Monday, April 2, 2012

LIVING ON THE MOUNTAIN, WRITING ABOUT THE DESERT

Post card of saguaro in desert
For the past several weeks, I have been putting together a book of poetry and three short stories entitled Postcards from Diddy Wah Diddy. The book features several poems and a short story about my experiences as a child crossing the desert with my family in an old Ford coupe headed for California, or “Diddy Wah Diddy,” the name my father labeled the state because he thought of it as a paradise. The cover of the book will showcase several postcards of the desert that were published on linen paper, and which my mother collected along the way through the lonely stretches of sun and sand in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.

On that trip I learned to love the desert and when my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, moved to California, I made annual pilgrimages to Palmdale and Lancaster, California for twenty years to recapture the desert experience.

Among my collection of books is an odd-shaped volume entitled Plants of Sun and Sand by Sanford Stevens, published in 1939, a book that I cherish for its descriptions of desert plants and the drawings by Gerry Peirce. I discovered that a paperback edition of this volume remains in print, but I prefer my wood-covered copy with its short descriptions about the desert growth of Arizona. The drawings were created by Peirce in his studio twelve miles out in the foothills near Tucson, and in Stevens’ introduction, he describes Peirce as spending his working days there “in undisturbed contact with the desert life and landscape.”

My favorite drawing is that of the Cottonwood, which belongs to the same family as the aspen and poplar trees. Stevens describes it as the handsomest of all trees growing along riverbeds in the desert where, in the Spring, it puts out leaves wider than they are long. I love to hear the wind rustling in these large leaves and enjoyed hearing the soft rustle while stopped for baths behind upended cots on the side of the highway in our travels to Diddy Wah Diddy and, later, in Mexico where they also abound.

One of the stories in Postcards from Diddy Wah Diddy, which I entitled “Going to Diddy Wah Diddy,” recounts some of my childhood impressions of the desert:

“Joshua trees, the tallest of the yuccas, appeared on the landscape. They were almost human looking, like old men, their arms extended, grumbling to one another about the hot sun. Now and then I’d see a lake with small islands, the hot air making waves on the water. Of course, the lakes were only mirages, shimmering with a strange light on the desert’s dusty face, and I accepted this mystery as another part of the desert’s mysterious changeableness.

Post card of Twenty-Nine Palms, California
“Jacob turned north at Desert Center, taking us near the Granite Mountains and through seas of dull yellow sand. A lilac haze hung over the sand, sometimes turning to pink. The desert’s immensity awed me more than it affected anyone else in the blue coupe, except Jacob. His black eyes darted off the thin-ribboned highway, absorbing the yucca plant, Spanish dagger plants, and the strangely-lit mirages…”

I spend a lot of time lately, shuffling through the postcards and remembering the great adventure to California which actually preceded the breakdown of our family unity. The two postcards featured in this blog are from my mother’s collection of 56 postcards she bought in drugstores (as they were called then) in small western towns along the way to Diddy Wah Diddy. 

Perhaps I'll do a second blog about this odyssey and publish more of the wonderful postcards, many of which are paintings. 
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