connection beyond its present afflictions. This Mountain is considered sacred by the Indigenous people of this land. I, of course, can't speak to the details of this – yet, I've felt the Mountain's magic over many years of loving its every rock, boulder, crevice, Chuckwalla, Javelina, flood and mood. The seasons, dusty-pink monsoon skies, the routine dawn and dusk song by Coyotes, and the Nighthawks who become invisible while settled on the ground and a blanket of wings while in flight. The northern-most stand of Bursera trees, smelling of perfume, pouring red sap as we bleed blood. This land is sacred, this Mountain is alive.
South Mountain and the surrounding hills are where I grew up; when I was small, the roads were still dirt and the desert wilds lapped at the doorstep. My dreams were – and still are – full of visiting Great Horned Owls, a recurrent pair of black Coyotes, and lizards making trails just begging to be followed. Desert spirits howled at the window, sometimes inviting me out, sometimes spilling in. This dirt, now, is unrecognizable, unreachable. It lies beneath layers of concrete, hot asphalt, and turquoise-blue herbicide that is regularly applied to keep the "weeds" away. The hill nearby my childhood home has one Saguaro left standing, the others having shriveled away and fallen with the growing heat. I wonder if the Saguaro feels alone.
In 2017, after a 32-year struggle between the Arizona Department of Transportation and the communities-in-opposition including the Gila River Indian Community and some oppositional groups in Ahwatukee, Loop 202, an eight-lane freeway was constructed between the southern edge of Phoenix and Laveen. The blacktop was poured over the blasted body of the Mountain – two ranges plus the edge of the third were carved into to make room for the road. Thirty-three acres demolished. The passageways between this Mountain and the next, disrupted. The desert dwellers who travel far particularly in dry seasons, stranded on an island of sorts. Now, cars and semi-trucks drive through to get somewhere on time, their music loud, their air conditioner blasting out the summer heat and the reality beyond their vehicle.
I wonder what happened to the Barrel Cacti I sat with here during many sunsets. And the small brown Mantises, camouflaged on the dusted and speckled earth who walked... stopped... walked... stopped; performing a dance my humanness could never comprehend. I wonder what it was to be here before my people – the white people – arrived, attached to their forgetting and fragmented ways. My people are the people that hike without asking permission from the Mountain. My people often act as the flower sprouted from the seed of separation. My people buried their own grief so they cannot meet the grief of the world. My people are the ones I hope can wake up someday and decide to plant a Barrel Cactus in sorrowed earth even though they perhaps have never seen one before.
The remembering of other stories – of other ways of being – lives on within the body, even through generations. Even for us who have been long separated. Like momentary sparks or very quiet whispers, it awakens, calling us somewhere. One might consider that the world is always seeking to guide us beyond the confines of our modern systems. What if we followed this, peeling back the layers between us and the moon? What if we recognized the soil, again, as dear and in need of tending, the plants and animals as family with so much to teach? What if, when our bodies needed, we lay down to rest and found a way to be rather than to do? What if we let the words and the songs and the sounds that wanted to arrive, arrive? What if we listened to the instinct to allow others in closer in trust and solidarity? What if we acted as compassionate creators instead of those who extract and destroy? What if, when we heard the Creosote Bush speak a poem, we listened? What if we shared that poem with someone else? What if that allowed them to dig deep inside a tucked-away knowing and say – well, let me tell you what the White-winged Dove said. What if our remembering sparked the view of the aliveness of all things, a re-enchantment of the world that we had been told was just a cold, dead thing? What if our remembering, over time, broke apart the freeway and allowed the Mountain to be free, again. What if we realized that the Mountain's freedom was also our own.
I walked and was in conversation with the Mountain, feet below and birdsong beyond keeping rhythm. The Mountain saw and felt my grief and with every step I said I'm sorry. Mountain let me see and feel her grief, too, and together we wandered. A Rattlesnake moved across the land, a living embodiment of change – of the way transformation is inevitable, though we can and must influence the direction it takes. The wind moved the fragrance of Desert Lavender flowers across the deepest arroyo where they often grow in threes. I can't explain it. The Mountain whispered, spirit can never be destroyed – even as the last Saguaros fall, the spark endures. The land can be split into fragments until it doesn’t exist anymore but all that is disconnected will rearrange into new shapes. Connection and the aliveness of everything is beyond any ability to break. There is something that will emerge to complete the circle; there is a heart that lives and will go on forever.
¹ Arroyo: Wash, or creek bed that is almost always dry except during rainfall of summer monsoon and light winter rain.
² Agency: The will of an individual; the right to choose. It is important to note that we can be in community and inter- dependence with one another while still having choice. I'd say this is what honest + respectful relationship is.
³ From The Emerald podcast episode, Animism is Normative Consciousness.
⁴ From Animism by Graham Harvey.
Read more on South Mountain here or... here, with the Environmental Justice Atlas tool.
For more on Animism, listen to this podcast episode, or... read this review, or... read this book. I also love the animist perspectives of Bayo Akomolafe, this interview with David Abram, the teachings of Stephen Jenkinson, and the writing of Sophie Strand; all of which conjure up a deep feeling of the animate world and offer other ways to be in relationship.