Forever dancing with the stars
Sunday, November 18, 2018
As the breeze twirls dust over the rocks of a vast and grainy landscape, as grit and ash ripple and dance into rift and reticulum, accreting a piece of the whole, a part of the main, weaving new rock from old sand; there, along the brush-stroke barrens of an ancient desert, one can see to eternity.
In northern Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation near Chinle, lies Canyon de Chelly. The canyon was carved by a tiny, intermittent river that comes and goes with the weather, sowing a strip of unexpected farmland at the bottom. The sandstone canyon walls stand 800 feet, tall and tan, vertical in some places, hollowed out in others.
De Chelly used to be a desert. It is still dry, but long ago it was unspeakably arid, a monochrome setting with nothing but blowing sand and settling sand and rippling sand, distance-dwarfing sand dunes and high hillocks of sand. Unbroken desert stretched far to the north, deep and wide to the sky.
Unbroken time now stretches far below, deep and wide to the river, the newly developed sandstone standing 280 million years strong. Sheer cliffs braid thousands-year epoch to thousands-year epoch and fossil dune to fossil dune of that great desert. Each tiny relict grain, each drift of dust before the wind, each creep of dune ridge on relentless sweep, left its mark in profile, tracing the wind tracks that carried the sand that blew into dunes that were 50 feet high that have cemented to stone.
One can see forever across that painted plain to the infinite horizon, and forever again to the depths of the canyon, 280 million years away.
Today, in the canyon, a snakeline of thirsty green trees and verdant grasses sips from a trickle of tributary off the Little Colorado River. The river is unremarkable, without even a name on maps, although in the desert southwest even a dry stream dominates the land. Ephemeral, puny, it is but a muddy ditch, a slash of sluice, an eyebrow on the edifice of existence. Yet, together with the wind, it has cleaved through ages of grit. The wind in the verdant valley, winding through wild flora and Navajo fruit, twirling tasselflower and tansyaster and swirling stem of yucca and thistle, pivoting at the walls and pelting the river plain with peaches and grains, has sanded the walls to a dull sheen.
Mom loved Canyon de Chelly; loved its textured cross-beds, its sand-hollow caves dripped out sip by sip from cadences of infrequent rain, its incongruously lush valley watered by the wandering wadi, its terracotta dust dancing in the breeze. She loved that she could see it from the car window, without having to tug and slug and shrug her way out of the front seat and lug to the edge to look down. Walking was hard.
Dancing was impossible.
She and Dad danced at our wedding. Mom, wearing a floor-length satin gown to cloak the anatomical tells of a 1961 bout with polio, could not walk alone. She could not walk without being propped up, by the leg braces held rigid by her shoes, or by the arm crutches that clickety-clicked a rhythm through her adult life, or by Dad. So slowly, on the dance floor, they swayed. So cautiously, to the music, they inched in a circle. So gingerly, in front of us all, they orbited around the room. The dress fluttered like autumn leaves, twirling and swirling like tuliptree and sasafrass, like the relentless Chelly breeze sweeping through a drift of dust; a twist of tupelo; a swirl of sweetpea and sunflower. The supports held. Dancing was hard, even perilous. But it was glorious.
Outside the window now, red and yellow maple leaves twirl to the music of autumn; like the curling of vermillion dust in spring; like the furling hurtle of stellar wind cavorting through the universe; like the dips and swoops of time carrying forward. Now, when the sun flares low or the moon glows high or the wind sighs cool from the north, we see eternity. In a brush-stroke desert, on a modern breeze, where dust and grit and ashes flit; where the valley is wet, and the stone is dry; when the willow weeps in the west: we see eternity. When the rain comes singing, quiet off the grass, and the she-shrike glides above the sand; when the clouds etch the sky with white scrawls of ink, we see eternity.
Mom passed away in June.
The crutches have crumbled, the leg braces have fallen away. She is forever dancing with the stars.
Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched R