The Spirit of the Other Landscape
When I was a young woman, I traveled with friends across the Southwest from Texas to California. My boyfriend at the time had dumped me the day before we left, and I struggled with heart-break and grief for the two days and nights it took us to drive through West Texas and New Mexico. After driving through the night, we pitched our tents near Lake Cochiti and Brian and Rob went to sleep. My grief made me too restless and I hoped that walking would calm down the torrent of loss that threatened to continually break through my defenses. I knew it would take time to heal, and maybe this was not the best time to take this trip, especially since my now ex-lover was supposed to be here! I tried to think things through, but my thoughts went every which way. All I wanted was to be away from my sympathetic friends and be alone with my misery.
I followed a narrow road that came down from the lake and snaked along the hillside. The merciless sunlight of a New Mexico August morning lay over the valley below, intensified by the radiating heat from the black tarmac under me. I walked along the guard rail, already hot, tired and depressed. A pickup truck drove up behind me, slowed, and passed by so close I could have stretched out my hand and touch it. A man leaned out the window and yelled something at me. My heart almost stopped. I averted my eyes and looked straight ahead. Could I jump the guard rail, if needed? The truck sped up, spewed out a cloud of diesel fumes, and vanished around a bend in the road. Should I return to our camp? It would take me ten minutes to trek back up the road. I heard the growing rumble of engines behind me. Two motorcycles roared past with considerable speed, almost blowing the straw hat off my head. I froze when I saw them turn around at the bend and come back my way. There was nothing for it: I climbed over the guardrail and slid down the slope, my sandals dislodging dust and pebbles and my long skirt brushing against tufts of dry grass and getting tangled in small spiny bushes.
At the bottom of the hill an empty dirt road led between low rolling hills and brush into the distance. A small sign pointed along the road: Pueblo Cochiti. With a still wildly beating heart, I passed the marker. No one was following me. I took a deep breath and slowed down my steps. Everything quieted suddenly. The sound of cicadas oscillated in the warm bright air, which was heavy with the scent of dry grass and dusty earth. The only other sound was the crunching of my footsteps on the gravel road. Silence lay almost palpably over the landscape. No cars, no motorcycles, no signs of the twentieth century anywhere. Blessed solitude.
The heat of midday spread itself drowsy and peaceful over the landscape. It left me alone to do some walking and thinking. With every step, memories welled up and threatened to drown me. No one was here to see me, so I cried. I sobbed. I yelled at the bushes that lined the road. They were strange looking: waist high, mound shaped, lined up a few feet apart, moving past me like ocean waves, one after the other. I told them how tattered I felt and how the future was hanging around me in shreds, and that I still did not know how to deal with the constant need to cry. I feared the time of grief ahead — I knew what it looked like — and the descent into that obsessive darkness which would drain all warmth and light out of the coming months. I told them about my rage. I walked past these motherly, grounded shapes, and step by step I could feel the cloud of grief and anger rise off my shoulders. The solid, friendly bushes seemed to absorb the pain and let it flow into their leaves, branches, and roots. They were willing to carry my grief! At the end of the row of bushes, where a cattle bridge interrupted the road, I stopped and looked back. Surprised I noticed that I felt lighter: my heart was almost easy. I turned my face to see, for the first time that day, clearly what lay ahead.
Since that morning a quarter century ago there have been some other times when I had to traverse the landscape of grief, but I never recovered as quickly as there, in the desert of New Mexico. Those motherly plants did their earth magic and healed something in me. They gave me back my hope and vitality. Their round shape, their constant rhythm, their stillness were elements of a holding environment which was soothing, nourishing, and without demand. I have wondered since then about the healing power of things and places. There are shapes in the natural world that speak to the shapes of the human soul. I needed grounding, comfort, rhythm, and containment. The soul-shapes along the road gave them to me.