Saturday, July 10, 2021

The #Midwessay: Pilar Christiana Graham, First Watch

First Watch

Pilar Christiana Graham


“Sugar Loaf," photograph by Kelli Birk

The midwestern landscape is abstract, and our response to the geology of the region might be similar to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in the museums. We are forced to live in our eyes, in the outposts of our consciousness, the borders of our being. Forget the heart. In the flatness, everywhere is surface. —Michael Martone, The Flatness and Other Landscapes

Sugar Loaf is a bluff I call a mountain. It invites me into a Minnesota portal where I am free to explore the natural world. I carry a four-inch jackknife with an inlay of wood and brass trim—a gift from my father. I want to resist that I am cautious, and instead, I carry the knife because it used to belong to my father. There will be a story and a set of circumstances in receiving the knife. He passes down a responsibility. I am the boy he will never have. Instead, I am the first born of two girls—his only children, and in his third and final marriage. When I am fifty-years old, my father will turn ninety.  I listen to the rules of owning a jackknife: beware of the pointed tip, where to position my fingers when I safely snap the blade shut, and keep the knife protected from rain. My father makes a full circle with his instructions, and then repeats any earlier precautions of jackknife ownership. I watch my father and nod as he speaks, but my six-year old brain thinks about the word images, like jackrabbit, Jack and the Beanstalk, and jack-of-all trades. The responsibility in owning a jackknife is like that of any other: Your own weapon can sharply turn against you. This warning will follow me through the rest of my life: the weapons I carry, the weapons I create, fail to make, and the weapons against myself. I take my Baby Alive doll and the jackknife up the mountain: I enter the forest—armed.  I live within this space, born in an era where children could still explore—unattended and outdoors; in the 1970’s, on the mountain there’s no need for someone to watch.

The anatomy of a mountain demands one feel alive. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the “yellow afternoons of October,” and how beauty cannot be fully grasped, or how the country-life “possesses for a powerful mind,” and several decades later, long after Sugar Loaf, when I am tucked below the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, and only a few months after the Big Creek Fire of California, I am reminded of Emerson. Central California is burning itself from the inside out. During the fires, the Sierra sky hangs low, becoming a brownish-gray afterthought.  Laced with an oily aftermath of charcoal, we will discover regret and loss.  Grief lives amongst the muted green foliage; its leaves now curl at the edges of evacuation alerts. Not even the low vibration of a hummingbird can be heard. An evacuation has the ability to fold inside itself, flattening out any sound. 
     Miles of mountain ridges emit an orange glow, and its own weather system can be seen from space. The wildfire will rage for almost two months, burning 379,895 acres, placing itself in the top ten largest wildfires in California history. The granite bones of the mountains disappear behind flame.  I begin to yearn for Sugar Loaf, several states away and to think about how it’s been over thirty years since I stood looking at her glory. My mind releases memory in a single breath.  During an evacuation, no jackknife can save us now; we are even closer to ash, made of dust. The word ash becomes part our daily vocabulary.  Everyone is on first watch—taking shifts between earth and sky.  Fire reforms, always leaving behind the evidence. 

I enter the trail and climb towards a wooded canopy of trees, my child-belly puffs sharply in and out. Alert and rebellious as a blue jay, my senses are quick; this is the landscape of my isolation.  Survival tastes of dust on my lips. Most times, the goal is to reach the pinnacle of Sugar Loaf and locate the sandstone caves, where a panoramic view of Winona lives. These are the remains of a rock quarry from the 19th century that were used to build the sidewalks of Winona. Using the knife, I carve my initials at the door of the cave. Beneath the dust, it reads: PG.
     During the jackknife training, my father tells me if a snake were to cross my path…be very still, since we may not see the other one coming. Who should move first? But right now, I’m not thinking about my father’s warnings.  But, I do live by the warnings, which includes avoiding the temptation to enter the caves. It’s the last time I will remember standing at any entrance with more curiosity than fear.  I toss a rock inside to see if any animals dart out. Watch your steps on the path, learn to speak aloud, and perhaps one day, you will be so lucky to scare off the ghosts of summer snakes. 

There are ways one lives outside the natural world, where instincts become silenced, reserved, and ground down like stone dust. This deviation is served by impatience and a bone-pressed rush to keep up. We become lost: we long for a sense of purpose or direction, even when still on course. The gaze shifts from mortality. They call it growing up, not down.  It’s the dust that makes us, even if we spend our entire lives brushing off denial. It’s the people we cling to, the ones who say they will keep first watch. We carry on in these moments of trust. Some of them even move into marriage. 
     Here on Sugar Loaf, there are no county historical markers to serve as direction. Our bodies move by the homegrown trails—trails that have been worn comfortably wide enough for one person.  The wild becomes soft and yields to the surrounding visit.  I come to know the trails on the mountain well and work to find short cuts: small parts between the brush that can take off hours going up and down the mountain.  I stop to identify wildflowers, pick the bark on the trees, collect rocks along the way. The tall grasses hush back and forth in the wind. I scout for stones that resemble bird eggs, or heart-shaped rocks, which serve as signs I uncover against the caramel-colored sand. Stone by stone, the landscape surrenders and I am lured to survey the private particles of her natural beauty, if even for this moment in the midst of her disintegration, the microscopic specs of yesterday. Months after the fire, and decades after the jackknife, my father will give me a telescope for my day hikes into the Sierra National Forest. This time, the circumstances around this new responsibility did need not be spoken. The story is more about being prepared for what I cannot see on the trail. 

Pilar Christiana Graham is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. Pilar received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing – Poetry from California State University, Fresno. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals and anthologies, such as: Sundog, Pithead Chapel Press, Haunted Waters Press, From the Depths, Blackberry, Poetry Midwest, In the Grove, and San Joaquin Review. 

Pilar divides her time teaching at California State University, Monterey Bay and at Fresno City College in California, and has served as a poetry editor and judge for both local and national events.

Pilar was the third generation to be born in Michigan, and at one-year old, became the fourth generation to be raised in Winona, Minnesota. She now lives in California, and can be often be found in the Sierra National Forest, translating metaphors and turning juxtapositions into essays and poems—figuratively, wearing her stilettos. 

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this essay. I felt as though I was with six year old Pilar listening to dad, climbing the mountain, and throwing rocks into the caves to see if anything was in there.