Green and white aspen forest in Colorado. It appears as if a landscape painting
Photograph by David Jones

For as Many Days as We Have Left

This essay is included in Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion.

 

 

September 19, 2017

Dear Pam,

What a great morning. Cooked up some pancakes and eggs, sat down at the computer and read your wonderful e-mail! I loved it.

Thank you.

I hiked into Wason Park by way of East Willow today. Oooohhhh my. What a day. The La Garitas have nourished my body with berries, mushrooms, trout, and elk over the years. Phoenix Peak is my stupa, and the willows, wind, elk, and creeks my sangha. I feel like I hear the voices of miners and woodsmen in the babble of the creeks in Phoenix and Wason Parks.

The reason I visited this area today is because I wanted to ask about you . . . about us.

What I am about to share with you is more personal, more open, than I have ever been with anyone. If this doesn’t scare you away, well, then . . . let’s just see what happens.

I tasted raspberries just barely hanging on to the bushes as I hiked up La Garita Stock Driveway. They were so ripe I didn’t have to chew them, just suck their flesh and juice that was two parts sweet and one part tart. Then pried the seeds out from my back teeth with my tongue.

The hike was magnificent. The colors of the shrubs and forbs in the spruce were like an ever-changing kaleidoscope as I walked up the path toward Wason. My mind moved from the present moment to thoughts of you and how you would love this hike and then back to the present . . . and then back to you. You were on my mind a lot, as you should have been as I had a question to answer.

The sun was out as I broke out of the trees and worked my way up the steep alpine meadow to the edge of Wason Park. Phoenix and La Garita Peaks loomed above to the side. A snow squall hit just as I crested a hill at the edge of Wason. I saw it coming, so I was able to put on an extra layer for warmth and my raincoat and rain pants just before it hit. The winds picked up to twenty miles an hour and I was pelted with graupel. A sign for what I’ve been through?

I hunkered down on the lee side of the hill with Wason Park spreading out before me and ate some snacks. The squall only lasted about ten to fifteen minutes and then the sun came out again and embraced me with warmth. An elk I couldn’t see bugled (really). A sign for where I am now?

I got up and walked toward the base of the peaks and photographed the willows and peaks. Another squall moved in and left. Some light clouds then covered the sun, providing great lighting for photography. I must admit, I wasn’t super focused on photography, but on being present and feeling the energy build inside me as I circled back below the peaks to one side and the incredible views of Nelson Mountain and the headwaters of Whited Creek (another place dear to me) on the other. I walked along the edge of a cliff band and looked down at the jumble of boulders and strings of willow. Took a few more pics and then began to work my way back down to the creek that the stock driveway follows.

The sun broke out from behind the clouds, so I sat down next to a few widely spaced krummholz and sipped some water and ate dried fruit and nuts. I thought about you and how you have opened up to me like no one has ever done before. I thought, But does she really know how to love? How to drop all the walls? How to give and receive? How to let go of her ego? And, of course, I asked, Do I?

Then I packed up, stood up, faced Phoenix Peak looking so majestic in the sun, raised my hands toward the mountain, and breathed. With each breath, thick energy was drawn up from the ground and spread through my entire body. With each out breath, it moved back down into the ground (this is a qigong practice). I’ve done this many times, but the energy never felt quite as dense as today. On my last in breath, I held the energy in my body and didn’t let it go. Then I put my palms together and moved my hands to my chest and asked the mountain to make us work. And a feeling of love washed over me.

The hike down was wonderful. Beauty everywhere. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I hope you don’t think I’m too wacko after reading this e-mail. If so, well, it is who I am and I thought you should know. Attached are a few pics from the day. Enjoy!

 

Mike

 

 

September 20, 2017

Dear Mike,

You know very well I don’t think you are wacko. And I have been smiling so hard since I read this the first time, it is a wonder I can even type. This is the you I knew was in there — the “Phoenix Peak is my stupa and the willows, elk, and creeks my sangha” you — not that I don’t also like the more stoic version; I obviously do — but what pure delight to see this rapture, your deep love for this landscape. It is such a beautiful thing. Far from scaring me off, what you have said here about these places confirms everything my heart already knew about you. How did it know? Something to do with energy. Something to do with intuition. Something, probably, to do with the mountains themselves.

Then there is the me part. The fact that you took me with you up there. And the questions you asked about me, which of course, I have been asking of myself. Which means I need to tell you another story.

This summer, I was teaching in Chamonix, France. Chamonix has some of the best energy of anyplace I have ever been. San Juan–quality energy. Mont Blanc hovers over the valley, and in June the glacier and the snow-covered dome stay lit till almost midnight, long after the valley is in darkness. And yet in spite of its size and grandeur, or maybe partly because of it, the valley has the gentlest energy. For three years in a row I have watched students come with their fears of whatever . . . writing, riding chairlifts, parasailing, telling the truth, and I watch the valley work on them, watch them expand before my eyes.

Anyway, during this, the year I have dedicated to openheartedness, I had many, many conversations with that mountain. I walked either on it, or on the ridge across from it every day. I asked it to teach me how to love better, how to love straight out of my heart without it getting all gummed up in my brain, how to respond to fear and insecurity and negative self-talk by doubling back and getting bigger, opening my heart wider, reaching out instead of pulling back.

Of course, it is one thing to have these conversations with a mountain, yet another to put them into practice with friends and students and colleagues, and yet another still in (romantic) love. But I could feel there in Chamonix that I was getting ready for something. I walked more than fifteen miles a day there (and taught for three hours from five to eight when I finished). On all my walks and hikes I was talking to that mountain. Asking it to teach me. I was so happy those weeks, and I couldn’t even explain to myself why. It felt like being in love, except there was no person there, not even in my imagination. I think now I was teaching myself the beauty of openheartedness for its own sake. I was using the muscles, waking them up. Above all, I was promising myself that I would not lose ground on the work I had done all year to unfreeze certain parts of me that had frozen — some that had never come to life at all — only certain parts, but important ones.

So can I do all those things you asked if I could do? God, I hope so. I know I can love and I know I can give. Receiving will be less familiar but welcome, and I am so ready to try. I don’t feel the need for walls in your presence. Have not from the start. I’m not saying I won’t misstep. But I believe if my heart is right, you’ll give me a break. I also know you weren’t asking me these questions (you were asking the mountain), but these are my answers.

When I was up in Washington State and my student/friend Becky Mandelbaum came so we could give that reading together, I was telling her about you. She’s working in North Cascades National Park this summer, and she spent all last winter at the ranch. Like us, she lives to be on a hiking trail. Anyhow, we were texting today and I was telling her some more stuff, and her exact text was “God, Pam, he sounds wonderful. Like the way a mountain is wonderful.” And that’s it exactly. You and the San Juans have exchanged so many cells over the years, you are kind of made of them. You give off the same good thing. I would tell Red Mountain anything and everything. You see what I mean about the mountains being in charge?

There are a million other things to say, but this is a start on it. What I would really like to do is drive up there and give you a giant hug (but I would be late for class in the morning). Thank you for opening your heart to me. It’s a beautiful heart. I’m going to send you some photos of Mont Blanc.

 

Pam

 

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IF I WERE TO TRY to explain to someone why, at the age of fifty-six, having sworn off romantic relationships forever, I agreed to marry a sixty-one-year-old lifer forest ranger named Mike Blakeman, I could do no better than to refer to these two e-mails. These two of hundreds of e-mails we sent in the year we were getting to know each other came relatively early in our courtship, when we had only had a few meals together, and a few brief hours walking along the river, looking for eagles in the big cottonwoods across the Rio Grande from Mike’s house.

When I read the Wason Park e-mail to a few close friends, their reactions ranged from head-shaking wonder at how, after all these years I had found my match, to playful accusations of having written the letter myself. Even at the beginning it was undeniable that Mike and I not only loved, but saw the natural world in many of the very same ways, sometimes, it seemed, with the very same eyes.

Not long after we exchanged these particular letters, we headed up on a Forest Service road toward the Rio Grande’s headwaters, my wolfhounds, William and Olivia, in the back, heads out the windows, giant tongues and ears flapping. The aspens were at their peak, and Mike brought his camera. We are both hobbyist landscape photographers, our very first conversations had been about light, pattern, and form. I was driving, and as we rolled past the hillsides, the aspen groves changing in broad swathes of tequila sunrise shades, I kept my eyes peeled for shots, the edge of a rock formation breaking the regularity of the forest, or a cluster of aspens with pleasingly hatch-marked trunks, or a curve of the road where the backlighting turned all the leaves fluorescent, clouds behind lit purple and blue from within.

“Do you want that one?” I would say, tapping the brakes, and much more often than not, Mike had seen the very same shot.

We left the living aspens and entered the scar of the West Fork Fire — 109,000 acres of climate-driven char and burn. In some places new aspens were coming, in others there would only be meadow. In the U.S., every year since 2000, an average of 72,400 fires have burned an average of 7 million acres a year. In Colorado, the spruce and pine beetles have killed one in every fourteen trees, nearly a billion total trees statewide.

I held my new love up like a prism through which to view the decimated landscape. I thought about the unstable man-child who’d been put in charge of the nuclear codes, about skinny whales and dying coral, and about the government’s agenda to pollute the air and water, to eliminate the Endangered Species Act. I woke up choking on grief about it every morning, and yet I was in real healthy love for the first time in my life.

Mike and I had spent the last twenty-six and forty years (respectively) cultivating a love relationship with the Eastern San Juan Mountains that surrounded our homes. Now we had been called to try and love each other the way we had learned to love the land. We were already talking about how we could take the love we had found for each other and turn it back out toward the community, to team teach an environmental education class, to create a safe haven for immigrants, to fight for wolves and bears.

 

A month after that day at the headwaters, Mike and I drove over to Canyonlands National Park for a weekend, camped in the Needles campground, and hiked to Chesler Park. It was mid-October by then, and the fall colors had descended from the high country to red rock canyon level. Mike had never been to Chesler Park, but it had always been one of my favorite destinations, a place my twenty-five-year-old self had said, oddly, I would like to get married here one day, even though my twenty-five-year-old self had absolutely zero desire to get married, then or in any future she could see. Mike took a picture of me hiking down the trail away from him with my arms extended, my palms all but brushing the tops of the chamisa on either side. I can tell just by the way I am lifting my foot to take the next step on the trail that I am absolutely as happy in that moment as I have ever been in my life.

Not far to the west of Canyonlands sit the 700,000 acres of former federally protected land Trump has opened up for oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and mineral extraction, after cutting the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in half. I thought of my friend Terry Tempest Williams, and how she spent years of her life fighting for the protection of that land. My mind flashed to a photo of the two of us signing our first books together at a Salt Lake City Book Festival more than thirty years ago, looking, honestly, not drinking age between us. The smiles on our faces suggest we believed the whole natural world was out there for us to explore and love and save.

In her latest book, Erosion, Terry suggests the climate catastrophe we are currently entering represents a new type of challenge for humanity because, unlike previous hardships, it will not be a matter of knuckling down and getting through to the other side. The climate catastrophe has no other side, or not, anyway, for humanity, because humanity is the hardship that must be gotten through. Very few (if any) humans will be around to take the measure of whether the Earth lives or dies at our hands, and in the biggest picture, that may be the good news. E. O. Wilson says we could take Earth all the way down to the microbes and she would still find a way to recover. Once we recognize ourselves as Earth’s destroyer, it becomes possible to believe that once she rids herself of her most persistent parasite, she will be free to heal herself.

 

That December Mike and I went down to Big Bend National Park for a week and hiked the South Rim Trail in the Chisos Mountains. The South Rim is a nice long day hike, thirteen miles around and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain and loss if you take all the extensions. We took so many photos of the shadowed hills and desert badlands that extended into Mexico, we barely made it back to the campground before winter’s early dark. We drank sotol out of a cloudy plastic milk crate with some kids from Mesilla, New Mexico, and shared with them the lamb stew Mike had cooked up at home and frozen into ice blocks for the trip. The next morning, we followed the Rio Grande as far as we could into Santa Elena Canyon, listened to our voices echo off the golden walls, and hiked across parched desert to a spring erupting with butterflies.

We talked about the children, lonely and sick and dying in cages to the east and the west of us along the border, of Trump’s vanity wall that would rip through that fragile ecosystem with no regard for all the wild creatures that migrated back and forth for food or forage or drink.

Before humans arrived on Earth, there’d been less than one extinction per millennium. Now we were losing two species a decade — mammals, even, most recently a bat and a rat. How do we continue to love the earth and each other inside the knowledge that humans are driving the sixth extinction? And because all love begins with the ability to love the self, how do we accomplish that when we are, each of us, culpable in the earth’s demise? How do we rest easy in the face of our own rampant consumerism, and even if we choose to live simply — to eat a diet heavy in vegetables, install solar panels, waste no food, and drive an electric car — how do we sleep at night when we have a president who is doing everything he can to accelerate the disaster primarily because of how much he feels inferior to a moral and dignified black man?

 

The next summer, when Mike and I got married, it didn’t rain at all. For the first time in our twenty-five years of living at the ranch, the pasture saved itself by staying dormant and I had to buy hay all summer. The trees that hadn’t burned in the West Fork Fire were stressed by the lack of moisture, making them more susceptible to the remaining spruce beetles and other climate-driven disease. We waited for fire, which came to many places near us, but not to our valley per se. I’d been working on putting the ranch into a conservation easement and I went ahead with it, knowing it would appraise far lower than it would have if the pastures were their normal summer lush. I watered a tiny piece of the yard so my geriatric horse could eat some sweet grass on his very last summer on Earth. The only wedding gift I wanted was a rainstorm.

We began the ceremony at noon, and by ten the big black clouds we hadn’t seen all summer were gathering over the divide. As I vowed to be Mike’s partner in whatever small or large way we might work to help this heartbroken country and the people and animals and wild things most at risk in the time of climate change and fascism, thunder boomed over Mt. Baldy. The first drops of rain hit just as we all scooted inside the big white tent, me wishing I had paid extra for the optional removable third and fourth sides.

It rained so long and so hard while we ate our beautiful wedding feast that a few of our friends went out in their Sunday clothes and dug a ditch around the tent to keep the dance floor from flooding. It was the only significant rain event of the summer and coincided almost exactly with the four-hour reception. There was no doubt in my mind it was a blessing, but for what task, exactly, were we being blessed? Loving each other? Loving the land? Was it a friendly reminder from Mother Nature that we had only ever had the present moment to love, to kiss, to dance in the rain, even before the end had seemed so imminent? Perhaps it was an imperative to hold the wonder of our love for each other and the San Juan Mountains in one hand and our grief for a billion Colorado trees, drought-starved elephants, and a third of all birds that have disappeared from North America in our lifetimes in the other.

 

Our first anniversary took us to Iceland, where the glacier, Okjökull (Icelanders called it, affectionately, OK), had recently become the first in that country to go extinct. Icelanders held a funeral for OK at the site, planted a plaque to mourn its loss, to record the date and the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air at the time of the ceremony: 415. The plaque read: OK is the first Icelandic Glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it. In the pristine Westfjords, the Norwegians were farming salmon, a deal the government made that locals said was almost sure to decimate the local fisheries; the nets and tenders were in nearly every single fjord.

All that said, it was not hard to find parts of Iceland that were wild and clean and untrammeled. We also discovered that all over the country, steps that lead to the doors of churches have been painted with rainbow stripes. Per capita plastic use in Iceland is a fraction of what it is in the U.S.; when you go to the grocery store, you have two choices of yogurt, or crackers, or chocolate, instead of 102.

We chose Iceland as a destination because it had been declared number one on the Global Peace Index since 2008, and because we were exhausted by the gun and rape culture of the U.S., which ranked 128 (and falling fast) out of 163 in 2019. The commitment to sustainability in Iceland, the clean air and water, felt like a kind of freedom we will never know again in the U.S. If we could come here once a year, we told each other, for a month or maybe two, we might recover some semblance of hope or happiness, some ease about the way we walked on the earth. But even as we said the words, we recognized that maybe unfettered hope and happiness were exactly what got us to the disaster we are now facing. And that by taking those airplanes back and forth and back to Iceland, we would hasten the death of whatever Icelandic glacier is next on the chopping block, and that Iceland should not be made to suffer because our own country has become a place we can no longer find hope for peace.

 

When you get married at fifty-six and sixty-one, you quickly discover, the words to have and to hold forever take on a slightly different cast. In no scenario is our love going to get enough time to fully blossom, so it’s imperative not to sweat the small stuff, to drop the walls and the ego, to make the most of every single day. Mike and I built our love for each other from our love of the forests and mountains and meadows. Can our love endure if every tree burns, if the air gets so full of methane that wildflowers can’t grow, if nothing is left for elk and bears to eat on the hillsides? If loving the landscape taught us how to love each other, can loving each other help us bear the loss of landscapes we love, or does it elevate the pain exponentially? And once all the wilderness has been destroyed, once every living thing has been extracted and consumed, does our love become a memorial, some kind of hologram of all the things that used to be? When you get married at fifty-six and sixty-one, you quickly discover, the answer to all of the questions are yes.

 

In the middle of writing this essay, I texted Mike the question “what does it mean to love another person in a dying world?” He was in Colorado, and I was in California. He texted back: Love provides respite from the suffering? Grounds one in the present instead of dwelling in the fear of the future? Provides a feeling of safety even as everything falls apart? Moving forward toward the danger together? There’s the difficult emotion that humans are driving this sixth extinction, but there is also the understanding that life will go on without us. Take yourself outside, my sweet, and look up at the moon and the stars.

 

Sometimes, when I lie in bed at the ranch, the Milky Way bright outside the bedroom window, my head on Mike’s chest, listening to his heartbeat, I think, okay, let it end now . . . now . . . now . . . I am where I belong and I am ready. But not one of us is going to get out of here that easy; none of us is going to get out without bearing witness to suffering on a scale that this decade’s fires and floods are only beginning to reveal.

Who will be the last humans on Earth? How many will survive the climate-driven wars, the drought, storms, fires and floods, death of the bees, and the end of agriculture? What will those people have learned about love? What will they have learned about greed and cooperation?

One thing I do know is that as our suffering gets greater, so must our love. Not just me and Mike, not just one for another,
but all of us, for all of us, and for Earth in distress. What is left for us is to walk into the devastation awake and full of compassion.

We are going to have to love fiercely, and fervently, all the way to the end, with nothing to protect us but our empathy, our sensitivity, our mercy, and our courage. Love at the end of the world must not be a diminished love, but one of endless expansion.

Outside the bedroom window, the stars sparkle their near infinity and in that too is respite.

“What’s the name of that one again?” comes Mike’s sleepy voice in my ear.

“That’s the Pleiades,” I said, “the seven sisters. Orion was in love with all of them. See how he’s chasing them across the sky?”

“I don’t need seven sisters,” Mike says, and I tell him I am glad to hear it.

“I need you,” he says, “for exactly as many days as we have left.”

 

 

“For as Many Days as We Have Left” is the opening essay from Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion from OrionMagazine. Order your copy through February 14, 2022, for 20 percent off

 

 

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA Award for contemporary fiction, the Evil Companions Literary Award and several teaching awards.  She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is Professor of English at UC Davis, and co-founder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Author photo by Mike Blakeman.