Hi there. That's a milestone. In honor of that, and in honor of this discussion about Phoenix,, here's the last piece of homework I ever did.
It was in the way.
A perfect spot obstructed by imperfection. Plenty of shade, a gentle incline, spectacular view. Perfect, except for an old snag of dead Pinon.
It was in the way.
At first I thought it had burned in the fire. But its surface was un-charred, unlike the bracken surrounding it. It had fallen to a different fate - Wood Borer Beetles, most likely. Even Senor Murphy uses Italian Pignolios in their brittle these days; the Wood Borers would be the end of Pinons in New Mexico.
The beetles mark the end of an era. New fauna comes north from Mexico as the summers dry and the winters warm. I remember Blue Jays from my youth. The Stellar’s Jays drove them out. Red-headed woodpeckers, in turn, drove out the Stellar’s Jays when I was in high school; my father now tells me even the red heads are gone, replaced by a belligerent spotted species making its inexorable way north.
The birds, too, were in the way.
A garter snake slid under the snag. I didn’t recognize it. Not even a childhood in the woods will teach you every species you see, presuming you see them before they’re gone. A complete pictorial guide to New Mexico herpetology was a few spare key- strokes away, faster than I could look it up in a book. “Wan- dering Garter Snake” according to the Internet. I thought about the snake, and how it would regard its name. It was only a “Wandering Garter Snake” to me. To the snake, it just was.
I had more technology on this un-named knoll than the Apollo as- tronauts had around the dark side of the moon. My world was with me, as it always is. There were six microprocessors on my immediate person, each smarter than the clockwork contraptions Alan Turing built to crack the Enigma Code at Blechley Park. All that, for a Boolean search string on snakes.
But hasn’t it always been this way? Civilization is the act of remaking your environment in your image. The minute we made food rather than sought food we worked our will on the world and never looked back. ￼￼￼￼￼￼ ￼The world was in the way.
I wondered how old the snag was. I broke off a branch to count the rings - three on the smallest twig. Interesting how we think nothing of damaging our world to learn it. Man-made ob- jects are subject to “Destructive testing.” Natural objects, on the other hand, don’t even rate the name.
A nymph hopped by, the snag an immobile permanence to it. It had a month’s worth of existence under its belt and wouldn’t survive the first frost a month hence. A nymph wouldn’t dream of arranging its environment to suit, yet we cannot absorb na- ture without bringing our environment with us. I knew down to my DNA that if I wanted to erase the very knoll I sat upon, I could make to happen. Mine is a civilization of mountain re- moval, of evaporative seas, of artificial horizons.
Yet the hill to me is the snag to the nymph.
The snag is a presence. It provided shade for animals long gone, grew from a seed spread by creatures long departed, and held back the rain from washing this knoll away for more years than I have walked this earth. I wonder as to its lineage - did that seed come from this knoll, or one further away? Did it come from a hillside that is now an arroyo? The immutable de- sert is only permanent if you lack the patience to see its tran- sitory nature.
The worst invention in the history of mankind, according to Jared Diamond, is agriculture. The worst evolutionary adaptation found in nature, according to Conrad Lorenz, is the Western lifestyle. I once read an essay that claimed the dominant spe- cies on Earth isn’t man, but corn. And I think of the snag, downed by Wood Borer Beetles, raised from Mexico by temperatures elevated by the power plants that feed the batteries that allow me to sit here next to it and type. We are Ouruboros, too busy circling to see that we consume ourselves.
Not far away is a small pile of humanity. Small sprinklings of flaked obsidian are the refuse of a people long gone; million- year-old volcanic glass cracked by fresh-fallen antlers wielded by hands seven hundred years dead. The flakes, too, were in the way. They are that which conceals a tool within a rock. They ￼are foundry dross, they are mine tailings, they are PCBs in groundwater, in intent if not in magnitude.
And I think of how little we know about the hands that flaked the obsidian. An entire culture vanished before the combined memories of all who have walked these lands, starved out when the weather changed, the water dried up and the game left. The Anasazi, like every chapter in Toynbee’s pantheon, lasted just long enough to exhaust their resources. Empires do not die by murder, they die by suicide. And so I look again at the snag. Silent upon its hill, changing slowly in the weather, a tree fallen in the woods with no one to hear it.
And I wonder, in the end, who is really in the way.