- Shallow Roots
I once told my grandmother, with the self-assurance only children have, that I would never live anywhere saguaros didn’t grow. She spread a map of North America on the kitchen table and encircled the tiny portion of the continent into which I had hemmed myself: the southwestern corner of Arizona and a skinny strip on the western coast of Mexico.
I was astonished. I had no idea that I lived in one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth. The flora and fauna I had assumed commonplace, even necessary, existed nowhere else—not just the many-armed saguaros towering on the skyline, but also the cactus wrens and Gila monsters, the bristly tribes of tusked javelinas, creatures that populated the private world of my childhood.
I left Tucson, newly married, with my wedding dress reefed like a sail over boxes packed in the back of a pickup truck. Chris and I went on migration, blowing the radiator on Interstate 8 as we fled to the coastline, then headed north to the redwoods, east to North Dakota—my husband’s home state—and south again to Iowa, our new home. We migrated and didn’t come back.
One of my first purchases in Iowa was a potted cactus, which pales in the windowsill and draws blood whenever I reach across to wrestle the storm window into place. I planted Mexican gold poppies that the rabbits clipped into pieces; I scored and soaked creosote seeds that never grew. Four years into my exile I planted a garden for the first time. It’s the difference between a house and a home—putting roots in the ground. No one plants a tree in a place they plan to leave.
Only one of the eucalyptus trees that shaded my childhood home still stands, a dead snag against the Arizona sky. My grandparents made the painful decision [End Page 141] to sell the four-acre plot last year. On my last visit home I filled my pockets with rocks from my scattered collection—jasper, quartz and malachite—reluctantly, weighed down with history. Not many people of my generation can claim to grow up where their mother was raised, in a house their grandparents built. My children will not.
I live in an age of migration: the movement of people, shifting from rural areas to urban, from the cloudy East to the sunny West, and the enforced resettlement of plants and animals as well, set adrift in the changing climate. But it’s an old story, one that started for my family with my great-great-great-grandparents, orphans of the potato famine. They fled Ireland on the coffin ships, impoverished children washed into the streets of Brooklyn.
My ancestors Delia and Michael Geraghty met and married in Brooklyn and moved to Colorado in 1884, more than a decade after the first railroad and telegraph lines began to tame the Great American Desert and fill in the blank spaces on the maps. By 1889 the U.S. government had awarded almost 17 million acres of public land to hundreds of thousands of homesteaders in quarter-section parcels, luring them west with the promise of free land under the Homestead Act.
They were not pioneers. They were swept westward in a wave of immigrants, flotsam and jetsam in the tide of migration. The number of homesteaders rose each decade. By the time Delia’s first grandchild, Nell, was born, the government had given away nearly 170 million acres. Under the Homestead Act, anyone could earn title to 160 acres of public land west of the Mississippi simply by living on the property for five years and “improving” it with crops or cattle. Anglo settlers, along with a few women and freed slaves, crowded into wilderness areas recently swept clean of native tribes by government-issued rifles, forced relocation, starvation, and disease.
One hundred and sixty acres of the flat, fertile prairies that covered much of the Midwest—square after square of the same rich soil, the same steady rain—could support a hardworking family. But in the Rocky Mountains and the largely unknown deserts beyond, the surveyors’ checkered maps...