[U]nder such a government as this, [people] think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them… Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. (“Civil Disobedience”)
From the cholla and ocotillo-impaled plains below the Chisos Mountains in southern Texas lifts a hoodoo of weirdly columned and eroded rock. My friend Bob had there once before, with a compass and various astronomical calculations from a virtual gizmo he’d downloaded to his phone. Bob is an architect interested in the way buildings—of all kinds, from rings of European standing stones to temporary cathedrals made of cardboard—speak to the deepest affective systems of the body. He was pretty certain that the hoodoo was an ancient site from which to watch the winter solstice sunrise. This year he and his wife, Wendy—another architect, and a planner of adventures–wanted to return and test the idea. They’d watch to see precisely where the sun would lift at the part of the year when time, at least as it’s measured in the sky, seems almost to stand still. Did I and my partner Dave want to come along?
Did we ever. Throughout the autumn the strain of both workplace and national politics had left me feeling unmoored, often desperate. We’d been on the losing side of every clash so an appointment with the sun sounded restorative, a way to catch our breath and recalibrate. Shortly after the 2016 election, a friend from Argentina—he had perspective, and experience!—had spoken to me about how to keep one’s personality intact during a long struggle against dictatorship.
“Be active, yes, resist, but also keep time for family, for friends, for turning inward,” he said.
For Dave and me both, turning inward also means going outside, losing for a while the anthropocentric sting of daily life—Thoreauvian unplugging, if you will. Contact! Contact! Thoreau wrote of his time on Mt. Katahdin, in the ecstasy of stone, and wind, and mountain height. Who are we? When I was younger, in the decades when winters of below-average temperatures still rolled across the Northern Hemisphere, his voice in my mind was often the one unfurling from the mountain, or the one in the Pond chapters in Walden, richly conglomerate with wonder and observation, especially those of the winter and its ice, followed by the coming of spring. I chafed at his bigoted scorn for whom he called the “bog-trotting Irish” and I felt certain he wouldn’t have had much room for me, a woman, in his literary chats in the cabin or his excursions into the realms of rivers and moose. Still, over decades I loved him, from late in adolescence on past menopause. These days Thoreau chides me not about the lack of simplicity in my life, but about the nation’s Hobbesian violence toward Others—despite his own gaze-inflected shortfalls—and the antagonistic greed for property, the lust for guns, the country’s betrayal of its best intentions. And, his silence implies, just what am I going to do about it? Daily, my efforts fall short, and yet they leave me exhausted.
Yes, we told Wendy and Bob, yes. An appointment with the sun.
We couldn’t get all the way to the Chisos by the solstice. There were other obligations, deadlines—some of us needed to turn in the semester’s grades. But we all made it down to those mountains near the Rio Grande just a few days later, and on Christmas morning we left the car parked at a trailhead and hiked out under moonless starlight. It was maybe two miles out, a level pathway on the basin floor, and we walked fast in the pre-dawn cold, occasionally pinning kangaroo rats with the beams of our headlamps and listening for owls or coyotes. All around us stretched the northernmost reach of the Chihuahuan desert. Hours before the warming air would lift the scent of mesquite or Mormon tea, I could smell nothing but cold and stone.
By the time we reached the formation the air had softened with the approach of sunrise. We hauled ourselves up to a level rock shelf, partway up the hoodoo’s pedestal, facing to the southeast. The mountains stood like paper cut-outs, straight-edged pyramids, with one prominent notch commanding the horizon. Bob had theorized that on the shortest day of the year the sun would lift precisely in the center of that cleft and then crawl up the mountain’s silhouette, tracing the edge with diamond-light. As the seconds sluggishly passed—time seems to always slow down when you’re cold, I’ve noticed—Wendy and I nibbled stiff breakfast bars and jiggled around inside our coats. An occasional bird twerped from a spiky shrub.
The v-shaped cup of sky on the horizon filled with pale light, just as Bob had predicted. Happy and expectant, we examined the changing color of the stone behind us, looked at the hints of carvings. I gazed toward the river, where the distant bluffs were beginning to resolve themselves into distinct landforms, places we might visit later. By now, I thought, Dave was likely up with his camera, heading toward the small riparian canyon where he hoped to find pyrrhuloxias, a kind of southern cardinal the colors of dawn—fawn-gray bodies with spiky red crests and corn-colored bills.
But when the sun finally appeared, it popped out partway up the mountain’s edge, not at the bottom of the v. Were we too late? Christmas was four days past the solstice… if we’d been there on the morning of the 21st, would those few days have made the difference?
We considered precession, the Earth’s slow, top-like wobble—a cycle of almost 26,000 years. People have lived in and moved through that part of the continent for more than 10,000 years. The lithic record lies, far less visible than breadcrumbs in a forest, across the arid Trans-Pecos landscape, artifacts from the age of vanished animals—the camels, elephants, and horses from the twilight of the age of ice. So long ago, would the Earth’s relative position on its own axis have made a difference to what anyone standing—like us—on that very ledge might see of the sky? Maybe I was looking even further to the past than I’d realized for some moment of transcendence.
All at once the day star, having warmed the back wall of the hoodoo behind us, seemed to speed up. It left its apparent contact with the mountain’s silhouette and lifted into the crisp winter sky, once more the familiar sun. To the southwest, the light reddened the Ponce Sierra cliffs and the canyon carved by the Rio Grande, erosion sixteen hundred feet deep, the work of some two million years. The two sides faced one another like perfect mirror images, forming a T-shaped notch, an open keyhole through which anyone might safely pass. On the slower hike back, I kept stopping, looking the way we’d come, watching the early-morning shadows slide away from the pedestal of stone, and the distant cliffs lose their roseate tint, assuming the colors of sand and old, dried blood.
Back in full daylight, the all-too-human world returned to our full attention. From a bluff above the Rio Grande, we heard recorded music—Feliz Navidad—floating northward to where we stood. Below lay an almost Arcadian scene—a rowboat resting on the southern bank beneath a bosque of cottonwoods, sunlight glinting on a rippling shoal downstream. We parked near a boulder where little wire figurines were laid out for sale—saguaro cactus, smooth in its plastic-coated filament; a scorpion, iconic tail raised above a body that seemed to consist of a continuous ribcage; a tarantula, legs like so many bent-knuckled fingers. With a hand-lettered sign and a box for donations, the items waited for tourists to complete the transaction based on trust. “Merry Christmas!” called out voices from the far bank as Dave chose one for his biologist-daughter. Meanwhile, Border Patrol, in their menacingly white vehicles, prowled the roads like predators of the Anthropocene.
The next day, we’d head back north to Kansas. Shortly after New Year’s, I’d return to the campus where, for the first time, I was planning to teach Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in an environmental literature class, and my mind turned restlessly to the preparation. In my notebook I had been transcribing passages, contemplating what we might find of value and what we would critique.
This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.
That afternoon, we all went down to visit the river. The sun was warm, the water was cold, and when I waded in the current I felt my body was the very point of contact between the two. We took turns trying to skip stones across the water to Mexico. One after another, trying for the right angle, the well-timed wrist-flick, we aimed toward the opposite bank. I was the worst. Bob was pretty good. Wendy was elsewhere, off walking somewhere beyond the bend. Dave was the best. He lobbed stone after stone to bounce across the surface, and the ease of each successful pass was the perfect symbol of connectivity, skittering first across the water, then making a final hop onto shore, marking each time the riparian line of ecological connection.
Buoyed up by friendship, health, and the elemental presence of the continuing world, I felt filled with both grief and gratitude, my body joyful in unfettered presence, my heart weighted, still, with the gravity of the nation’s rotten politics. We didn’t know, not yet, about the children in cages. The drowned bodies of father and daughter draped limply on the bank of the Rio Grande were a specter more than a year away.
But in the timeless quiet of the river and its floodplain, it came to me what the hoodoo sun-watching station looked like from a distance, and I took it as the revelation that, in fact, I had needed all along: a clenched fist raised from somewhere within the Earth.