Lisa Roney, “Gimlet-Eyed in Paradise”

Although I am zipping along the road at fifty miles an hour, the sky above me is moving even faster, its multitude of simultaneous moods dancing, floating, and brooding across an expanse only provided by the Western landscape. My husband and I are driving through a long swath of green along Route 128 beside the Colorado River between Grand Junction and Moab, the red cliffs rising on both sides like the arms of a hug from a giant. It feels good to be impressed, to look up again like a child and see the vast chain of cliffs, the grandfatherly snow-capped mountains, the living sky.

As I see this valley for the first time, a familiar sensation, long subdued, returns to me with the full force of my long-gone youth. Perhaps this is because the cliffs are almost the same color as the red clay of my East Tennessee childhood home. Or because these are at least mountains of some sort—much different from the soft Appalachians, but still a terrain with complications. I have grown too accustomed to the flat expanse of Central Florida, where I now live and where the mystery seems to come from the vegetation, not the terrain. On the other hand, the feeling also is inspired by the opposite—exoticism that awakens in me a sense that the world is new. It shames me how quickly we come to take a place for granted, how soon we cease to look carefully. I suppose it even happens to locals here in the Canyonlands.

I ask Bruce whether he ever read Chariots of the Gods?, that ersatz scientific study that hypothesized that humans are the descendants of or were trained by extraterrestrials who visited Earth millennia ago.

He laughs, as I figured he would. Even in my early adolescence, when I turned Erich von Daniken’s pages, I knew that most sane people considered such books—especially this particular book—something of a joke, akin to newspaper horoscopes and fortune tellers. Under a tent at the Tennessee Valley Agricultural and Industrial fair, the beaded and bandana’d ladies would charge fifteen dollars to hold your hand and tell you that you would meet a handsome man and fall in love someday. They didn’t convince me at all, even though eventually that would happen to me, but I was utterly convinced by the idea that humans were aliens on planet Earth.

* * *

Bruce is not the first fellow to note that Chariots of the Gods? was a cheap paperback and a “dumb” book—my brother, though he loved science fiction, sneered at it—but it made sense to me somehow. Many of the tawdry things around me in my teenage years—the way my friend got drunk and walked into a brick wall, breaking off her two front teeth, for instance—produced in me a shock of misrecognition, but von Daniken’s tale startled my adolescent psyche because I felt in my bones it was true. It wasn’t so much that I was the type of girl who needed extra magic in her heart. On the contrary, I believed von Daniken’s theory for two reasons: first, the natural world fascinated me beyond explanation, albeit quietly, whereas the mundane world of teenage sexual groping and beer- and cigarette-sneaking bored the hell out of me, and, second, I felt alienated from all of it, not a part of the life of the woods or the high school, as much as I tried to understand myself as just another animal. In either context, I felt I did not quite belong. Long before I had ever heard of David Foster Wallace, I would believe that humans simply often ruin whatever place they visit.

Because the landscape in Utah seems so fresh to me, as though it never existed before I laid my eyes on it just now, the presence of humans also strikes me as shocking in a way that the superhighways and ever-expanding hotel chains in the Florida of my everyday life do not. People whip past us in cowboy hats and pick-up trucks, pull mountain bikes down off racks, rev SUV engines and careen over boulders in these otherwise quiet desert canyons. Every last person that I see is white, and I am reminded again of another book that inhabited my mind as a young reader: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the story of Native American displacement and slaughter in the nineteenth century. I couldn’t tell you why exactly I identified so much with the Native Americans’ plight, but the only hope that the book gave me was that if some humans could live in balance with the Earth and other creatures, perhaps we were not aliens from outer space after all. But if that were so, then what had gone wrong with the dominant white culture? Already, as a teenager, I could see that we were destroying every possible inch of the beautiful planet that we inhabited. When we admired a place, we moved in, chopped down the trees—preferably all of them, so that we could get an easier glimpse of the view out to somewhere else—and then set about altering even further the very place that we might nonetheless grow to love.

I knew that this had to do with a cultural struggle against mortality, even then, and my own alienation probably connected at that juncture. At eleven, I had been diagnosed with Type 1 (then usually called “juvenile”) diabetes, and I knew already that I was an ecological disaster. My daily syringes, my little glass vials with the metal-rubber caps, my urine and (later) blood testing strips, my plastic tubes of instant glucose—all of these things set me apart from any kind of environmentally friendly life, though my family recycled glass, aluminum, and newspapers even in the early seventies. There would never be a “back-to-the-earth” movement or a survivalist mentality for me. I could not pretend that disappearing into the forest would be possible.

In all those anxious Cold War years, when teenage friends would discuss how they might react to a Road Warrior (now Hunger Games) scenario or church youth groups participated in apocalyptic who-should-get-on-the-spaceship games, I would simply bow out by saying, “I’d be dead. Y’all have fun.”

My friends thought me morbid. “It’s just a hypothetical,” they would say.

But without some vague insulin-manufacturing factory that existed somewhere, without the highways and trucks that brought it to my drug store, without the orderly process of commerce, my body would not last more than a few weeks. I thought such movies and games allowed others to pretend that they could outlast the world that they—we—all of us were killing every day because we apparently couldn’t help ourselves.

At least, I thought, I know better.

* * *

My outsider status also expanded through my family’s numerous relocations—we moved back and forth across the state of Tennessee several times, bouncing between Memphis and Knoxville every few years. No doubt this doomed my social standing since I was always a newbie, but it also clarified the physical changes taking place in the world around me. The familiarity that allows change to creep in unnoticed, bit by bit, that perhaps also breeds a stagnation welcoming to even destruction, absented itself from my life. At the same time, I felt that, as long as one could keep alert, change was best experienced in one place, not running around from location to location, from city to city, from home to home. I had friends in college who said they never wanted to settle down, that they wanted lives of constant excitement and newness. I both understood this feeling and hesitated… What about the changing of the leaves out that one favorite window? What about the growth and decay of the particular birch tree in my yard? What about the young pileated woodpecker joining the pair of adults this year? There are different kinds of change, and perhaps my awareness developed the way it did because I moved back and forth between two places, as opposed to going through a chain of never-revisited ones.

Still, Memphis was always new, as was Knoxville—I visited each one regularly when I lived in the other, but distance still turned new developments and shopping malls into surprises. I didn’t witness the changes happening, but found them completed. When I first lived in Knoxville, my friends kept the occasional pony on their sprawling, private lot in our neighborhood, but by the time my family returned for my high school years, gentrification and stricter zoning made that impossible.

Once when I had returned to Memphis to visit and found that an entire new neighborhood now occupied what had been a beautiful, old farm across the road from my own little development, I told myself that our neighborhood had been different—it left trees in the yards and woods all around—but I realized that this only indicated a phase, not a difference in kind. We had been the same kind of interlocutors that these new people were, and we had probably created the same kind of confusion and disruption for someone or some creature that they did for me. I remember riding horses into the country beyond our area, the woods thick, the small pastures neck-high in yellowed grass, the occasional old man in overalls or his cow in the front lot leaping up at our passing. No doubt, our homes had been built in another’s previously quieter landscape.

Years after childhood had passed, some fourteen years after I had last lived there, I flew into Memphis one summer and rented a car to visit a friend in grad school at the University of Mississippi. When I finally stood outside the rental car building, my hand on the hot metal door handle, breathing in air that seemed familiar in its heft and humidity, feeling in some sense a kind of homecoming, I also realized that I had no idea how to get anywhere I needed to go. I didn’t have the slightest idea of even the major roadways, though I recalled my mother driving us past landmarks and pointing them out—Elvis’s Graceland, the Pink Palace (where I took acting lessons one summer), the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot (long before it became the National Civil Rights Museum). I remembered the funny pattern on the front of Goldsmith’s department store, and I remembered the layout of the barns and fields at Germantown Stables, and the tiny, hopping tree frogs in the pasture across the street from our house in Raleigh; I remembered the trickle of the steep-banked creek behind our house, and the flowers and rock-hard green fruit on the peach tree in the yard; I remembered the squeaking tennis shoes of the boys playing basketball in the driveway; I remembered the Sweet William that grew up on the grave of my kitten that died in the car engine, and the painful day of her death; I remembered the strange house with carpet on the walls where my friend Karen lived and where her stepfather threw violent tantrums.

But I did not know how to get anywhere. Even if I had learned to drive there, I realized, the roads would mostly be different by now. I went back inside and asked for maps and directions, the same as any stranger. Today, I would rely on the nav system in the car to find my way on the road in my hometown.

* * *

Finally, I had settled on the eastern end of the state as my “home,” giving up on my birthplace, and that of the blues, for the place where I learned to drive and learned to roll slightly in the car seat as I wound around the hills of East Tennessee. I loved the Great Smoky Mountains especially, but whenever I hiked or camped in the woods, I felt the constant pressure of equipment—boots that rubbed blisters, tents with awkward poles, food that had to be cooked, toilet paper that had to be packed in and buried or packed back out in baggies—and I felt so different from the plants and animals and insects that simply inhabited. Driving into or out of the national park with high school friends who would roll down the windows and pound the passing trees with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Nazareth, Abba or maybe even Eric Clapton, I had a hard time not hating how we must be bothering … something. I feared that we would hit a deer, not because we might hurt ourselves, but because we might injure something that deserved priority in that place, something I worried might be more innocent than us.

A boyfriend years later informed me that only those living far outside the struggles of nature could romanticize it, that I should understand my relationship to plants and animals as one of, at best, use, and, at worst, a fight to the death over domination. I should be grateful that others had fought and won this competition long before I’d been born. He pointed out my well-fed cat’s nonetheless eager willingness to kill chipmunks.

It wasn’t that this had not been pointed out to me before. I had watched the National Geographic specials on TV, where the cheetahs of Africa regularly overcame and ripped out the throats of gazelles. I had seen, inside the Great Smokies National Park visitors’ center displays, the claw marks of bears in settlers’ shredded galvanized buckets. I had rescued some creatures, but more often had cleaned up the bloody remnants of birds, squirrels, baby rabbits, snakes, lizards, and chipmunks brought proudly by my family pets to the doorstep. I had been told that these gifts symbolized our cats’ affection and desire to provide for us in our shared home and contemplated the squirrel-paw and bird-bone soup I might make. I had converted my cats to living strictly indoors. Over the years, I also tried to see the habits of birds building nests and squirrels storing food as parallel to human practices of erecting houses with heating and air conditioning and refrigerators. It was those domesticated animals that gave me a second hope that humans were not aliens: if Native Americans could live without plastic, and if cats and dogs and horses could live with it—the bit, the leash, the litter box—then perhaps all of this alienation could have been learned. Emotionally, I could never believe that the nature-culture divide was artificial, but, then, I didn’t trust my feelings.

* * *

In Arches National Park, Bruce and I comment on the grandeur. Bruce says that he keeps thinking that living so close to Disney World might have spoiled it for him a little bit. “I keep feeling suspicious that the rock formations are man-made,” he says, “that I will see a little guy taking off a prairie dog costume or someone touching up the color on a boulder.”

I agree that the colors are so clear they feel like paint. We stand in front of Balanced Rock, feeling as though we could tip it off its mooring. It perches so lightly that it could be Styrofoam. Later at Dead Horse Point, the brochures emphasize not that the cliffs plummet two thousand feet to the Colorado River, all by themselves and without help from anyone, but that Thelma and Louise “went over” near there, as if two women really did that and a car could sail almost like a parachute. The reality of extreme beauty and dramatic landscape takes on a dream-like unreality.

But the place reasserts itself in the chilly wind, in the rough and heavy orange-red in the shadows of the earth and the subtleties of the glowing pink and gold of the sun-tipped clouds. There is nothing like it in plastic. Later, we hike up Negro Bill Canyon to a more hidden, dark arch, and every petal, blade, and seed moves us along the way. A little silty pink soil will come home later in my shoes, leaving gentle traces and eventually mixing into the Florida sand.

As much as we have been told—by our deconstructionists, our politicians, the Landmark Forum, and Oprah—that we create our own reality, people still obsess about authenticity and what is “real.” We have to put the word in quotation marks, but it hasn’t lost its power over us, and in most cases I’m actually glad of that. Either this demonstrates the negative limits of my mind or it shows that I have good sense and can’t be tom-fooled. It’s hard to tell the difference, and it’s notable how the same behavior can be given very different slants. The complexity of our language calls for it, grew from it, and reinforces it—the shading of purple to fuchsia to pink; between confidence and vanity; slipping from ingénue to sassy chick to bitch. I appreciate the reminder that I am part of a larger system of culture, but I am just trying to learn to accept my own reality, tenuous as it is.

I believe this cultural obsession with the “truth”—in our justifiable concern over false memoirs by the likes of James Frey and “Nasdijj,” over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, over cheating husbands (and wives), over poisoned pet food and toothpaste, over an infinity of other business and private scams—stems from more personal sources than is generally acknowledged. My own sense of my cyborg nature is obvious, especially now that I wear an insulin pump, but other humans often seem to belong even less than I do, even the ones that never seem to question their place on the planet or their relationship to the things created for their supposed benefit. When I watch a certain type of housewife in the parking lot of the gym, wheeling an SUV into a spot, with cell phone in one manicured hand, her bleached hair and boob job and expensive heart monitor in clear view, I speculate about why she needs equipment to gauge her efforts without placing a finger on her own pulse. There are clocks on every wall for counting, but even that is not enough. In a surgically and chemically converted body, the pulse has become a read-out, not something to feel.

Even the house, already a constructed object, built without human biology, has become a site of constant reworking and improvement. I live in a neighborhood of continual reconstruction—many perfectly fine houses are torn to the ground and replaced by larger ones, and for the others there is an influx of new pipes, tubing, wiring, concrete, flooring, paint, pavers, furniture, and mechanical equipment that effects an outflux of worn out versions of themselves. Native plants are removed so that new, often exotic plants can be tended. The exchange of matter astounds me, but I suppose it is not that different from any human body’s digestive process. Except, of course, the near-permanence of even discarded plastic and chemicals. Our bodies have become unreal, and we are leaving eternal traces of our ephemeral lives.

In a place like Moab, perhaps because the landscape is stark enough to show every scratch, perhaps because it lacks the dense, weedy shrubbery of the East, locals seem to live with fewer accoutrements—the women do not dye their hair so much and apparently are happy with the breasts they were born with; the men wear sweaty, battered cowboy hats that they seem to have no interest in trading in; both wear cotton t-shirts softly colored in desert shades and faded by sun and use. Although most of them make their livings in the tourist industry, few of them seem the type to drive Hummers and Jeeps over boulders, and signs around town boast that Moab just wants to stay the same as it is now. The tourism industry is voracious—everyone who visits seeks some version of adventure, whether that means hiking an isolated gulch, parasailing through a pristine view, or rubber-rafting through sparkling rapids. But in a world population that has gone from about three billion to six billion in the past fifty years, more and more people are claiming space in even remote spots. One friendly town councilman in Moab tells me, in a resigned tone, that it was really nice back in the sixties and seventies, but no one who has come here since wants to leave. His own son, unwilling to cope with real estate costs rising on a wealthy tourist scale, moved to Salt Lake City. The councilman shakes his head, says he wants out of government so that he can just fish and hunt from his cabin in the La Sal Mountains, but he also knows that the “same” that Moab wants to stay is based on a previous “same” that previous residents probably wished to retain before his own family came here decades ago.

Nonetheless, this gentleman and a handful of others I meet in Moab are sure they are living in the right place for them. They know what they want, and they know where they belong. The councilman was born and raised here, but the cowgirl who leads horseback rides from the lodge typifies the place in another way. She visited once years ago from Oregon and decided that she just loved the land and would come back and make it her home.

Always curious, I ask her how she knew, and she shrugs. “I just did,” she says. “It was beautiful.”

She looks out over the corral toward the sagebrush-spotted hillside and up toward the La Sals peeking over the edge of the cliffs. Yet, earlier, as six of us had picked our way on horseback up the rocky hillside and around the S-curved trail, I had asked her the names of the plants, many of them flowering in a profusion of succulent yellow, spiky red, delicate white, and unlikely purple against the dusty ground. She could not tell me. Her sense of belonging is based on something besides naming, and I wonder what it is.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of people devoted entirely to one place in the world, either a place they live and consider their own or one they have more fleetingly experienced. Most often this has come in a rush—they suddenly “simply knew” that this was the place for them. For one old boyfriend, it was Gainesville, Florida, with its contrasting heat above and cold, river caves for diving below. One grad school friend instantly took to the desert and beaches of California, and in spite of distance from friends and family, in spite of health and job difficulties, despite the economic problems of living on a modest salary in the L.A. area, she refuses to attempt to relocate back East because she just “loves it” there. Sometimes it is even more exotic—from the early twentieth-century expatriates who found their bohemian freedom in Paris to my husband who continues to be haunted by some time spent in Kenya and Rwanda and to surround himself with African art as a constant reminder. There are many who find home far away from home, and there is a fascination in the constant tension between home and exotica, between familiarity and adventure, between comfort that sometimes turns to boredom and the kind of dislocation that can make one see all the more acutely, for good or ill. The road calls to most of us, whether it whispers us to a new home or always lures us back to the old.

At a community-seating dinner at the lodge one night in Moab, Bruce and I sit next to a handsome nineteen-year-old Navajo fellow and his grandfather, who have come as guests of honor to a conference about Western culture in film. When I try to make conversation the young man tells me that he spends most of his time in his room watching MTV. Self-conscious of my own status not only as a white woman, but as a tourist, too, I feel awkward treating him like any teenager, but I finally tell him that sounds boring.

He nods and says, “It is.”

On his plate a large slab of prime rib smiles up at us, and we grin gently at each other, chewing, companionably, not comfortable but accepting of our roles, appreciating each others’ efforts. I wonder if he feels that he is at home, loves this land, or if he, like so many teenagers, waits for some opportunity to take him off to some place that he can see as though through new eyes. I wonder if his grandfather tells him of a better—or worse—time before the tourists came. I wonder if he knows the names of the native plants and could walk along, pointing, saying, “Paintbrush—we don’t call it Indian paintbrush anymore. And there, the scarlet globemallow, wire lettuce, showy milkweed, the sego lily and prickly pear.” Or does he know them, perhaps, in the Navajo tongue? I wonder about whether all languages will someday evanesce, and about how that is related to the extinction of the plants.

I grew up knowing the names of both the agricultural and native plants nearby my home, and the invasives like kudzu, too. My grandfather and my mother expected my brother and me to know, as they did, how to call things, and they noted on the progress of the seasons and the years by remarking on the growth of the Silver Queen corn, the different ways the snow clotted on pine versus cedar, the scent of honeysuckle, the sound of the first summer rain on rhododendron leaves. When I started moving, back and forth in Tennessee, to Minnesota for college, to Washington, D.C., for an internship, to Pennsylvania for grad school, I always had to refurbish my vocabulary, based in the overlapping of plant life from place to place. I needed to describe my environment at least somewhat precisely, and learning the words gave me some sense of belonging. In Florida, very little is familiar, and it is like starting all over again as a child, recognizing only the ubiquitous black-eyed Susan. Remember, I think: bromeliad, bougainvillea, chinquapin, saw palmetto, coontie, agave. As squared and manufactured as any Astroturf, the ever-popular St. Augustine grass claims so much space that it’s unfortunately the easiest to learn. In its thirst for a vast simplicity, it sucks up thousands of gallons of water.

At any rate, there is a difference between the home comfort of places where one was raised and the excitement of new and exotic places. They say that people get comfortable as much with a pattern as with any one place—I, for instance, may have a hard time settling down and finding a home because I’m really only at home within the transitional times themselves. There’s no formula, of course—move x many times by age twenty and you’ll shuffle forever, or live in the same house for your first x years and you’ll never find another place you love. But the two types who seem most often devoted to home are those who never left and those who arrived gimlet-eyed in Paradise, in love but either ready to alter it to suit themselves or altering it simply by their coming. In the end, Paradise often becomes suburbia, and most of us make decisions about where to live based on practicality—where our jobs take us, where our families or our in-laws are, where the schools are good for our children, where the climate is good for our arthritis, where we can play golf year-round or snow-ski in season. On a smaller scale, we choose houses we can afford in neighborhoods  as close (or as far) as possible from our work places. We make marriages of convenience with even the idea of home, even when it starts out as an alluring lover.

And we have affairs, we go on the road. Tourism, of course, is the ultimate in ironic love affairs. It destroys the very exoticism that it seeks by filling up the beach with high-rise hotels, leaving litter along the Appalachian Trail, and scarring the desert with hub-caps and oil leaks. Eco-tourism attempts to alleviate this problem, but the fact is that there are fewer and fewer places where the human presence—and so often a seemingly unavoidably ugly version—does not dominate everything else. The question has never really been If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Rather, I ask, If a tree falls in a forest, and someone is there to hear it, has he made it fall? Did he come from somewhere far away, somewhere oddly like the next galaxy? Why else would he feel so uncomfortable that he would need to take down the trees? If we are a species so voracious as to eat every other creature’s home, then moving on may be part of our sad pattern. We may need to be going on to the next planet soon, remembering fondly this place that fed us for so long, in both grain and beauty. I don’t believe this like a fourteen-year-old anymore, but I still wonder.

* * *

Bruce and I fly back to Florida from Utah. As we exit into the heavy, humid air, he sighs and says his usual, “I miss everywhere but Orlando.”

Whenever he voices this sentiment, I cringe. We live in Orlando together, and I feel as though that should be enough to render it home. Yet we have not achieved the kind of devotion to one place that I longed to have when my college friends claimed to want to roam and have adventures forever. I still feel restless, something I fear makes me a tourist wherever I am. I sometimes speculate idly—knowing better, but still wondering—whether this has to do with the tools and ideas those aliens brought in the von Daniken fantasy past.

I do, however, remember a few times feeling the kind of peace I associate with home. One time, in particular, I lay in a plowed-under, not-yet-planted early spring cornfield, looking up at the stars in the generous Minnesota spring sky. I don’t recall now, more than twenty years later, who was with me, or what allowed me to feel so calm—whether it was the warmth of the earth cradling my back as I lay flat out of the wind, the deep velvet of the sky punctuated by the lights of other worlds, or the tipsy sense I had of an exciting future ahead of me. Whether or not I was happy, I don’t recall, but I do remember that, soon to graduate from college, I was aware that I would be leaving that place and that time of my life, I would be packing up and going on the road once again looking for a new home, a new place to settle, at least for a while. The lights in the sky reminded me of the way that the windows of my town had often escorted me home with their twinkling glow on bitter Minnesota winter evenings, how I would be welcomed in to one of those warm yellow places and would talk with my friends, relieved to be out of the blueness.

Looking into the open Utah sky with its sharp stars—old acquaintances that I’d missed lately in the electric-paled skies of the urban East—I wondered if they too would lead me home someday, windows into other worlds.

 

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