By William Barnes
At the stoplight, we are trying to decide whether to go home or to stay. It’s mid-afternoon. April. The air is full of smoke hanging low over the traffic. I think about what we will find: a hole in the ground, fresh cut dirt, a flat expanse of packed earth carved out of the side of the hill, the burning orange light. My colleague is half my age. We are in the deep end of a huge plume of soot and ash from a grass fire in West Texas, 500 miles away. It feels volcanic. We are breathing slow. I know what we will find is nothing.
Erosion is a gradual destruction or diminution. In the study of geology, erosion is the process by which soil and rock particles are worn away and moved elsewhere. Gravity, wind, water, ice.
I wonder if fire is like erosion.
On the ground, there are no lines. Ownership is not intrinsic or marked. When you walk along a bare ridge and then drop down into a swale and you notice first, that the grasses gather in a kind of broad half-moon shape below the contour, and second that the soils have changed, becoming finer as you lose elevation, you think true edges are not so sharp. The boundaries here are curved and broad. I think of the way water moves across the landscape always carrying what was once above. Always gathering. But slowly. Geologic time feels like such an enormous patience.
I think about the silence of waiting.
The silence just before a decision.
I know there are moments in geologic time when transformation happens quickly. Maybe that’s where fire fits in. Like flood. A sudden burst of energy and then a long period of rest.
Musical time is measured in sound and silence. A rest is an interval of silence. Tiny rests are marked as quavers, or semi-quavers, or demi-semi-quavers or hemi-demi-semi-quavers. Like tiny frames of quiet to articulate what comes between, little sip-like pauses measured as vibration, or the lack thereof.
To quaver: A shake or tremble in a person’s voice, typically through nervousness or emotion.
I had hoped to write about silence in the context of a particular poem by Emily Dickinson.
“Poem” is maybe not the correct word. More like a quaver. A few lines written in pencil on a small scrap of paper pinned to a piece of envelope with a few more lines also written in pencil. But when I transcribe these bits of text, and read them here to myself, there is an inner voice warning me to hush.
Another voice says, there is no time to waste. Remember, this is Emily.
Here is what she says:
the West and
the Wheels of
Four fragments separated by the seams of an envelope, a pin, and two gestural marks that seem to imply a kind of separation. No direction as to the order. They make the shape of a pinwheel, or something winged.
Oil field roads cut straight edges across every contour. To find this place you drive south then west, then south, then west, and so on, in a long staircase away from the Pecos, across the Black River to a line of white hills. As if the ground were a piece of blank paper, seamless, flat and silent.
By contrast, the poem follows the topography of the envelope. The words fitted like feathers.
There is no line on the ground to mark the edge between state and federal land. We found surveyor’s stakes indicating the corners of the well-pad. It was January. Warm and clear. On the map, the northern edge of the pad is flush against the boundary. On the ground, this line roughly follows a crest of gypsic soil above the Black River near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The well-pad will extend to the south onto state land, a five-acre slice into the side of the hill, perfectly level.
Matter is never lost. In a wildfire, carbon and hydrogen and oxygen bound up in the wood of trees, is released into the air as smoke and gas and ash. The energy of sunlight that once made them into a forest is also released in flames, as heat and light.
In the poem, there are no corrections. As if written in a kind of flame.
I think that silence can be shaped. Or, more precisely, that silence is not simply a void, but that it is often shapely, or shape-ful. Which is to say that silence can be felt, as a physical thing. And that it moves.
The silence that occurs when you say goodbye
deepens when you actually leave.
Think of line break. A way to make edges. Another kind of erosion.
And the gestural power of a mark, like the dash—
how it becomes a kind of window, opening.
Or the tiny, quaverous non-marks, like the simple space between words that make this writing into speech, flowing, gently yet so easily broken.
Given time, what once was cavernous and sharp, softens to a line of hills, sometimes shrouded in smoke.
Sometimes new cuts appear.
At first, we are not quite sure what we are looking for. A rare buckwheat. Low to the ground. We spread out to walk across the hill. The soil is like sunburnt snow, crusty, noisy underfoot. It feels old.
Gypsum is a common mineral associated with sedimentary rock. It occurs as flattened, twinned crystals, or as transparent, cleavable masses called selenite. Here it forms a crust.
Thick evaporite beds of gypsum were deposited in the warm seawater lagoons of the late Permian, 260 million years ago.
Selenite, as in Selene, goddess of the moon.
Gypsum wild-buckwheat. Eriogonum gypsophilum. Tufted, herbaceous, perennial, growing from a woody base; leaves basal, dark green, thick, glabrous above, sparsely hairy beneath, blade ovate to reniform, petiole often longer than the blade; inflorescence an open leafless cyme; involucres in clusters, campanulate, 4 or 5-toothed, each with 6 yellow flowers.
Restricted to outcrops of almost pure gypsum.
The silence that occurs when listening.
The silence that occurs when looking closely. To find the small hairs beneath the leaf blades of tiny rosettes.
The silence that occurs when you turn to see someone is looking at you. Someone you were thinking of.
The most enigmatic of these fragments, to me, is:
As if to say all this comes from that singular me that is Emily. Of. To express the relationship between a part and a whole. All this—part—of I.
—made from, belonging to—this now—
afternoon and the west—
Of course, it was there. First, along the shoulder to the north into the ravines on the shade-facing slopes, in single clusters of one or two plants, tiny wooden bonsai trees, gnarled, twisted, gorgeous, in January red, perched on pedestals of crusted soil. And then more and more, we found them. Less profuse on the south side, on the state side, and of course into the space marked with surveyor’s lathe of the soon-to-be well-pad, the soon-to-be square hole in the side of the hill. One plant. Two. Three. More.
When complete, the cut-wall will measure 37 feet deep.
The silence that rises from the edge of a cliff.
The Permian ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history. Nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species disappeared. Recovery was protracted; on land, ecosystems took 30 million years to regain previous levels of diversity.
The silence that closes it shut.
Eriogonum gypsophilum was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1981. There are three known populations in the world occupying less than 210 acres in Eddy County, New Mexico. In January 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed de-listing the plant. There is no comprehensive survey documenting distribution and abundance. No trend monitoring has occurred since 1993. There are no current population estimates. Threats include climate change, drought, habitat fragmentation, oil and gas development, grazing and inadequate regulatory control. There are no studies to show that populations are either stable or increasing. There are no studies. As if the absence of data might equal the absence of threat.
We cannot see through the smoke. Opaque. Silent.
Back home, at work, two days later, in the middle of writing my report, my request that a formal survey be completed, my request that construction be delayed, in the noise at my desk, in the middle of the day, I get the call. The well-pad is built. Over-night.
Look at the shape and the breaks between words. The pointed syncopation of t’s. Is it a matter of space? The necessities of containment—here, in this particular place, the paper seam dictates that text must trace just so. Of course. But then look how this shape demands a certain particular set of silences too, descending, so that each end line, each small word, the sip of breath, the pause, an erosion, a
rest, of song, shape now a new syllabary—
so to slow, so to feel what lies beneath. The silence is sewn in.
To mark the place.
I wish I could have watched her. I wish I could have seen her pause and look up and reach into her dress pocket for that scrap of envelope. I wish I could have been near enough to hear the pressing of her pencil. The page burns yet I think. Did she sit at her desk? Did she write on the back of a book in the garden? How long did it take to make those two small words?
a silence that reaches
a silence that points
a silence that stills
a silence that begets
a silence that wonders
a silence that waits
a silence that fails
Later, the state botanist calls to say that she had received an inquiry from a representative of the company.
—They say they have built a well-pad on state trust land in the vicinity of a population of gypsum buckwheat.
—What is your policy related to encroachment of habitat or to destruction of listed species?
—Our policy is to inform the applicant of the possibility of harm, and to tell them that it is their responsibility to abide by the law, and that they should consult with you. What is your policy?
—Our policy is to enforce the policy of the presiding landowner.
To preside: to be in a position of authority, to be in charge of a place, or situation.
what a tiny gesture. how it could fit anywhere. how it slips so easily from the wheels of birds to the wheels of i. like a match.
filled with silences.
April. We have come back to Carlsbad for other more pressing work, but we have time. We could visit this place. We could drive along the ladder south, away from the Pecos toward the soft hills where the dirt turns white and falls away into the flood plain and how like a weight, the smoke-filled sky presses down against the edges of that hole and the suffocating light, burning somewhere far away, this immediate erosion, this caving in, and I am not alone, and something of propriety holds me back, that I should protect my co-worker from something I cannot name, from the looks of the company men, and the wild war sounds of the drilling and banging, and the clean bright surgical cut smiling out from the remade hill and the sharp fear of loss, the fear of loss. The silence shame makes. The silence nothing makes.
And I think of Emily. There is nothing left but the language we speak.
I say no.
We turn away,
drive ourselves home.