Last Wednesday morning, on my long drive to Western Washington, I stopped to check email in Spanish Fork on Utah's Wasatch Front, between spearing peaks and sprawling suburbs.
Among the raft of real-estate-contract legalities in my inbox was a message with the return address of Sandra Lynn, poet, teacher and fellow lover of native plants. I opened it without looking at the subject line, delighted to hear from her. And then realized the email was from her son, DeLesley Hutchins, with the news that his mother was gone.
Sandra wasn't old, although she was very happily a grandmother. She had retired just a few years back after a career teaching Creative Writing and English at University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University-Carlsbad, and then serving as administrator for the New Mexico Native Plant Society.
And now she's gone, died on the morning of July 16th--Richard's birthday.
Just a few days before I left on the road-trip, I was sorting through our extensive collection of coffee table books, thinking about which ones I would take to the smaller space at Creek House. I picked up Where Rainbows Wait for Rain: The Big Bend Country, a gorgeous collaboration drawing on Sandra's poems and Richard Fenker Jr.'s photographs.
This one's going with me, I thought.
The book fell open to one of my favorite of Sandra's poems, "Ernst Tinaja." (In the language of the Chihuahuan Desert, a tinaja is a waterhole in the rock, a pocket dissolved in solid limestone that holds precious runoff from the infrequent but thunderous summer rains.)
As if the earth had strained
to hold up its jug
in the hope of rain,
the layers of limestone and shale
around the tinaja tilt skyward
a V, open arms.
Snug in the V
a triangular crock
filled up with green water
grown dark with long reflection.
All around, the rock chips and flakes
into a litter of color --
buff, yellow, mauve, rose, grey --
a box of broken pastels.
Or is this shattered spectrum
the petrified, weathered shards
of rainbows, with a remnant of archaic
rain preserved in a somehow unbroken jar?
This canyon must be a midden
the place they go in the end,
like the dying ground of elephants.
Comely as ivory,
this chromatic refuse,
tossed out of the sky,
salvaged in these strangely fragile
arms of stone.
Sandra and I weren't best friends. We were writers who appreciated each other and who shared a love of words and native plants, and especially, of the sprawling expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert, North America's largest and least-loved desert. We met when I was promoting Barren, Wild and Worthless, my love song to the desert landscapes and communities I never entirely became comfortable living in.
I remember talking to her classes at University of New Mexico and admiring the warmth and passion she brought to teaching. We read together when her book on historic hotels of New Mexico was published, and stayed in touch as life took her from Albuquerque to Carlsbad and then back again, and took me and Richard from Las Cruces to Salida, and then through his brain cancer.
I hear Sandra's voice still, softened by a childhood in East Texas,
Territory of lipstick, candlestick,
pines' dark gossip about collapsed
shacks, and red roads that wander
off into the trees like bloodlines
into their dotage. East Texas.
Where the South stains the edge
of the Southwest.
Some people have a way of showing us places and lives we thought we knew, a way of conjuring wonder out of desolate, sun-burnt rock, the way water conjures life out of the dusty expanses of desert with heart-stopping suddenness that fills our spirits. Sandra Lynn was one such.
May your spirit always find rainbows and tinajas, my friend. You are missed.