Sweeney: Susan Tichy

Upper Horn Lake, Sangre de Cristos, Joe Tichy, 2008 

Susan Tichy is a poet who lives for part of the year in a hand-built cabin in the Sierra Mojada (Wet Mountains) of Colorado. She has been an active war-protester and has written on the theme of conflict as well as discussing the subject on seminar panels, alongside veterans. Susan’s poetry collections include Bone Pagoda, a journey through Vietnam – the title taken from the name of an ossuary on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, where the bones of 3000 massacre victims are preserved; A Smell of Burning Starts the Day, an account of a soldier relative who was part of the occupying U.S. army in the Tarlac Province of the Philippines at the turn of the century; and, most recently, Gallowglass, which takes its title from the Gaelic gal-óglac, a foreign soldier or mercenary.

Sweeney's Bothy, sketch, AF, 2013

Struck by the parallels between Sweeney’s flight into the wilds of Glen Bolcain and the refuge cabins and shacks, or ‘hidden fortress’ strongholds, that a number of war veterans have made in mountain landscapes, I invited Susan to share some reflections on our bothy. Her immediate response to my sketches was that, ‘swathed in thorns it seems earthy, hidden, secretive, safe from the inside, fortified from without. A bothy held aloft by thorns feels dreamlike, lifted up with only the sky above; though approaching it on the level the thorns might be discovered below you, a very different and eerie experience, subconscious, or lying in ambush.’ 

In America the motif of the hut carries from Thoreau’s cabin to the hideaway of the Unibomber – the tradition is not one of uncomplicated pastoral. Given Sweeney’s battle-induced madness and the contemporary recognition of PTSD, it seemed crucial to understand such contemporary parallels, exposing the bothy to both hutopianism and survivalism.

James Benning, replica of the Unabomber cabin, 2011

AF: Susan, let’s begin by taking our bearings within the landscape itself. Can you sketch the situation of your cabin in Colorado? My own sketchy impressions come from a visit to Taos, and also meeting with Jane Wodening, in Boulder, and reading her hut tales – she’s way above the tree line.

circle poem, Alec Finlay, 2011

I’ve also worked with Andrew Schelling on a mountain project, where he mapped the Arapahoe peaks in a renga, which I twinned with Mt Lushan in China:

   hooxeihiinenii beiinese’
   Pawnee Fort this peak’s earlier name

   warrior stronghold in cloud wisps
   Algonkian scored on billion-year granite
   linked by arêtes & capped

   by perched isolate fragments
   Devil’s Thumb far altithermal—

   shall I take to carrying a possible bag
   prepare the blue corn
   ceecéecó’oh to smudge

   smudge this rattle with ceremonial herbs
   winter’s deep study precipice

   not afraid to call thunder down
   wear out thick boots
   or make poems from the geology handbook

I also recall a wonderful signpost – reported to me by Gerry Loose, after a hike he made with Andrew – which read something like:


Blanca Peak/Tsisnaasjini, Sangre de Cristos, Susan Tichy, 2007

ST: Hmmm, well, depends on what kind of bear. Play dead for a grizzly or a black bear with a cub, but fight any other black bear. They are rather timid, and fatal attacks are rare. My husband was confidant enough to walk towards one on open ground and gently back it down, till it moved back into the trees and away from a neighbor’s open door. (The dog wisely stayed just behind his knee.) As to lions… I have a friend who fought back and lived to tell about it, but if it wasn’t taken by surprise (as hers was, near a den), and if it’s really trying to kill you, it will hit the base of your skull from behind, like a tiger, and you won’t know a thing about it.

So, yes, that’s one kind of knowledge you pick up, living here. Personally I would be happy just to see one of the lions who share my favorite trails and the fifteen acres I call mine. So far only tracks, scat, kill sites, and the cry at night.

My husband, Michael O’Hanlon, was a combat vet (River Assault Force) and a mountain climber. He and his cousin found the Wet Mountain Valley during their quest to climb all Colorado’s Fourteeners – peaks over 14,000 feet. It’s in southern Colorado, in the middle of the state, far from paved places, and about equal driving time from Denver north or Taos south. His first memory of the place was of driving up into the valley at dawn, October, through wave after wave of migrating elk drifting over the road with the mist, and he never got over expecting to see that again.

We built the cabin with our own hands, beginning in 1982. Michael was finished with his post-war travelling days and ready to put his foot down somewhere. land was still cheap and we wanted a home base without a mortgage, so though we had never built so much as a bookcase, off we went. I played architect, and Mike found a way to get lumber at wholesale, and we both pretended we weren’t terrified. The cabin’s still standing, and still not finished, and still amazingly solid, though looking at it now I sometimes wonder who built it. When? How?

Susan and Michael's cabin, Susan Tichy, 2010

The cabin sits just under 9000 feet, in the western foothills of the Wet Mountains/Sierra Mojada, east of the Wet Mountain Valley and 1000 feet higher than its floor. The land is part of the ghost town of Rosita, a silver-boom town that once held 2000 people, hotels, saloons, and a famous brewery. Not much of that is visible now, except piles of slag from the two big mines. Aside from silver, Rosita was famous for its four good springs, one of which lies just downhill from the cabin, though not on my land. We chose the drier, sunnier side of the valley because we intended to live there year-round, and we chose Rosita because it had already been built on, trashed, and abandoned. We didn’t want to disturb new land. On the west side, at the foot of the big range – the Sangre de Cristos – land at the same elevation has thick forest, fast streams, with cold winds off the high peaks: lovely in summer. Our side is semi-arid: pinyon pine and ponderosa, aspens in wet spots, and a lot of brush – chamisa, wild currant, buckbrush, and (before the epic droughts of the last ten years) wild roses. The cabin has double-glazed passive solar, backed up by a woodstove, and until 2001 had no phone, electricity or running water. (We liked to say we picked up the 20th c. cheap, after everyone else was through with it.)

Parts of the valley are irrigated, so in June, as I drive down from Rosita toward the valley floor, it can look like a strip of Scotland has been laid down among the paler greens at the base of the Sangres.

The peaks rise straight up from the irrigated ground, so as I drive down from my side, they stretch out like a wall in front of me, maybe twelve miles off. It’s a spine of a range – a sharp, steep uplift with nine Fourteeners among its summits. You can walk from our side to the other in less than a day if your lungs and knees can take it—and much is Federal Wilderness, the rest mostly National Forest. For 80 miles, no paved road crosses it and only two jeep roads go all the way over, passable in summer, though one is a nightmarish drive. Tree line hovers around 11,600 feet, a couple hundred higher on warm or less windy slopes, and the tundra harbors plants that were stranded by the last ice age.

Histories of the Wet Mountain Valley begin around 1870 with the silver strikes, the first cattlemen, and the German Colony – a band of immigrants, some of them Civil War veterans, determined to farm communally though they didn’t know how to farm. All that’s left of them are place names including “colony” and a few old families who stayed on when the venture failed. Local authors dispense with Native history in a sentence or two – “summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians” just about does it. But there was always plenty going on. The Ute, Arapahoe, Apache, and Comanche territories all more or less converged here, and Blanca Peak, our southernmost Fourteener, is Tsisnaasjini', the Navajo’s sacred peak of the east. I could write all day about comings and goings over this land, a history most ignore though the clues are all over the place. Just for starters, in the Catholic cemetery at the edge of town you’ll find graves from the 1850s and 60s with the name Garnier, a French/Sioux mixed-blood family whose trading business stretched from Canada to Santa Fe and lasted four generations, through French, Spanish, Mexican, and American rule. Kit Carson isn’t buried there, but he helped trap beaver to extinction in the Sangre de Cristo decades before “white history” is said to have begun here.

The Sangre de Cristo range from Rosita Road, Susan Tichy, 2010

It’s landscape on a magnificent scale, open and dramatic, with a big sky nearly always blue. You can see thunderstorms fifty miles off, watch weather move toward you or away. I can’t count the people I’ve met who first drove into the valley on holiday, went home, gave notice at their jobs and came back, with no more idea of what they were doing than Mike and I had when we bought our hammers. Is that an American thing?

Monitor 2 at SEA FLOAT, photograph Bill Patterson, 1970

AF: It is how we tend to think of an American mode of settling. Your account catches the sense of the human as an agency of change, and the associations of these influxes with various wars – from the Civil War of “colony”, to the Vietnam war, and now Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, that have swept waves of vets up into the mountains, Michael among them.

Embedded in this migration there seems to be an impetus, or need, to escape, and sometimes that carries with it a sense of right, even destiny? Agriculture and mining have absorbed the technologies of war – DDT, say, or explosives, for mining – activities that we’d set against the hutopianism of Snyder, wild nature, the Thoreauvian tradition. 

Given the parallels with Sweeney, what interests me is the pattern of individuals, families, and communities entering the mountains, as a means to access a mindscape of reclusion – the Amish moving into your valley as much as the Vets – and I’m wondering if you feel that there is some primal instinct at work here?

Does one enter the peaks as a means to still change, to enact a pause? Wittgenstein’s essay on wound shock comes to mind – based on his experiences working in hospital during World War II as well as, no doubt, his own experiences of the trenches in the First World War – in which he inverted the word shock as a typographical register for the force of the human experience that was being objectively described. What I am speculating is that, in any conflict, but in particular in a modern warfare, the experience is typified by an exposure to the explosive, to moments and forces of terrifying speed. (Of course, there is also the exact opposite phenomenon, in the distancing effect of drones and high altitude bombing.)

Does it ring true, for you, that a Vietnam vet might crave the apparent stasis of a mineral landscape – what Schelling calls the mountain's ‘13,000 year dream'?

Desolation Peak lookout, copyright North Cascades National Park

ST: If we had a vocabulary for mountain energy, mountain aura, that did not reduce them to one of our fears or one of our dreams…. But I can’t finish that sentence, can I? The Tao that can be named is not the real, etc. So many of the Chinese poets we revere for their solitudes, the stillness their poems now give us, lived in eras of great wars, chose retreat or were exiled after combats both martial and political.

So do vets come here to still change? It’s a beautiful idea, and I’m sure it lurks in the possibles-bag of motives. Yes, we are far from traffic, urban pressures, most loud sudden noises (though not thunder, gunshots, or air force jets breaking the sound barrier), and many do believe that all nature is unchanging, not only the rock. I would say they have chosen a degree of reclusion as self-protection, and that might include protection from self, a stilling of agitations. But retreat is not only from something, but to someplace, and the place only looks like nowhere or nothing or stillness from a long way off. Once you arrive, there becomes here, and requires you to adapt. So I’d say vets who live here have chosen a different set of difficulties – a tough daily life that may be construed as philosophical rigor, a distraction from inner demons, or, in some cases, as a shadow-play of war itself. Sweeney bloodied by thorns instead of arrows.

Snyder was young when he practiced the severe and stunning solitude of the fire lookout, and when he offered a double-seeing of men who worked the Northwest woods: “don’t want nothing / That can’t be left out in the rain—”. Han Shan in a hard hat. Michael had a savant of his own, a war-vet rancher who played softball with his spurs on (the league made a special rule: duck tape, and no sliding feet-first). Most famous quotation, after the loss of a big game – town league softball being, in those days, a proxy war between various cultural forces in the county – In the big scheme of things, it don't mean shit. (pause for a swig) In the big scheme of things the big scheme of things don't mean shit.

It’s hard for me, though, to reduce this place or these people to pure ideas. Some of the vets I know run businesses. Some are drunks or religious fanatics. Some live at the end of long, bad roads, behind KEEP OUT signs and locked gates. When Michael came home from his first trip back to Vietnam, some tracked him down to shake his hand, others shouted at him that he was fucking crazy. But no matter why they came – or, more to the point, why they stay – their reasons, wounds, and desires remain complex and contradictory. Any of us may, as you say, “desire to enter a mindscape of reclusion,” but the actual place has a thing or two to say about that. Opportunities to practice non-attachment may include your roof, as it blows off, piece by piece.

In daily life here, there’s a lot of problem-solving. It’s cheap to live but there’s not much work, and not much to do on Saturday night. Depending on how and where, exactly, you live, you’re dealing with firewood, frozen pipes, rough roads, livestock, too much snow or too little, wildfires and evacuations, dust storms or mud, a short growing season, three hundred trees blown down in one night, bears and skunks, bats in the attic, woodpeckers turning your cabin to sawdust, no internet, and knowing that if you break your neck or have a heart attack, you can count on at least two or three hours from dialing 911 to arriving at a mediocre hospital.

All that is as much “the mountains” as uplifted granite and snowfields and the pressing in of silence. Michael climbed so much in the Sangres he stopped counting summits after the first fifty, and ditto for flat tires on Rosita Road. For vets who have stayed, I think the way of life is what holds them. Even when it’s hard – maybe especially because it’s hard – it simplifies things. Get your car high-centered in mud-season ruts on a county road – is that an afternoon wasted, or an afternoon when you know with Zen-like clarity just exactly what you have to do, with whatever tools and companions are at your disposal? There’s a drama in it, an exhilaration, which in some people reduces the need to create human melodrama just to have something to feel. We have earth-shaking thunderstorms that can leave you as wrung-out as good sex. (Afterwards, we get on the phone: It was fabulous here. How was it for you?) Combat vets are notoriously out of sync with their own emotions – over-reacting or blankly numb. Here, landscape and weather deliver the Sublime and life almost daily provides adventure, large and small. Making it here proves something, and whether that something is macho, eco, metaphysical, or all three, depends on who you are.

Pilgrims at the foot of Mount Adams, Joe Tichy, 2008

In Michael’s time, a lot of vets joined Search and Rescue. In the Sangres, because the topography is predictable, not many people get truly lost. So the ratio of fatalities to call-outs is high. Pre-dawn phone calls, choppers, adrenalin, radio call-signs, body bags: “Brings it all back, don’t it?” said a vet on his first mission. SAR is different now, with more real mountaineers, more training, and better gear. But back in the day – pre-GPS – Michael was the Sangres guru. He had bushwhacked all over the range – not just up peaks and not just on trails. He could predict where a missing climber had fallen, where a lost little boy would descend from a ridge at nightfall. Dropped with a team by helicopter on a high ridge strewn with pieces of what had been an airplane and its occupants, he could recognize where they had been set down, and, without a map, plot a walking route home. It was, in some ways, a perfect intersection of his war-self and his mountain-self – in a poem I called it “the rescue of dead men.” When he quit it was partly his age, mostly a fear that for him every trailhead and peak soon would come with its own toe-tag.

For those of us who go into the mountains, their ridges and pathways become as familiar as a hometown. We know which meadows used to be beaver ponds, when flowers bloom in the avalanche runs. The awe the peaks inspire is mixed in our memories with humor and friendship, and vice versa. To speak of one is to speak of the other. Those who live at the foot of the Sangres without ever venturing into them have a different experience: an acute sensitivity to the idea of “up there,” with no way to talk about it. Some are content to call the mountains beautiful, and watch for great sunsets. Others feel the energy of “up there” and look for an explanation, a name for it. So I’ve met people (some of them vets) who believe that grizzlies and wolves still live up there; that escaped convicts survive up there; that the CIA dumps dead bodies up there; that a spiritual force-field emanates from pre-Cambrian rock on the highest summits, helping us to channel angels; or, that “dimensional energy fields” allow aliens to maintain a spaceport up there; that the aliens and Special Forces fought a battle on the summit of Blanca Peak (casualties quarantined in the outback of a huge army base by Colorado Springs – you can’t fault fantasists for lack of detail); that the government maintains a secret facility inside the mountains, with invisible entrances up there somewhere; that the Marble Caves at 11,000 feet (real enough, though it’s limestone, not marble) hold lost Spanish gold, not to mention a skeleton chained to rock; and of course that it’s suicidal to venture up there without a gun.

Dùn Scaith, Skye, photograph Luke Allan, 2012

AF: Homer, Sweeney – each war seems to project its aftermath, its journey to a home that is rarely found. The skills learnt, the knowledge of war, needs an out. I think back to my visit to Dùn Scaith, on Skye, which Sweeney would have seen when his ‘leaping’ flight took him as far as Eigg. The poem I wrote lists some of those warrior skills.

   the isolate dùn   & broken-ridge mountains
   give barbaric vigour   true to the warrior
      the fort’s named for

      Sgathaich   queen

   super of the fight-school   Cù-chulainn’s instructor
   in the arts    of fucking & fighting
   her tricks & feints   set his shanks & joints   shaking  
   like an oak in the spate   or reed in the burn

       the apple feat    
       the thunder-feat
       the feat of the sword-edge
       the feat of the rope 
       the feat of Cat
       the heroic salmon-leap
       the leap over a poisoned stroke
       the barbed spear
       the breath-feat, with gold apple
       blown up into the air
       the stunning-shot
       the cry-stroke
       and running up a lance and standing erect
          on its point, and binding of the noble hero 
          (around spear points)
   dare the broken arch
   of the voided drawbridge
   gain the wave-washed rock

   pinch the summer thyme
   whose rule outlasted
   the walls of the dùn

Dùn Scaith, Skye, photograph Ken Cockburn, 2012

The hollow bridge is still there, and your narrative reminds me that the fort rests on a detached block of rock, fused to the land, but geologically separate, psychologically apart. Everything you’ve said here is a reminder that there are only so many ways these experiences, their force and impact, can play out. The skills of the mountaineer, that exposure; or reference Robert Macfarlane, that moment under the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuillin, when he confronts his own daring and its desire for dying, and turns back, down the path to Coruisk, white with fear. Or those who press on.

There seems no doubt that this does play out for a vet in some special way. And I recall a phrase you used in an email, that it is, perhaps, 'like guarding the frontier to a country you’ll never visit'. 

ST: Yes, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the aura ascribed to a combat vet, who has broken the greatest of all taboos, thou shalt not kill. And, with that, the knowledge and authenticity we assign to the idea of being there, of witnessing. As I write, I see myself attaching a similar credential to those who have lived in high mountains. McFarlane has also written, “With mountains, the gap – the irony – that exists between the imagined and the actual can be wide enough to kill.” An actual mountain did kill Michael, eventually. His death in a place that to him spelled perfect happiness has become a talisman to some who knew him – though it means that for us the high ridges are no longer “a zone without grief.” But there’s something else about the day he fell: he wasn’t alone. In contradiction to the advice he gave others, Michael often went into the mountains alone. In the twenty-six years I knew him, he dislocated his shoulder, broke a toe once and his ankle twice, got caught in storms, fell into cold streams, came home sunburned, snowburned, bleeding or limping, but he never once got hurt when walking alone. Alone up there, he was as close to one-with-the-mountain and as close to still as he was ever going to be.



   'Wind and thunder cross my threshold'
   Child masturbating on the edge of a door
   —any moment in which to practice calm
   ‘With your own body carry yourself’
   Though we were less strong
   than stubborn
   Writing with gloves on, burning scrap
   Freeing a doe with her hind leg caught in a fence
   ‘If you don’t wash your clothes
   you can carry smoke’
   scribbled inside my copy of High Path
   ‘Roads appear and disappear’
   ‘We walked upon the very brink’
   Large, therefore, is spoken of
   Tea settles in a dirty cup
   And a few pennies left
   for the news
   ‘War horses graze by the city walls’
   ‘Seed pods ripen to brilliant red’
   Trim the wicks, so the lamps burn brighter
   Leave the window open
   for company
   The car high-centered in knee-deep ruts
   Ridge-tops shining by starlight
   As the master says: impossible
   to set a mountain before your eyes

   ST; first published, Beloit Poetry Journal, 2011

Sweeney's Bothy, sketch, Bobby Niven, 2013


Bothan Shuibhne | Sweeney’s Bothy 
Alec Finlay & The Bothy Project 

commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’
inspired by Trevor Joyce's version of the Buile Shuibhne epic, available from Shearsman.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful post -- so textured and wide-ranging. Thank you for it.


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