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by Sharman Apt Russell


Listen to Sharman Apt Russell read "Ghosts":

Obviously I don’t believe in ghosts. Thought and soul are properties of the brain, which is miracle enough. Everything dies, and I tell myself: that’s not sad.

Obviously, ghosts exist. We conjure them up. My great-grandmother is 60 years dead. I never knew much about her until recently, yet here I am conjuring. Surely, I think, she walked this path along this creek bed, passing these sycamore trees, white bark and rust-colored leaves, black walnut and green willow, the riparian corridor snaking Wood Canyon in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. She saw these rock faces—Cochise’s Head overlooking the ubiquitously named Outlaw Spring and Hell’s Half Acre. Although I’ve never been here before, I know this place, the desert bones of the American Southwest, spires, slabs, nipples, noses, teeth, breasts. Like a painting by Picasso, dismemberment and jab and wonder. I’ve seen it all my life, and I’m still impressed.

I leave the trail and hike to the ridge, watching the ground and avoiding plants. I know this, too, the agave rosette, each leaf a dagger, needle-tipped cholla and barrel cactus, fish-hook spines, knives, and thorns evolved for the browsers of the Pleistocene: the mammoth and camel and giant ground sloth. More ghosts, I think, missing the animals. The gravel slips under my feet, a familiar uncertainty. If you fall, don’t land on that tiny pin-cushion Mammillaria.

Mountains, grasses, and fence.The view is spectacular, the creosote plain and small town of Bowie 15 miles north. My great-grandmother shifted the weight of her rifle. She felt blue and needed supplies.

Recently, my uncle has begun writing a short memoir about this woman, his grandmother, who he knew in the 1940s when she was a prospector living alone in Wood Canyon, a woman nearly 70 years old tramping up and down one of her six mining claims. Occasionally she found a vein of galena or lead sulfate, and pitchblende, a source of uranium, but never the strike that would make her rich. Maggie was five feet tall, 90 pounds, with the reputation of being a character. Every few months, she rode her mule into Bowie or sometimes walked. On one occasion, my uncle remembers she wore white gloves and two dresses, one over the other. “It was summer,” he writes, “and warm so I thought it odd.”

The boy stood in the post office while his grandmother bought a stamp and mailed a letter, taking forever to unknot three pennies from her silk handkerchief. Who was she writing to? One of her grown children, I imagine, or maybe the county assessor in Bisbee where she had filed her mining claims and was expected to demonstrate $50 worth of improvements each year. Maggie’s parents had been well-to-do ranchers in Texas, her father English, her mother full-blooded Cherokee (no one in my family knows that story) who gave their daughter an education in book-learning as well as skills like piano and embroidery. She wrote poetry and songs and “was expected to marry into money” but instead ran off with a hard-drinking cowboy called Big Swede. In 1901 they came to Arizona where she bore seven children with two boys dying young. Although she and her husband eventually parted, the memories were not all bad; at the cabin in Wood Canyon she still kept a metal trunk with her yellowed wedding dress and calf-high shoes, sepia photographs, and a greeting card of adults in swimming suits that looked to my uncle like long underwear. Outside the shack of railroad ties and tin, she hung bed springs from the branches of a sycamore tree. Throw on blankets and pillow, climb up, and the breeze moved you back and forth.

Above all, my uncle says, “Grandma loved the outdoors.”

And why not wear a dress? I think, still looking down from the ridge. Why not two? It would make a nice change from her usual jeans and leather boots, stiff hat and bandana. I’m envying her life now and certainly her clothes, my arms and legs scratched from catclaw and my socks full of invisible psychotic stickers. I’m in running shoes and REI shorts, not thinking how much the trail would be overgrown, not thinking how far I’d travel today. I’m not competent or careful enough to live in this desert. I only visit.

But that could change. At 57, my children grown, I could quit my job, leave my house and husband, surround myself with rock and plant and animal—become her. She loved the outdoors. She loved this feeling, this view. I could spread black wings, lift and caw like that raven over there, catch a thermal. She loved the anticipation. What would she find today? A porcupine in a tree? A gold nugget? A diamondback rattler? These are all my uncle’s memories, Maggie like a raven looking for treasure, feeding him beans from a can and scoffing at his complaint: “Beans are good for ya!”

Leaving Paradise sign.This is my uncle’s memory, too, that Maggie liked having visitors so much that when she went into Bowie to see her daughter and grandson, she “always took a pair of scissors or kitchen knife, something she knew Mom would miss so we would have to go back to her cabin to fetch it.”

Later on that day, when my grandmother and uncle finally had to leave in their rattling Ford—no mule for them, although they were also poor—Maggie watched the dust spurt down the road and felt the solitude of the land settle around her. She took her evening hike down the canyon, finding the colors a pure comfort. Purple-pink. Gray-green, sage-green, lime-green. Yellow grass. The bones. The needles.

I walk on toward Cochise’s Head, away from the view of town. I am here for beauty, of course, a kind of food, and I am here for silence, the profound silence of the nonhuman world, the absence of language. And without language, the absence of so many things! Failure. Regret. Dissatisfaction. Grudges. Blame. Honor. Purpose. I follow Maggie along the skyline of rock. In the liberating emptiness, we are both ghosts.

A few weeks later, 30 miles to the south, my 26-year-old daughter Maria and I drive to an old mining camp called Paradise, also in the Chiricahua Mountains. Hearing of a gold strike in the area, Maggie and Big Swede came to Paradise in 1902 and set up a saloon, one of 13. In a 1906 photo of the camp’s first school, a 27-year-old Maggie is smiling hugely in the row of adults, her five-year-old daughter and a second baby, my grandmother, lined up underneath in the row of children. Eventually that baby also brought her daughter, my mother, to live in Paradise for a few years, although the school was gone by then and the camp declined to a scatter of houses.

The conceit is that my daughter and I will walk the dirt road through Paradise that my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother walked, five generations of  women among these sycamores and oaks, beside this creek bed, under these cliff faces. Maria is polite about my little plan, and we stride along briskly, chatting about this or that, and then falling silent. Five generations of women on a dirt road. Before that, Maggie’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother—500 generations of women walking this continent. Before that, in Siberia and Europe and Africa, 5,000 generations of women walking this planet. They exulted then, and we exult now, our love cast like a skein over the land. For such a long time, we’ve loved and adored. Unrequited, yes. But it still seems valuable.

Let’s lie down right now and sink into the earth. 

My daughter speaks softly. We have reached the end of the road and are returning to our parked car. “Let’s have lunch in Bisbee.”

Chiricahua Mountains and sycamore in fall colors.By 1910, the boom in Paradise was over. Big Swede moved his saloon to nearby San Simon, and Maggie took the children and homesteaded in Wood Canyon. During the Depression, they would lose that ranch, although as we know, Maggie stayed on to prospect. At some point, Big Swede also tried working in the underground lead mine in Bisbee, a flourishing town to the south, home of the Phelps Dodge copper company and also of the 1917 strike and illegal deportation of 1,300 miners and union supporters herded into cattle cars and let out in the desert 200 miles later. The history of mining is full of such stories.

My uncle writes, “Working in the lead mine, Grandpa got lead poisoning from breathing the dust, lost a lot of weight and became very sick. Deciding he would die if he didn’t do something, he bought several pints of whiskey and would drink enough to feel better, then he walked as far as he could, rested awhile, drank more whiskey, and walked back. He repeated this routine, every day walking further, until he was eventually cured. He told me that without the whiskey he could not have regained his health.”

No one knows when Maggie divorced her husband or at least started using her maiden name. In his old age, Big Swede began spending much of his time with the Lee brothers, famous in Arizona as guides and hunters specializing in mountain lions and other big cats, men partly responsible for the extinction of the jaguar and ocelot in the American Southwest. In 1917, my grandmother graduated from the eighth grade in Bowie. My mother was born in 1924. Like other girls during World War II, she found work in a factory, in exciting southern California, where she married an officer in the U.S. Air Force who went on to become a test pilot in the heyday 1950s, breaking a speed record in the rocket-powered X-2, going three times the speed of sound. Briefly, he was the fastest man on earth. Briefly, he was a god flying through the air, unfettered, unchained, hardly human. Then the plane crashed in the Mojave Desert and his widow and two daughters moved to Phoenix, a city I never approved of even as a child. In 1981, I settled in rural New Mexico, a hundred miles from the Chiricahua Mountains, not knowing much about my family history there, engaged in my own life which I thought entirely new and original to me.

My husband and I were part of the back-to-the-land movement. We believed we were on the cutting edge of change, that we would save the world by growing a big garden and having too many goats and too much goat cheese. In those days I felt like a ghost in my own culture, disembodied from the body of cities and cars. I could put my hand right through the wars and trinkets. I was a wraith in Wal-Mart, floating through—and then somehow, over the years, I became more solid. You could say I abandoned my ideals, or you could say, “Ah, youth.” You might be reminded of Maggie, running away to Paradise, leaving Paradise, every one of us following a dream, and when the dream busts, following another. I have my own pile of things now mined from the earth, and I take responsibility for eating the world.

The author walking on a mountain trail.There are three ghosts, apparently, at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee where Maria and I are staying. One is a tall older gentleman with long hair and beard, a black cape and top hat, who sometimes appears as a shadow. The second ghost is a prostitute, dying for love and still liking to play with men’s feet. The third ghost is an eight-year-old boy who drowned in the nearby San Pedro River. He is the mischievous one. Guests in certain rooms report objects being moved from one table to another. They hear giggling or footsteps in the hall, and when they run bathwater especially, they can sense his presence. These are all ghosts from earlier times, half-nostalgia. Maria and I sleep soundly and have nothing to report or complain about.

I believe Maggie was happy in Wood Canyon. I am happy, too, in the countryside of southern New Mexico, another landscape that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, not more people and not fewer, still grazed by cattle, still the tailings of mines marking a hill, still the lift of granite, rock teeth against blue sky. Prickly-pear, yucca, juniper. Cottonwood and sycamore. I walk and adore.

But nothing guarantees a happy ending. According to my uncle, sometime in the early 1950s, “Maggie was badly beaten at her cabin by someone who thought she had hidden gold there. She never recovered mentally and several years later her son had her committed to the facility for the insane at 24th Street and Van Buren in Phoenix. Mom and I visited once. She appeared normal to us and resented being there. Shortly after, she escaped by climbing over the eight-foot fence and was captured a few blocks away.”

The visit must have impressed my grandmother, who spoke to her brother and worked to get Maggie admitted into a state nursing home in northern Arizona, where she lived for six years before dying of kidney failure in 1962. Big Swede also died there, nearly 90. Both are buried in the Old Pioneers Cemetery.

Bones in the ground. Think of all the bones in the ground, the old pioneers, our ancestors, ourselves. Our unrequited love. Someday—and no one knows when or how; no matter what you read or hear, this is still a mystery—someday we will all be another beautiful ghost story. Whispers in the hall while the earth sleeps soundly, without judgment or sorrow, without fear or joy.


Sharman Apt Russell's recent books include Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books, 2008), Hunger: An Unnatural History (Basic Books, 2005), and An Obsession with Butterflies (Perseus Books, 2003). She is now working on a project about citizen scientists for which she is studying the charismatic Western red-bellied tiger beetle.
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Title photograph and all photographs by Sharman Apt Russell.


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