As Santiago and I walk the streets and alleys and park trails of our neighborhood, rodents are at work. It is late August, early morning, and chipmunks stuffing their cheeks with acorns are joined by red squirrels whose tails flounce around them like flags on convertibles, and by gray squirrels, too, who chase each other around the trunks of trees, the scratch of their claws on dry bark amplified by the quietude of the half-awakened suburbs. There are rabbits nibbling their breakfasts and bounding across lawns, and one dark-haired bunny no bigger than a softball wriggles between fence posts just ahead of Santi’s snout. Their industry and good cheer is an antidote to the land itself, which seems to look on human life with a chastening eye, as if having concluded that it could no longer rally to the cause of supporting it.
Santiago has been taking me on long walks. One morning, he leads me on a sunrise expedition that lasts three-and-a-half hours, and this feels, not extended and triumphant like a marathon, but quotidian and delightful, like a stroll to the corner ice cream shop. We weave in and out of parkland, avoiding police tape around roads with new asphalt and concrete curbs, doubling back over railroad tracks, repeating these moves like we are tugging at a stuck zipper–up and down, up and down. It is a kind of letting go, this lack of clarity about where we are going and how we will make our loop home. Santi prowls for some time at a drainage ditch. It is ringed with rock and shaded by switchgrass now blowsy with pink seeds. We have been here when egrets waded in the water, watching us warily, but on this day there is no water and there are no egrets. Santi sniffs the ground and looks over the mud with a kind of confusion and longing and disappointment. We keep wandering. We pass purple coneflowers beside a wall where the street comes to a surprising end, and houses graced by statuary on long, wide lawns, and a low lake clogged with lily pads, and a child’s adobe play village, and a man who wishes us a good morning, and a small roll of staked fencing at the edge of a yard, with a painted sign that reads, “Caution snapping turtle egg.”
What makes Santiago a fine guide is that when I am out with him, I am reassured that life persists and that an unseen hand cares for each least, fragile thing.
Nuts that have not been gathered by the fauna crunch beneath our feet. We are on a suburban street, and every now and again fallen apples, too, appear along the curb. We have already traversed nearly the length of a wooded park, but Santi eschews every opportunity to nip back into it and take a short cut home. It is a warm morning, and he walks slowly but with intent. We pass a house with beautiful garden beds. They are stocked with well-watered flowers, tall and glossy, in summer pinks and purples, in oranges, reds, and yellows, and with tidy stones piled underneath green shrubbery, and they curve gracefully around the corners of the building and the sweep of the driveway, so that the effect is like that of a pretty paisley. I love these gardens. And it troubles me, too, to see them as the Mississippi River drops and drops and drops and drops.
A block down, a woman and a dog on the opposite side of the street are climbing the hill that Santiago and I are descending. The dogs greet each other, and the woman and I greet each other, and the woman says that she has arrived home. She waves an arm over her lawn.
“Brown!” she decries.
Most of the lawns on the street are brown. She tells me that it is worse up north, on the lake where she has a cabin. The lake that she names is one that my family visited when I was a child–it might, in fact, be our mother lake, the one that gave birth to all of our seasons on shores and in boats. I have a photograph of myself and my siblings and our friends beside that lake: children standing in a row on the sandy beach, hair wet from swimming, smiles young and full of gaps. When I think of that lake, I can smell propane and toasted marshmallows and what we used to call “suntan lotion,” and to know that it, too, is suffering in the drought is a blow that lands on a bruise that surrounds an unhealed wound.
Friends come one evening to sit on the deck. Without rain, it has been a summer without mosquitos–I have encountered only two–but as we chat, a yellow jacket lands on the rim of a wine glass. The wasps have enjoyed the arid heat; there has been little chance of ground nests being flooded. I lure the hard, bright thing to a napkin and encourage it to fly away. It obliges. My friends say that where they visit up north, the river is dotted with exposed stones. They imagine that they could walk across it now: the Mighty Mississippi.
We have arrived at Santiago’s destination: a small lake with a boardwalk stretching over it. Unlike the area ponds–where Canada geese and great blue herons appear to be walking on water, their feet on the muck beneath the thinnest veneer of surface wave–this lake has a bit of depth. A measuring stick beside the boardwalk puts it at fourteen inches–a thing to celebrate. Santi stops again and again to hang his nose between the rails and sniff. There are bumblebees on the purple loosestrife that grows among the cattails, and there is duck weed, and algae. But the red-winged blackbirds have gone. There are no mallards or wood ducks. It is quiet. If there is a muskrat among the reeds, we fail to find him. At the edge of the lake, we cross a footbridge over a creek bed that holds nothing but a few puddles. A gnarled tree with a large knot stands against the sooty blue sky. Gold beggarticks–sunflowers–rise up around it.
To walk and walk is to whittle one’s life to its essence.
Santiago and I go home. We eat, and we nap. I have stopped watering the gardens with a hose. In the morning or in the evening, I bring a watering can to plants that are flowering and to those that are young, to tomatoes that are ripening and to the white cedar with its shallow roots. All others I give to God, who is not without plans. In the afternoon, I write. The cow parsnip that never truly bloomed becomes a wooden stake. The ferns fall to the ground. They will not come back this year. When darkness comes, I read books that remind me that people survive loss.
One afternoon, Santiago comes with me to pick up our produce share. It is ninety degrees outside, and I am surprised by the humidity. The journey is just seven or eight miles roundtrip, but Santi lags and pants. When we reach the house where goods are stacked in boxes, each labeled with a name, we wait in the shade while another woman packs her share into bags. It is a heavy load this week. When it is my turn, I carefully place a watermelon in the bottom of my backpack, braced by zucchinis, with tomatoes on top. In one hand, I carry a sack with spaghetti squash and banana peppers, and in the other, I hold Santi’s leash. I am masked against the air, which remains smoky from undoused wildfires. I am sweating. As we head for home, Santi moves at the pace of a toddler learning to walk, and because I am uncomfortable, I snap at him. He looks up at me, and his eyes are mournful and apologetic. His sides heave–in and out, in and out–as he tries to breathe the hot, damp, dirty air. I see how small he is, how fragile. There is a bench nearby, and a bowl of water for passing dogs. We stop. I put the sack down. I let the backpack slide off my shoulders.
I was pleased in the spring to purchase a pair of leather walking shoes, sturdy and impervious to morning dew. But there has been no morning dew this summer. I watch gulls drinking from puddles in a parking lot after a warm drizzle of rain; it is the cleanest water available to them. I watch time and again as men on riding mowers roar through parks and preserves where the grass has gone dormant, clouds of dust billowing up behind big, black wheels. I watch neighbors forcing lawns to grow with sprinklers and fertilizer, then razing them when the blades are as high as a grasshopper’s back. On weekends, I watch city people pack their cars and go camping. They escape to where the land is wild.
Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
One day, I stop on my basement stairs to watch a gray squirrel. She is outside a ground level window, spinning an acorn in her hands, gnawing at its green shell. She pauses and bends at the waist, still clutching it within its woody cap. She is near the foundation, six inches from my eye. Turning her back to me, she plunges the nut into the soil, pats grass back over the hole, and disappears into a thicket of hostas.
A friend of mine once complained about squirrels. They were burying winter stores in her pots, she said, uprooting flowers and herbs, and her displeasure was a bonfire of rage. The tinder to that fire was willful ignorance of the purpose of squirrels; for, who is a squirrel but a planter of trees? It was mad, her wrath. I expect that it was born elsewhere: a sorrow tamped down and unexamined, the fumes of some hardship over which human beings are entirely without power.
Squirrels have begun to dig up my pots. All the rocks that had served as a defense in years past have been placed in a border around the transplanted spirea. It is all right. I am trying to let others act with the wisdom endowed upon them at their creation. I have laid down my gardening hose in the knowledge that the dazzling transition between summer and autumn, when wildflowers are lithe and vibrant and lovely, will not dazzle in the same way this year. Santiago and I have walked through fields where the goldenrod was not even a foot tall, spindly as thread and barren of blooms. I am trying to live without the certainty that what pleases me is what is best.
At a swimming beach one morning, Santi and I hike across shoreline that before the drought had been under water. Nearby, a woman with white hair pulls a blue caftan over her head and places it on a picnic table. She is wearing a black bathing suit. Her round face is luminous as she smiles and greets us and heads into the lake, her warmth and openness so complete that I wonder if she notices the sharp stones, the litter, the stagnant water. Above the empty lifeguard station, where sand gives way to trees, Santiago catches wind of a chipmunk. He gives chase underneath a trailing length of woodbine, but his paws lose traction and skitter across the powdery soil. Above our heads, the red cedars appear limp and rusty. But they have often looked that way–like uncombed beards decorated with the crumbs of forgotten meals. They are tolerant of the dry ground. They do not need much.
I am thinking about the swimmer: about how buoyant she was on the wave of what the day had brought, how utterly without rancor.
When Santiago and I return home, I take off his harness and he trots to his water dish. The air conditioner is puffing and Santi is lapping, and it takes some time for me to realize that a toilet in the basement is flushing itself over and over and over again. It is a problem that I had tried to fix a day earlier. It is worse now. When the question of how many gallons of unused water have been flushed down the drain rises in my mind, I tamp it down, unexamined, and call a plumber.
In the afternoon, the cowbirds come. They number about a dozen, black-winged and brown-headed, browsing for insects and eating the seed on offer. Under the shade of spruce boughs, two of them sit in a hanging feeder like lovers on a swing. Two stand in the bird bath, preening, sunlight opalescent on their feathers. The rest strut the yard, poking their beaks into the earth among the brittle remains of grass and moss and violets. They are not alone. The cowbirds are joined by a pair of goldfinches and a robin, by a handful of cardinals and a few chickadees, by a solitary woodpecker and some social sparrows, each bird chirping and squawking and pecking and pounding, fluttering across the yard from branch to branch, swooping to the feeders and alighting on the edge of the bath, more birds than I have ever seen in my yard, their flights knitting in the air an invisible tapestry of avian life.
When they have gone, I empty the bath and refill it with a pitcher of tap water. If they return for supper tomorrow, I don’t want them to go without.
You can find pictures of the end of summer in the gallery, and video of Santiago “Tracking Joy”at HitRecord.