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A Sacred Geography: An Altered History of Family and Place

My home was a land of sharp contrasts: the Native American, the Hispanic, and the Anglo living in a landscape that holds even starker contrasts than those of its peoples' different hues and cultures. There the Rocky Mountains make their last great thrusts against gravity, pushing immense granite slabs high into the open sky of New Mexico--the land of my birth.

My Oregonian father loved these sometimes harsh lands and my mother, whom he met there. My parents met in a Ponderosa Pine forest in the Sandia Mountains, beside a clear brook rushing to its appointment with the desert below. Along the same stream, some ten years later, we cast the ashes of my father's body.

In the years that followed I grew to know this piece of land more fully than I ever knew my father. I spent many nights camped at the bank of that stream staring at the stars and straining to hear my father's voice in the water and the wind.

My father's clear and deep voice never echoed down from the canons of those now far away New Mexico mountains, but a message did come to me. The time I spent in Cañóncito contemplating my heritage, my father, and how they had merged with the forest before me, infused me with a deep respect for the forest and the life living there. The ashes of my father's body have been recycled back into life, and have conveyed a kinship with that life to me. A part of my father lives in the forest, not just in my memories, but in the nutrients of the spongy moss, the gnarled Cedar, and the screaming jay.

The connection my father gave me to that place carried over to the way I feel about wilderness everywhere. The relationships I established in Cañóncito have helped me to see nature everywhere as something I'm intimately joined with. I realize that not only do I take my subsistence from the land, but that someday I will give my body back to the soil, that it may be fertile again.

I haven't returned for years to the place where my father's ashes were spread, but I often see it when I travel in the remaining stretches of forest around my home in Eugene, Oregon. The forests here are much different than those of my homeland, but a deep reverence defines my relationship with both. Many of the forests around Cañóncito in the Sandia mountains of New Mexico are stunted and twisted by the lack of sun and the extreme temperature changes of the high desert. Although the pines grow large in some areas, they never covered wide enough of an expanse of land to attract much attention from timber exploiters.

The history of the Oregon forests tells a much different story. The great Douglas Firs of Oregon have long been profitable and have attracted so much interest from timber cutters that the state's native forests are almost all gone. To be sure, the forests of New Mexico are at danger on a number of fronts, but nothing on the scale of the assault on Oregon's forests.

In New Mexico the forests are much smaller and more isolated than here in Oregon. What there is a lot of in New Mexico is open space, mostly covered by high desert. The deserts of New Mexico were so open and isolated, that the US government thought they would be a good place to develop and test the first nuclear weapons.

The first test of a nuclear weapon occurred in just outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico just over fifty years ago. One of the primary development labs was in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The research there was so secret that the government made the entire site a secret, although it was the size of a small town. Before I left New Mexico on my own for the first time, I spent almost a month in the mountains overlooking the town of Los Alamos. I thought of the atom bomb's mushroom cloud and I imagined how it must have looked as it cast its dark shadow over my father's face as he saw it tested. I thought of the ash and fallout from that devastating weapon. How ironic that we made my father's body into ash and cast it over the earth just as he had been covered by the ash of a nuclear bomb test. Soon after watching a nuclear test my father contracted a rare form of cancer; he died three months after being diagnosed.

After I left the mountains overlooking Los Alamos, I returned to spend one last night in Cañóncito, that land still so much a part of me. That night I dreamt of waking to find my father bent over the fire boiling the morning coffee. My mind raced with questions built up since I was three years old. He turned as I approached, and I looked into his deep eyes--the same shade of blue as my own. My soul was quieted and my questions forgotten. The time was too important for profound questions, so we spoke instead of the stream rushing to its appointment with the desert below.

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