I’ve been thinking of D. H. Lawrence’ New Mexico essay all day, wondering if I’ve ever known a place “vertically.” I have. A couple of places, in fact. Realizing that, I thought about what it takes to know a place vertically, not just by cruising along the surface of it, but being IN it.
It takes time. A LOT of time. Less time, maybe, if you’re a kid because you’re not dragging as much “world” around with you, but it still takes time. Vertical travel is travel in time at least as much as it is travel through space. More, I think.
The first place I knew vertically was the small forest by my house in Nebraska. I can still look at it on Google Earth and find the trails I hiked and sledded. I know where the ravine is across which we rigged a tire to “Tarzan” across. All those things are — as long as the forest stands — in me just as they are outside of me and that seems to be the point of vertical travel.
The next? A few thousand acres in Southern California — Mission Trails Regional Park, part of it. (It’s grown in the meantime.) “My” part is roughly 5800 acres. Another part is a small fragment of the Laguna Mountains. I’m in the process of traveling “vertically” here in the San Luis Valley.
The thing is, vertical travel takes, maybe, years and years, and it cannot possibly encompass the whole world. Thank goodness we have literature, history, and museums — lenses through which we can gain some knowledge to add depth to our flatter travels.
What Lawrence is really talking about in his essay is intimacy and that takes time, patience, humility, acceptance, and faith. Most of all, time. I remember the day I surrendered, first to the coastal sage chaparral of Mission Trails, then in general. I stood on a higher trail and looked out over green hills that had been black and sear only a month or two before. I asked it, “Why are you so beautiful?”
Well, it answered. “So you would love me.”
I answered, “I do love you.”
It said, “No, you don’t. You only come when I’m cool and green. I don’t see you in the summer when my snakes are out or in the rain.”
(You can call the guys with the white coats and the vans. It’s OK. I realize this isn’t normal…)
Well, that was clear. I didn’t hike in the chaparral in summer. I didn’t like snakes or want to see one. I didn’t like being hot and sweaty, but I had my job description, and a definition of love. I surrendered. From then on? Vertical travel. The absolutely BEST school I ever attended. Among my lessons was how amazing the coastal sage chaparral is in the rain, how fragrant, how filled with color — and how slippery.
It also takes a long time to see more than what we are looking for, to see what is THERE rather than what we expect. At this moment, I’m living near wetlands. I began not knowing anything about them, but since I am constrained by age and ability, and have some concerns for my safety because I’m usually alone, I look for flat places to walk. Wetlands are flat. The Refuge is flat. The San Luis Valley proper is flat. It’s a lake bed. I had no idea what to look for, how to see it, nothing. The Sandhill Cranes were my doorway to this amazingly diverse world.
I’ve also realized that our limitations are an element of vertical travel. Surrender. Within our worlds we are all “selves.”
Today out at the Refuge with Bear, unhurried because her pace is slower and more investigative, I thought about my relationship with that place. I remembered my first visit and wondering if I would come to “know” it. It didn’t become a regular “place” for me until 2020. Like the small fragment of Nebraska forest of my childhood, Mission Trails, the Laguna Mountains, it is a protected area which largely means it mostly gets to be what it is. Humans are involved, but as participants not exploiters.
As I looked around me, I saw the experience in layers of time. “That’s where I saw the hundreds of elk.” “That’s where the herd of mule deer were looking at me in surprise.” “That’s where I showed the crane tourists the bald eagle hunting and told them cranes were somewhat easy food for them.” “That’s where Mark saw the owl during my first Crane Festival.” “That’s where I saw the avocet chicks.” “That’s where the elk fell getting up this slope.” I didn’t see that, but Bear showed me last winter and the story was clear. Bear is a help with this because she has an astonishing memory. “This is where we saw the tiger salamander.” There was one in the same place today.
It hit me; that’s vertical travel. It’s context of a place, knowing where, in February, in which small crevices, the shooting star will bloom in the Southern California chaparral, and it means going there to see it. It’s knowing the grandfather of all manzanita in the fault between two mountain ranges, mourning its loss when an October fire takes it down and celebrating its rebirth from its roots the next spring.
D. H. Lawrence might have understood this, I don’t know.
As I was walking with Bear today I realized that I read Lawrence’ New Mexico essay in a grad school seminar. I remembered that Lawrence’ idea of vertical vs. horizontal travel had affected, influenced me, left me with the idea that vertical travel was good, better, and what I wanted from life. I sought it every where I traveled which is why I’m not “widely” traveled more “deeply” traveled. Yet some destinations — all destinations — are too immense. I think the only place we can ever hope to travel vertically is the place where we live. And there, we don’t think of ourselves as traveling at all.
When I began reading the paragraph that began with, “As a matter of fact, our grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have who have seen everything...” I thought Lawrence might be going there, to the kind of travel that leads a person to know a forest, a trail, a wetlands, a rock wall, a mountain face, but it isn’t where he went.
Anyway, Bear and I had a wonderful time. No deer flies, for one thing. A gently overcast sky, and all the time in the world to meander in our own way in this beautiful world we’ve only begun to know, but which has given us something of itself, some context and some depth. I love it so much.
Here’s a link to part of the essay. I haven’t been able to find all of it online. The featured photo is a desiccated garter snake, the kind of thing you only see with a slow dog.