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A Letter to Sibley from this Place

Essay by Aaron Abeyta

Sense of Place – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Dear George,

Here is this struggle, my struggle to write about a place when all I do is write about this place. Some part of me feels like all you have to do is press play and I will begin again in some innate migration to the llanos, mountains, churches, and rivers that form my home. I suppose it is no accident that I chose the word migration. My people came to my valley home and lands of New Mexico over 400 years ago and have been stealing or stolen from ever since.

I tell my students that we are by nature a migratory people. Our own migration is like Orion’s, the constellation just now back in our night, and his winter journey through the sky. He begins himself, tilted in the east, lying on his side and moves slowly upright in the southern sky before falling again on his side in the west.

And then there is my own abuelito who personified this for me, who fell into his western sky on February 15th at 1:35 p.m. By now you must be wondering what my many loose connections — stars, migration, religion, family — are trying to do here. Ultimately, they must be together and will be my place.

George, here is how the connections come to me. I am six years old and my parents have moved us to Pueblo, where my dad has found work. Every weekend, and I mean every weekend, we load our Caprice Classic and we drive south to this place that is ours. Sometimes my older brothers have football games and we leave after, our headlights cutting through the early morning of a road filled with pot-holes, so that we can pull into the driveway of my boyhood home at three in the morning. Later, at six a.m., my father wakes us so that we can begin the ranch work which has been neglected during the week. The story unfolds from there, packing up Sunday evening and returning to Pueblo and a house where we all do not fit, my brothers sleeping in the family room.

To me the idea of a place, a sense of place is somewhere we come back to at all costs and at all hours of the day or night. I think often of the Monarch butterflies and their yearly migration to the south where they will finally rest in the Mexican pines. I have heard that there are so many of them that the trees groan from the weight of so many butterflies, the thick branches bent toward the earth in supplication. Here is the tragic part. Every year fewer and fewer butterflies return to Mexico. They are victims of pesticides, growth, and too many cars, much like us.

I mention the butterflies because they remind me of my town and how many of us return despite the poverty, and like the Monarchs fewer and fewer make the journey with each passing generation. My town is still poor, though every year the river canyon west of my home is gobbled up by homes made of beautiful scraps. The lumber which goes into the homes is standard grade, the same stuff that clogs canyons and shorelines everywhere so that someone can have a view. The scraps, those are measured in human terms. For the most part these transplants buy only the necessities from my town, gas, and fishing licenses. We see very little of the wealth that grows three stories high on a ridge where pine and aspen used to mingle. We are a beautiful people that too many think of as scrap.

So back to the butterflies, may my god bless them and their journey. May this same god bless Orion and all the rest of us who travel so that we may return and rest in the warm trees that are innately part of us. All this rambling George, and essentially what I’m saying is that a place defines us because the soul and the home are synonymous.

One last thing amigo, earlier I mentioned my abuelito and his passing. His star is somewhere beyond the San Juans’ grasp, fading slowly from this hemisphere and brilliantly into another. I mention him because I miss him and because I believed, and to a certain extent still do, that he is permanently a part of this place, my home, a mountain range away from yours. I never got to say goodbye to him, though I was at his bedside on that February afternoon when it seemed even the sheep in the field below his home stopped moving. The only thing in the air was his last breath and the mumbled prayers of someone speaking too fast in Spanish.

So you see George, there is no sense to goodbyes because our human mind will not let go what it knows will return. I see my abuelito at the table playing solitaire, chopping wood, driving off to the sheep camp or simply standing there broad-shouldered. This too, memory, is our place and this round home we call earth, she disappears from herself and from us at times but returns in whatever positions are native to her and our memory.

These canyons that wrinkle her and the butterflies that fan her and rest in her hair keep coming, migrating toward us and through us or perhaps it is the other way around. We cannot say goodbye to our places no matter how they change, we must always return to them. George we make each place our own by the things we return to it, living or remembered.

Much peace to you and your own place with its migrations uniquely yours. Please do share.

Be well, your friend,

Aaron Abeyta

This year, Western State College’s annual Headwaters Conference explored “Senses of Place.” Aaron Abeyta — a poet, English teacher at Adams State College, San Luis Valley native, and Antonito resident — wrote this letter to explain his “sense of place,” and presented it to the conference.

(Abuelito means “grandpa.”)