Thursday, May 15, 2014

Xylotheque: "Lithodendron"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Lithodendron" first appeared in Blue Mesa Review in 2012.

Excerpt from “Lithodendron”

We come on one of the coldest days of the year. A steady wind pierces our clothing, and the overcast sky, bruised a faint gray and yellow, threatens rain. We are kept company by a raven that sits on a lone post and periodically rasps out a cry. The few other people who have come today are quiet and reverent, moving silently with heads bent to the wind. Wearing fleece jackets, windbreakers, and hiking boots, they move alone or in pairs. Our party of three seems excessive. There are no children besides my daughter, who is not quite five.

We have come to a forest that is a desert, a desert that is a forest. Vegetation maps identify this part of Arizona as “barren land” because greenery covers less than 5 percent of the surface. Shrubs, sparse grasses, lone stunted junipers, yucca, and prickly-pear cactuses stud the landscape here and there, but I have to seek them out. They are subtle, never accosting the eye. Petrified Forest National Park is a land of barrenness: cracked mud, dust, clay, multihued strata. In places the landscape seems rusted, and this is not so far from the truth. Oxidation produces reds, pinks, oranges. In other places, the strata are blue, gray, black. This land of arroyos, washes, canyons, mesas, and plateaus has been sculpted by erosion, picked clean by time.

The eye does not at first recognize the trees in this forest. They litter the ground in great broken slabs like ancient columns that have fallen to ruin. They have been literally turned to stone: petrified. What is a stone tree? Is it mineral or vegetable? They rest in heaps upon the desert floor like great bones sucked dry by the centuries. For millennia they were pressed between the strata of the earth, like botanical specimens preserved in the pages of a book. They are long-embedded splinters that have been exuded by the earth’s skin, which here is parched and scaly like a reptile’s. Or they are the blanched ribs of time itself, lying broken in an ascetic landscape. They are landmarks in time. The landscape itself seems broken, in a state of final ruin, and yet all landscapes are broken. All are in continuous states of creation and destruction. On this December day the land is just a single iteration of itself. It was never more complete. It was never fixed. 

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.

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