“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly reflections on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.
I live with my wife and two young daughters in the high desert of the western Great Basin, at 6,000 feet on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, on a desiccated hilltop so mercilessly exposed to wind, snow, and fire that our house appears to lean away from the trouble, like a tree canted by the blast of the Washoe Zephyr that sweeps these hills every afternoon. It is a stark and extreme landscape, utterly empty of any concern for our flourishing, or even survival. It is also, to us, the most remarkable home imaginable. I look forward to telling you more about this place and its human and nonhuman inhabitants in the monthly essays that will follow.
But first, in this essay of greeting, I offer a few reflections on how we human neighbors greet each other out here in the rural high desert. The fact that we are so few and far between in this big country profoundly conditions our modes of communication, increasing our dependence upon each other even as it intensifies the isolation we have chosen in coming here to dwell. Our challenge is to affirm the bonds of mutual aid so as to have them ready in times of blizzard, fire, and accident, while simultaneously protecting each other’s elaborate fantasies of independence. This is more difficult than it might sound, and it accounts for the ubiquity of discussions of the weather, without which my neighbors and I—there are eight of us strung along this nearly impassable, three-mile dirt road snaking through the sage and juniper hills—would have a rough time getting along. We’re all isolatoes here, distinguishable on any given day by our varying degrees of orneriness—by where we might each be placed on a narrow spectrum ranging from Tolerably Genial at the Mailboxes on up to Sociopathically Misanthropic. Despite our curmudgeonliness, we also know how to help each other when the need arises, which it does out here.
The dominant ethic on our road—the key to preserving harmony in our little desert kingdom—is extreme physical isolation intensified by unflinching social restraint. One of my neighbors will use his tractor to repair our road, but not if we embarrass him by mentioning it, never mind if we insulted him by offering money. Another will plow you out after a big snow now and then, but never if you ask or expect him to. Above all, we adhere strictly to the cardinal rule that there is to be no discussion of anything outside the immediacy of our local circumstances: weather, varmints, and road conditions are permitted; religion, politics, and economics are not. What each of us might do to make a living in the distant city is vaguely known and never spoken of. The fact that 97% of topics common to human social discourse are strictly off limits obviously necessitates conversations that are delicate, resourceful, and brief, but our happiness is dependent upon adherence to this tacit code. Maybe we fear that in admitting aloud the existence of the city we might suddenly be banished to it.
A practical example of how we perform this ethic of restrained communication is provided by the greetings we offer each other along our road—greetings that are confined entirely and inflexibly to the wheel wave. That is, we lift one or more fingers off the steering wheels of our trucks as we roll by each other in the mud, dust, or snow. This is a rich and subtle form of communication, with a complex variety of nuanced, unwritten rules, but I’d summarize this way. You lift only your pointer finger off the wheel for a routine howdy to a neighbor. Lifting the pointer and middle fingers in the two-fingered salute is appropriate when greeting a truck carrying kids or old people, but it is best to flash the fingers at an oblique angle so as to avoid having it be misunderstood as a peace sign, which, in a sideways sort of way, it is. But under no circumstances do you ever, ever allow your palm to leave the wheel, which would be a greeting so effusive and emotional—so perfectly hysterical—that anyone foolish enough to display such a loss of self-control would never recover the respect of their neighbors.
The complex, invisible protocol for wheel waving constitutes an interactive social symbol system that, like other kinds of coded language, is highly functional. In a world replete with noise, ambiguity, miscommunication, distortion, obfuscation, and deceit, this system is crystalline in its clarity, elegant in its simplicity and directness. You might object that the desert, so dry, has made us dry as well, and you may speculate that the wheel wave is not a human-scale gesture on the order of the more demonstrative greetings so regularly exchanged in town. And yet, in a desert landscape that is emptied of everything save glaring light and huge wind and unspeakable beauty, a sideways peace sign may be sufficient—at least until the next big fire or storm.
Michael P Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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