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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Apache Brown

 
As the last cool light fades behind the tortoiseshell mountains to the east, rose and deep rose, my eyes fall to the sharp blood-colored rock, spread like a shallow stream across my yard. The gardening center calls it "Apache brown," though really it was only solidly brown when it was first delivered, covered with a thin film of dirt. Now, after a winter full of rain and sometimes snow, the angular rocks vary in color from the marbled slice of lean beef to the translucent red of merlot, here and there a salt-white shard or peppered shank. It makes me hungry.

Tonight, then, I dine on the delicious narratives and quenching photographs of my handy Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals, eleventh printing. I'm searching for these rocks—their elemental origins and from where they're quarried locally—but don't make it very far before finding this line: "Each mineral deposit originates in a distinct manner, either precipitating out of a low-temperature solution, forming at depth under great heat and pressure, or crystallizing from hot liquids or gases of magmatic origin."

Mind you, I've never studied geology, but I'm pretty sure that means minerals, and the rocks they conspire to form, are the product of the earth's energy. They are, in effect, the energy itself.

Geologists and other scholars of the hard ground beneath our feet are now thinking, "Duh, just look at carbon, or chalk even"—two of our more organic rocks, the former of which powers the global electric utility industry, for example.

Let's check another book—the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's marvelously comprehensive and imminently readable A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, first edition—and another quote: "The recent geologic history of the Sonoran Desert includes an event unique in all the world. This 'Basin and Range disturbance' was the culmination of several events that have taken place over the last 40 million years."

Forty million years. The slow curve of Apache brown running from the low stucco wall lining my front porch to the flat gray sidewalk a few feet off the street, some sixteen feet, is 40 million years old, give or take a couple million years.

The fist-sized rock I just set beyond the keyboard, to study its geometric shape and menu of terrestrial colors, embodies 40 million years of energy. I was once told never to use "wow" in an essay. I'm using it now: Wow. And there's a poem in that simple reality, as well. Okay, there's every poem ever written in that, I agree. But there's one poem specifically I'm thinking of—and at the risk of copyright infringement, include it here:

Cascadilla Falls
by A.R. Ammons

I went down by Cascadilla
Falls this
evening, the
stream below the falls,
and picked up a
handsized stone
kidney-shaped, testicular, and

thought all its motions into it,
the 800 mph earth spin,
the 190-million-mile yearly
displacement around the sun,
the overriding
grand
haul

of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph of where
the sun's going:
thought all of the interweaving
motions
into myself: dropped

the stone to a dead rest:
the stream from other motions
broke
rushing over it:
shelterless,
I turned

to the sky and stood still:
oh
I do
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.

Caught in a whirlwind of events bigger and more mysterious than we could recognize, my family and I relocated from Denver to Tucson last summer. I left a comfortable federal job for the fast-paced software industry. My wife and daughter left a strong-knit group of other mothers and daughters, and my wife was seven months pregnant. We all left good friends and a vibrant, turn-of-the-century neighborhood in the heart of the city. Both my wife and I felt something was drawing us out of Colorado and into Arizona, though I clearly felt it more.

Just before I left the government, I published an essay titled "The Energy of Place" in the employee newsletter. The essay explained that part of the reason I left was because I felt there was no more "energy of place" at the agency. At 31, I was the youngest professional employee, and had been for the eight years I worked there. Despite regular warnings from the HR office that a majority of management was at or nearing retirement age, the agency did nothing to hire young, creative, and motivated employees who would eventually replace those retiring, or at least infuse new life. Our workplace, I argued, should be like a favorite landscape or streetside café—inspiring and full of potential. I wasn't foolish enough to say that there shouldn't be tough challenges or even bad days, but simply that the agency had a responsibility to its employees and its own success to check and earnestly work to enhance its energy of place.

For months after I left, the essay was the main subject of break room discussion. I received kind notes from current and former employees agreeing with my departing essay, many surprised that the newsletter editor agreed to publish it at all. I was surprised, too, but not so surprised to hear later that the agency's highest-level management dismissed the essay and its call for renewal.

In the same way, I suppose, it's easy to dismiss a jumble of rocks thrown in to offset the plants and other elements of a landscaped yard. Or at least it's easy to take the rocks for granted. Yet, as I run my hand across the cold, solid form—and as I run my eyes across the thin river shape they've formed in my front yard—the words escape me. Despite the ramblings of this essay, I am left more with feeling and beingness than with text and verbiage. That's why I include Ammons's poem, itself as angular and lean as 40-million-year-old rocks.

And that's a fundamental reason we moved to Tucson and the Community of Civano: the energy of place so simply held in the energy of this rock. Forty million years have created the thin rugged mountains and wide plains now called the Sonoran Desert. They have created box canyons and saguaro forests, dry riverbeds and sudden wildflowers, crystal-filled caves and overhanging scarps. And, from somewhere beyond the pages of my guidebooks, they have created this simple rock.

Just imagine the stories it can tell about the energy of place.

  

Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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