Earlier in the afternoon, before dinner, Stan came out onto the drive and found me photographing stones. I was kneeling before an overturned picking box, putting stone after stone on the box, taking their pictures. I had just returned from getting gas in Velarde. I'd been meaning to take pictures of the stones I'd collected on my hikes, but until today I hadn't found a suitable backdrop for them.
I had an idea, I said. For a piece, I said. On my way back from Velarde, I said. Stan had not come out to watch me take pictures of stones or to chat. He had some other purpose. He always has a purpose. You gave me an idea for a column, Stan said. Your piece about the noises of the country, he said. Stan writes a regular column about organic farming for the Albuquerque Journal. The last one was about the infrastructure of a small farm: X number of pumps, Y number rubber tires, Z feet of hose. You can tell your readers that your intern gave you the idea, I said. When Stan introduces me to acquaintances, he calls me an intern. This has been a long-running joke. I'm not really an intern. You'll get credit, he said. I'll send you my notes, I said. So I'm looking forward to reading his piece about the noises of the country. We both have excellent hearing.
For the last week Rose Mary has been saying, You've only been here for three days, or, You only got here three days ago. And it does seem like it was only three days ago that I got here, but I have actually been here for ten times that many. Three weeks ago, my birthday approaching, time seemed to stall. I would excuse myself after dinner and come to this porch to write sad letters. I was homesick. I would look at my calendar and wonder. How would I hold up? How much longer could I make it out here? That week passed and I eased into the routine. I stopped resisting yogurt and granola in the morning. I started reading after dinner. Many of my letters during that second week spoke about living in someone else's house, adjusting to someone else's routines. I talked to Rose Mary about this. She could remember adjusting to someone's routines 45 years ago. It's funny, but I just realized that one thing that breaks those routines, or at least that pushes against their boundaries, is a visitor who comes to live in the house for a month.
In the course of a year there are routines within routines. I am sure of this. Like, it's our custom to fetch some lettuce from the fields before dinner so that we can eat a salad after we eat our main course. This is one routine within our day, but I know that there will be no lettuce to fetch in January, and so that routine will disappear until the lettuce comes up again. The list of micro routines that come and go with the seasons must be a long one. I'm sure that the fish in the metal basin in the greenhouse get fed on a regular basis, and I'm sure that the dog drinks from that basin on a regular basis, too. But the tomatoes in the greenhouse are not the same year round, nor is the temperature of the air in the greenhouse. By opening and closing the greenhouse door, Stan attempts to regulate its temperature, but I'm sure the greenhouse door will stay shut throughout most of the winter. This is all a preface to say that our routines give shape to our days and our lives. At dinner tonight I had a vision of the three of us eating chicken and rice from here until eternity, repeating the same pleasant banter with each forkful on as many nights as there are stars in the sky. We'll have to keep you, Rose Mary said. You only just got here three days ago.
After dinner tonight I got my coffee and my book and finished reading an essay by Scott Russel Sanders. I sat down in the easy chair across from Stan's easy chair and perched my coffee on the arm of my chair just as Stan had his coffee perched on the arm of his chair. Rose Mary was in the kitchen, doing the dishes. The routines do vary. Tonight, for instance, I was forbidden from doing dishes. Sometimes Rose Mary does the dishes, sometimes Stan does them, sometimes I do them, sometimes two of us team up and do them. That the dishes get done after dinner does not vary, but who does them does. No dishes on your last night, Rose Mary said. I'll hit you if you pick up that towel, she said. I'll hit you is one of RM's favorite affectionate addresses. She says it when she's feeling loving (which is almost always) and she wants you to stand down. So I got my coffee and my book and finished reading the essay. Like all the other essays in the book, it was about place. I found it completely at random a couple weeks ago. If it had not been about living in Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived for a decade, I might have put it down after reading one page. But the essays were beautifully written and about a place that is near to me.
This place is near to me, too, but I would offer a critique to Scott Russel Sanders. This place is near to me for the landscape and the climate, for the history here and the cottonwoods that turn gold in the fall wherever there is water, which is mostly nowhere, but for all that and more this place is near to me for the people who drew me here. Mr. Sanders bookends his essays about place with short paragraphs about people and family, but I would like to add that no place can carry as much meaning for a person as this place does for me without good people. No amount of glorious mountain can hold a man alone. It's the combination of beautiful place and beautiful people that make it. If it were not for Stan and Rose Mary and for the short but refreshing visits with their kids, I would not be here. I would not rough up my hands by tugging squash vines around a field or bust up bulbs of garlic for a solid week just to look at pretty scenery. In a short e-mail recently, Stan told me that he was once as anxious about his existential dilemma as I am now. It was not until he chose a place and, more importantly, involved himself in the community of that place that he found his anchoring meaning. So to Scott Russel Sander's I would say that people and community define place as much as landscape and rocks. But what is it about rocks?
You can never have too many rocks, Stan joked. We were in a high mountain valley, in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, having a picnic. I wrote about it in an earlier post. We drove into the mountains, found our spot, had our lunch, and looked at the scenery for a good long while. The last thing we did was gather some stones from the creek. It had been a really nice picnic, a fall picnic in the mountains that happens only once a year, and we each wanted to gather one stone before heading home. I found my stone—crusted under lichens—and Stan found his—a good flat river stone—and we drove home. One of the things that I love about these mountains is the stones, the rocks, not just the sheer number of them but the variety of them, too. You can never have enough stones, I repeated. There are so many stones around to be had.
I was driving back home with my car full of gas to leave tomorrow when I realized what it is, or a part of what it is, about stones. About rocks. When you stop through a place, be it for an hour, a day, a month or longer, you can pick up a rock and take it home with you. You can always take a picture of a place and pictures are great, but a rock has substance. A rock is a real chunk of the land. You can hold a rock in your hands, and when you return home, wherever your home is, you can show that rock to your friends and your friends can touch it. They can feel its edges and its cold. They can touch a little hard chunk of where you have been. I bought more than one gas station souvenir on my drive out here, but none of them mean what one of these stones means to me. The dehydrated, baby crocodile head I bought in Louisiana cost me twelve dollars, but these stones I collected from the hills around here are worth much more to me. I obviously cannot yank off one of Rose Mary's arms and pack it into my suitcase, nor can I snag her beautiful puppy, Tesoro, and take him home with me, but I can take home a box of rocks and have them be a stand-in for the place and people that I love. A stone is a kind of permanent memory. A stone has its own memory, its long geologic memory, and it also has the memories I attach to it, memories of place and people. More than my good tan, which will disappear soon enough, these are the things that I will take home.