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Alex Shapiro, composer email
Life Amidst Nature, Human and Otherwise

Cousin It?...
...as a gardener...?
Nope!

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Life Revelations in Death Valley

Instinctively I drove to Death Valley and knew I had to stay put for a while. The isolation, the unfathomable piercing heat and the vacuum of open space would somehow free my dented spirit. I sought a safe place in which I wouldn't fear the questions I needed to ask and the answers I needed to exhume— answers that I was convinced had been waiting patiently for me for a long time. To look into the endless layers of these mountains is to stare directly at millions of years of history. All I had to do was stare directly at 36 and a half years of it.

And so a few years ago, in the middle of the hottest July in many decades and in the midst of a very unhappy time for me, I set out to face my sadness surrounded by the soothing beauty waiting a few hundred miles from my home. The desert, particularly in the intense heat of summer, is a marvelous place to think.

 

Nearly everyone has some way of dealing with the chaos and pain of life; of making order out of the inexplicable. Many find religion of some organized method to be the key to sanity. It offers a set of explanations, with bargains and trades and Boolean if-then premises easily grasped and accepted. It's far more comforting to have faith in these created concepts than to have to go through one's life questioning.

For me, it's not religion but an equally comforting sense of optimism that maintains my spirit in the face of my unhappiness. Rather than look to a god for some popular digestible response to my grief, instead I've trained myself to find the good and the meaningful from bleak events. Damaging as it is to live with pent up anger and bitterness, my way of purging rage isn't in the concept of faith or forgiveness but in the pursuit of knowledge I wouldn't have gained had it not been for the unhappy circumstance in my life. I've learned that while I can't make lemonade from lemons alone, I can at least take the initiative to squeeze the sour fruit and then hunt around for the water and sugar to make a good drink.

I can't bear the thought of going through hurt and disappointment and not having the journey be worth anything. Call it emotional capitalism. I want my pain to be in the free trade market with a viable price placed upon it just like one of those lemons. I'm determined to get something out of my negative experiences, more determined the more negative they are and oddly uninterested in such free trade when my life is filled with apparent happiness. Perhaps it is a form of revenge. The more anger and malice forced into my heart like a rape, unwanted but present nonetheless, then the more intent I am on wresting control and showing these destructive interlopers that they cannot win my soul. I refuse to go through my life with the impossibly heavy baggage of sadness tethered to my ankles like an iron ball dragged by a shackled prisoner. I simply refuse.

In the early mornings and then again in mid afternoon, I'd set out on soul freeing drives to expanses of grace unlike any in the world. Sometimes on these oven hot days, with the thermometer reaching upward past 125 degrees, I’d wait out the sun's vertical celebration in the cool confines of a bar, book in hand, or in the privacy of my little motel room with the wonderful picture window. Scratching random thoughts into a simple lined notebook, I’d sit back on my bed and stare at the heat-baked Cottonwood mountains across the road, the desert brush and sand dunes draped gently at their base. Grackles and crows bounced on the low stone wall by my window, scarfing pieces of stale bread I stole for them from a restaurant. I took pity on the stag beetles and pallid-winged grasshoppers found wandering lost in my room, beneficiaries of the official Shapiro Insect and Arthropod Relocation Program which offered them respite from the searing heat outside. Countered by the dull hum of the air conditioner, the desert was otherwise silent.

It is appropriate that the only man-made object in my view was one red octagonal sign by the road in the distance which simply proclaimed, "STOP." That's right. That's my message to myself. Stop sabotaging my life. Stop diverting my focus from the work I need to do. Stop disappointing myself. Stop stopping myself. Regardless of the actions of others, I am solely responsible for my own choices. It is time to stop making poor ones.

An especially sweltering Tuesday was passed in my room sipping bourbon and Coke while writing journal entries and song lyrics like an overgrown teenager. Just opening the door to walk thirty feet to the ice machine was an event. The stunning heaviness of the arid hot air slamming my lungs was like breathing inside of a blast furnace. Suffocating and yet alluring, this new sensation mesmerized me; I was drawn to these small trips down the walkway as much for the thrill of feeling air thick enough to lean against as for any need of ice. To return to a room thermostat which declared a tepid 85 degrees was surreal; after only a few moments in this desert kiln, I’d feel nearly chilled. By the end of the day these brief expeditions were not quite enough, so I gathered my hiking gear and ventured out to explore nearby Mosaic Canyon.

As I pulled into the parking area and strapped on my boots, the last hikers in the vicinity were exiting the canyon mouth and entering their truck, driving away and leaving me in the silence of utter solitude. It was 6:15 in the evening and the sun was just tilting to a more merciful slant in the sky, cooling the air to a more comfortable 105 degrees. Undaunted by my aloneness, perhaps coaxed by it, I proceeded into this beautiful crevasse. I had a solid enough knowledge of the terrain and an understanding of the habits of the biggest threats to my safety— scorpions and rattlesnakes— and I knew just when the sun would set behind the Tucki mountain that flanked me, causing a sudden twilight as well as a sudden stir in evening activity from its cold-blooded residents.

  Watching carefully where I stepped and placed my hands, I scrambled through a set of narrows that at times were only the width of my shoulders.  
 

Not a trip for the claustrophobic, nor anyone needing to make a fast escape. I was committed. There were two points at which I paused, drank some water and questioned the wisdom of my lone gutsiness. No one knew I was in here, and I supposed I was an easy target for the rare and hungry mountain lion or the less rare and more frightening violent male human, should any enter the canyon after me. Still unfazed, I continued.

Hiking at a steady pace, I climbed a few hundred feet through the first of four sets of narrows that wind several miles deep into this secret abyss. As I crossed a dry wash that was still flooded with brilliant sunlight, my steps were unavoidably loud and crunchy on the pebbly terrain. The geology was stunning, but after nearly a mile of walking I knew that it would be unwise to progress much deeper into the gorge as night approached. I saw the beginning of the next set of narrows just ahead, tempting me with the shade they offered as the canyon once again veered and blocked the sun. I resolved to walk just to that point and then turn around. As I approached this visual da capo, I stopped and looked at my watch. It registered 6:41— still plenty of time before true darkness fell.

Just as I started to move again, I heard something that could best be described as the creaky sound of a water drop hitting a slab of rock. Although there were plenty of slabs of rock, there was absolutely no water. I stood motionless as I listened to the occasional, irregular noises. I had read that canyon stone breathes as it contracts and expands in response to heat this intense. Paired with a low, eerie hum caused by the faint wind breezing past the rocks, these unfamiliar sounds kept me fixed in place.  


For no reason at all I suddenly looked straight up and was given an enormous and touching reward for my lone, sun-drenched efforts: a grouping of three rare Bighorn sheep perched on the cliff directly above my head, seemingly as alert and interested in me as I instantly was in them. With only a few hundred of these animals in the three million acre park, this was an encounter that locals dream of. Catching my breath, I stood very still. The trio was a perfect extension of the mountain.

I silently reached into my pocket, palmed my camera and cautiously snapped some photos of my hosts. The sheep made no effort to bolt, despite the audible clicking of the shutter. Quietly replacing the camera, I picked my binoculars from my waist pack for a closer look, and again, no sign of fear from the sheep, only awareness. I heard more sounds and to the left just beneath the ridge, a fourth Bighorn came to join the group and shortly thereafter, a fifth. We stood facing each other in a benevolent, extended greeting. I counted my blessings for the time with these creatures, and for the luck of meeting them just as I had entered a shaded section of the canyon, with a comfortable rock against which to lean.

As the last sheep made its way across the craggy mountain to join its kin, big pieces of stone careened down to the canyon floor— fragments large enough to have hurt me had I been standing six yards to the left. More blessings to count. After twenty minutes I finally turned away, reminded of nightfall by the setting sun. All five sheep had climbed to the crest of the ridge and the silhouette they trapped against the darkening sky was nothing short of poetic. I said good-bye and thank you to them all and walked briskly back down the narrow canyon toward my truck. Life had presented me with a little challenge, being reasonably prepared I accepted it, and I reaped a very unexpected reward. A good life lesson for this eager student. My emotional desert had begun to flood with inner life.

©2008 Alex Shapiro

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Writing Companion

 

 

 

 

Lovely and large, an orb-weaving spider with a pointy crab-like shell had found a home in the outside window corner facing my desk. Each night as I'd work, I'd watch her make any necessary repairs to her web with methodical trance-like motions. Up. Down. Up. Across. And down again. She mirrored my own hypnotic gestures as I drew phrases and bar lines across a paper web of music staves.

Her architecture worked well: ill-fated insects hung like forgotten notes in the spider's silent net. Like a rodless fisherman with an unlimited internal source of line, she'd reel in moths often ten times her size and then mummify them for safe keeping. Over the months, I saw her blossom from small to imposing girth, and as she grew, so did the span of her sticky matrix. When hosing off the patio, I went out of my way not to disturb her domain, now spread across nearly half my window. Peering up into the crack of the roof where she spent her napping daylight hours, I'd try to discern her compact body, almost unrecognizable out of context. I always looked forward to her descent once darkness settled. She was my studio partner, since we both worked such late hours.

Shortly after Valentine's Day, I was completely charmed to see all the tiny sacs deposited at the base of her web. But soon each night instead of lying in wait for food, she allowed her home to go to pieces and spent her time perched protectively upon a mound of egg-like stuff. A week later, she had lost much of her heft. Finally I saw her oddly curled body hanging precariously just under her eggs instead of atop of them. And one night when I returned to my studio, I did not see my friend at all.

I took a flashlight and walked outside, and there on the patio tile I viewed her little corpse lying beneath her tangled home. Like well paid undertakers, a stream of enthusiastic ants efficiently took care of her remains. I had lost my dear writing companion. Gazing above my head I smiled at the pale little bubbles of my leggy comrade's legacy. Soon they would hatch and my studio window would swarm with baby spiders. Perhaps they, too, will have a fondness for chamber music.

©2008 Alex Shapiro


Here are my writing companions, Moses (left), who went on to meet the Great Catnip in the sky in late 2010, and Smudge (right), sleeping in one of their cat beds and doing their best impression of the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol.

Yin and Yang

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