A snake in the grass
by Ron Dungan
In Zero at the Bone, Tucson writing instructor Erec Toso describes how his brush with death reveals the poison in our daily lives - complacency.
Summer rains wash over the desert; life stirs, and snakes wait for prey. When vacation ends, Toso dreads returning to work at the University of Arizona - the traffic, the meetings, the rigid schedule. After his first day back, he takes his boys swimming and is bitten by a rattlesnake while walking home from the pool. The poison of the desert takes hold while his wife dials for help.
Toso slips into a mental fog, the scent of death drifting around him, paramedics working as if he were "no longer there." His leg swells up to his rib cage, and he can barely eat for three days. But the fog lifts, and he realizes that "being alive is a hell of a thing." After four days in the hospital, he goes home, but he can't work or drive. So he writes.
Toso is at his best writing about the desert. It breaks his heart to see the ground go under the blade, the snakes displaced, the rivers sucked dry.
The wash behind his house brings traffic from the hills - coyotes, bobcats, javelinas. There are confrontations; the family cat looks like a "prizefighter with a broken nose. ... He was lucky. Other cats have never come home."
When we build in the desert, its creatures roam the edges of our cities. Toso holds out hope but has no answers, exploring the contradictions of our love affair with the Southwest while healing from its venom. "I have to speak up for the desert, for what we are losing," he writes, "even if there is no hope that anything will change, and do so with as much care as I can muster, with as much love as I can stand."
Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite Erec Toso 210 pages, softcover: $15.95.
The University of Arizona Press, 2007.© High Country News