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Arial View of Hogback

My first stop in New Mexico is the place I used to ride to with my father, to a small coalmine where the mission pickup would be loaded with coal for our furnace. The mine was nestled into a gap at the base of a hogback, a type of  rock formation seen often in New Mexico. Actually, I am at the home and farm of my friend Gloria, which is immediately across State Highway 491 from the two-rut dirt road that winds in toward the defunct coalmine.
As kids we called those two-track roads "paper roads." I don't know where the appellation came from. Maybe we sensed that they were less permanent than the graded dirt road we usually traveled between T'iis Názbas (Teec Nos Pos), meaning "A Circle of Cottonwoods," and Naat'áanii Nééz (Shiprock), meaning "Tall Leader." And, of course, less permanent than the two-lane asphalt roads that were rare in our lives then.
The Diné (Navajo) name for this place where I'm staying is Tsétaak'á (Hogback), meaning "Rock That Tilts Down Into Water," the water being Tooh (San Juan River), meaning simply, "River." The San Juan River runs very close by this rock formation, which extends for miles into the distance, appearing from above to be an ancient, snaking river of slanted rock.
For a long time, no one seemed to use the word Tsétaak'á. The place was always called "Hogback." Then people started writing the Diné names for places. Usually today, it's written Tse Daa K'aan. Written Diné is an artifact of colonization, the first known attempt at developing an orthography being in the late 19th century by military surgeon Washington Matthews, who was stationed at Ft. Wingate near present-day Gallup. Today there is standardized written Diné, but the majority, when they write something in Diné, do it phonetically, rather than in the standard orthography. The Tse Daa K'aan spelling is a phonetic spelling.
Up against the opposite side of the formation are the ruins of Hogback Trading Post, just outside the Navajo Nation, where liquor could be sold and infamously was. Because of the San Juan River, there are farms here. Gloria's farm thrived in earlier times, especially when her parents were living, but today it constitutes just a small orchard.
From time to time Gloria will text me a photo of the hogback, its colors and form changing at different times of day, depending on the sun's light and angle and cloud formations.
When I stay with Gloria, we talk about old times, when she was my boss at the Native American Materials Development Center. We talk about writing, she being a poet whose use of language takes my breath away. She is also a painter and her artist soul enlivens all of her home. My first full day there, we visited two of our artist/writer friends in Cortez, CO to see a magnificent exhibit on the theme of movement/migration––a theme dear to my heart. All the artists and writers, are well known to Ed and Sonja. 


After four days in and around Shiprock, I drove to Regina, just outside Cuba, NM, where I once lived and worked as a school counselor. More about that another time, but my plan is to review a book of poems and paintings by Gloria in my next post. Until then...

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When I have passed my patio, I walk up a flight of concrete steps to the parking lot behind my building. To my right is the garden I shared this summer with the man from the building next door. I only grew heirloom and cherry tomatoes and bell peppers this year. At level with the tomato garden, I turn left and am almost immediately in the shade of a great maple tree. Red squirrels and black ones dash about. There are more of them than usual this year. We've been hearing that it's going to be an extremely cold winter, and I've observed that plants produce more blossoms, hence more seeds, in harsh weather conditions to hedge their bets for survival. I suspect the wild animals may do the same, producing more offspring than usual. The squirrels here spend a lot of time running up and down this tree, sometimes sitting on a branch as still as a deer, observing us humans with curiosity that leads them to dig up what we've planted to see if there's anything worthwhile there. In fact, they are the reason I only had tomatoes and peppers; they dug up my cucumber and zucchini seeds twice.


Two small saplings that are not maples grow in the low cleft of this tree. One is an evergreen, a type of cedar, with dusky blue berries similar to juniper berries. The other, which is now beginning to turn color, is a species I haven't yet been able to identify. I'm hoping one of you will help me out here. So far no one I've asked on the ground has been able to tell me. 


Maybe you've been wondering about that title, "Flogrogn." In fact, I'm sure you want to know––unless you're Norwegian and you know about trees. I sent a picture of this phenomenon to a friend of mine who loves trees and who lives in Bergen. She told me that there, if a rowan tree grows in a niche of a tree of a different species, it's called a flogrogn, a flying rowan. You're welcome.


I know this little tree, making its home in the maple is not a rowan. Rowans have red berries and feathery leaves and are members of the rose family. But it's such a charming idea––that these little trees have flown into the welcoming cleavage of the maple––that I wanted to share it. Trees that do this are epiphytes, not parasites, as they live in companionship but do not take sustenance from the larger tree.There is something lovely about these diverse species sharing space with one another––modeling something good for us all. Getting along, not taking from, but adding their beauty.


I delight in this sight every time I pass it, and that reminds me to mention The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. It's a book that can make you more aware of the delights in your everyday life as Rossy (as he was called as a boy) shares with you a multitude of often quite unexpected things that delight him. He decided to write a mini essay every day for a year about the delights that overtook him in his poetic life. It is a delicious book. 


My big delight yesterday was seeing a monarch caterpillar on the leaf of one of the milkweed plants I grew from seeds I collected on the prairie and broadcasted in one of my little patches last fall. 


Tomorrow I will be leaving for the home country––New Mexico––and I'm very excited about it. It's my intention to interrupt the stories about my walks in Elk Horn (so soon, I know) and treat you to some delights from the Land of Enchantment. And now, if you didn't before, you have the word flogrogn. And you've seen my photo of two little flying trees.

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I wouldn't be me if I didn't go around changing things up. Lately I've been mostly sharing my responses to the voices of other writers––ones I felt had something important to say from places different from where I stand in the world.


And now I'm changing it up with a series of blog posts called "A Writer's Walk." It could as well be called "The No Pretzels Here Walk." It is my habit to repeatedly set my timer for 30 minutes throughout my writing time. When the Blues ringtone goes off, I get up and walk, usually for around 10 minutes. This is to avoid becoming a human pretzel. But it also jiggles things loose in my brain and heart, often helping when I'm in a stuck spot in the writing. My town of Elk Horn, Iowa, is very small–– population reported at anywhere from 550 to 650. So the number of potential 10-minute walks from my apartment is quite limited. Sometimes, because I walk them so often, I confess to feeling bored and have a hard time choosing a walk, wishing for variety. I use a pedometer, and my goal for the day is 10K steps.
A few days ago, I discovered that one particular circuit gives me 1.5K steps. I thought it would serve several purposes nicely to just do that walk throughout my writing time, eliminating the need to choose during this part of my day. Other, longer walks usually happen later in the day, in order to complete my goal, and can offer more variety. I did wonder if I would become even more jaded if I did the same small walk several times a day, but then I found an answer to that question.
A large part of this pathway is on Elk Horn's Main Street. When I got home, I wrote from memory the various businesses and other structures I would pass, and it struck me how really interesting each one can be––the thoughts they spark, the people I sometimes meet and exchange a few words with, bits of local history, and what it's like for this Southwestern girl to live in small-town Iowa. This new blog series began to take shape.


Herewith, the first installment:

The first thing I see, when I step out of the back door of my apartment building, and taking the back door is essential because it gives me more steps than the front does, is my patio. My neighbor across the hall––we've taken to calling ourselves the Westsiders––is a consummate flower gardener, and I felt considerable peer pressure when I moved into this senior apartment to make an effort, knowing I would never produce anything like Barb's magnificent showing. I have neither the time nor the expertise nor, quite frankly, the interest that she has.
This year I went for color on my patio (I also have a flower bed, which is sorrowfully languishing at this point in the summer). I've already, as fall seems to be coming early this year, emptied some of the containers on the pavement. The coleuses are gone, a couple of cuttings from them having been started indoors. One geranium (I don't seem to be very successful with geraniums, and I'll speculate as to why shortly) is still producing lovely hot pink blossoms, and the oh-so-faithful marigolds are giving their all. The snapdragons, petunias, and zinnias are doing their best but faltering. Soon I'll be closing down the patio and the flowerbed, because I will be gone from mid-September to mid-October, and if I let them go to pot, so to speak, I would be letting down the Westsiders.
I have learned in the last two summers, that I need to be very thoughtful about the species of flowers I choose and also the placement of my patio collection. We are the Westsiders because our two of the four apartments in our building are on––you guessed it, of course––the west side. You would think that would result in plenty of light, but the building blocks the morning sun on into early afternoon, even in August. Then the hill and tall trees in the west block it further as the sun is retreating. This, I believe has been the problem with the geraniums, as I never had this trouble in New Mexico. I am learning and will never likely be a consummate flower gardener. Thank goodness for nature.
Stay tuned for more on this writer's daily walk. I'd love to hear about some of your walks. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised when the occasional book review or other reflection pops up.

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Downed Confederate Statue, Image courtesy of Reuters

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a Cambodian-American friend in the Bay Area. We spent a whole day together, starting with breakfast at my Airbnb. During and after breakfast we had a long talk about some of the events of Chantha's early life, particularly during the Khmer Rouge regime. Then we drove to San Leandro to visit with his sister and her husband who own a donut shop, a niche many Cambodian immigrants have filled in the US. Afterwards we had lunch and a walk along the beach in Alameda.
It was on the way back to where I was staying in Berkeley that we had a discussion that gave me pause. Unconnected (in my recollection) to anything we'd talked about before, Chantha said, "There are people here who are taking down statues. Cambodian people don't approve. It's exactly what the Khmer Rouge did. They tried to erase history, to say everything is new now. We want only the new. And now the same thing is happening here."
Chantha's tone was passionate, and I felt pretty passionate myself. "Do you know why they're doing it?" I asked.
"Something to do with racism," he said, sounding dismissive to me.
"It's a little more than something to do with it," I said. "Those statues honor slave-owners and leaders who fought to keep slavery in place in the US. Honoring the perpetrators of so much damage still hurts people today who want them taken down. For many of them, the horrors of slavery happened to their ancestors––grandparents and great-grandparents."
"I know, but it's the same as what was done in the Pol Pot regime. They said, 'Everything is new now. History doesn't exist.' I don't want that happening here. Cambodian people don't want it happening here. We've been through it already."
"It's not exactly the same," I said. "This is coming from the people, who are protesting terrible injustice. It's not the government trying to cover things up."
Chantha said, "They should leave the statues there and put up a sign that tells the history, tells what happened. That way the statues can be used to educate people."
I started to see his point, but I didn't want to. I had been in favor of the removal of Confederate statues and opposed to the idea that they should remain because they were part of history. I thought of how Germany removed swastikas from buildings and also statues of Hitler from their plinths; I was in agreement with that. Hitler is my reference point for extremism, racist destruction, and I asked Chantha, "What about statues of Hitler?" I probably should've asked about statues of Pol Pot.
"Same thing," he said. "Keep the statue. Put a sign there that educates people about the terrible things that were done."
I wanted to reject this idea but couldn't do it summarily. I told Chantha, "I disagree, but I can see your point, and it's worth thinking about." I haven't come further than that, and I want to pose the question to you, my readers:
What are your thoughts as your read this? What have you thought about the removal of statues in the US that honor slave-holders and Confederate leaders? 

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