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    Cowboys, cicadas, toads and a small dove ride across the page. Writers write. Bugs sing. Cattle graze. Clouds contribute to geographic identity while the sun shines, impervious, in the Arizona sky.

    Long Version:

    I am reading a series of essays set largely in the Santa Maria mountains of Arizona. The author, Amy Hale Auker, is a cowboy and her essays are like bright stones in a creek bed, gleaming as they speak of love and longing and riding the range. She works with cows, and there is sweat in these stories, heart and dirt, mud and frogs.

    I am reading them by the pool. It is a July scorcher of an Arizona day, 115 degrees Fahrenheit and the pool is warm as a bath. I read two or three pieces and then paddle slowly around the pool. I am alone. No one else is crazy enough to be out in this heat.

    I climb out of the pool and lay on the hot pool deck, the cement slab soothing my bones with heat. Lying there with my eyes closed I ponder the nature of work, as I hear a helicopter, likely scouting the skies for warnings of lightning or sandstorms, hoping perhaps to conjure up rain.

    There’s been no rain here at all since May. Little known desert fact: summer is the rainy season. I open my eyes to spy the copter and see only a bird dart by overhead. Flimsy clouds float above that. I watch them, deciphering, looking for shape and meaning. I find a killer whale, Kwakiutl-style.

    We cannot escape who we are. I am a West coast girl. Could not saddle up if my life depended on it. I am rain-softened and damp like moss. The clouds where I come from mean business.

    Here, the sky is so blue it hurts to look at it and when the sun goes down it streaks the heavens in its own blood. My whale breaches the Arizona sky, formlines swelling and diminishing. The hum of air conditioners and the songs of cicadas compete on the hot wind. Allegedly, the Inuit have fifty words for snow. I can’t help but wonder how many words there are in the desert for hot.

    Cicadas live underground for indeterminate cycles, feeding on the roots of the trees they are born to. They emerge and shed their skins only when the time is right, and then they blanket the trees, singing. Toads too, hide themselves in the earth, sometimes for years, then mate furiously in the short summer season.

    Auker’s book is called Ordinary Skin, and it is quietly splendid, breathtaking in the way the desert is breathtaking, unexpectedly, built on bedrock and willows. This book has made its way to me by synchronistic means. Traveling as cowboy poetry does from dry hills and canyons to thirsty city hearts.

    There is a small dove that has made its way to me, too. It rests on the balcony of my second floor condo. I find it unstartled at my feet, tilting its head to give me a one-eyed stare when I open the door. It may be brain-damaged, or perhaps too young to know any better, but I suspect it’s wondering what I am doing here on its perch.

    I am perched in Arizona, too. I traveled here with a suitcase full of words, stuffed into notebooks, crookedly corralled onto recipe cards and post-it notes. They are twisted and knotted into their own sweet mess and a book is trying to disentangle itself from the snarl. The book and I needed some time under a wide sky to sort things out between us.

    Auker rides the range on horseback, picking her way carefully among the gullies and rocks. She carries ropes, sometimes a gun. Wearing spurs and a wide-brimmed hat, she works the cows. At night, under the moon, she makes notes by firelight.

    I sweat out the words I can and can’t say. I jumble some into poetry, flatten others into paragraphs, herding chapters. As I freckle and bake, I can’t decide if the sun is foe or ally. It burns radiantly with equal vigor on me, Amy, the cows, and the cicadas. Signs peel and fade, their words become unintelligible.

    Later, I will type while my joints resist and my body stiffens.

    We are writers. We are leathery as toads, breathing through our skin, bumping our spawn of clumsy words together, strands of jellied eggs in the stream, full of pollywog potential.

    We are like the cicadas, waiting for the time to be right and then emerging, dust and ink under our fingernails, singing our hearts out.


    With thanks to Kat Kirby and Stacie Bailey Sholer for the cowboys and cicadas.
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