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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Red rock desert, ravens, plenty of sky, and a shot or two of tequila appear in this week’s installment of That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Pandemic, by friends and fellow THP authors Amy Irvine and Craig Childs. They ask, “What world are we making next?”

A Desert Dispatch of "What If's?"

From Amy Irvine and Craig Childs…

Two Friends Who Live & Write on a Mesa in Southwest Colorado

A: Friend, you are just down the road. Maybe we'll hike this week, albeit at more than spitting distance from one another. Or maybe we'll sip tequila on Skype, each on our own patio, and notice how few contrails clog the sky. Which leads me to ask: what if today’s county order to shelter in place—on this lonely little mesa we both call home—is a place not of constraint, but rather a place of infinite intimacies? I don’t mean to make light of the horrors that this virus has caused, the suffering to come. But for now, what if this sequestering is an invitation to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves, in situ? What if this isn’t a solipsistic exercise, but rather one of vital reckoning?

C: Hi friend, up the road, I believe we've been growing large, expansive. We've oozed out of our skins, taking up so much space it's ridiculous, if not calamitous. By we, I mean the majority of us two-legged types. We could use a little constraint, and that is where I think we find those infinite intimacies. Not sprawled like a blast zone as we have been, but gathered, thoughtful. I went to the local, tiny co-op in our shared town yesterday, population 526. They are asking for only one person to enter at a time, and it felt like a finer idea than Costco. Two working there with surgical masks and gloves got what I asked for, showing me the apples to see what I wanted. Small money in small places has a ring to it. It fits my budget. I don't think our downsizing, our drawing inward and pumping fewer clouds of warming molecules into the air, is a silver lining to a pandemic, but it's what needs to happen. Granted, you and I are not in New York or Houston. We are not in China or Italy or Iran. We are, rather, out here on the edges inventing and testing new models. Sheltering in place I take as a reset, a moment to find our bearings, figuring out more efficient ways to do what we've done before. What if some of our measures turn out to be useful and live on past any pandemic: looking to our neighbors, relaying help through the internet, standing at the bank's drive-through because you walked from out-of-town to do your business? What if we could evolve with this moment?

"A big wild place, our home of homes: A red raw desert canyon. A heart-shaped pool. Raucous ravens. Salt-crusted soil."

A: Well, we did it. Got out into the desert together, with our two loves. Sheltering in place. A big wild place, our home of homes: A red raw desert canyon. A heart-shaped pool. Raucous ravens. Salt-crusted soil. And that mad jumble of boulders that your gal deemed cuts of meat. The most delicious was the deep purple slice of stone that looked like prosciutto, rimmed with that silver sheen of viscera. Indeed, the whole day was nourishing. 

It felt taboo, didn't it? To be out there, feeding off the land? This, when every desert defender is begging people not to seek refuge there, from the pandemic and the doubling down on spring fever that it’s caused. Yes, this is the right thing— avoid the gateway towns, the bottleneck of national parks, the under-managed yet wildly popular places like the Bears Ears. Many of these places are also too close to underserved Native American communities, which could be especially vulnerable to this virus.

You and I are fortunate to live so far out of the way, to have more anonymous wild lands at our fingertips, at the toes of our boots, right in our backyards. That we could come together under that big, brazen sky, that we could retract back into our skins that—as you said—we've oozed so far out of, feels as necessary as a vaccine, as hand-washing, as competent leadership. How I wish the whole world could taste what we bit into yesterday. It should be a basic human right.

You ask, "What if we were to evolve with this moment?" I answer, "What if we were to devolve?" What if we were to drop to all fours and crawl through our very immediate ecosystem, and love whatever is left of it? Even if this means scraping palms and knees on concrete sidewalks, to find that one errant blade of grass springing from a crack, to see a whole world of possibility in its insistence on taking root? Its rising up, saying yes to what matters—to sunlight, air, water and soil? And what if we add stories and songs and poems to that list of essentials? Plants respond to them, just as we do. 

What if this contraction of self is the cure? How then, do we supply it to all who need it?

C: I believe you are right, contraction is the cure, and we expand within that. Sheltering in place, limiting travel, but finding ways to get out with dear friends sharing stories, remembering who we are, is priority. Six feet apart, of course, and not clogging up trails or taking other community's resources. We need to be alert and aware, especially now, not just to the spaces indoors but to what is happening around us. Our senses need to be open, our thoughts crisp. When crazy things happen, systems upended, a new equilibrium comes along, a new level of complexity and order. That's the way of chaos, isn't it? Everything we do right now creates the future, especially when the future is so far up in the air. It's a tender time, open to every breath and turn. What world are we making next? What if our gestures and decisions right now are laying the groundwork? What if every small thing invites what comes next?

A: Every small thing. Each one, a turn of the screw that anchors us into place. Into ourselves. With what’s to come, we’ll need that kind of grounding.

Craig and Amy on a social distance hike in southwestern Colorado

Award-winning authors, frequent teaching colleagues, and long-time friends, Amy Irvine and Craig Childs live a few miles from each other with their spouses in southwestern Colorado. Amy Irvine is author of Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness and Craig Childs the author of Virga and Bone: Essays from Dry Places.

The months ahead will be challenging for arts organizations, including Torrey House Press. Connection though story will help us all manage this essential and unprecedented stay home time, and THP will be innovating more ways to give authors a platform to inspire and comfort. We’ll need your help to do it. You can help Torrey House Press weather this storm by donating here.

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