After two years of maddening indecision and the escalating entreaties of my partner, I finally agreed to move a few years ago, for the first time, from the city to the country. Or more precisely, from San Francisco to a desert in northern New Mexico surrounded by the silence of lunar places and nights so black that I remembered I have a childhood fear of the dark.
The night before we were to fly there to begin house-hunting, I had dreams of falling, and spent the night flopping around in bed like a fish on a dock.
Flying into Albuquerque, the plane hit a trough of air that pitched two glasses of water from the tray table into my lap and brought my lunch up to mid-esophagus. The airplane’s wings flapped like the arms of a man fighting for balance on a tightrope. In the airport, I saw a man wearing a button that said, “Welcome to New Mexico. Land of the flea, home of the plague.” We later learned that some of the state’s outlying areas—not far from where we were headed, in fact—have a problem with fleas that carry the Bubonic Plague, the same one that killed a fourth of the population of medieval Europe.
As I headed for baggage claim, I heard in the back of my mind the words of the poet Rilke reminding me that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things, and I had the uneasy sense that I had come to the right place.
I had a hundred reasons not to move—101 including the fleas—and a hundred reasons why I had to. Among those I was able to articulate to inquiring and skeptical friends and family were that I needed a place where nature lifts up her skirt and dances, where the cost of living is somewhat more hospitable to a freelance writer, and where there are no job opportunities for traffic reporters. What I was less inclined to try to explain was that I wanted a place where what is of value is not advertised, where there are no guardrails, where I might find an answer to the question, “Is this all there is?”—and because my partner wanted to move and I didn’t want to lose her.
Beneath all the reasons and rationalizations, though, was an undefined yearning for change, and I knew in some private core of myself that it had something to do with surrender, which nature, and midlife, excel at teaching.
For a long while, I found living in the wilderness overwhelming. During my first few months there, I slept 12 hours a day and barely left the house for more than a few hours at a time. The scale of the mountains, the sky, the horizon—everything—made a mockery of my sense of perspective. The 100-mile visibilities seemed to double the size of the world, making me feel very small. The passage of time, marked not in the human scale of weekdays and weekends but in epochs, argued that even the mountains are mortal.
The perverse silence of the place kept startling my reptilian brain into idle chatter. The Indian and Spanish cultures felt alien. Hail was the size of marbles; flashfloods were capable of carrying off children, livestock and large appliances; and thunder sounded like gunshots going off next to my ear. In this stretch of the wild west, the majority of Stop signs had bullet holes in them, whereas in the Bay area, they were more likely to be spray-painted with phrases like “the arms race” or “in the name of love” or “faking orgasm.” Moving here from the city felt like coming out of a movie theater in the middle of the day.
I wrote to a friend that I felt like a coward in the face of such grandeur, which accused me of my own impotence, and stripped me of the hubris that I had developed from being a city-dweller and surrounded by the man-made my whole life. It is easy to imagine yourself king of the hill when little save for the rumor of death instructs you otherwise.
Jacques Cousteau once remarked that when you enter the ocean you enter the food chain, and you do not necessarily enter at the top. In New Mexico, when it snowed and the land filled up with paw-prints, I, too, saw clearly what my relative position is in the colossi, and that I do not have tenure. I followed bear tracks for a mile along a mountain fire-road, and mountain-lion tracks on the mesa running like a dotted line between the junipers. I saw blood on the snow, and was left hyperventilating by the sound of rustling.
I suppose, then, that it was a sense of feeling out of control that made the incident with the magpie so unnerving.
I was sitting at my desk one afternoon several months after moving, staring out the window at columns of thunderheads, while the wind pounded on kettledrums outside. Suddenly a bird flew directly into the window with a bony thud and bounced off, leaving a clump of feathers stuck to the glass.
I stood up reflexively from my chair. A meadowlark lay stunned on the ground. Just at that instant a magpie, three times the meadowlark’s size, barreled down from a nearby tree and pecked the small bird to death as it flapped around helplessly. When it was dead, the magpie took it in its beak up to a low branch of the apricot tree, set it there, and flew off.
I stumbled outside, horrified, wondering what act of carnage I had just witnessed—was it the end of a chase, some violent spasm of territorial imperative, or was it a mercy killing? I felt my sense of vulnerability in being there at all deepen in that moment.
Four days later that clump of feathers was still stuck to my office window like a suicide note, and I was still rattled. It wasn’t just the violence, though, or the suddenness of it, but that I didn’t understand what it meant, and this reminded me of what I gave up to move to New Mexico. It is something that all sacrifices require, whatever their particulars: the need to let go of what is familiar for what is not, to relinquish full jurisdiction over our lives and let fate have a greater hand in them.
A few days before I left California, for instance, I walked slowly through and around my house, a fixer-upper I had lived in longer than any since childhood. I realized how intimately I knew it, and how bad I felt in leaving it. I knew how many seconds it took the bathroom faucet to make hot water, where to step on the wooden floors to avoid creaking them when I was up at 2:30 a.m., and how stiff a wind it took to drive rain into the broken storm window upstairs.
I knew which tree the vultures most favored for roosting, which trails in the surrounding hills would be muddiest after a rain, and the names and temperaments of every dog in the neighborhood. I knew which week during September the robins would fly in to gorge themselves on the pyracantha berries near my front steps, and that during that week I’d sweep those steps of bird droppings twice a day. I knew that if I heard rustling in the vicinity of the pampas grass in the front yard, it would be Boozie, the neighbor’s big, dumb dog of indeterminate genus, and I knew exactly where to rub Boozie’s chest to paralyze him with pleasure and make his back left foot twitch.
And I knew that starting in a few days, by choice, I would be a stranger again, would have to start learning all new coordinates, the habits of all new birds and beasts, find my way around unfamiliar territory, and figure out what the signs all mean. I remember walking along a dirt road near my new home in New Mexico a few days after arriving, and being barked at furiously by the dogs at a farmhouse, and feeling hurt by it. “We’re going to be friends someday,” I yelled, jabbing my finger at them. “You just wait.”
I tried to distract myself from my insecurities with the one activity that has always conferred on me a sense of meaning and control over my life—my work—but this failed miserably. It was like being bitten by a rattlesnake: I panicked and ran, which only caused the poison to travel faster through my system. That panic-stricken way of working also felt painfully familiar, only now, with the deserts and the distant mountains standing as indictments of my restlessness and commotion, it also felt laughable and damnable, the emotional equivalent of a bad appendix—vestigial and possibly fatal.
In the city, such frenzy was reflected everywhere and seemed normal. Not so in the wilderness. There is more grace in a living acre of ground than in the lives of most people, including mine.
The fact is, the magpie incident pushed me deeper into a sense of loss and fragility, of not-knowing, which I didn’t like one bit. Perhaps it was growing up in a culture that doesn’t know the difference between uncertainty and anxiety, and to which mystery is something to be solved, not serenaded. Perhaps it was coming from a family of scientists and sleuths. My grandfather used to be a detective, and my father a scientist who frequently read to me from a book of “minute-mysteries,” and I had to figure out whodunit. I thought that almost anything could be figured out, and would yield to sheer determination.
But life and the natural world are not just more minute mysteries to solve, and not everything can be figured out. I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems the better bet. After all, life doesn’t end with an answer, but a question—what next?—and it certainly ends with a sacrifice: the hero always dies.
In the months after I buried the meadowlark, I chose, quite uncharacteristically, to stay in suspense about what had happened to him, when one phone call to the ornithology department at the University of New Mexico could have settled the matter, as well as my sense of disquiet. But I didn’t call. I wondered.
One afternoon I even spent several hours speculating on the lives of birds—their compulsions and their conspiracies—as I watched a group of grey juncos outside my house repeatedly flock to the ground, peck for seeds, and suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, explode into flight in every direction like shrapnel from a grenade, and then re-gather slowly on the ground like fallen leaves.
A few days later, while shoveling snow, a flash of falling black like a chunk of obsidian caught my eye and my breath. A magpie, perhaps the same one, dropped toward the ground like a stone from some unseen place, and at the last possible second flared its wings.
Then one day, I stopped wondering. I called the ornithology department at the university and ended my little murder mystery. Magpies, the young woman told me, are thievish and opportunistic and will take advantage of an injured bird for the sake of an easy meal. That, she said with great certainty, is what I saw.
I hung up feeling oddly disappointed, not in the cruelty of nature, but in the cruelty of certitude. The knowing, that is, put an end to the wondering, which in many ways was far more entertaining and instructive. In it, there was room for imagination and discovery, for the quest implied in question. The truth, it seems, did not set me free.
In hanging on to the familiar, I have what is familiar. But in letting go, in moving into the unknown, I have no idea what comes next. Life becomes a cloud rolling overhead, changing shape moment by moment like a moving Rorschach. It’s a gargoyle, then a fish, then a serpent, and there’s no predicting. It’s a hawk, a dancer, an airplane, a buffalo, an archer, and the only thing I know for sure about it is that I am, like the magpie, resourceful, and like the meadowlark, vulnerable.
Reprinted with Permission