Sunday, September 2, 2012

An arm and a leg. But I just saw the leg.

Last week on my walk with Pete we crossed the railroad tracks and came across a leg.

It was a deer leg, not sure if it was a front or hind, but it was small. Half of it had been picked clean to the bright, white bone but the lower part still had fur and a hoof.

There's really no better reminder that you live on the edge of civilization than coming across a body part.

A lot is written about Marfa, the art, the restaurants, the hipsters, the hipsters, the hipsters...the hipsters. But beyond the predictable line about "a tiny town centered in the middle of nowhere on a vast desert plain" (or something similar), not a lot is communicated about how far out there we really are.

A brown chihuahua used to hang out on my porch, a flea- and tick-ridden little stray who was terrified of me but would hang around anyway. Then one day he stopped showing up. Sure, the one dog catcher in town could've picked him up, but more than likely something else got him: coyote, javelina, snake bite, hawk, feral hog, bobcat, fox, any number of things will eat your dog here at night. Especially one small and sick. I believe that's called "thinning the herd."

No matter how much art or how many beef tongue sandwiches offered, people here live on the edge. As my friend Dirk says, "this is the island of misfit toys." And what makes this desert really special is not the people passing through town or the girls in top knots with platform sandals at the bar, but the people who have come here to learn and adapt and be completely OK with the edge of wild.

And not "wild" in the way that the new "party like a rock star" cliche saying is wild (which, in my opinion, heralds the death of the "rock star"), or "wild" in the bed-head tousled hair pinned into a messy bun is wild, or even the "wild" in the way my mother used to say it, "Those girls are WILD and you are NOT hanging out with them." No. I'm talking you need to be OK with a drive-too-far-into-the-desert-without-a-survival-kit-and-you-will-die type of wild.

For example, not too long ago, my coworker almost died. He owns land down in Terlingua Ranch and was down there when a monsoon rolled through. For reasons unknown to me, he hopped in his truck to see if Terlingua Creek was rising. It was and he got swept down in it. He sat in his truck for hours with the water rising, boulders and debris pounding against his doors until he realized he could just as easily drown in the truck so he opened the door and abandoned ship, in the middle of a moonless night in the desert.

He washed downstream until he could grab the edge of the creek and pull himself out. Soaking wet with no resources, he had to find shelter. During his aimless trek he said lightening flashed and he saw a pair of eyes behind him. Mountain lion, coyote or bobcat, he doesn't know, but something was hoping he wouldn't make it. But he did. He found an adobe ruin, crawled inside and waited out the storm and for rescue.

Needless to say, the guy was pretty shaken up.

But the funny this is, when I posted the story on Facebook, the closer my friends lived to the border, the more "meh" they were about the whole experience.

From Connecticut I got, "Holy cripes. Come move in with us. It isn't safe where you are."

But the folks from Terlingua were more nonchalant.

"Welcome to the desert," wrote one.

Author and journalist Michael Pollan was here this weekend as part of the 2012 Marfa Dialogues and he spoke to a packed house at the Crowley Theatre.

"There is something wrong with our assumptions of the natural world," he said.

Which is true. We approach the outdoors with thoughts, as Pollan said he first did, of Thoreau ("Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!") believing bucolic Walden will show us on the meaning of life once we're able to live without pesticides and margaritas (Author's Note: I do not want to live in a world without margaritas). It's a bit much, that approach. But then again, so is treating nature as a giant X Games. Both are simply unrealistic.

Pollan said the urbanite seeking the full nature experience "can go to the wild, go to the woods, go to the desert, but my feeling is if they'd just go to the garden, that has a lot to teach us." Just getting outside and digging in the dirt does a lot for advancing understanding of how the land and animals respond to the elements. It is, as Pollan was saying, critical knowledge we've lost.

Take for example the perfectly innocent question asked by a young hipster before the Marfa Dialogues nature walk at Mimms Ranch.

"So, do you water the ranch?" she asked. She really didn't know.

"No, we rely solely on rain water, which is why the drought effected us so deeply," answered a very gracious Dr. Bonnie Warnock.

The young hipster's idea of land management must be rooted in suburban lawns with Bermuda grass and sprinkler systems. It reminded me of the time back in college when we visited the Grand Canyon. A friend knew a park employee there and he told us that very often tourists would ask him at night, "so what time do they turn the lights on?"

Living on the edge out here, the edge of the manicured, civilized world and the untamed natural one, teaches you things-- well, it teaches things to those who pay attention and leave the center of town every now again-- it teaches you to always know your surroundings, manage resources wisely, and understand the signs of danger so that you don't end up surprised.

Because surprise in the desert is a bad thing.

Just ask the deer who lost his leg.

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