Listening to the Land (Is Not Easy)

In an appearance at Cal State Channel Islands last week, Terry Tempest Williams begin by talking about her new book, "The Open Space of Democracy," and her town’s struggle to keep its soul. Castle Valley, a tiny Utah town about twenty miles from Moab, was threatened with inalterable change when a real estate developer bought eighty acres directly across the river. Williams was part of a group that organized to resist; eventually, with some luck and the help of a very large check from California, they were able to buy the in-holding land themselves, and reserve it for open space. But here’s the point. Her group–which sounds as if it included most of the town–was organized around the principle of listening to the land and to each other, in equal measure.

I admire this respect, but you know, it’s not easy. I wish it was. I try, but I find it’s far subtler than it sounds. Here’s a little example from my own life. A week ago late one afternoon we noticed our Djelka, the smartest dog we’ve ever known, beloved by one and all who come to our little place here in Upper Ojai, was missing. We went looking for her. We drove up the hill and around the nearby streets. We walked up the stream that runs by our house (that’s mostly dry now). We startled neighbors up the stream by dropping by unannounced late at night, because they have dogs and we know that Djelka and her pal Lucy often visit. They hadn’t seen her. They said the coyotes had been around quite a bit, howling. We called, we clapped, we yelled. We heard their dogs, but nothing else.

My wife Val went home to make dinner, and I continued to walk up the stream–in the dark–for about a mile. Stumbling over rocks. Wondering what could have happened. Djelka, who’s now twelve, doesn’t see as well as she used to. Could she have fallen in a pool and drowned? Could the coyotes have surrounded her? Lucy looked anxious, and went home. As I turned home a half-hour later, I kept calling and clapping, and heard a lot of barking from the neighbor’s house. I figured it must have been their dogs…but next morning we found Djelk trapped in a dry oil sump pit, about a yard deep, into which she had fallen the day before. She must have heard me, and barked in response, but I dismissed it, thinking it couldn’t be her, we’d already been there. If I could only have listened to her–and the land–a little better, I could have saved her from a cold night in the rain…

But the story has a happy ending. She’s fine. We’re so happy to have her back. And perhaps next time, I’ll listen a little more thoughtfully…
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