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Category: Feminists for Fathers

On Blossoming in a High Desert Meadow

May 29, 2024

Can I share something? A story? Or maybe it is more of a moment, really, but there is an image from my daily wanderings that I have been unable to stop thinking about and dwelling on.

 First, some background. It is a cool day in May, like many spring seasons in Utah, a day where the sun shines but there is also the whisper of frost in the air that says that no plant is entirely safe—safe from the reaching chill of evening, safe from the frost that comes when the sun goes down, safe from the wind that blows fierce as night falls–and because of this we lay our blankets out in the garden in the evening over too-early-planted tomatoes to protect them from the possibility of freeze, and as we do I wonder about the way we interact with the land. I think about the way we resist the voices that would tell us we are mere inhabitants of cities and towns, and I am discouraged by the narratives that would tell us to sever our ties to the world we walk and the land we live upon. 

It is this tension between the natural world and the trappings of modern life, I think, that has always drawn me to gardening, that has pulled me toward planting, and pruning, although to be honest, I am more of a spring gardener than anything else, for by the middle of summer I have retreated indoors to where the fans are stirring the air, and I become an observer of the way the weeds thrive in the heat. But a real gardener is someone not scared away by sweat and bugs and the endless Sisyphean tasks of working to make something thrive where it seems unlikely or even nearly impossible. 

I have visited gardens all over the US, in the East, in the South, in the West. Wherever we have traveled I have walked along lawns and sidewalks and soft gravel paths. I have strolled through rigid and formal gardens laid out around sprawling homes with pruned shrubs shaded by high mountain ranges. I have wandered winding paths through Southern estates where the moss hangs low from wide reaching trees. I have walked along soft, mulched beds of roses blooming brightly underneath a damp and cloudy sky. And this week I spent time in Northeastern Utah, on an old homestead carved out of the curve of cliffs and ravines where horses wander all winter and a quiet little creek flows along a fallow field where wild grass and watercress grow.

There is nothing quite like the impact of a landscape untended and unrestrained, designed only by the wind and the wild and the whims of a divine creator who sees beauty in the rugged and rough and unrefined. 

The house where I stayed sits on a plot of land tucked into the contour of the countryside, with a ravine where the water flows and with a wide meadow above. The meadow itself is green and grassy, with nothing to impede the view of the blue sky over our heads, a shade that is impossible to describe, not even with all the words that mean blue, like azure and cobalt and turquoise and teal, for it is none of those and yet all of them, a color so bright and so vivid it cannot possibly be real.  Instead it feels like paint splashed across the canvases artists paint of the West in which lone cowboys ride dusty horses through expansive landscapes of sky and rock. Around the edges of this grassland juniper and sagebrush have begun to reclaim the openness in patches and plots, their scraggly trunks and gnarled branches twisted like sinuous sculptures in stone or in clay. 

There is a reservoir nearby called Starvation, which says a lot about the area, really, a land that seems to grow rocks if you chance to look away. I come from a land like this, despite the time in my youth that I spent in greener, damper places. My family history grows out of the Utah soil, is entwined with rocky, dry, desert lands, is rooted in harsh climates where men and women once worked together to tame a wilderness, to cleave to one another, to cling together as they cleared the land, like plows, like blades, and found themselves instead sharpened against the rocks, honed in harmony, or, in isolation, shattered.

At the edge of the meadow there is a tree that catches my eye, for it does not seem as if it belongs here, despite the fact that it is nestled in nicely among the other trees, but despite the location it is not just any wild, native tree. It is an apricot tree. Its presence is unexpected, something more fit for a carefully tended orchard in lower elevations along vegetable gardens and flower gardens with fertilization and weeding and daily irrigation and those waiting to harvest the fruit, eager to make pies or jams or preserves. 

Stranger than the apricot tree itself is the juniper tree wrapped around it, curled around the trunk of the larger, taller fruit tree as if placed there by design, like a support, or, perhaps, a trellis or stake. It looks deliberate, although I know it is not, this soft fruit tree surrounded by the more flexible juniper and it makes me wonder at the chance of it, at the way one seems to be protecting the other, at their individual strengths and weaknesses, at the role one plays in the success of the other, for what is the use of blossoming if you are uprooted by the next strong wind? 

The bark of the juniper is rough and cracked in some places, peeling in others, a result of decades or centuries of weather. It is a mystery, really, how long these two trees have stood there, for who, without felling it and marking rings in the wood, can tell the lifespan of a tree?

Apricots are not native to Utah. They are not, in fact, native to North America at all, thriving instead in temperate, warm climates with sunny skies and soft soils, definitely not in cold, semi arid plains 5,000 feet above sea level where there is nothing but sagebrush on open land and long grass along springs and lake beds, and a few hardy, wide reaching willows where it is wet. And I wonder how this tree came to be here, about the people who must have carted it cross-country, who must have dug deep in the dirt to plant the young sapling, who must have faithfully watered and carefully tended it until it was well established. It does not belong here, this tender tree. But that’s not important, really. 

When your roots are sunk that deep, does it matter where you began? 

And I wonder about what happened, where those people went, what other dreams they might have planned on planting before the sagebrush returned, before the wild took over. For it is wild here, the entire area a testament to a landscape that has never been comfortable with being tamed. It is windy and windswept and resistant to the type of change that makes concrete sidewalks out of wild animal traces and carefully separated plots out of endless tracts of wilderness. 

I meant to write an essay about relationships, and there are obvious analogies here, and my children and my husband and my students all know how fond I am of a good analogy, or maybe they are metaphors, commentaries about the roles of women and men, although most of them are tired and worn and I have heard too many stories of my female ancestors written in their own hand, accounts of walking the plains and working the fields and building schools and cafes and homes and businesses side by side with their spouses and partners and their children to ever say that women are delicate or dainty or unfit for labor and laboring. There is too much of living life in their letters for me to doubt that it is the responsibility of both mothers and fathers to nurture their families, to shelter and shield and sustain, to protect and preserve and provide for the small and tender and vulnerable while supporting one another. 

But maybe that is the point of it. After all, don’t we each have the responsibility to curl ourselves around one another, protective, or at other times, to stand tall and bloom? 

There is another metaphor here as well, a lesson for what it means to thrive wherever you are planted, but also a testament to the need for protection, for the sheltering safety of others, for the secure anchor of a spouse or a family or a community. It is a study in the role of opposing forces, for not everything can blossom and bloom, and not everything can shelter and shield, and we need each other, I think, like that old apricot tree standing on the edge of a windswept meadow in the high desert regions of Utah needed something to curve around it, to sink its roots deep into the soil nearby, to block the wind and the cold and the harshness of a western winter so that the more delicate bark would be protected, so it could flourish and fruit, spring after spring, year after year, not in solitude but in solidarity. 

It is a lesson anyone who has braved the natural world sees around them, and some of those brave individuals were those same ancestors of mine who wrote about the lessons they learned, whether they were exploring or settling or fleeing or simply carving out of the land a place to create a new life as they planted themselves, immovable. 

But this essay is not about the people who tried to tame the West. It is not about trappers or fishers or missionaries or pioneers. It is about place and belonging and surviving. It is about all the ways we take what the world has to give us and with it learn to thrive. It is about men and women and families. It is about solitude and isolation and learning that without one another we are more likely to be blown about, to be buffeted by the winds that would uproot us, would break us, would expose us in vulnerable times and leave us unprotected and alone. 

It is about a wide windy meadow somewhere in this world where an apricot tree grows wild, wound about by juniper, two trees indistinguishable, entwined, inseparable, and all the wonderful lessons they hold, if only we look and remember.