By Scott Russell Sanders with Photographs by Peter Forbes
Are stones alive? When Ursula began her research among the Yanu, she scoffed at the notion. Of course stones aren’t alive, she would have said. They’re raw matter. Things, not beings. But after three summers of studying these desert people who listen to their ancestors whisper from cracks in boulders and crevices in the red rock canyons, she feels less certain about the distinction between living and nonliving.
Before her initial visit to the Yanu, she learned what she could of their language from her thesis advisor, who was the first anthropologist to contact this isolated tribe. He had kept their location secret, to protect them as long as possible from collectors, journalists, and tourists. Thanks to his precautions, the Yanu have remained undisturbed in their remote cliff dwellings, growing crops of corn, beans, and squash, hunting jackrabbits and mule deer, clinging to their primitive beliefs. Ursula’s task is to document their culture before it collapses under the onslaught of the modern world.
Other tribes that once inhabited this region built cairns to mark paths across the desolate plateau, inscribed pictures in canyon walls, and used boulders for altars. But only the Yanu, so far as Ursula has been able to discover, have brought stones into their council meetings, made places for them around the fire circle, or consulted them about vital matters.
When a member of the tribe dies, according to the Yanu, his or her soul leaves the body and slips into a crack in the canyon walls or into a water-tumbled rock in an arroyo. From that refuge, the soul keeps watch on the living and reminds them of the wisdom needed for surviving in this harsh land. And not only human souls take shelter in stone. So do the spirits of corn and cactus, lizard and coyote, scorpion, porcupine, owl, snake, and every other creature of this place. Eventually, the souls migrate back into the birthing hut, the fox den, the eagle nest, the bee hive, the buried seed. And so life, inextinguishable, exchanges one body for another.
Ursula wishes she could believe that life is inextinguishable, for already in her mid-twenties she has lost a bewildering number of loved ones—an uncle to leukemia, a fellow student to drugs, a mentor to a car wreck, a cousin to war. This past spring, she held her grandmother’s hand as the old woman exhaled a final breath. One moment, the body on the hospital bed was a person; the next moment it was mere stuff. What was the force that once animated the flesh, Ursula wonders, and where did it go after that last breath?
It would be comforting to think that some essence of each loved one departed from the body and now lingers in a niche nearby. But Ursula’s scientific training has convinced her that there is no such essence, no “spirit” or “soul.” For three summers, that training has also kept her from voicing her skepticism or in any way challenging Yanu beliefs.
Finally, however, on the evening before she must pack up and return to campus, Ursula cannot resist asking one of the elders, a white-haired matriarch named Moona, if stone truly can harbor life.
The old woman smiles, takes Ursula’s hand, and leads her into a shadowed canyon. “Sit, daughter,” Moona says, pointing to a spot that offers a view along the red walls, which are darkening with dusk.
Ursula lowers herself onto the ledge, rests hands in her lap, and breathes deeply to slow her pulse.
“Now listen,” the old woman says before walking away.
Ursula closes her eyes and listens. Wind, rustle of sand, chittering of birds. Then beneath those sounds she hears a murmur, like footsteps, a distant drum, or a heartbeat. Yes, yes, a heartbeat—whether her own or the stone’s she cannot tell.
How many years since I first lured you into a canoe? Thirty-five, at least. Oh, Lord, let me think—it must be over forty. Remember how you resisted for months, saying you were afraid of tipping, you were a poor swimmer, you preferred to gaze at water from the shore? You told me that as a girl from landlocked Iowa you hadn’t teethed on a paddle or spent your childhood messing around in boats, like a certain brash young man from Maine. As that young man, more bewildered than brash, I could hear behind those excuses your reluctance to place your fate in my hands.
Still, one day you decided to take the risk. I held the canoe steady as you climbed in and made your way gingerly to the bow. I gave you a life jacket and paddle, and lowered myself into the stern. Ready? I asked, and you squeezed out a quiet yes. We glided away from the dock. A loon wailed a warning, and the mate answered, and you twisted around to grin at me, the fear easing from your face. The loons kept wailing, and then, as if resigned to our presence, they switched to tremolo, like opera singers proclaiming love.
To reassure you, I kept us close to shore. The weather blessed us. Cumulus clouds, white as bleached cotton, posed no threat of rain. There was just enough wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay and set your ponytail swaying, but not enough to stir up waves. For a few minutes you chopped at the water with your paddle, splashing, but soon you found a rhythm, swinging from the shoulder with straight arms, dipping the blade neatly.
Not wanting to wear you out, after a while I suggested we turn back. But you asked if we could paddle to “that island spired with pines.” Those were your words. I’ve carried them all these years. So we paddled across, put in at a sheltered cove, and walked along the shore, looking for stones to bring back as tokens of our trip. You picked a pebble the size of a hummingbird’s egg and I picked a cobble the size of a hen’s. Then we found a patch of sand, stretched out in the sunshine, spying animals in the clouds, and you let me reach under your shirt and cup my palm over your breast. What a wonder that was for me, the curve of it, the warmth, the taut knot of your nipple. What a wonder it still is.
In a moment, you shivered and hunched your shoulders. I withdrew my hand and rolled away—and that, I feared, was that. Prudery, I thought, as we paddled back to the dock.
Becoming the father of our two daughters, however, has taught me I was wrong. Your shiver didn’t arise from prudery or shame, but from caution toward that brash young man whom you hardly knew. What did I want from you? I couldn’t have said. I couldn’t have separated the curve of your breast from the grace with which you learned to paddle, from the sun-tint in your auburn hair, from the voice that spoke of an island as spired with pines. What I wanted was you, the whole of you, body and mind and soul.
Fortunately, you understood more than I could say. So here we are, these too-many years later, climbing into a canoe. Not the same canoe, not the same lake, and hardly the same two people, although our names haven’t changed.
The weather has blessed us again. See how the islands kiss their reflections? Now where shall we go? With a few portages, we could paddle to Lake Superior, and from there, lake by lake, and waterfall by waterfall, to the St. Lawrence and into the North Atlantic. Or we could cross to an island, find a sandy spot, and make love. Then we could picnic on whatever you’ve stowed in that basket. Ah, but perhaps we’re too old for such frolic.
Just listen how I rattle on. I’ll be still, and let you say where you wish to go. What’s that? I couldn’t hear.
“I said, we’re not too old.”
You’ve heard the story about Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the garden, right? How Eve is the one who brought sin into the world and misery into our lives? How she tempted poor Adam with an apple that Satan the snake tricked her into tasting? And how Adam, innocent as a lamb, only bit that apple to please his sweetheart? So you’ve heard all that? Well, I’m here to tell you a man made up that story. Not God, who isn’t so petty or mean, but an ordinary man who prizes his sex, despises women, fears snakes, and hates farming.
Remember how in the story God tells Adam from now on he’ll have to feed himself by the sweat of his brow, instead of loafing in the shade and plucking fruit from the trees of Eden, and instead of living forever he’ll have to die and return to dust like all the other animals. Remember also how God tells Eve that because of her sin, women will suffer pain in childbirth, and they’ll always be ruled over by their husbands. So you know the man who made up this story didn’t want a wife with a mind of her own, didn’t like plowing or hoeing or weeding in the hot sun, and didn’t want to die.
Well, join the human race, honey, as my mama used to say. There are so many wrongheaded notions in this story, maybe one man couldn’t have thought of them all. Maybe it took a whole committee. The worst mistake isn’t in blaming women for suffering and mortality, it’s in thinking our lives would be painless and eternal if only our ancestors or we ourselves hadn’t messed things up. Isn’t just being awake for a spell here in this big, old universe miraculous enough, without imagining our days should be trouble-free?
“Pests and weeds are the price of having a garden,” my mama would say, “but you also get food and beauty.” She’s the one who set me thinking about how good and evil are only human notions, and so are all the other neat labels we paste on a messy world—male and female, white and black, us and them, straight and queer. She taught me a lot. That’s a mother’s job—to gather knowledge when she’s young and give it back as wisdom when she’s old. I don’t mean to slight fathers, who also can offer wisdom. It’s just that I only had a mother. She died two days ago, and I can’t think about gardens or Adam and Eve or much of anything else without thinking of her.
She always kept a garden by her sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi before she moved up here to Detroit. Half of what she grew was for the table, half was for colors and smells and pretty shapes, and all of it, she told me, was for the soul. If a person can’t see any living thing except people and dogs and cats, and maybe a few scrawny trees choking on exhaust fumes, then that person’s soul withers a bit, day by day.
So when she moved to this tenement I’m living in now, she kept looking out the window at the trash-filled vacant lot down below. Hoodlums hung out there, smoking, dealing, getting in fights. Rats scurried through the garbage. The place stank to high heaven. So one day she went down there and started hauling trash to the curb. When she’d cleared a patch, she fetched the shovel and seeds she’d brought from Mississippi, and started digging. Pretty soon other folks came along with their own shovels and seeds. Within a few weeks, they turned that dump into a garden full of plants soaking up the sun, flowers blooming, birds and butterflies zipping around, neighbors talking and laughing, kids romping.
That garden is the first glory I met in this world, and I’ve helped tend it ever since I learned to walk. Lots of people pitch in. We don’t mind sweating, for the garden feeds us in body, mind, and soul, just like my mama said it would.
Rosa meant to stay awake through the night and help keep watch over the sea turtle nests. But well before dawn, as she lay on the warm sand beside her mother, gawking at the stars, listening to waves scuff against the beach, she fell asleep, as if she were still a child, and not almost thirteen.
She is roused by her mother’s whisper: “Come, sweetie. Follow me. They’re emerging, so watch your step.”
Heart thumping, Rosa follows, placing her feet in the prints her mother leaves. A year ago, she couldn’t have matched her mother’s stride. There is no hint of sun. The stars are a dust of diamonds and a fat moon gleams over the Pacific, lighting the frothy breakers. A perfect time for hatchlings to scramble up from the sand and find their way to the sea.
Rosa has learned about these turtles from her mother, a biologist who studies them. She knows that the nests are pits dug in the sand by females that were born on this beach a dozen or more years earlier. In each hole, a female lays a hundred or so eggs, then covers them, turns away, and crawls back into the water, never to see her young. Eight weeks later, the hatchlings break out of their shells, wait for the sand to cool as a sign that night has come, and then they flail their tiny flippers until they pour onto the surface. “Like boiling beans overflowing a pot,” her mother says.
To see this emergence, this surge of baby turtles, is why Rosa has traveled from her home in Wyoming to Costa Rica. Now she hurries, still careful about placing her feet, to catch up with her mother, who is crouching just ahead beside a patch of sand that appears to be seething. Rosa squats next to her, and there—oh glory!—two squirming turtles, then five, nine, at last eleven of them clambering onto the beach, each one so small she could cup it in her palm.
She gives a yelp of joy. They are beautiful, the color of charcoal, and their shells glint in the moonlight. Their wedge-shaped heads bob up and down and sway side to side. She knows from her mother that they are scanning for the brightest horizon, which right now is where it should be, over the Pacific, and they are reading the Earth’s magnetic field, which they will use to navigate the oceans for the rest of their lives.
Rosa longs to pick up one and feel its quivering weight in her hand. But she knows that any touching might prevent them from orienting themselves. The other volunteers, whom she can see scattered along the beach, hovering near other nests, must also be tempted. Flashlights, too, are forbidden, for they might lead the turtles astray. What the volunteers can do is keep predators away—the gulls, raccoons, crabs, pigs, and dogs that will eat the eggs or hatchlings.
The eleven turtles grope for direction. Most of them will be females, her mother explains, because they have incubated at higher temperatures in the dark volcanic sand of this beach. In pale sand, more would be males. Rosa absorbs this, thinking uneasily about the human business of males and females, which her mother has also explained to her.
Eventually, ten of the hatchlings fix their sights on the luminous waves and go lurching toward the sea. Rosa circles about them, watchful, protective. All wriggle safely into the surf. Yet she knows that many dangers await them, seals and sharks and nets. Only one in a thousand newborns will survive long enough to reproduce. This is hard for her to accept.
At sunrise, the eleventh turtle is straggling inland. Rosa follows, fearing it will die from the heat. If only she could carry it to the sea. But no, her mother says, it must find its own way or be forever lost. So Rosa fills a bucket with saltwater, which she dribbles from her fingers onto the floundering speck, hoping to cool it, to keep it alive long enough for the bright ocean and the magnetic Earth to draw the hatchling home.
There is a man who reads the wind. As other people learn of happenings near and far by skimming the newspaper or watching television or surfing the Web, so he learns of events by taking in air through his nose and mouth and the pores of his skin. He marks the onset of spring from the aroma of thawing mud, and the onset of winter from the scent of snow. He recognizes flamenco contests and football matches from the tang of nervous sweat. In the same way, he knows when the frangipani bloom, when loaves of bread come out of the oven, when lovers couple, when a pregnant woman’s waters break.
The man has not always been able to read the wind. As a young boy, he scarcely noticed the restless air. Then at the age of nine, child of a poor family, living far from doctors, he lost his sight to disease. In the bewildering darkness, gradually his sense of touch grew keen, so that his fingers discovered the textures of things— the slick of a worn coin tossed at his feet, the freckles on a friend’s cheek. Then his hearing sharpened, so that he could detect the wingbeats of dragonflies and the fall of tears. Finally, roused by the darkness, the sister senses of taste and smell took over from his blighted eyes the burden of knowing.
No one edits the wind. It hides nothing, invents nothing, tells no lies. So the man gathers revelations that never reach the screens or pages where others glean their news. Coffee poured from a pot, gasoline pumped from a hose, diesel exhaust, coal smoke, fresh laundry on clotheslines, mashed bugs on windshields, damp clay on potters’ wheels, wedding bouquets, funeral wreathes, pollen from trees, sawdust, flaking rust, muddy boots, wet stone—nothing escapes him.
Because wind courses over the whole Earth, the man receives bad news as well as good, often more than he can bear. He smells raw sewage along with roses. He smells the rot of bodies dumped by roadsides as well as the must of leaves decaying into soil. Before squad cars arrive at the scene of a crash, he knows of the accident from the stink of scorched rubber and shredded steel. Whiffs of burnt gunpowder alert him to the latest shooting and reeking explosives announce the outbreak of war. The stench from shanty towns appalls him, and so does the funk of unwashed bodies huddled under bridges, and the sickly sweet exhalations of starving children.
While he was still able to see, he could shut out grief by closing his eyes. But now that he reads the wind, he can no longer withdraw, not even in sleep. He could seal himself in a room, bottle himself up in stale human air, but that feels like a second blindness. So if he must be indoors, he leaves the windows open, and at every chance he goes outside.
Because wind tells the truth, it keeps him from forgetting the greater world, on which the human world floats like foam on the sea. He can trace the migration of cranes and geese, smelling on their wings the hint of tundra in fall and the muck of southern swamps in spring. He smells the saltwater breath of whales, the salmon breath of bears, the syrupy flow of maple sap, the marshy slosh of the tides.
In the land where he lives, the prevailing wind is westerly. But on any hour of any day it can wheel around to north or south or east, fickle and feisty, willful, wayward. Even when leaves hang motionless from every branch, when hair lies flat on every head, somewhere a breeze is rising, a whirlwind is forming, a gust is about to blow.
The man wears his own hair long so the currents of air can flirt with it, hair as black and surly as a thundercloud. Facing into the wind, head tilted back, he imagines himself a mote of dust, whirled about, dancing for a precious moment. When strangers notice his shut eyes and ask if he needs directions, he replies that he knows exactly where he is.
Peter Forbes is the author and photographer of five books about people living in place in North America. He does that himself in his beloved northern New England where he and his family steward Knoll Farm, a regenerative sheep and berry farm in the Mad River Valley of Vermont. Peter also builds community by being a cross-cultural facilitator on the journey to strengthen rural communities through courageous convening across differences of race, class, gender, and ideology.