Over spring break, six students and I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the annual conference of Sigma Tau Delta, the national English honor society. I was president of my own undergraduate chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, so it feels good to be the faculty sponsor of Luther's chapter now–especially since Luther has a tradition of helping students apply to present critical or creative papers at the national conference every spring and supporting their travel there. Each year there's a keynote speech by a nationally known writer: critic Daniel Mendelsohn last year in Savannah, novelist Charles Baxter next year in Minneapolis, and this year in Albuquerque, the novelist, poet and memoirist Leslie Marmon Silko, whose novel "Ceremony" (1979) has been called "the first Native American novel" by some. For three days, our students got to mingle with bright fellow English majors and faculty from colleges all over the country, reading their work aloud in front of an audience and fielding questions. I'm always really proud of them, and always really surprised and pleased by what they – and I–learn at Sigma Tau Delta's conferences. Their thoughtfulness, polish and poise–not to mention their carefully crafted words–really did Luther proud. On their faces I saw the pleasure and surprise of something it is easy to forget when you're writing away in your room, alone, on deadline of one kind or another: other people can connect to this. What I write matters. And I do have something to say.
The conference's theme–"Borderlands and Enchantments"–reflected its location in more ways than one. In her memoir "The Turquoise Ledge" (2010), Leslie Marmon Silko writes that turquoise shows you where water has been. It's left over when the minerals that water has brought together cling and solidify: copper, salt, ash. Blue, the classic turquoise color, indicates the presence of copper, but there is brown-veined turquoise, too, and black-and-white. I never knew this until I bought and began reading Silko's book at the conference, which inspired me to look around. It was easy for me to jump to jewelry-shopping (and yeah, there was a little of that too, as my students helped me pick out two beautiful slabs of turquoise that had been shaped into earrings), but there was more to this place than tourism.
We spent an afternoon walking around Old Town, where in 1706 the first European settlement had been formed, where in 1796 Jesuits from Naples founded the little church that still stands there, with adobe walls five feet thick. Spanish and Native American cultures still mingle here, having had uneasy beginnings. In her book-signing line, Silko told me that one of the many distortions to the Spanish view of the Southwest was caused by their timing. They "discovered" the desert Southwest at the tail end of an unusually wet 1,000-year cycle. "You know how cycles work," she said, describing a circle with her hands. Now we are entering another 1,000 year cycle of drought, which is hitting the Southwest particularly hard. With a shock, I realized I was not too far from Mora County, New Mexico, which not long ago became the first county in America to ban hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Correctly identifying fracking as a despoiler of water tables and property rights as well as the ozone layer, the rural people of Mora County (whose total population is less than the city of Decorah) have inspired Winneshiek County's own fight against frac-sand mining. A Mora County commissioner who spoke to our group in Decorah last year, John Olivas, leads turkey and antelope hunts in his spare time. He's a tall, quiet man with a friendly smile. You could see when you talked to him what all the effort has cost; he looked pretty tired. Yet you could also see his unshakeable determination to protect the land he loved.
Although the rest of the country may know Albuquerque and northern New Mexico as the land of rattlesnakes and "Breaking Bad," Olivas and Silko and so many others know it as home, as a land of enchantments (in line with the state's motto) available to anyone with eyes to see and the patience to truly look. I got a taste of this myself as I watched a rain storm come in over the city, sweeping from north to east in distant gray sheets toward the mountains that were still dappled with sun, bursting forth in a dazzling rainbow. I live in one tree-filled, water-cut land, and grew up in another. Yet even after a short time in the desert Southwest I began to see how any landscape has a shy beauty of its own, if we can look. It's more than the dazzling natural stones and minerals, like turquoise, that you can find lying on the ground if you look in the right place when you walk in desert arroyos or hills. It's more than the hummingbirds or rattlesnakes or quail or bobcats around Silko's home in the Sonoran Desert, as she describes them in "The Turquoise Ledge." It's a way of looking beyond, to the invisible world: "As I walked," she writes, "I looked at the dark basalt hills, and at the cactus and shrubs and trees; all of them were in harmony with one another, and I felt within that beauty. In an instant I saw that even man-made things–the roll of old fence wire, the old rail ties withered by sixty years of the heat and sun–were in the light of that beauty. In that beauty we all will sink slowly back into the lap of the Earth." And in our days here on the land we care for, we have words–to accompany us, to form community with others we've never met, to help us see and love our world more clearly.