For the letter S, I am grateful to have been decades-long friends with the likes of Larry Stevens, Humberto Suzan, Tom Sheridan, Victoria Shoemaker, Gary Snyder, and Christine Szuter — not to mention my affection for Sara St. Antoine, Tom Sisk, Davis Suro, Kim and William Stafford, Hope Shand, Stuart Struever, Jack Shoemaker, and Charles Savitt.
I will leave you just a few glimpses of how deep my gratitude goes. One summer evening in the Sonoran Desert, Humberto Suzan and his wife Lupe Malda were collected nectar and doing counts of night-blooming cereus flowers on the Sonoran side of the border, while my kids Dustin and Laura Rose were helping me do the same on the Arizona side just 50 meters away from them.
We were spellbound by the beauty of the desert world. But at 9:30 PM, I had the kids hop in the back seat of the Jeep so we could go through the Sonoita Port of Entry and another 4 miles to pick Lupe and Humberto up before the port closed at 10 pm. We picked them up and were talking about the night’s “finds” as we bounced down a gravel road on the southside of the border until Dustin exclaimed, “Look Papa I think a Mexican mariachi band is in the middle of the road.” But as I slowed down and the dust cleared, Humberto whispered, ‘Those aren’t guitarrones and bajo sextos they are carrying… they are machine guns. They are either the Anti-Narco squad or the Cartel!”
As we slowed to a halt, we were mobbed by a squad of Anti-Narcos, one of whom put the barrel of his gun right into the window of the back seat where my kids were sitting. Fortunately, Humberto stayed cool while he explained what we were doing; the Anti-Narco squad apologized, saying they were waiting for a similarly looking vehicle of the Cartel’s that they had been tipped off about.
All in a night’s work as desert ecologists studying the effects of the border on cacti and their pollinators. Humberto was lead author on at least a half dozen papers that came out of that field work, and one of them in particular-with data in it from that very night– was later used to address the potential negative impacts of Trump’s wall.
Just too short one-liners to help young writers before I go overboard and tell you about all of these fine friends.
For reasons I’ll never understand, famed archaeologist Stuart McKee Struever sought me when he was at the height of his career, and I was just beginning mine both as a writer and a botanical garden research team leader. As he was moving to the Southwest to found the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, someone must have given him The Desert Smells Like Rain, and he read it. Meeting for the first of several times over breakfast, he simply said to me, “I know of your interest in conservation research through museums, and that is all well and good. But trouble is, institution-building saps your creativity. I wanted to be a writer when I was younger, and I’ve never gotten back to it. Reserve time for your writing every year of your life, or that light will flicker away.”
Somewhere around that time, I decided to take a summer writing workshop from the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Quaker conscientious objector (during World War II) William Stafford. When I asked him how he became so steady in his generation of stunning little poems, he simply said, “Write a little every morning before everyone else in your household wakes up. Write about what you may already know but are still trying to figure out and set your sights low… a few lines salvaged from one bad poem may later make into a perfectly good one. Save the scraps.”
And when we to teach together once in Sitka, I found Gary Snyder sitting on the floor in our suite of rooms, drinking wine and relaxing. After a while, he asked me, “I know you admire Wendell Berry a lot as a Farmer-Poet, but did I hear that you are trying to farm? Most of us can’t keep our writing discipline up if we are doing something else on that scale. Keep a little garden sure; but make your writing your farmstead.”