Buddha in the Rock

Tucson writers and artists respond to time in the wilderness

The Western United States has been a workhouse for the confluence of art and nature since humans first probed its arid reaches, from the petroglyphs that cover the land like graffiti, marking stations on a journey homeward, to the great illustrated survey reports of the 19th century, to the lyrical reportage of journalist tramps.

You can't talk about the settling of this land without considering the role that art, in all its guises, played in that epic--as a guide, myth-maker and homesteading marketing tool. Then there are all those muted, pastel watercolors of red rocks and those bronzes of cowboys getting bucked about, those stylized coyotes howling upward. Many can't see the basin and range province without painting it, singing it, writing it.

For many more, the American West, especially its wild areas, would be nothing but a vast, unknowable abstraction without the familiar dispatches of writers, singers and painters.

For several years now, the folks at Sky Island Alliance--a Tucson-based environmental nonprofit concentrating on preserving and restoring Southern Arizona's unique wooded mountains and dry-grass seas--have been working to drum up public support for legislation that would preserve a significant chunk of the lichen-covered rock outcroppings and lush, jaguar-stalked canyons of the Tumacacori Highlands, just west of Tubac, as a federal wilderness area. They want to keep the land as close to primeval as possible, similar to the way it was before we all got here.

The Sky Island Alliance has not been shy about it. There have been meetings and lectures, events and workshops related to the effort from Nogales to Green Valley to Tucson these last three years or more, and members of the group recently testified before Congress in support of the legislation.

But earlier this month, they launched their most ambitious project to date, a multimedia creative gasp of wonder called Art in Wilderness: Tumacacori Highlands. A beautifully put-together paperback coffee-table book with two CDs tucked in pockets inside the covers, the project features essays, poetry, paintings, photographs, songs and spoken-word performances by some of Southern Arizona's best artists, writers, singers and photographers, each work inspired by a stay in the Highlands.

As Mike Quigley--the nonprofit's wilderness campaign coordinator--tells it, a few years ago, he and his colleagues were sitting around the office brainstorming ways to raise public awareness about the Tumacacori Highlands. Somebody came up with the idea to take a bunch of artists down there and show them around, stay a few nights and see what happened. What happened was this book, which contains new work by Richard Shelton, Charles Bowden, Kevin Pakulis, Diana Madaras, Ken Lamberton, Adriel Heisey and 13 others. The photographs alone are likely to inspire widespread support for the effort.

They went one weekend in April 2005 and camped, hiked and drank tequila around the fire; the great country-rock artist Kevin Pakulis strummed his guitar in the cold early spring night, and singer/artist Cantrell Maryott, according to essayist Lamberton, was able to "harmonize with a beautiful golden striped spider" while singing among the rocks near Hell's Gate.

Pakulis' song "Jaguar Blues" is the book/CD's highpoint, one of many references in the various works to the mysterious borderland jaguar who is known to haunt the area. "I'll keep an on your Sky Island home / If, Buddy, you could spare me a home," sings Pakulis. "I'm asking for a place I can roam / Won't you kindly throw a big cat a bone?"

Later, a few of the participants got together, the best result of which is a song by the bluesy Maryott, with lyrics by Shelton and music by Pakulis.

"I was really surprised by the response," Quigley said. "In some ways, it took on a life of its own."

Photographer Bob Van Deven, whose amazing pictures run through the book, died just a few weeks before the trip; the book is dedicated to him. The Alliance is selling the books for $40 a piece at its Web site, with the money going to support the wilderness effort.

In just a few words, in his poem "Tumacacori," Jason Zuzga, as only a poet or songwriter can, manages to capture perfectly both the spirit and importance of wilderness and the contradictions in the American character that seem to celebrate the wild while at the same exploiting it beyond recognition.

"Do we choose to demolish the aggravating patience of the Buddha in the rock, to be greater than that timid height?" he writes. "George Washington was a surveyor before he became a general, spraying lines over the land like Spider-Man, the rocks shifting patiently below."

Only art, it seems, can mirror the patience of the rocks, the Buddha--that simple, obvious holiness--in nature, particularly still-wild nature.

This reminds one--indeed, the whole project does--of America's early advocate for leaving land in its primeval state for no other reason than that it looks beautiful and inspires our better selves: Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable," Emerson writes in his essay "Nature."

This project proves the truth of that statement, while at the same time demonstrating how thick this lucky Old Pueblo is with artistic talent and thoughtful, inspired advocates for wildness.

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