SO MUCH WE DO NOT SEE OR UNDERSTAND

“It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was clean and cold in New Mexico. No one met me.”

–Lucia Berlin, from her short story “Itinerary”


In my advanced age, I am realizing there is so much I really don’t know. Here, for example, is a question I googled recently: Do birds have intercourse?

This was occasioned by several incidents in my front yard of frenzied mourning dove wing-flapping. Then one morning as I drank my coffee I noticed two of the flapping birds were kind of stuck together. My God, I thought, could they be?

I also learned only recently that pineapples don’t grow on trees. “They’re grown from the center of a leafy plant. They are an aggregate fruit, which is formed from a cluster of flowers, or inflorescence.” I mean after a lifetime of opening Dole cans, who knew?

Speaking of plants, I just came across this 2019 series of photographs by Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood called “I’ll Follow the Sun.”

Kirkwood writes:

This collection of work looks closely at bits of debris and foraged plants from the Sonoran Desert and the forests and meadows of western Massachusetts — two distinct landscapes I have inhabited for most of my life. 

I’m interested in viewing the natural world at close range, removed from its original context. In isolation, cycles of growth and decay become more apparent, revealing the singular grace of each form, and the particular environment from which it emerged. Though the objects photographed here are diminutive, their scale had been dramatically enhanced to suggest their echos within a larger system, as well as their monumental significance in my own history.


Many of my own plants made the 500-mile trip from LA to Tucson safely. Breaking down my balcony and back garden was a monumental task. I gave away the equivalent of at least four good-sized succulent starter gardens and of course left behind an entire California native plant garden. To transport, I took all the plants out of their pots, took mostly huge cuttings, put the cuttings in potting soil bags and stacked the pots. 

Then I went to Home Depot and got a ton of bags of potting soil and installed my plants in their new homes. 

What’s interesting is that the landscape, the climate, the geography and geology, and the whole zeitgeist in Tucson makes for a whole different feel than Southern California. People don’t cram things together here. Cacti and succulents need room  so they’re not crammed together in the desert, and somehow the pattern spills over into the garden. The owner of the house I’m renting, for example, has arranged a charming bench in the back yard, a plank of old weathered wood resting on a few decorative cinder blocks. On the plank are arranged a number of plant saucers, resting against the wall; in front of each of them is  upside down terra cotta  or glazed pot. Interspersed are a couple of round terra cotta containers of gold lantana.  Mesquite tree catkins, bougainvillea petals, delicate leaves and twigs make for a kind of constant low-grade shower of plant material that pools everywhere–chairs, plants, tables, saucers–in piles of pale amber “duff” (“the partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor.”)

I’m constantly having to sweep, as it’s impossible not to track the stuff in, but I just kind of open the door and sweep everything out and it all works out fine. And I love that the ground seems to be laid with a soft, forgiving carpet. It’s unimaginably comfortable to pad around on this cushion of decaying organic life. 

Home Depot by the way, I may have said this already, was a total revelation. In LA, Home Depot or any big store is just  a total nightmare: getting there, parking, braving the hordes of people, driving home. This place is a mile or so down the road, off a practically country street, and is set like an island in the midst of the vast sea of a mostly empty parking lot that could easily serve a busy airport. I mean this parking lot is so big that you can see people on the far reaches of it who have set up lawn chairs and umbrellas, or makeout spots with a tree and a radio, or who just want to be quiet and alone and have set up shop with a book and a bag of candy. 

The store itself is of course also giant but the “Garden Center” is right on the northern end, where I happened to enter; I was able to pull up almost literally to the door; piles of various kinds of potting soil were stacked by the entrance; I was in and out of there in ten minutes and some dear guy even saw me struggling with the heavy bags and put them in the back of my car for me! So stuff like that I just can’t even get over.

Plenty of people are crabby, mean and/or simply oblivious, per usual, but so far I so appreciate the live-and-let-live vibe and have had many “small” interactions, like at Sprouts or the PO or wherever, with human beings who were friendly, generous and funny. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been astounded by the number of people who have said, in a challenging, defend-yourself-woman! tone of voice: “Tucson?? Why would you move to Tucson??” Not astounded they’d think it; astounded they’d say it. Why do we move anywhere? I’m going to start responding, “I like the way the light looks at dusk.”

Which is pretty much why I moved here. 

10 Replies to “SO MUCH WE DO NOT SEE OR UNDERSTAND”

  1. newland kellie says: Reply

    AZ has the best sunsets… and sunrises! Silhouette of saguaro against a pink and blue sky. I can hear the music of the ancients who knew, who took it all in.
    Good for you!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Hey Neighbor! Exactly: sunsets alone would be reason enough to move to a place in my book…looking crazy forward to the monsoons!

  2. Patti Cassidy says: Reply

    I was shocked the first time I went to Hawaii and we visited a pineapple plantation. “Where are the trees?” fortunately it’s a pretty common reaction from people so I didn’t feel a total fool.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh good, I’m glad I’m not the only one, Patti! When I think about it, it’d have to be a pretty weird tree to be able to have heavy pineapples dripping off its branches…but it kind of threw me off, to think I’d lived my whole life under such a glaring misapprehension! What else don’t I know?…

  3. Philippe Garmy says: Reply

    I remember many years ago when I had moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma after living in NYC, people looking at me as if I had gone mad and asking incredulously, “Why would anyone want to move to Oklahoma?!”
    My response was quite similar to yours…
    “I love the way Red-tailed Hawks describe curves in the Osage Hills.”
    Now that I’m retired and living in Paris, I still remember with fondness those drives into the Osage Hills and the magnificence of witnessing those beautiful creatures fully alive and expressing their traits with such natural grace and power.
    His creation is indeed filled with such wonder…some of which is gloriously obvious and some which requires a contemplative pause and eyes that see through the silly criticisms and into the heart of our reality with gratitude.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      “I love the way Red-tailed Hawks describe curves in the Osage Hills” could be the first line of a poem, Philippe…and yes, just as when we fall in love with a person, even we can’t say “why”…There’s a Somserset Maugham short story where, the way I remember it, the woman falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a complete wastrel and con artist. At the end she still loves him and says something like, “I don’t know, I’ve always liked the way his hair fell over his forehead in a kind of curl.” May we continue to cultivate the contemplative gaze, and may the mystery continue to unfold. Greetings to you in Paris!

  4. I was absolutely stunned by this picture and I thought “wow what a gorgeous place! “ turns out I live here already 😂 and yeah, we basically picked Albuquerque because we liked how it looked at dusk and I think that’s as good a reason as any .

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Isn’t that photo incredible? Courtesy wikimedia commons…I’ve only passed through Albuquerque…attended a retreat at the Canossian Center which I think is outside the city years ago. But now that I’m in Tucson I’ll have a whole other area of the country in which to range…Anyway, greetings and thanks from one dusk lover to another, Clarissa!

  5. You can imagine the comments I received when I moved to São Paulo and then to the deep Brazilian countryside. My response: all sorts of birds fly to my garden/courtyard and my only 2021 goal is to get at least one to eat from my hand.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Totally, David! I was lying on my glider the other afternoon and spotted one lone ivory-and-pink blossom at the tip of a cactus arm in my yard and practically swooned with delight. I also got up a feeder that is attracting my beloved house finches with their rose-apricot breasts…what more could we want in this world hardly than for a bird to eat, just once, from our hand?…Please keep us posted! And keep those home fires burning in your tangled Brazilian-countryside garden…

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