Memory | Jen Jackson Quintano

Canyon wren notes descend. In my heart, a crescendo: of joy, requited longing, a sense of homecoming. Here, in this aridity, amidst scent of sage and cliffrose, I know who I am. I know my strength and how to carry its subtle, remarkable weight. Here, surrounded by barebones earth, my being is laid bare. My being is resilient and true.

Canyon wren notes descend. Geese burst forth from the banks, distracting us from nests, eggs, goslings. Cliff swallows swoop out of mud-daubed abodes, seeking sustenance. Sadly, it is too early in the season for nighthawks. I introduced my husband to nighthawks on a long ago desert evening. “My love for you is a nighthawk booming in my chest,” he told me. My heart boomed back.

Though our home is now elsewhere, the desert continues to hold our love story. It always will, long after it is otherwise forgotten. Canyon wren notes descend. Reflexively, my heart swells. It encompasses this canyon, the vast desert, and all of the stories I have sown and grown here.

I am a visitor. And I am home.

“Mama! Mama!” she calls, needing me as much as I have needed this landscape. Can I provide her all that these stony expanses have provided me?

She is just over one year old. My name is new to her lips. The desert sun and sand are new to her skin. This canyon realm is new to her nascent awareness.

I have become a mother since leaving my desert home. Everything has changed. Doubt – regarding identity, aptitude, my very place in the world – seeps into the cracks of my painstakingly stone-built strength. My once sure steps falter. Alone, I was enough. Now, I am her all. Am I still enough?

Everything has changed.

The canyon, however, remains. Small beings above still swoop and trill. Small beings below still skitter, slither, and dart. Minor stream riffles still echo off towering walls, as loud as raging floods. The rising sun still tenderly touches sage and grasses, gentle in its brand-new- day affections. Life here exists in a state of certitude.

Amidst this seeming constancy, I remember: the stories I wove, the self I built, the successional loss and longing and love that grew from parched earth. I want to give it all to my daughter, neatly wrapped in balsamroot leaves, tied with horsetail ribbons. I want her to know what I have known here. I want her to know that she is the product of desert and the memories residing there. I want her to be able to return to a landscape – and a story – that endures.


The utterance is urgent, but she speaks with a smile, enjoying the sensation of power on her tongue. She already knows my reflexive response to her voice, this word. I scoop her into my arms, delighting at the feel of her sun-warmed skin, the perfume scent as her small hand thrusts a flowered branch toward my nose. She wrinkles her face in mimicry of sniffing. “—Frose,” she says. Cliffrose. A new word.

The story continues.

Everything has changed. I am now a visitor. Yet I am also home. I am coming home to myself in a place that remembered for me.

“She’s going to cry when she sees this,” he tells his companion, gathering a bouquet of snaking, blooming cliffrose branches.

When he brings them to me, I bury my face in the fragrance, but I do not cry. I will save my tears for goodbye. For now, we are home in the blooming-place of our story. Now, it embraces us as three.

Everything has changed, but my need for the desert landscape endures. I need it as it is, as it has been, as it will be. I need that bedrock stability, a constant by which to measure the mutability of my being.

How else can I quantify the distances I have traveled? How else can I return home?

In a world where everything changes, it is essential to have places in which we can be touched by the untouched, moved by the immovable. It is essential to experience beauty and truth neither conceived nor altered by minds and hands. It is essential to have something beyond us worthy of our seeking and striving. Worthy of return.

In the desert’s constancy is its wildness, and we are the caretakers of this rare and fragile longevity. In our hands, we hold the fate of the places holding our stories. Everything changes, but where wildness remains, we can come home.

Canyon wren notes descend. My daughter calls my name. Cliffrose blooms. A chest-bound nighthawk booms. This place is a container for the ever-evolving story.

Without an enduring, stone-bound memory, who are we as individuals? Who are we as a people?