THE WALK by William deBuys

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“Muscular and smart.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In THE WALK, William deBuys writes about personal loss and the power of the landscape to nurture the recovery of hope. The book consists of three interrelated essays that move from a period of strife in the author’s life to a kind of limbo and eventually to a place of peace. The setting is deBuys’ small farm in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Each morning, he takes the same walk through the woods, arriving, as he describes in the first essay, at a clarity that comes from looking at the same vantage point for years. The middle essay, “Geranium,” takes its name from a mare deBuys had to put down, and whose remains become one with the forest. In the final essay, deBuys reflects on drought, the loss of a friend, and the resurgence of land and hope. Contemplative, compassionate, and quietly humorous, THE WALK is nature writing at its finest.

  • "Muscular and smart." —San Francisco Chronicle

    "The Walk will resonate with all readers." —Bloomsbury Review

    "A powerfully quiet and deeply centered book." —Bill McKibben

    "Inspiring simply because it is so perfectly written ... THE WALK is a few shades short of melancholy — and it is altogether lovely." —High Country News

    "Love fractures and friends die. We turn back to renew ourselves amid the energies of the world. In THE WALK William deBuys finds solace an healing while hiking in groves of yellow bark ponderosa, in the first flush of spring irrigation water and horses running through stands of timothy — the various glories we share while trying to do good work together. It's a story from which an old western fellow like me took considerable heart." —William Kittredge

    "This book is a marvel of the small detail that opens great vistas in the heart." —Alison Hawthorne Deming

  • A species of hope resides in the possibility of seeing one thing, one phenomenon or essence, so clearly and fully that the light of its understanding illuminates the rest of life. Almost any object of contemplation can be the vehicle for such discovery. When I study the surface of the pine desk where I am writing and admire the faint green tint of the stain that penetrates the wood and the lines of darker grain that resist the stain, it takes no leap of imagination to reflect that each line of grain marks a year of growth and to be reminded that this wood was once the flesh of a living tree. Perhaps it stood within a forest on a western mountainside, one not far different from the forest that enfolds the valley where this desk occupies the corner of a cabin, a forest that clothed itself in a green of which the stain of the desk is the merest echo, a forest that answered the wind with its own individual sound, singing or groaning when the wind tore through it. It would have been a forest that bore up to the lashing of rain, snow, and sun and that flourished under their mercies. It would have been a forest that harbored uncountable creatures from bacteria to bears, a biota always in tension, always dynamic, a living community of interrelations more complex than the most brilliant among us has the power to conceive. In this way, the grain of this pine desk becomes a portal to the complexity of creation.

    Or I might dwell upon the view from the window above the desk. I have surely given hours enough, cumulative days, weeks, perhaps months of my life to indolent gazing through these panes. Particularly in recent months I have contributed to that total with unprecedented, if reluctant, generosity as I have struggled to accept my newly single condition and the feeling of solitude that, uninvited, has become my closest companion.

    I can describe for you with eyes closed the toolshed appended to the cabin and the crude ramada just beyond it that shelters a firepit, dish-washing sink, and other elements of an outdoor kitchen. A little to the side, beneath the presently leafless branches of a tall, thick-trunked cottonwood, is the rust-colored but not rusting metal table where I eat when the weather allows, and beyond that the near fence with its sagging wires and canted juniper posts, and then the scruffy, tussocked hayfield, its pale stubble now yielding to a hint of green as the grasses awaken from winter's sleep. A stately line of Rocky Mountain junipers—the closest thing we have to cedars, and so we also call them that—rims the field on the uphill side. The cedars mark the path of the irrigation ditch by which the field is nourished and made to grow a mix of grasses and legumes that make an excellent horse hay: alfalfa, clover, timothy, orchard grass, and smooth brome.

    Without irrigation these plants would wither in the rainless early weeks of the growing season. With it, and with the help of neighbors, my absent partners in the land and I cut a yard-high bounty in late July or August, and although at our altitude we cut only once, we keep irrigating the stubble afterwards to grow more grass for fall grazing. Behind the cedars and the irrigation ditch rise steep hills stippled with a scrub of one-seed junipers and gnarled pines. The trees grow widely spaced and between them you see through to the pink ground, which is all but bereft of soil. Even at a distance, the fleshlike color of the land belies its aridity, for it is armored with gravels decayed from the red granites that underlie these stingy hills.

    Beyond and above the hills spreads the blue and empty sky of New Mexico, the words of which name enchant me beyond reason, suggesting not only a particular home and geography but an existence and a history shared with others, a notion of belonging in time and place, the essence of community. I believe it was Willa Cather who said — and I quote approximately — that elsewhere the land has the sky as its ceiling, but here in New Mexico, the land is the floor of the sky. Another writer, Ross Calvin captured the essence of the matter in the title of his book, Sky Determines. It is a sky that has shaped land and people not by what it gives, but by what it does not have and therefore must withhold: water. Lacking a haze of moisture, it is a giant, deep, and expansive sky, a sky so thin and light that distant objects — the far horizon of blue mountains, a high-flying jet, or cranes passing overhead — seem nearer than they are. It is a sky so weightless and pure that one is tempted to believe it places no burden on the heads and minds beneath it, a sky under which it seems possible that thoughts might come more freely and less constrained than in other places. It is a sky of double lightness, of both illumination and weightlessness.

    At no time do you sense this more than on a moonless night, gazing from this very window, or better, stepping onto the shallow porch of this two-room, mud-brick cabin to see the stars. We are far from the upwelling lights of any city. We are in a crescent-shaped valley cupped in the side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, well out of sight of the winding back road that connects Santa Fe and Taos. At night the blackness of our sky is truly black, the stars stunningly bright. Across the center of the heavens the Milky Way spreads like a smear of butterfat, shining so intensely that there seems to be no dark between the stars. It is a display so striking that one never tires of fetching binoculars and confirming with the aid of magnification that no matter where one looks, one sees light beyond light beyond light, stretching to infinity. And yet it is not infinity; it is only the Milky Way, our home galaxy. It seems to stretch to the limits of the universe, and yet we are in it. It is the embodiment of out there, and yet it includes us. In this way, looking far and long, the view from this cabin and its writing desk has the power to draw one's imagination to the limits of the cosmos.

    Have no doubt, though, this cabin does not stand in Eden. The woodstove is smoking unpleasantly, and legions of spring flies that hatch in the pasture soil are on the march, buzzing toward the warmth of these adobe walls, creeping under the door sill or in through the walls, perhaps following the grainwise splits in the roof beams, the round, whole logs we call vigas. Others penetrate gaps around the window moldings or through cracks I can neither fathom nor find. Only a few have yet arrived, for it is still early in April, but I know they are on their way, and their ranks will soon swell to become an army of distraction, of disturbance, of disgust. As even Eden had its snake, every cabin has its flies, and this one has more than any other I have known. There have been times following long absences, when I have returned to find gruesome swarms of thousands of flies, alive, dead, and writhing in transition from one state to the other, blackening the window sills, corpses spilling to the floor. I tiptoe in, trying vainly not to step on any. From a corner of the room I retrieve a small vacuum cleaner that stands always at the ready. At the flip of a switch, the whine of its electric motor drowns out the seething buzz, and, as clouds of flies vanish down the throat of the machine, the room fills with a cloying, sweet odor, faintly redolent of peanut butter, which is the smell of fly bodies rendered by the violence of the vacuum into a mildly greasy dust.

    Even when conditions are not so Hitchcockian, when only one or two fat survivors drone in circles through the rooms, the flies have an unsettling effect. They connect me to a history of two and a half decades of battling insects, mice, squirrels, wood rats, and other creatures that have vied to share this home with me and my now fractured family. The invasions have ranged from the vexing to the horrific. They tie me to my own, lamentably overdeveloped capacity for impatience and frustration, and if I wanted to follow that thread still farther, which I do not, I might easily tie it to every fault in my psychology, every episode of shortness, cruelty, petulance, self-pity — the list of possibilities might soon exhaust the most patient reader — of which I have been guilty. I digress in this manner only to make the point that almost any stimulus — the taste of a madeleine or the buzzing of a fly — may lead anywhere, including inward by way of faults, feelings, or details of personal history to take us on an inner journey of unlimited extent.

    The study of character — our own or others' — is really the study of the world, for all that we keep of the world we capture in our memories and feelings, which feed the formation of character. The most powerful of those memories connect to the deaths and losses, the departures of love, the realizations of imperfection and unrequitedness that have both opened and broken our hearts. Ultimately these feelings bring us back to the unavoidable solitude of the self, where we ponder how to live and be, how to transcend or make peace with the aloneness of consciousness. And where we also ponder how we might find in our existential solitude the link to solidarity and fellowship and even to intimacy with the soul of another. In this way, we can travel great distances on the back of a buzzing fly.

  • The walk I would take you on is one I have been making for twenty-seven years. A dispassionate observer, watching from afar, might say that for more than a quarter century I have going in circles, round and round the same hill. Sometimes with family or friends, more often alone, in all seasons and weathers, times of day and even night, rain and snow, sun and moon, around I go, up one arroyo, down another, back by the river and the ancient mill, and up through the farm. Or clockwise, the other way around. I may even have made the circuit a time or two in my dreams, for there are places I feel sure I have visited — a coyote den in an arroyo bank, a bear trail up high on the canyonside — to which I have tried to return, but the places seem to have disappeared. I concede that perhaps they never existed. I am twenty-seven years invested in making this circuit, in mulling and trying to read the story of a single landscape over a long time, in using the same walking meditation to hear, or at times quiet, the voices inside my head. The walk is like a piece of music that I partly play and partly listen to, a theme-and-variation composition built up from hundreds of rehearsals and excursions. Having now spent slightly more than half my life studying this score, I feel I am still trying to learn it, still trying to understand my part and how to play it.

    I do not always take the walk on foot. Many are the times I have ridden it, or parts of it, on the back of a horse. It is not hard to summon up twenty-seven years of mounts: King, Prince, Flo, Geranium, Spottie, Babe, Dandy, Sundown, and Smokey. Any of them, even with caution in the canyon rocks, could have made the loop in fifteen minutes without being much winded at the end. On foot it’s a forty-minute stroll, if you take the route that’s most direct, which I rarely do. I am a slower version of the three generations of border collie that have kept me company on these rounds: Creeper, Ike and Sadie, Wes. The dogs trot the trail, then catch a scent and veer into the brush. It’s the same, in a way, for me. I walk or ride a horse, thinking I am going straight along, but then a sound, a glint of light, a stray idea — some tug on sense or mind — and I see I am headed somewhere else — to the boneyard where I shot the mare, to a check dam in the arroyo, to a well-known tree or rocky outcrop, or to no certain place at all. I take the walk, and then the walk takes me.

    The pace of choice for venturing into the woods, according to the most celebrated of American walkers, is the saunter. Henry David Thoreau boasted that he sauntered daily and for hours through the Concord woods, and he relished the derivation of the word. It originated, he said, nearly a thousand years ago, in the time of the Crusades, when Europe swarmed with pilgrims bound for the Holy Land, la sainte terre. Not every pilgrim marched with resolution nor meant to reach Jerusalem. Indeed, not every pilgrim was a pilgrim, for many used the spirit of their time as a cover for self-indulgent travel, unstructured rambling, and directionless exploring. Respectable people disparaged these half-hearted pilgrims as sante-terrers, saunterers. Such was the judgment of purposeful burghers, but not of Henry Thoreau. On no class of human being does he lavish higher praise than on the saunterers of Europe as it awakened from the Dark Ages. In the freedom with which they wandered and in their presumed openness to exploration and discovery, Thoreau found both metaphor and precedent for the way he wished to live.

    To saunter is to exercise the first of all freedoms, which is mobility, and to do so well one must go out with a mind as unfettered as the body. One goes forth limber in every aspect, legs swinging easily, arms loose and free. One’s eyes are alive to color, pattern, and movement, one’s ears alert to birdcall and windsong. The nose and tongue are gladdened by the taste of the day, and the chest fills not just with good rich air, but with exultation, or at least a sense of its possibility. The world seems open and generous, and the mind enters it, wandering as freely as the feet. Oftentimes a kind of marvelous mystery then unfolds, which no one can explain. It is the mystery of how walking lubricates the connections of thought, loosens the bonds on the subconscious, and allows unknown and unexpected ideas and feelings to surface — often the very idea or feeling or insight we have been seeking for weeks. It is the mystery of how walking helps the mind go out and the world come in, and brings us to our senses.

    At least that is how a good saunter is supposed to work, and for me it sometimes does, but I cannot always match Henry Thoreau’s cocky, not-a-care-in-the-world attitude. Sometimes I don’t saunter so much as I plod or even trudge, weighted down with cares and disappointments. In fairness, I suspect Henry had his heavy-footed days too, and if he did, he no doubt learned that by the end of a good walk, his step was often lighter than it had been starting out. Sometimes the easiest answer to our difficulties is not so much to get outside ourselves as simply to get ourselves outside. I find this especially true when I walk in deeply familiar territory.