Copyist

It’s open-studio time again. The artists in residence here at PLAYA Summer Lake allow us into their workspaces, to share their creations and give artist talks. On the walls of their studios are renderings of snow-banked streams, trails through the hills, desert plants and animals. Owls. Juniper. The gray asphalt of Highway 31. Sometimes, abstractions of all of the above.

Several of them mention the wind, the epic Great Basin blow that is often with us. One painter wants to capture it on canvas. A musician says he’s exploring how to integrate it into his works-in-progress. So far, most residents are still scratching their heads about how to portray it. They hear it. They see the effects of it in the swaying of tree limbs. How to interpret it, or even to copy it, is puzzling.

The day’s audience comprises mostly of folks who’ve lived in this basin for years. Some of them chuckle–not mocking anyone’s attempts to capture the persistent but ethereal feature but rather to share the inside joke. Everyone in the room understands. The place is damn windy. We laugh about it rather than crying or going mad.

Day and night, gusts hit the west-facing walls, hard. Sometimes the impact is sudden and jarring, like a hay truck has strayed from the highway. Wind rattles the stubble of mown grass, five-inch-tall bits that lean east like the yarn-scrap direction indicators on a mainsail’s boom. Wind overarches the Great Basin soundscape. It’s as much a part of it as the jake brakes on semis, the howl of coyotes. Wind growls here, sometimes indistinguishable from the racket made by vehicles straying onto the road’s center rumble strip.

As I write this, wind is throwing graupel against our windows. What misses the house streams horizontally, a river of precipitation that can’t settle down. A raingauge for today’s storm would register zero inches, though it’s been snowing for hours.

Folks I know who lived here briefly and moved on now call the wind “cool”—safely from a distance.

Because wind, in general, is more easily dealt with if you’re not actually in it. When I was little and sailing with my family, winds blowing over the bay made our 16-foot dinghy heel. I’d feel the transom tilt. If it went much over 45 degrees, I’d burst into tears. The pounding of the bow over waves, the gunnels so low they’d scoop water–they shook me to my core. My brothers and sister took it in stride, but not me. I’d start every sailing adventure bravely, thinking it’d be okay. The wind in the morning was only a breeze. I would end every outing rattled, the gales strong and loud, the sanctity of my world destroyed.

In later years, working on whitewater crews that rowed against upstream gales on the Colorado and Green Rivers, I found that the wind didn’t frighten me. Instead it determined the shape of our days. It was everywhere to some degree, on the Salmon and Yampa and Selway and Rogue. In the Grand Canyon, we’d rise in the dark to start the campfire, get a jump on chores, wake the guests with coffee. We’d do what it took to make miles before the wind rose. If we got caught out in it anyway—when we got caught out in it—we’d wrap bandanas around our heads, knowing no hat would ever stay on. We’d put our backs into it.

But to integrate it artistically? A fine and noble pursuit. Bob Seger is still running against it. Donovan might as well try and catch it. Dylan’s answers are blowing in it. Christopher Guest called such folk references mighty. Van Gogh saw the movement of the heavens and painted Starry Night. Alfred Steiglitz photographed wind and snow in New York and caught a way of life. Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave may have been wind or tsunami driven. American artist Charles Burchfield’s little house in The East Wind huddled up against the storm.

Poet Christina Rossetti asked who has seen the wind? To which I say, my point exactly. We all know when it’s there. We reach to describe it.

My grandmother, who loved words and working with them, stitched a needlepoint that hung in the wall of our family breakfast room. The tiny stitches spelled out a poem, “The Winds of Fate,” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. (Wilcox is often collected in volumes of “bad poetry,” but I’m no judge of that.) The needlepoint quoted a version of her wind-driven words.

One ship sails east and another west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails,
And not the gales,
That
determine the way they go.

I can’t count the number of Cheerios I ate while gazing at that stitched poem. As a young person, I barely grasped the weight of it. As the mother of a grown daughter now, I have a sense of how fiercely my grandmother must have missed her only child. The vagaries of life had put distance between them. My mother had moved West with her husband and stayed. Every week she and my grandmother exchanged lengthy, handwritten letters; long-distance phone calls were too expensive for our family back then. Sometimes we’d travel to upstate New York for sultry summer visits, but mostly we had heartfelt correspondences. And the needlepoint.

It was the winds. The winds were responsible.

When I worked as a geologist in Utah’s high desert, I learned about the “small things” the old timers used as wind indicators. Hardy scrub: low-lying Mormon tea, rabbitbrush, Russian thistle. “If the small things are moving this early,” the lifelong Green River valley residents would say in the mornings, “it’s going to blow you around.” Sometimes they’d advise me to wait a day before going into the field. Hadn’t I been out in it too much lately anyway? Then we’d work on indoor research and drink Fantas over lunch and laugh at really corny jokes.

Generally, though, I’d bundle up and go, geology hammer in hand, field notebook and sack lunch in my backpack, brunton compass on my belt. I’d walk the fans of the valley, measuring the tilt of sedimentary beds, the aspect of Jurassic fossil bones, the size of ephemeral streams from past eras. Their evidence was hard and steadfast in the rocks.

Most of the time, the wind blew. It blew storms in from the west. It carried the same kind of charcoal-gray clouds I see today. Looking south across the basin, across alluvial fans dotted with scrub and the playa silvered with ice, the wind moves the small things. Those are the islands of bunch grass, stands of sage and rabbitbrush, bits of sand and gravel.

But here we are in it–must be the set of our sails. And something invisible, so hard to capture.


Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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