Burglary. Drugs. The Newfoundlanders in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News shake their heads in dismay. Newcomers, drawn to The Rock by an influx of offshore oil work, are committing crimes that were unheard of before. People accustomed to security have to lock their doors at night. From the way they go on, you’d think crime had been invented last Tuesday. But running through the novel is a story of incest; running through the locals’ talk, casual tales of domestic violence and abuse. Crimes that make your blood run cold are just a way of life. It’s only this new crime, this unexpected crime, that’s a problem. People who thought they were safe feel vulnerable, and they resent it. Clearly the outsiders are to blame.
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” The adage isn’t quite true. Really, you forget that the devil you know is a devil at all.
The hail had broken skylights in the barn and spooked the horses, Karen told me. She’d come by to see how I was managing in the casita I’d rented from her for a few days. I’d enjoyed the storms: two days of squalls that blew in one after another, shaping the Manzano Mountains behind ever-changing clouds. Curled up with a fluffy blanket and tea, I’d reveled in the thunder echoing off the mountains, the hail hammering down, the rain puddling around prickly pears and cholla. A leaky roof had been a drippy reminder of just how thin the membrane is between shelter and exposure. Still, I’d been safe and protected, and the leaky roof wasn’t my problem to fix.
“Nature really is bigger than we are,” Karen said, casting a rueful eye on the barn.
Now, on a day of racing clouds, the sun and I were ready for adventure. I bundled up against the wind—layers, jacket, scarf, earmuffs. With sunscreen, water bottle, and camera, I was prepared for anything. I rambled down the jeep track skirting the ranch’s post-and-wire fencing, around the corner, and down a stony hill.
A lone cloud scattered a confetti of hail across the path. I sheltered amid a trio of junipers. The ground was thick with berries and fresh needles that had been stripped away in the violence of yesterday’s storm. The air still tingled with fragrance. The cloud drifted off, trailing a veil of white behind it, and I walked on in sunshine.
At the base of the hill was my stopping point: a gate with strong crossbars where I could perch to rest and watch the land drift in and out of shadow. The scudding clouds turned the mesa from juniper-green to midnight blue, the grasses from dun to sage to white, the earthen track from brown to russet and then back again. The sky was huge. The only sounds were a train whistle in the distance, the wind hissing in the grasses and, somewhere beyond the gate, cattle lowing.
Lowing. That’s far too peaceful a word for the irritated, blaring bassoons I was hearing.
“Something’s not right,” I thought—as if I know the first thing about cow-speak. The play of light on a dead tree distracted me, and I put the cows out of mind. A few photos, a few more sips to empty the water bottle, and it was time to turn for home.
I headed back up the hill, past the junipers, and up the stony slope. The soundtrack of grumpy cows quieted. Near the home stretch I began to hear the crunch of tires on pebbles on the slope behind me, and then the rumble of a 4-wheel drive. A pickup was approaching, the big, square frame of the ’80’s bobbing at each rut. I stepped off the track at a patch without prickly pears and waited for it to pass.
I’d expected a neighborly wave from some rosy-cheeked rancher. Instead the driver slowed, and three shirtless men turned in unison to leer at me. They must have come prepared for leering. I was wearing thick layers and my sturdiest walking-near-cactus clothes. I looked about as feminine as the Black Angus cattle (and the men had probably leered at them, too). They flicked their tongues lewdly. As the truck passed the man in the half-seat of the extended cab turned to stare. I can still see his teeth, over-large in a jutting jaw, the brown hair plastered against his forehead, the tattoo staining his upper arm. Red water bled from the new-harvested sandstone slabs stacked in the bed of the truck.
The driver slowed to a stop, the man in back still staring, and my stomach dropped. The truck shifted into 2-wheel drive and plowed on.
A deep breath. I understood now why the cows had been grumpy—felt a kinship with them, even, at the intrusion onto their peaceful, oblivious ruminations; the awakening of vulnerability.
Funny. I’d been vulnerable all along—alone in the no-man’s land between grazing range and wilderness. I was prepared for rain, hail, wind, sun, hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration, and cacti. I walked in serenity through a land that sticks, stings, and bites without giving the risks a second thought. Except that I had given them a thought. The risks are so routine that I’d prepared for them without noticing. (You forget that the devil you know is a devil at all.)
“Nature really is bigger than we are.” I was set to run nature’s risks; I had just forgotten that humanity was one of them. The recognition of truth—that I was alone and vulnerable—hit hard and fast.
I found myself thinking about it the next day, vaguely unsettled. I remembered a time in my early 20’s when I’d narrowly avoided a car accident: a badly loaded construction truck had dropped a concrete road barrier in front of me at highway speeds. A split-second swerve, too fast for thought, into a lucky gap in the next lane, and the danger was past. I was shaken for a couple of days, even though nothing bad had actually happened. I just saw how easily it could have. The illusion of safety was stripped away. I glimpsed what a fine thread life and happiness hang by, to what extent safety is just a habit of thought. It was a hard lesson in truth, about the limits of our control.
The only real crime The Three Leerers had committed was to remind me of that truth.
It doesn’t hurt to be reminded, I suppose—to stop and re-assess the dangers in your personal landscape and see them for what they are; to think about how to approach them. Do you take up offensive or defensive arms? Do you close down, or carry on as normal? Fight, flee, or freeze seem to be the basic options. I wondered whether there were others—more tree-like options of growing and deepening.
I often say that I identify as a Quaker but seldom flat-out say, “I’m Quaker,” precisely because I don’t have those options figured out. The Friends’ peace testimony—their refusal to use violence even to defend themselves—is their hallmark. I’m not sure I wouldn’t respond to push with shove, if it came to that; not sure I would refuse to take up arms in a pinch. I see the point of the testimony: to stand firm and say, “The cycle of violence stops here,” even at the risk of your own life. I get it. I just don’t know whether I’m brave enough not to fight. I don’t know whether I would be willing to see an assailant’s humanity—to be that able to choose love.
Later on I went for another walk, not in an act of courage or defiance or anything; just to go for a walk. I gathered colorful pebbles for my garden as I went. Would I have hurled them at an enemy at need? (I’d have missed.) I didn’t have to find out. The cows had no reason to low.
Back in Albuquerque, I found myself continuing to think about that incident—the veil lifted on danger and the weighing of responses—as news stories dropped one bomb after the other through the last months of 2015: suicide bombings in Beirut; the Paris attacks; the Syrian refugee crisis; 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, shot in a road-rage incident just down the road from me; the Planned Parenthood and San Bernardino shootings; the Chicago police shootings; two local teens shot in a week in drinking games among “friends”; mass shootings in East Texas, New Orleans, Savannah, Jacksonville, and on and on.
I heard my news feeds go up in arms, with talk of safety and protection, of closing borders. I heard a rising noise of anger and Islamophobia. But what I was seeing were acts of violence claiming lives every day (sweet Lilly Garcia, age 4). Our response was discrepant. We were only demanding large-scale action—carpet bombs and travel bans—in a few cases: the ones by “new devils,” the devils we didn’t know. Outsiders.
We know plenty of old devils here. We just seem to know them so well that we’ve forgotten they’re devils at all.
When I think of The Shipping News and The Leering Men—the anger toward those who expose vulnerability—I wonder if the same mechanism isn’t in play. The everyday crimes committed on our own doorsteps: I believe we’ve learned to take them in stride and pretend that we’re safe, because safety is a habit we’re fond of. I’m understanding the crime of terrorism afresh. The lives lost, the families and communities shredded, the physical and emotional wounds—those are the immediate, horrible impact on relatively few people. The broader crime is to rip the illusion of safety from entire cultures; to make you aware in new, raw, visceral ways of the truth of your vulnerability to things beyond your control; to keep you reacting with an animal’s instinctive fear, even when you yourself are unharmed; to prevent you from tapping into deeper, more human values.
I don’t think we’re really afraid of the danger. We live with danger every day (9,967 U.S. deaths to drunk drivers in 2014; 30,888 gun deaths in 2015; an average of 1,300 deaths and 2,000,000 injuries annually from domestic violence). But perhaps we are afraid and angry—and eager for scapegoats, in all the old, despicable ways—because our vulnerability has been exposed. It’s not a comfortable truth. I believe we in the U.S. are used to thinking of ourselves as an invincible superpower. The truth, of course, is that no one is ever invincible. But it’s no easy thing to have an identity of strength shorn away, revealed as illusion. Trust me—I’ve been ill for 20 years. I know that. You wonder who you could possibly be without your physical strength; you’re afraid you might be no one. Strength makes a lot of things—resourcefulness, compassion, patience, respect, complexity—easy to bypass, because strength is easy.
Fight or flight. Fight or flight. The animal’s most basic, instinctive response to danger. I just wonder if there aren’t other options.
On my walk I stopped to check on the trio of sheltering junipers. The violent hailstorm two days previously had shredded them pretty badly. But really, they were fine. Unfazed. They’re anchored in a whole other world than the one of passing squalls. Earth. Stone. Deep water. A small family of scrub jays had been feeding on the berries when I walked up. They startled away, squawking, and I smiled. The trees were still feeding their neighbors; still willing to shelter this woman who doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain.
The air sang with their fragrance.