I've collected them for several years now--river pebbles and mountain stones. They are emblems to me of pleasure and triumph. Pleasure at the memory of days spent outdoors among rivers and mountains. Triumph at having slipped the chain of illness for a while.
These emblems decorate the garden now. The stones I've stacked into cairns by mountain of origin. The Manzano Mountains cairn was gathered during a vacation in the juniper-piñon forests south-east of Albuquerque. I look at it and remember a hillside covered with blackfoot daisies under gathering storm clouds; the shaggy, split rail fence that ran beside the path; scrub jays flying from juniper to juniper ahead of me. The stones are shades of red and brown and sulphur yellow. Most of them are small enough to tuck into the pockets of a dusty pair of jeans.
The Sandia Mountains cairn grew from several day trips up to the 10,678' crest of Sandia Peak. I gathered the stones from different places from base to crest. They are as big as my hand, maybe a little bigger, a size best carried by car or backpack. They represent the mountain's entire 10 million year history and more, since the Peak lifted up older sedimentary rock when it rose: squares of white-brown Glorieta sandstone and red Yeso sandstone; baroque lumps of gray-white limestone. I look at the cairn and recall scenes from different seasons in different years: aspens glowing a cool yellow in pale, late-day sun; the fragrance of a summer shower; mountain lion tracks fresh beside the muddy chunk of stone I was wiping off to put in my pack; a bitter wind scything all the soft things off the Crest.
The hard geometries of the mountain stones make a pleasing contrast with the rounded gray and white river pebbles, which I've puddled along the edges of the garden's gray and white pea-gravel path. I don't have particular memories of any one pebble. I gathered them one at a time on walks around my neighborhood. The Rio Grande used to flood here during spring snowmelt in the mountains and the monsoon rains in August, so river stones are common. Now engineering has deepened the river so that it no longer meanders at will across the broad valley. Dams control its rise and fall. Laws determine how much water stays in the central valley and how much heads downstream. Eons of history have been changed in a matter of decades. Millions of years of flowing water--undone by a few backhoes and some concrete. And words.
(I don't know why I'm surprised. The stones in my garden cairns laid on their mountains for millions of years until, with barely a thought, I picked them up and carried them away. Then they moved from mountain crest to flood plain in less than an hour. The scale of that change is unfathomable.)
For a while I had visions of using these stones and pebbles as mulch in my desert-style garden beds. Then I realized how many it would take, how many decades' worth of walks, and I went to a garden store instead. A few bags of pea gravel at a time, I filled in the dirt path and the dry beds. It took me several weeks. If I had been healthy, it would have taken me a day. A guy with a pickup truck could have done it in an hour.
Since then I've looked at my proud collections of river pebbles, my two tiny cairns of mountain stones, with a certain irony. They are still emblems of triumph. But now they are also emblems of just how small these triumphs are.
A couple dozen 30-minute walks a year; a handful of trips to the mountains 15 miles away.
When I remember back 19 years to the first months of illness, when a good day was one where I could make my bed and wash my cereal bowl and spoon, I see a 30-minute walk as a mammoth accomplishment. But it isn't, "really." Any more than making a bed is, "really." The scattering of a few puddles of river pebbles isn't "really" a big achievement compared to the laying of a path; the labor of weeks to lay the path nothing compared to the quick efforts of a guy with a pickup truck.
Since my world emptied out I've found myself trying in various ways to see it full again. It is as if I am a vessel of a certain size and require a certain volume of accomplishment to fill me. Or a balance scale, with "Self" on one side and "Worth" on the other, where Self needs a constant weight to equal Worth. On the bed-making days I would say to myself, "I may only have made my bed, but I also battled a vicious illness." Of a 30-minute walk, "It was short, but I observed everything in great detail." Of the small stones, "There may only be a few of them, but they're far more artistically placed than all that gravel. They make a big impact."
All of those things are true. None of them satisfies. When I examine them in a larger context and weigh them in the balance of a "normal" life, I see those counterweights for what they are: attempts to measure up. And they are pitifully small indeed. I realize that I am still trying to measure up to my own standard of normal--of accomplishment, of doing my best. When my best is to make a bed, I have to add the weight of illness to the scale, so the two things together weigh enough to matter.
It's a sop to the ego. After all these years, though, after trying all kinds of sensible things to heal it, the loss of capacity is still a wound, one I try to staunch with an equivalent gain. It just doesn't work.
If I've learned anything, it's that sometimes, when all of the sensible things haven't worked, it isn't necessarily the self that's at fault--it's just as likely to be the model. Perhaps the idea of measuring up--even to one's own healthy standards--isn't a sound one to begin with.
To be continued in Part II--Tillage.