Terry from Derry: Spring Awakening
By Terry Boyle
To quote T. S Eliot, April is the cruelest month. When I lived in Derry, April could well be the wettest month. When I lived in Chicago, even though April was the beginning of spring, the appearance of snow was still an active threat. And, here in the Coachella Valley desert, temperatures can occasionally spike to 100 degrees, a foretaste of what summer will be like.
I think no matter where you live, spring is always considered to be a time of transition and change. And, let’s face it, spring has provided inspiration for poets, preachers and politicians, all of whom have cashed in on the positive attributes to change.
However, Eliot’s The Waste land is less than hopeful about the emergence of winter. Some would say, it’s a matter of perspective. Eliot was the sort of person for whom the glass was half empty, one of those modernist writers who saw the 20th Century as the dawning of the apocalypse, preceded by futility and anarchy.
Springtime in the desert is something that I’m still trying to understand. I’d never seen myself as a ‘desert rat.’ Originating from a place where it constantly rains, I could not conceive of living somewhere where the liquid sunshine of Ireland, as my English friend calls it, rarely happens.
But it has been almost three years since we moved to the parched, dry land of Southern California, and I’m still here. If Eliot thought the English springtime was a good metaphor for his Waste Land, I wonder what images this environment would have conjured up in his mind, probably something more akin to Dante’s Inferno.
I never thought that I’d love the desert. It even seems odd, if not mad, to consider the notion of loving such an inhospitable place, but, believe it or not, it has its charms. Our arrival here, complete with the foreboding earthquake, was, in my mind, an escape from the Chicago winters. I still can’t believe that I lived, or should I say survived, in the windy city for fourteen years.
And, while there was so much that I loved about Chicago, I could never get used to wearing a duvet-like coat for months on end. No matter how much I tried to convince myself that the city was a treasure trove of cultural delights, and it is, I could not escape the fact that the cruelest months began with the sudden drop in temperature.
Spring in the Desert
Since coming to the desert, I’ve not missed the city as much as I thought that I would. I do miss going to the theatre. It seems that desert dwellers prefer to be entertained by what I would term as tickle shops, instead of serious theatre. Retirees, it would seem, prefer the company of drag queens and comedians to that of Shakespeare or Shaw.
However, if I put that small gripe aside, there is much that I love about living here. Who wouldn’t love escaping rush hour traffic of the city, where the word gridlock rarely comes into your mind when driving. It’s a joy to be able to get out into the countryside without an hour of stressful maneuvering in and out of the city.
Apart from the traffic, the pace of life is slower here in the desert. The frenetic jostling is now a thing of the past and not fondly remembered.
When I was in Ireland, I used to love hill walking in Donegal. The damp bog land leading up to Errigal was one of my favourite hikes. The heather and the gorse greeting you as you slogged your way up to the top of the highest mountain in the county was beautiful.
From the top, the views were spectacular, that is, if you had a clear day. Hiking there was a sheer pleasure.
Hiking in the desert is quite a different experience. For one thing, the severe barren look of the desert can be initially intimidating. This is not a place where you can simply wander in the hope of accidentally finding your way back. The desert is less forgiving than that of the Irish countryside, and I was not going to foolheartedly try and navigate my way around without some instruction.
We joined the Friends of the Desert Mountains, and soon discovered that while hiking in the desert you need to be prepared for all sorts of eventualities. Having sufficient water was paramount to survival; never wandering off the trail ensured your safety; and simply using commonsense made hiking a less worrying experience.
Once I got used to the landscape, my former misconceptions of the desert began to disappear. The rugged landscape was less barren than I previously thought. Plant life might be scarce, but it is there if you know where to look for it. As I walked with the experienced hikers, my appreciation for desert spaces grew into a sense of wonder.
Here, in what I formerly would have thought as God-forsaken, life survived, despite the cruelest summer months. One of our guides used the acronym HAT to describe the desert plant survivors. There were the hoarders, those like the cactus who stored water the avoiders, seasonal plants who bloomed/seeded and disappeared before the worst of the heat; and those that tolerated the heat of summer but did not store water.
As I began to understand the immense struggle of these plants for survival, my respect for life in the desert increased. Nature demonstrates how necessity can bring out some ingenious schemes for continuance.
This natural way of living on what is available is a contrast to how humans in the desert act. In a place where water is in short supply, desert communities continue to expand, building golf courses, and water features, all in a time of extreme drought. It seems that nature might know how to live with less, but humans prefer to deny such realities.
So, when I’m walking up a desert mountain, I can look around me and see small signs of life. Little flowers that may have waited for years for rain. They bloom for a few weeks and die, leaving their seeds to wait for the next rainfall. Or I can look down from the mountain and see the many rich resorts with lush golf courses, and huge lakes dotted through the Coachella valley.
Spring is a time of change. Nature has learned to adapt and survive, but will we as humans ever learn from nature to live within our means?
* Terry is a retired professor now living in Southern California. Terry is originally from Derry, Northern Ireland, and in 2004 he took up a position at Loyola University, Chicago where he taught courses on Irish and British literature. Apart from teaching, Terry has had a number of plays produced and has recently been included in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2019 – 2021 (published by The Black Spring Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org