Essay • Amy Leach
But the Earth is not full of flowers, but schist and samarskite and skulls, and hardpan so infernally dense it cracks your pick axe and then your crowbar, shatters your jackhammer, your million-pound excavator, and finally your two-million-pound excavator, after it tries to pull the smaller one out, spurts oil from its splitter box and kicks the bucket too.
Earth is a frustrating substrate to live on, by Gog—not just for jackhammers and excavators but also for little mesquite beans plopped down in the desert. Whose fiendish joke is it, to drop them onto a griddle and bid them grow? But it is not a fiend but a cow, and the cow is not making a joke, just a turd; then off she ambles with all her cares. The bean must be its own bidder, its own shovel and shoveler, and its own yardstick, measuring the distance to the water with itself.
Now if distance is your only problem you can just plod your way to success, like a hexapod. But often there is also the problem of direction—the necessary things being scattered willy-nilly through the world, at fathomless slants, at terrible removes. Finding them calls for not only determination but also derangement. Mesquites send their roots hazarding in every direction, turning the earth upside down trying to find something to drink. (The mesquite tree has been called “the devil with roots” but this is obviously a misnomer as devils can only travel in straight lines. Japanese zigzag bridges are built with this in mind.)
If only the roots could sense where the water is, like witching sticks. But if roots are witching sticks, they are witching sticks with all the premonition of yardsticks. Into the ground they grow, whose only power is stab, displacing the earth particle by particle, tedious and slow-straining and unmagic: if Earth be thy substrate, then Earth be thy substrate.
After you’ve been stabbing in the dark for a while and you stub your roots on hardpan and it seems as though you haven’t made the slightest progress—are everywhere blighted, everywhere foiled—it might be tempting to just conk out. Enough is enough, by Jolly! Why must I spend my life blundering around in the dark for something that might not even exist? Answering voices will eagerly confirm that water is a far-fetched notion, that you can relinquish your tormenting strain; they will happily receive you into their confederacy. “We once felt that juvenile strain toward water too, before we wised up and learned to appreciate the available. Give up your anguished unrest, your sospira, your solitary wrestling with rocks.” These are the dogmatically dead, who because they have not dug down very deep think they are very intelligent. They pass the jug of dust, smacking their mandibles.
But after enough time hope is no longer so diffident and deferential, so easily suppressed if you come across a tempting alternative to life. When hope is an infant you can swing it along in a bunting bag or leave it swaddled in the banjo box. But with time and exertion hope waxes huge—huge as a Pictish king. Even if you tire of his outlandish campaigns, ain’t no Pictish king going to stay swaddled in the banjo box.
Of course some situations call for more rebellious hopes than others. Living out in the voluptuous Atchafalaya, tupelos have no need of hope, with showers falling into their laps. The Earth is their tuffet. Senita of Sonora, she can just sleep until it rains, then grow her little rain roots to sip it up. And air plants like Spanish moss needn’t make any contact with the ground whatsoever; they are loose as leprechauns; they drape themselves over tree branches, dangling their roots, drinking in the fantabulous fog. Air plants are used to make air guitars and you can hear that in their song; but violins, when they were maples, dug down deep, and tubas were born deep.
Some people, when they open their door in the morning, have scores of angels surging in, so many that they have to contrive minor favors for them to perform, such as hamster-petting and thimble-polishing. Other people, if they have an angel at all he’s an angel on the run, an estranged angel, and they have to hunt him down in the wilderness, hiding behind boulders all night, to try and ambush him and wrestle him to the ground, stomping down heavy boots on those colossal pearly-feathered wings, demanding, for God’s sake, a little help.
Such an adversarial angel is the Earth, for some of its residents, its help so unavailable. There is fresh water under the ocean, but whose roots could reach it? The Ogallala aquifer underlies Texas and Kansas and Nebraska, but unevenly, in places a feasible 100 feet below the surface; in others an impossible 400 feet down. They say difficulty is an invitation; does that mean the more the difficulty, the more the invitation? Is impossibility the deepest invitation of all? Mesquites have been found with their roots grown right through hardpan, grappling the planet, searching for the unsearchable.
Because of his utterness he is considered a chopdown tree and rarely gets invited to lawn parties. Ornamental trees know how to get invited to lawn parties, how to cultivate influential friends: they do this by making their friends feel influential. They send a branch in a gauche direction or grow eleven extra leaves on one side, and call Yoo-hoo, attend, my contours are in danger! and friends come running to remove the offending material. The dandy gets waited on twig and trunk and the influencers get to tend to a plant with fixable problems, problems of punctilio, problems of contour, problems of form.
The mesquite makes nobody feel influential, as it is impossible to influence him. You can’t stop his everlasting littering or get him to stop scratching your cattle with his three-inch thorns; you can hardly buy or sell him or plant him or transplant him, or kill him: administer your bulldozers, heavy chains, fire, he will laugh them off, for he is importunity incarnate. Chop down the incarnation, the incarnation returns. Hack off his visible self, dance on his grave, and soon you’ll be dancing in his sprouting green hair, then up in his strong arms, and how embarrassing, unless you are a turkey, to be seen dancing in the arms of a tree.
This is why only turkeys and other gallybaggers enjoy mesquites. The lacy shade and bittersweet beans of the mesquite attract wild pigs and pocket mice and porcupines, and a few dotty Texans and screech owls. Because for screech owls, a good party is not one where they can see and be seen but one where they can see and not be seen. In the feather-resembling bark of the mesquite, little screech owls can impersonate nobody and ponder the riffraff.
This is how the mesquite ends up with a confederacy after all—not a confederacy of cadavers, nor one of influencers, but a confederacy of enjoyers—not a confederacy it joins before it has a self but one it elicits with a self, a flinty self with vast underground contours. Errancy is onerous and errancy is freedom and errancy is exercise. If you have an inerrant javelin that never misses the mark you only need to throw it once; but with an errant javelin, you grow strong with all the overthrowing, underthrowing, and rummaging through the junipers. After all his fumblesome toil, you might think the mesquite would be a grim man; but if he toils into water he’s a green man, merry-mantled, foresting the desert. Like all beans the mesquite returns nitrogen to the ground, transforming a scorchy waste into a greeny glade for gaga mice.
But the weather never goes away. Aquifers can fall, five feet in a year, and sometimes all you get from a storm is wind. Drought forces the mesquite to throw off his leaves, his bonhomie, and go back to far-fetching; and he may come across water once more, or he may send his taproot down to tarnation and still be sublimely wide of the mark, errant to no end. To fathom and fathom and nothing to find. The freedom to not find water might sound miserable compared with the freedom to fly babblerlike to Ougadougou or run houndlike on the hummocks or go vanquishing the Visigoths. But the freedom to dig his own disputable way—that’s the freedom the thorny little tree was given. And if 160 feet of earth intervene between him and nothing, and he discovers down there, not the Ogallala, but an abominably yawning copper mine—still he has the freedom to house in his heart that dissident green, until the last stab—to never mistake dust, though he swallow barrelfuls of the stuff, for water.
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are (Milkweed). Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, and she has been recognized with a Whiting Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in Montana.
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