Letter from The Desert: Golem

What’s that the parking lot roadrunner has in its beak? A five-inch lizard, a desert iguana from the looks of it, tail and legs hanging from the graceful, limp curve of its cadaverous body. The bird carries itself like a dinosaur, like a preening hipster. Look at this locally sourced food I just scored.

Agape at the wheel of my truck, I cannot take my eyes off the iguana. It moves only in time with the roadrunner’s gait. Either it is dead, or it has given thoroughly up. The image is wrenchingly familiar. Half a block from work and I now must fight to keep from going home for the day. It would work fine. I know how to make excuses. I feel that tightening at the back of my skull, that emptying of my resolve, a drain whose clog of grease and hair suddenly gives way of its own volition.

I park and walk into the office anyway. It is a survival strategy of mine, perhaps my oldest. Just keep going anyway.

Was I seven? Eight? It was somewhere in there when I got the message. From then on, I was on my own in every sense but the financial. I was to be as small as possible. I was too young to argue. Every task failed a disappointment, every success merely a lack of failure. I believed them; I believed them; I believed them.

I walled myself off, grew the proverbial thick skin, layer after denialist layer to shield the worthlessness from view, mostly my own. Eventually that patched-together skin assumed a shape roughly resembling a human. It walked around the outside world, a golem designed to convey the impression that everything was fine.

That self-proclaimed “true self” swaddled in scar tissue, a pale and cadaverous bit of flesh, would now and then demand attention. It would now and then pull the pins out of the golem’s joints, watch it collapse to the ground all helpless, and sneer. The golem kept going anyway. It upgraded its firmware. It filed down the rough parts where its joints rubbed unpleasantly. It improved its backstory. It set back out into the world, to be again sabotaged by that parasitic twin lodged at the back of its skull. And again. And again. And get up again. Eventually the golem and its parasitic twin lost track of which one of them was the real person.

Am I the iguana now, or the roadrunner?

Yesterday I packed the dog in the truck and took her to a lake in the mountains, where she mostly behaved herself. The holiday weekend meant there were no stretches of lakeshore unoccupied by picnickers, other dogs, or anglers, none of which were conducive to her relaxation. So we drove from place to place. Ultimately, the day became not so much about driving to a particular destination together as just about driving together.

On the south slope of the San Bernardino Mountains, where the highway is carved into cliff after sheer granite cliff, a shrub grown in profusion. It is called buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus, and it carpets square miles of sunny slope, where the mountainside has burned in the last few years or where the cliff is simply too steep for trees to gain a foothold. Buckbrush seeds need fire to germinate. When forests here burn, buckbrush grows up among the charred snags to cover the soil. Government foresters hate the stuff. They dump herbicides on it from helicopters, reasoning that water and sunlight used by the buckbrush would be better used by future two by fours. They want the shrub gone, but if they can’t have that, and they can’t, they want it as small as possible.

I have walked through decade-old burns covered in thick, scratchy buckbrush. I have seen seedlings of Jeffrey pine emerging through that shrub cover, thousands of them, kept safe by their nurse plants until they can survive in the outside world. Yesterday, whole mountains covered in buckbrush were in full bloom. The air smelled thick with honey.

Everything was fine.

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