I once asked my dad: If someone laid down on the pavement in Tucson on a July afternoon, how long could they survive? He said two, maybe three, hours. I’d never known a heat that could kill as quickly as the cold does in Boston, where I’m from. Dad grew up in Tucson. He knows both.
I followed his wake to Tucson for grad school last fall, and the heat broke my thoughts. I’d known to expect it, but there’s mind knowing, and there’s body knowing. At orientation, we stood outside during the session breaks. Most days, I bought a bottled water from the vending machine. I don’t usually buy water—wasteful—but I bought the condensation dripping off the plastic, the toothaching chill of the first gulp. I needed those waters in a way that felt ridiculous. I stood on the university campus, between buildings, fully in civilization—and, even there, my body felt urgently depleted. That two-maybe-three-hour clock had started. It would only tick for ten or so minutes, and I’d go back into the AC, but my body couldn’t know that.
Kendra Atleework knows the body’s limits in desert better than I do. Her new memoir, Miracle Country, tells what it’s like to be of a land so dry. Hers is Bishop, California: a desert that used to be lush, until LA siphoned its water. Bishop’s a small town, tucked in along the jagged edge of the Sierras. It functions as a relative downtown for the tinier community that Atleework’s most deeply from: Swall, a loose collection of houses dotted on the Sierras’ slant. That geography’s mirrored in the book’s emotional landscape: home is precarious, an odd little pocket, cherished for its oddity. She writes, “Every family cultivates a culture and lives by its own strangeness until the strangeness turns normal and the rest of the world looks a little off.”
Miracle Country is a debut memoir, based on a debut essay, which made Best American in 2015: a very bright, very new light. Atleework writes into the ties between her person and her place, recognizing their cocreation. She recognizes that native people, the Paiutes, belonged to the land far before she did: “Say it PIE-yoot, and know that these are the people indigenous to the valley, who first called themselves Nuumu.” She doesn’t usually command the reader. Her prose is ambient, gusty, lingering, often wide-angled in space, time, emotion, morality. She ranges through family and land histories, and doesn’t draw parallels between them so much as trace those already there.
To say this book is rooted in place is understatement: it’s about place, and about rooting. Swall is as much a character in the book as any of the people. Scenery becomes scene partner. Atleework interrogates the land, praises it, charts her relationship to it over time. That relationship has a classic love story plotline: she grows up with her love, but the bad boy down the road (LA) seduces her. That leads to a messy tryst, and then our ingenue decides to start fresh, moving to Minnesota, “because I had a romantic notion that my life was short on chlorophyll and it was time to get over desert, get to know the color green.” She misses her first love, though, and returns to it. Luckily, human loves can move on while you’re away, but place loves are still there when you come back, albeit with an asterisk. California’s fires have leveled most of Swall. Atleework’s childhood house survived—but the fires, and California’s constant threat of earthquakes, and the drought, hold that home on the sharp point of risk.
Why make home in a dangerous place? Why live where death can find you more easily than it can in other landscapes? Atleework has an answer: she posits a safety in visible danger. She describes a local hike with her Pop. Wind whips her hat off, into the dust. Chasing it, she writes, “I feel comforted by the knowledge that I can be obliterated by this country and safe because the same knowledge can protect me, can make me careful.” She knows there are life-limiting dangers everywhere, always. Each need the body has—for oxygen, for food, for a survivable temperature, for water—is another way to die, if the need goes too long unmet. Temperate places allow us to forget that. Harsh landscapes make the body’s needs visible, which makes us cautious, which keeps us safe.
Yet Atleework’s embrace of proximity to danger sometimes overreaches, belying privilege. I’m of Tucson on my dad’s side, and another desert on my mother’s, farther away in both generations and physical space: Israel. Between that ancestral land and me lies the kind of suffering that burns away any sort of artistic wishing for pain. Atleework writes of her time in Minnesota, “it’s safe to say: I miss familiar disaster. I miss water’s absence. I miss lack.” Yes, it is safe to say: it’s a safe person’s thing to say. In Minnesota, she finds a hill in her neighborhood. “I am drawn to the hill daily, maniacally, starved for elevation,” she writes. Homesickness is not like starving. Starving is like starving.
I’m not in Tucson anymore. I’m back in Boston. The COVID rates in Arizona are too high. That is a home sickness.
I once asked my dad if he felt like a Bostonian. He said no, he felt like a Westerner. He didn’t have to think about it, even after thirty-odd years in Boston, even after raising me here. His desert has always felt to me like a strange planet, more like Mars than like the place I call home. Even the sky looks foreign: so wide, so blue blue blue all the way through, like an eraser is pink pink pink.
For nearly two months this summer, a fire burned in the Catalinas, one of the four mountain ranges around Tucson. My grandma—dad’s mom—watched the smoke from her house. Nothing so wild happens in Boston. This place is mostly manmade, the wild appearing only in blips, as trees and sidewalk margins and parks: margined allowances, no longer the dominant shape of the world.
In the Sonoran Desert, everything bites. There’s a reason most of the plants have thorns, most of the ants have stings. And what do desert people have? Atleework writes: “This dusty margin of California draws and then replicates the kind of people who have never completely adjusted to a human scale. They don’t quite fit other places, be it the orbit of their ideas, good and bad, or the size of the sky they require in order to carry out their lives.”
Atleework writes of her mother first seeing Swall, “I don’t know…whether she knew, as my father knew, that this was the place for her life.” How many of us know that, at first sight? Not me, I don’t think, at least not yet. Can the place for your life be different from the place you live in? Atleework has gone back to the place for her life, to make that life.
In her book, learn a strange country within this larger, stranger country. Trace the etched scars of dams and the taking of water. Sit with the incompatibility of loving one’s home as it is now, while also wishing to have it back the way it looked before, before the water was taken, before your mother died, before you were even born to her, or she to her mother. Atleework asks and tries to answer these questions of her family, herself, her land. Her Pop makes and sells maps of the region; in a way, now, so does she.