Warm and hazy this morning. An uphill neighbor wearing a bright red polo shirt is washing his windows, spraying them with Windex, then wiping it off with a rag and rubbing until they gleam. Would it be inappropriate to ask him to come over and do mine? I don’t even know his name. My back fence neighbor’s Mexican dahlias are bursting with buds. Some of them are as tall as my house. Soon we will have a great winter profusion of large pink flowers swaying against the sky. Never mind that they and our jasmine are gradually pushing down the back fence. Who needs fences anyway? (Actually, I think my neighbor does. He’s grown such a forest of tall and climbing plants I can barely see his house anymore.)
I’m reading a book called Sharing Fencelines, written by three women who live in a remote area of northwestern Nevada, a state full of remote areas once you leave Las Vegas. One is a rancher, another a geologist and school teacher, the third a painter, and each takes a turn writing about her life there:
The journey takes us across the floor of ancient Lake Lahontan. Long, perfectly horizontal benches hundreds of feet above the highway mark high stands of the lake: climb up to them and you will find tufa-encrusted boulders, smoothed cobbles of beach where Pleistocene waves rolled. From a small plane above them, you would see giant ripples in sand, covered with sagebrush now, that record the massive energy of wind and water….
The highway climbs slowly across this ancient lake bed, through a thousand feet of altitude. In a couple of hours we are driving across foothills, looking down at the remnants of the lake, a river draining gravelly alluvial fans. Empty country teaches patience: the open landscape of distance will not change soon….northward is yet another country, emptier still, with more rugged mountains, wide blue valleys. It looks inaccessible, this terrain across the ancient lake bed. You can get there, of course, if that’s your destination. If you stopped someone on a gravel road out there, he would be happy to direct you, down a road that may not be on your map. This is ranching country; the Basques settled here a hundred years ago.
I know that country. My great grandfather is buried in nearby Surprise Valley, just over the California state line. It’s all part of the same region, the three corners of California, Oregon, and Nevada. Surprise Valley is a lovely, high desert valley nestled between two mountain ranges, called “The Smiles of God” by the Piute, Pit River and Modoc Indians who originally settled it. In the 1840s it became part of the Emigrant Trail to the Oregon Territory, and a few years later one of the routes to gold country in northern California. I haven’t read what happened to the Indians who’d lived there for hundreds of years, but probably it was the usual story of European encroachment: land theft, disease, and removal or slaughter. The West has a blood-drenched history.
Those huge spaces, the gigantic rumples in the earth’s crust, the great silence, the vastness…it takes you out of yourself, that country. Some days, I have a visceral longing for it. Gary Snyder said it in Finding the Spaces in the Heart:
—the wideness, the
foolish loving spaces
full of heart.