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The sun rises over Sandia Crest

I SLIP between the strands of barbed wire and head north and a little east toward the dark volcanoes. Despite their name, they're not volcanoes at all, but lava flows thrust up through the earth's crust long ago. Grasses creep ever higher up their sides; still they remind that this land was formed in the violence of rift and fire. It's five miles to the nearest point of lava. I won't go that far this morning, but it makes a landfall for me in this open, rolling sea of pale New Mexico grasses. Shafts of silver light break through blue-white clouds: The sun has topped Sandia Crest.

My path is a rutted track worn bare by ranging cattle. Nothing rises above grassline but scattered shrubs, a white dome 20 miles west, distant power poles, the Sandias to the east, and, of course, the volcanoes straight ahead. All else is sky so wide, so high, that the clouds it frames command an interest they're denied in different country.

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Signs of change are everywhere. Air and ground are cooler as the sun comes later to its appointment with the mesa. Gambel's quail, which hid in early summer, at last are free to burst from cover with their broods. They rise in protest to my intrusion. They move away in a fury of wings and irritated calls. To my east, balloons lumber up from the valley floor: one more sign autumn is approaching. By midday, the brown earth will ache again with heat, but for now the promise is genuine - wait, wait, the cool is coming.

Lightning danced across the sky for hours last night and still the soil is chalk-dry beneath my feet. What rain there was must have graced another quadrant. Still, the heliotrope blooms and the little-headed snakeweed is content. Summer has brought rain enough for them.

Not a single lizard darts across my path. Is this the first morning or did I miss it other days? Is it possible that I, still judging my rising by the clock, have come afield at a time reptiles would condemn as folly? Of course, their life is set by heat and light, while mine, more foolishly, is structured without regard to nature's flow.

A kingbird sways on a distant bush. He doesn't mind the lack of trees. He stakes his territory shrub to shrub and lives at ease with neighbors who know the boundaries well.

Friends ask why I live in a place so devoid of comfort. Yet as I wander toward the purple rock I wonder at the question. What greater comforts can there be: to break my fast in easy strides across a quiet landscape; to note the changing season issued in whispers rather than assaults; to look out each day and see the point where sky and land collide? I, like the kingbird and the snakeweed, say it is enough.

It's a trick to see no city here. Like the volcanoes that are not, this land is neither so vast nor wild as it seems. Just east the mesa falls suddenly away to the Rio Grande, and it's only this escarpment that hides the coming tracts. Soon concrete will stretch out where now the grama grass and the saltbush grow. With streets will come the elms and other red-leafed autumn warriors. Seasons will be different then. There will be no place for me, nor my nearest neighbors. The kingbird may stay, and the lizard, but coyote, quail, and I will look farther out.

Till then, we go about our business pretending there's no greater change than autumn in the air.

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