Different landscapes have always made me want to write different sorts of stories. Show me a sweeping vista, full of dark forests spilling down the sides of jagged mountains and all half hidden beneath the shreds of cloud left behind by last night’s storm, and I’ll tell you that there are dragons there, coiled in lairs just out of sight. Catch me staring out the window while caught in traffic somewhere in LA, and I’ll be imagining what it would be like to wander the interchange on foot after something has rendered all cars immobile*. Let me watch the sun rise above the desert and paint the sagebrush golden and the mountains purple, and I will muse on what it would be like to ride a horse at a gallop there in the cool of morning, and why you might do such a thing.
Some of this, I am sure, can be attributed to growing up on The Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson adaptations. Between Tolkien’s descriptions and so many hours of footage filmed in New Zealand, it was bound to happen. But I don’t think it’s the only reason. I suspect most people find inspiration of one sort or another while looking at the world around them. Some of us will be driven to create with our hands or our words. Others will have our souls filled in different ways.
For me, I’m not sure if there’s a setting that doesn’t spark my imagination in this way. Mountains, cities, rolling hills: every place has its own sort of story. All we have to do is find them.
Speaking of stories, I apologize for the terrible lateness of the one that was supposed to go up last week. It’s on its way, but it’s coming slowly, Hopefully, I’ll be able to post it and the next Tanner and Miranda story next week.
* Well, more immobile than they already are at 5pm on a workday.
This past weekend, our excursion was a little different. Instead of just visiting one of the countless, incredible sites of Armenia, we got to add something as well: we got to help plant three hundred fruit trees on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.
This was my second trip out to the memorial in Armavir province. We took our first trip there back at the end of September when the weather was just starting to turn and the memory of a hot summer was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s hard to believe that that was only about a month ago. It feels so much longer.
We met a group from the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) on a small plot of ground near the Sardarapat Museum. Trenches where we would be planting the saplings– apricot and plum– already lined the ground, and the young trees themselves lay spaced out where they were to be planted. All we had to do was set them in the ground, perhaps digging a little deeper into the rocky soil to provide room for the roots, and fill the space around them with dirt again. Then, we needed to build small dams below each sapling before watering each one with a bucket to welcome each tree to its new home. Last of all, the ATP workers would turn on the water and let it run down the rows, watering the trees once more after the first bucketful had settled them all into place.
It was early afternoon when we finished, and the bagged lunches that the Birthright staff passed out to us were more than welcome: big sandwiches, fruit, salad, gata (գաթա). We ate them sitting together on the ground just above the newly planted orchard. Afterwards, we had the chance to visit the museum and the memorial again, and I was happy for the more leisurely afternoon and the chance to take a few pictures that I hadn’t managed to on our first visit.
The rear of the memorial wall.
A woman representing revival on the rear of the memorial wall.
One of the eagles representing the courage of the fighting men.
Excursions like this are my favorite part of this adventure. They are a chance to give back a little in addition to looking and learning. They make it easy to think about the future. Armenia is this strange mix of young and old; our history stretches back for thousands of years, but the Republic only gained its independence from the USSR twenty six years ago and is still working to find and make its place in the world. Working where I am with the people I am with, it’s not difficult to have an optimistic view of what that place might be. No one denies that there is still a long way to go, but the atmosphere is heady and excited. It’s going to be hard, but we can do it. We can get there.
From a purely writer-ish point of view, that’s the kind of thing I want to tell stories about. Hard odds and hope. Ups and downs and the difficult work in between. Ideas and ideals. It’s not just those more abstract concepts, either. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy (and anything else that lets me make up whole worlds of my own), something new sparks my imagination every day. The dichotomy of new and ancient means that centuries-old churches are as much a part of what Armenia is as the fact that the country is the “Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union“. Kiosks throughout Yerevan let you renew your phone’s data plan and do a dozen similar things. The big intersection near where I live has no crosswalks, but if you take the steps down at any of the corners you find yourself in a kind of circular mall lined with stalls and stores and exits to the metro and the other side of the street.
I know I’m seeing the best Armenia has to offer, and though I’m aware of the worse parts of living here (low wages, government corruption, blockaded borders…), I don’t have to live them myself. Volunteering here for four months means that I get to experience life here in a way I couldn’t as a tourist, but four months is still just four months, a fraction of a year. It’s not enough time, for me, at least, to put down deep roots here. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely certain what I think of that.
It takes more than twenty hours of straight driving to get from my hometown in Idaho down to Santa Barbara, California. When my dad took me down for my freshman year of college, we packed all my things into his car, said goodbye to the rest of the family, and started off in the evening with the intention of making the trip as quickly and with as few stops as possible. And yes, that meant skipping hotels.
We made it a good, long way as we drove through the night. We headed west and south, down through Washington, down through Oregon. California couldn’t have been much farther south when we finally pulled to the side of the road to steal a couple hours of sleep.
It was light when I woke up. We were somewhere in the mountains, on a stretch of highway that ran through a pine forest. The trees were spaced wide apart, and fog hung beneath them, hiding all but the dark trunks from view. And everything glowed gold in the light of the rising sun.
To this day, it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
I suspect, though, that the image would not have been etched so deeply in my mind were it not for everything else that lead me there. The adventure of leaving for college. The weariness from long travel and little sleep. The cold feet and cricked back from napping in the car. None of these things change the aesthetic appeal of the scene, but all of them add some detail, some meaning that fits it to a narrative.
There’s also the fact that it was there for a only a few moments, and then I was gone and it was gone, and I’ll never see it again. Other forests on other mornings might look much the same, and I might even be there to see them. But I’ll never see them while on my way to college for the very first time. That singularity has a value.
The trees and the mist gave something back, as well. Waking up to an empty quarry or a stretch of nondescript plains would have left a weaker impression. Instead, the image was one that has stuck with me, and its momentary beauty left me with a feeling of wonder that could harden into memory.
A part of me almost wishes I could have taken a picture. Another part of me is glad I didn’t. Writing might not recreate it perfectly, but it does well enough– and I’ve got a better chance of explaining why it might have affected me the way it did when I get to use my words.