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The Death of Empires, The Triumph of Trees

Read this classic from August/September 1981 issue of BACKPACKER.

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My partner and I and my 12-year-old daughter live (for the moment) in a little house near the brighter, domed city of Tucson, Arizona. We like it here. Most of the time. Our backyard includes a portion of the Sonoran Desert, extending from here to the California border and down into Mexico. Mesquite trees grow nearby, enough to supply kindling for the Franklin stove when the nights are cold, enough to cook the occasional pork chop, or toast the tortillas, on the grill under the decaying Chinese elm.

Out back is the dry creekbed, full of sand, called a “wash” in this country, which winds through the brush and cactus toward the Tucson Mountains five miles away. We’ll climb those hills yet, maybe. Rattlesnakes live in the rocky grottoes along the wash. Sometimes they come to he house for a social call. We found one coiled on the “Welcome” mat by the front door Sunday evening. Our cat has disappeared. There are still a few bands of javelina–wild pigs–out there. They come by at night, driving the dogs into hysterics of futile outrage. Coyotes howl at us when they feel like it, usually in the morning and again around sundown, when I rile them some with my flute–they seem partial to “Greensleeves,” played on the upper register. We have an elf owl living in a hole in the big saguaro cactus by the driveway. There are some pack rats in the woodpile and scorpions under the bark of the logs; I usually find one when I split a log.

So it’s pretty nice here. We’d like to stay for a while, a lifetime or two, before trying something else. But we probably won’t. We came down here from Utah three years ago, for practical reasons, now satisfied. We are free, then, to leave, and we probably will.

The city remains at a comfortable distance. We can hear the murmur of it by day, when the wind is from the east, and see its campfires glow by night, those dying embers. The police helicopters and the other aircraft hover above Tucson, Arizona, all night long, maintaining order. The homicide rate hangs at a steady 3.2 per 10,000, including lowriders. All is well. Eighteen Titan missiles ring the city, guarding us from The Enemy. The life expectancy of the Tucsonan is 15 minutes–or whatever time it takes now for an ICBM to shuttle from there to here. All is well. We sleep good.

But the city creeps closer, day by day. And the great Empires are dying–one in Afghanistan and Poland, the other in El Salvador and New York and Guatemala. And though I welcome their demise, defeat makes them more dangerous than ever. Like mortally wounded tyrannosaurs, they thrash about in frenzy, seeking enemies, destroying thousands of innocent lives with every blind spasm of reaction. And the city creeps closer. I find a correlation in these movements. I foresee the day when we shall be obliged to strike camp, once again.

Where to this time? Home to Utah? Back to Appalachia? Down the river to the ultimate sea? It doesn’t matter. There is no final escape, merely a series of tactical retreats until we find the wall at our backs, bedrock beneath our feet.

Enough of this skulking rhetoric. Before we go, we will plant a tree. I cleared out some cactus yesterday, dug a thigh-deep hole this morning, and planted a young budding cottonwood this afternoon. We soaked the hole with well water, mixed in the peak moss and carefully set-aside topsoil, and lowered the root ball of the sapling into its new home. The tree shivered as I packed the earth around its base. A shiver of pleasure. A good omen. A few weeks of warm weather, and the little green leaves will be trembling in the sunlight. A few good years, and the tree will be shading the front porch and then the roof of the house. If the house is still here. If someone, or something, as I hope, is still enjoying this house, this place, this garden of rock and sand and thorn and light.

We ourselves may never see this cottonwood reach maturity, will probably never take pleasure in its shade or birds or witness the pale gold of its autumn leaves. But somebody will. Tucson will have shrunk back to what it once was, a town of adobe huts by the trickling Santa Cruz, a happier place than it is now, and our tree will be here, with or without us. In that anticipation I find satisfaction enough.

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