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The time to act is always now... avoiding regrets later
Exactly 210 miles due north of my backwoods New Mexico home sits the little frontier town of Telluride, nested between the peaks of Colorado’s beautiful San Juans. It reportedly got its name from the muleskinners yelling “To hell you ride!” as they maneuvered the racing freight wagons down the treacherously steep mountain. Nine out of ten wagons made it into the village. One out of ten plummeted off the cliffs.
Long after the mines played out and the only road was paved, it was still quite an effort and an adventure to get there. Like my nearby village of Reserve, it’s located hundreds of miles from a city of any size. The roads are twisty, the mountain passes are icy and dangerous in the Winter, and a lonely driver spends hours in his car between cafes and gas stations. No one wound up there by mistake or on whim. If you made it to Telluride it was because you really, really wanted to be there! This was a great benefit to the fourth and fifth generation locals there, who liked to see a little money trickle into the community, but who were always glad the crowds didn’t get too big, and usually smiled with relief when the last tourists left.
For years folks parked in the middle of Main St. to exchange the latest gossip. And while people complained about the price of food at the only grocery store, they were glad not to have to go to the “darn city” to stock up. People played softball, attended socials, held dances and celebrated their remote, mountain defined culture.
By the 1960's the town had started to change but there was no real crime there most of the time. Sure, there were a large number of heavy drinkers and a few philanderers, but everybody knew who the only thief in town was, and he was more or less tolerated so long as he only stole from well-heeled “touristas.” The locals hunted the plentiful deer whenever they needed meat, and the Sheriff’s main duties involved helping tipsy saloon patrons walk the two blocks to their home.
By the 1980’s they were getting pretty well known for their Summer bluegrass festival, but it was still a real adventure for anyone to make the trip, no matter where the heck they were starting from. Of course, a few well-heeled land developers started talking about the need to “overcome Telluride’s primitive isolation,” but no one really believed things would ever change... or, at least, that they would change so fast.
Until the first airstrip went in, that is. Suddenly it required neither obsession nor perseverance to make one’s pilgrimage to this special place, and anybody with the price of a ticket could check their golf clubs with the Denver Airport baggage handlers after work on Friday, and by evening be sipping marguerites in sight of Telluride’s scenic waterfall in the heart of the of the once unspoiled San Juans. Suddenly, instead of intrepid souls and wild eyed adventurers planning for months to make the sojourn of a lifetime, nothing more was required than a momentary whim. You can easily imagine the tone of the nattily dressed Salt Lake City lawyer or trendy Berkeley bartender, worried most about the area hotel rooms not being modern enough, or the local clubs sufficiently hopping: “I just can’t seem to decide where to go this weekend, and you know how easily bored I get... maybe I’ll buzz over to check out Telluride.”
As a direct result of such newfound convenience, longtime resident’s homes were soon bought out at inflated prices and turned into shops full of “Indian” crafts, souvenir snow globes with clearly drowned plastic skiers, and paintings of the nice way the place used to look before the ski resort spread out. Swiss Chalets quickly overshadowed the historic log cabins and vintage Victorian style houses. And worst of all, those apartments for part-timers they call “condominiums” started sprouting up everywhere one looked, like boils on a burn victim. As a result, people who arrived with the intention of having an experience in nature found themselves spending all too much of their June in chlorine-filled pools, or sitting in front of the TV’s in their rented rooms.
If that wasn’t enough, the community soon found itself in a major battle over the expansion of the airport, proposed in order to make it possible for small private jets to land. Environmentalist ski-bums joined with old time ranchers in opposing the plan, but they may have waited too long to band together and resist the changes that were being forced on them. When it was over, a handful of big-dollar lawyers and investors had effectively bought out or overcome the will of the locals and construction began. As a consequence, real estate prices rapidly soared. A good amount of money was made by those who sold their beloved homes and moved away, and those trying desperately to hang on soon found the annual land taxes had gone up too high for them to pay. Everyday workers were losing their houses to “second home” buyers from out of state. They found themselves living in and commuting from Sawpit and Placerville, a 30 minute or more commute from the place where they actually wanted to sleep.
Today the town is not only gussied up but generally gentrified. The sidewalks are sparkly clean, buildings have been nicely restored and the signs freshly painted. Unfortunately, the few kids from local bloodlines that still hang out there are stuck with pouring bubbly water for thirsty restaurant patrons. We find them maintaining the ski lifts in their tee shirts ironically festooned with corporate advertisement, or wearing little white caps to keep the grease out of their hair while flipping veggie burgers for their Winnebago driving patrons. I remember one ol’ gal, still pissed off about what they’d done to her little town and their once way of life. I can recall her looking past the blinking traffic lights and three story condos to the storm clouds forming and fuming just above the mountain. “If only we would have could have done something sooner!” she growled. “If only we’d seen it coming...”
And “it” is on its way, no matter where you live or may ever visit, to all the places that you might love just as they are: The scenery, transformed not by art or need but by a clumsier hand, into fabrications of the tacky visions of advertising executives with predictable post modern tastes. The rural, recreational or agrarian culture you may have valued, not vanquished but sidelined, diluted, marginalized, and finally infiltrated, perverted and appropriated. The Old Town section of your favorite city, with its park or plaza, narrow streets lined with hawking vendors and busking musicians torn down as part of some hallucinatory scheme. The neighborhood with big yards where children play and flower gardens flourish, inexorably inundated with poured concrete and molten asphalt the way that Hawaiian volcanoes lay claim to nearby schoolyards with their suffocating lava. The precious quiet, awaiting like a politically correct pacifist for a future mugging by the abrasive tenor of constantly arriving aircraft and consistently congested traffic. The building of new airports where there were none, but also the swallowing of smaller airports where you may have enjoyed watching takeoffs and landings as a kid, by the broad security perimeters of giant mega-airports. And you can’t say that you didn’t see it coming... once you’ve had forceful denial and comforting delusion dashed by this unenviable article.
We rightly get angry about those harmful and unbeauteous things that we have no influence over, yet by my reckoning, we need only regret that which we fail act on or respond to. We’ll certainly have little cause to regret later those things that we successfully – or even unsuccessfully – repelled or resisted now.
One of the most sacred places to ponder or pray has got to be outside, under a temple of overhanging ponderosa pines, surrounded by the beauty of creation. And some of the best places to learn about life are far from school, in swim holes and Indian caves, on secretive hunting trails, and in patches of edible plants as you harvest them for a Southwestern meal. The two best teachers of all time are experience, and the natural world. We can learn a whole lot about life from hard work on the family farm, from sailing a small boat through choppy seas, or from spending the day picking sweet red candies off a wild mulberry tree.
My "edible plants" book claims that the ones we find scattered around this area are "Texas Mulberries," but it simply can't be so... after all, this is New Mexico! So let us call them Gila Mulberries instead, native to this county where I've long lived, cherished as well by the ancient Mogollon tribes that fed on them, and a treat still to any cowboys or backpackers lucky enough to stumble on one on a hot day in June. And there is so much to learn climbing around in their giving green boughs, our mouths and fingers stained with berry juice.
Here are some typical silvan insights, and the potential implications for our personal lives, informed by the Earth, mulberry wise!:
1) Well managed orchards are impressive, but the rareness of wild mulberry trees make them the most special of all... (The lesson: seek friends and lovers, causes and careers, places and moments full of character and meaning — rather than those that conform best, or produce the most).
2) Hikers that are too busy talking, can walk right under a tree's branches without noticing its berries... (The lesson: the entire natural world is constantly trying to teach and nourish us. There are lessons, gifts and miracles all around, if only we'd wake up and open to them).
3) Turn or duck your head even the slightest bit, and you may spot berries you hadn't previously seen... (The lesson: in life, the slightest change in our perspective often bears fruit).
4) The sweetest berries nest high in the tree, and it can be dangerous getting to them... (Special rewards come to folks who are willing to risk a fall).
5) At the same time, we often we reach out far for what looks like a special berry, only to find sweeter ones right under our nose... (Things tend to look more exotic and appealing at a distance, but don't forget that the greatest treasures in life are those close at hand).
6) When high in the tree, the careful gatherer keeps a firm hold with whichever hand isn't busy picking... (When taking risks and making changes, it's important to keep a grip on the here and now, the certain, the reliable, the true).
7) Carefully sample the strength of any branch, before putting all your weight into it... (It's smart to test any options– any forks or branches in the trail of life– before we fully commit to them).
8) If the tree gets no rain it'll die. Yet if over watered, its fruits turn out colorless and bland.... (We need sustenance and attention. But those who are fussed over and smothered, who never learn to do without, are often the least interesting and effective people of all).
9) Some wild foods spoil more quickly than others. This is why ground squirrels carry most of the acorns they gather home to their nest, but eat any mulberries they find right away... (The wise person knows when to store and save, and when to just take it all in and enjoy).
10) The softer the berry, the sweeter it usually is... (We may pride ourselves on our toughness, but it can leave a bitter taste).
11) It takes a lot of roots to hold a tree upright during the windy days of Spring... (Family, community, history, tradition and relationship to place are what keep us grounded in the face of disruption and change. If we're to avoid being toppled, we'd better hang tightly to our roots).
12) Some of the tastiest berries can be found lying on the ground... (Along with the sugar of life, comes a little grit and dirt. And for some of the greatest gifts of all, we have to be willing to get down on our knees).
13) A wild mulberry tree only has fruit for a few short weeks each year, and the committed berry lover will make sure not to miss a single day... (The lesson: sweet life, at its best, is relatively short. Be there for it– eyes wide, mouth watering, heart willing... and fully thankful).