We stepped confidently through the field, Pema and I, the grass low on our ankles. Three years ago the grass had been deep green, waist high, and Pema, being only three, was often underneath. I held her. There are so many memories in this field. But today the grass was short and Pema easily walked ahead of me. Mown for hay last fall, the spring has been dry, achingly dry, and the field has not been irrigated. It was now mid-June and the grass was brittle, gold and brown, with hardly any signs of new growth. In the distance, the mountains were green. Gray clouds lingered on the ridges.
It being Fathers Day, we kept with tradition. We had stopped outside our old one-room cabin, searched out the old haunts, the acequia, the abandoned bathtub, the salamanders, and were now heading through the field up the mountain to pick roses. “Look, Dad,” Pema said. I glanced at the branch on the ground, then realized it wasn’t a branch. It was an elk antler. Golly gee.
Three years ago, my wife and I separated. It was difficult, but a friendly break. We had spent four and a half years on this mountain, the last two with Pema, but had since been living in town. For various reasons, the separation brought us back to the mountain, though in separate quarters. Pema hadn’t yet developed the sense that moms and dads always live together. Besides, we were together plenty, walking back and forth from our little cabin, which we dubbed the Spring Peeper after a common frog, to Mama’s little cabin in the intentional community that had brought us here in the first place. We were accustomed to rustic living, where the kitchen and bath might be a quarter mile from one’s house. Now, it was as if the whole mountain were our home.
“Can we keep it?” Pema asked, meaning the antler. I glanced left and right, dumbfounded. The field belonged to an old friend, but his house was half a mile away. Folks like us walk through on their way up the mountain – his is the last house – but nobody dropped it here. Typically, elk shed antlers from February to April – can it really be that no one came through since then? We weren’t exactly following the path.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head, “the elk doesn’t want it.” Pema slid her hands across the smooth curves of the antler and cupped the burr. There’s something about an elk. In the fall, we can hear them bugling, the eerie high-pitched squeal of the bucks calling for mates. Pema and I have encountered them here and there, but the elk are more mysterious than the mule deer which one comes upon almost daily. Elk descend into valleys and fields like this one most nights, then return to their mountain hideaways early in the morning. Memento in hand, we picked up our feet and headed in that direction.
That first summer alone on the mountain, I had wandered into a patch of roses on a solo hike. I was searching for a path between the Spring Peeper and the old Forest Service trail that leads to the ridge. There is a well-established trail past these fields to the source of the acequia, the old ditch that diverts water from the river to the handful of houses spread over the mountain, but beyond that it’s a maze of game trails and bushwhacked slopes. I crossed the stream several times till, deep in the forest, I passed an old barbed-wire fence and reached the forest service trail on the far side.
Along the way, I wandered through a sunny hillside positively drenched in wild roses. The smell was so thick I had no need to press my nose to their delicate pink petals. But I did anyway, and immediately thought of Pema. A week later, it being Fathers Day, we walked there together, through the same field, hand in hand. It was only a few weeks since the divorce.
Occasionally we stopped to rest. I lifted Pema onto my shoulders through the tallest grass. We spent the morning gathering rose petals, playing in the aspens, and just dilly-dallying our way into parenthood, life. Later, we made rose water in our cabin, learning just enough from the internet to keep it from spoiling. I bought cobalt blue glass spritz bottles from the herb store. We filled them, kept some and gave others to friends. We’ve been back every year.
Pema and I now live some miles away on a dry mesa with sagebrush and cactus, and far too few trees. I miss the mountain, the aspens and bear, the eerie call of bugling elk. But it’s just another wilderness, a canyon-land with coyotes, jackrabbits and bighorn sheep. I’m not much of a driver, but on occasion I’ll pilot my vehicle into the mountains. And I’m ten times more likely to do it with Pema than alone.
This year, Fathers Day came late. The roses were pretty much through a couple weeks ago down here along the river. But I waited anyway. I’m in no rush. There’s something meaningful about picking all those blossoms, feeling the weight of a few thousand in your hands, then squeezing them through a warm cheesecloth. But there’s also something about ritual, returning to the same spot year after year, simply because we can. Fathers Day, I vow, will never be about accomplishing a task, no matter how lovely. It will be about Pema.
“Here it is, Dad,” Pema said, eyeing the pole that was our landmark. A different friend, who leads a summer camp in the area, marked the trail a couple years ago with a handful of shorn junipers. If one knows what they’re looking for, the path to the roses is now fairly easy to make. Pema is only six, but one day she’ll know this path like I knew the backyard shortcuts through my neighborhood in Cleveland. Antler in hand, she led the way through dense green scrub oak.
A forest fire burned through the mountain in 1996. The scar is still visible, not a hideous scab or wound, but a bright green arc that, now twenty years later, is thriving. The roses, like the shrubby oaks, benefit from the sunlight that had been denied to them by the massive canopies of ponderosa, spruce and fir. The wildlife that feeds on them, like the elk and bear, are also thriving. Pema and I have frequently stood over a fat plop of bear scat, sensing the telltale signs, and aromas, of acorns and rose hips.
“Dad, do you remember…I think this is it,” Pema said, glancing over the antler on her shoulder. She stopped and thrust her hand out, waving to indicate an approximate area near the path. “Yeah,” I answered, “it was somewhere around here.” The year before, on our way down the mountain with a healthy load of petals, a rock on the side of the path happened to catch my eye. New Mexico is full of rocks. I have enough of them. So, most of the time I ignore such impulses. But for whatever reason I stopped and picked it up. To my amazement, it turned out to be a fossilized shell, unlike any I had ever seen before. I was stupefied.
Never had I found a fossil on this mountain, nor heard of anyone who had. We find them in shale deposits elsewhere in New Mexico, but this was strange and beguiling, a fabulous blue-orange with fine details of the clasp and growth rings. And it was large, about the size of an apricot, with mysterious hexagonal holes resembling a beehive. The find was so remarkable that I remain convinced that the shell was either dropped by someone who bought it at a gem and mineral store or a flat-out miracle. The antler in Pema’s hands, now a year later on yet another Fathers Day, was not so out of place, but it was still remarkable.
After a few more twists and bends, we reached the sloping hillside of mountain roses. As expected, we had missed their flush. The plants were filled with swelling green hips, occasionally dusted with dry pink petals. “I’ll bet we find one,” I said, meaning one fresh bloom, one tiny embrace of that familiar wild scent. But I was content even if we didn’t.
We followed the trail up, passing bush after bush of thickly fruited roses. One year, I gathered enough hips from a different hillside and put up two gallons of rose hip jam. It made no visible dent in the mountain-sized supply.
“Dad, can we go down there?” Pema asked, pointing to a grove of aspens a little way down the slope. As yet, we were still above the canopy, the wind playing in the leaves, along with a spattering of rain descending from the high ridges. Hell yes, I thought. Below, hidden from eyesight, we could hear the river gurgling.
My ex-wife and I lived together for some months, quite peaceably, after deciding to separate. It was a sad, but strangely thriving time. Pema was old enough to grasp our moods, but not the full impact of what a divorce would mean. What I’m trying to say is that, day to day, it felt good. Depression wasn’t in our neck of the woods, and while the emotions were sometimes heavy, the living was pure. And Pema, as a toddler, was largely guarded from the conflict because, bonded as she was to both of us, she felt our day to day moods, which were good, not the social stigma of separation.
Regardless, I feared the separation would take a toll on our relationship. I was there for Pema from birth, but I assumed the role and attachment of a mother would, in time, outweigh that of her father. I was wrong. It took only a couple weeks to fall into a meaningful rhythm, walking back and forth over the mountain from Mom to Dad, and back. Each time, we’d spend an hour together as a family, listening to the adjustments we were all making. Long walks on the mountain absorbed the loss. Patience greeted us in the fields and trees.
Today, there isn’t anything in the world I could imagine coming between Pema and me. Except, I’ll admit, myself. At some point, I will have to release her to the greater world, allowing her to mature and grow beyond me. But for now, she’s six.
“Can we play here, Dad,” Pema said, reaching a burned out old stump in the midst of the aspens. Walking into an aspen grove is like entering another dimension. The ecology of the floor changes, as does the quality of the air, the feel of the earth, the character of sound. These aspens were only fifteen or twenty years old, thousands of them hardly thicker than a dowel. Still, they were tall enough to enfold us in a canopy of sparkling green leaves, each dripping sporadically with the remnants of rain.
The stump Pema found was a full two feet across. Here and there, burned out snags reminded us how tall this forest used to be. The slender new trees grew so thickly we had to push them apart to walk through, leaving a powdery grit on our hands and clothes. “Yeah, Pema, we can play here.”
I set down my pack while Pema sized up the trunk. There were two, actually. One, burned from the inside out, creating a perfect little cavity for a fairy amphitheater. The other, dead but not toppled after the fire, had been chainsawed down to help prevent erosion. It made a perfect table top. Seeing that Pema was occupied, I did what I always do and receded slowly into the background. There were dozens of wet, happy plants and I squished them playfully with eyes and hands.
After a while, Pema called out, “Dad, I can use branches for fairies.”
“Cool,” I answered, then added, “do you want me to make some?”
This is basically our favorite game. Pema, in an isolated, spectacular and safe setting, sets up a fairy house, while I, the largely invisible but always tethered context of safety, poke around at a distance, returning occasionally to feed her plants and materials that I have sourced and fairies I have built. All with deliciously few words.
A year ago, I set myself the goal of crafting a passable “person” from purely natural materials in five minutes or less. I tested grass and stones. Mud. Reeds, berries, acorns. Finally, I settled on a simple method requiring only two dry twigs and a piece of grass. By selecting a thin stick containing a segmented branch, I can quickly snap off a wishbone-shaped piece that makes for body and legs. One more straight twig, tied with a piece of grass across the “body”, makes a basic stick figure, the top portion of which becomes a simple head. This alone works well enough in a pinch, but usually I add some sort of garland, a flowering head, or weave a grass skirt, scarves, or whatever embellishment is at hand. With practice, these become graceful and endlessly diverse.
The result, of course, is not so much a perfect person, but a few hours spent exploring the forest floor, testing and feeling the properties of plants, observing their frequency or rarity, their qualities in different seasons, and just a general sensory and observational smorgasbord. Pema, meanwhile, gets to play.
“Here,” I said to Pema, arriving unannounced except for my footsteps, “I found this bark. Can you use it?”
“Oh, yes,” Pema answered, reaching out for the thick plates of ponderosa bark I found on another old dead tree, “we can take as much of this as you find.” She speaks as if we’re not alone, and I do too, as if the fairies and trees were part of our socializing. “I’m gonna put this fairy over here,” I said, placing my latest creation on a tantalizingly moss-covered stump, the very picture of fairy heaven. “This can be like the grandma’s house,” I said. “Yeah, that’s fine,” Pema answered, content with the dance instructor, singing instructor, queen and teacher she already had.
“They can visit,” I offered, “if they want to take a walk.”
“No, no,” Pema said, without missing a beat, “they have to fly. It’s a long way away.”
“Yeah, that’s cool,” I said, then disappeared into the woods in search of more fairies.
After my divorce, I spent several years alone. I am a rather monkish person. I was fully resigned to a life alone when, by accident and much to my surprise, I found a woman whom I couldn’t quite make sense of, someone who, like me and Pema in the forest, crouched and explored in the background while I played safely on tree stumps. Here and there she fed me materials, driftwood, bird feathers, grass and flower crowns. I see her, I always see her, yet she lives at the edge of my understanding. Her name is Silke, and though I use her name frequently in my stories, I rarely write directly about her. In my real life she is viscerally present, but in my stories, my recounting, she is glimpsing around tree trunks, passing beyond corners, suddenly dumping me with an armload of red and green leaves, or stones. She becomes the context of my story, rather than the subject.
On Silke’s fridge there is a quote: "Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute and final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything." - Pedro Arrupe
Pema’s mother and I are still good friends, though we have our moments. It’s not easy to raise a child in two homes. But sharing a child is something we will always have, and neither one of us is going to sour that for any one of us. Not for long, at least. We have trust, and sympathy. We have love.
“Dad, the fairies are going on a trip to visit their grandma!” Pema shouted from a distance. She had taken two of the dolls along, the dance instructor and singing teacher. They were married. “But they can’t make it in one day,” she continued, “so they have to stay overnight.” She stopped to rest on a fallen limb and sang to herself. I wish Donald Trump could be here, I thought, or maybe just the folks who hate him. I don't mean that I'm any better, just that everyone would benefit from a few hours in this forest making fairy dolls.
“Hey Pema!” I shouted back, “come over here when you’re done. I want to show you something.”
“Okay!” she said, then took her time to make breakfast. She resumed the final leg of the journey, after which Grandma had some greeting to do, but it all went smoothly. I sat, watching the last few drops of rain spill off the leaves, sensing the moisture of the damp earth seeping up through my pants. Pema started making her way to me.
“What is it, Dada?” she asked, as she got close.
“Come here, check this out,” I said, not wanting to give it away. I watched as she climbed over a fallen log, her dress clinging to dewy plants. Finally, she reached me. “Look pup,” I said, nodding over my shoulder.
“A rose!” Pema gushed, eyeing the delicate pink blossom. It was the only one we had found. “Can I smell it?” she asked.
“Of course you can,” I said, then grasped her under her arms and lifted her over my legs. Fifty pounds and counting, but I’ve still got a few years left. Setting her feet down, she stood tall and leaned up into the bush, pulling the single rose down to her nose, then sealed the memory of Fathers Day, like many before and many yet to come, in her mind with a single inhale of that intoxicating fragrance.