I used to live on the edge of the desert in southern Idaho. In the summertime the fields behind my house were covered with great green carpets of alfalfa under an ocean of blue sky. The gravel-voices of pheasants called from the tall grass that grew along deep canal banks, and the hot days simmered with the steady ring of insects in the still and stifling air.
By fall the fields were trimmed into brown rows, and the shy pheasants scampered over the ground between the long lines as if auditioning for the upcoming hunt. The air turned cool, the insects died away, and the light changed from golden to white.
For five seasons I hunted the fields of my back yard. I could walk for miles across farm land carrying a double-barreled twenty gauge shotgun, often my dog being my only companion. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those treks out into the farm lands and to the desert beyond taught me a lot about thinking, about discovery, and a little about danger, too. Things I didn’t realize I would need to know about until years later when I reflected on them in quieter times.
Of the many discoveries I made in that time, one in particular stands out as the greatest. Despite the hours spent climbing over haystacks, walking the trenches of dry canal beds, spooking weasels and partridge, mice and pheasants, the greatest discovery I ever made was that of a lone tree standing in a dirt patch on the edge of civilization between the last farm field and an expanse of high desert scrub. What made the discovery of this tree so special was that at the time I discovered it, it was bearing fruit, and being the unprepared youth that I was, I never brought food with me on my expeditions and was always famished by the time I returned home. Here, then, was this tree.
The encroaching fall had begun stripping the foliage from its branches, and each limb was laden with the ripe and untouched ornaments of its yield. I hardly dared touch it for fear that the fruit might be poisonous. I had never actually seen such a tree, and considering the virgin status of the fruit I knew I needed to proceed with caution. I thought a long time about whether I should risk it. The hike back home was easily an hour. If I were to end up sick there was nothing between me and rescue at the end of that long walk. But the temptation was so great that in the moment I embraced the failures in the Great Garden of legend and indulged the sins of my forebears.
Reaching into the branches of that tree my fingers slid around the smooth skin of one of the red fruits and pulled gently to dislodge it from its anchor. I brought it to my face and studied the dull, waxen coloration. It looked like a plum. My stomach rumbled, apparently encouraged to take the risk for its potential reward. Still, I wasn’t a fool. I pierced the skin of the fruit with my thumb and tasted the juice that broke through. It was devilishly sweet. Emboldened to continue I bit through the skin and took some of the flesh of the fruit into my mouth. Still sweet – it was a plum. It had to be a plum! I took the chance further, eating more of the plum until it was gone. I plucked another. To be rewarded for having taken a journey, and for having found at the end of the road a harvest of sweet plums, a treasure perfect at the apex of my travels, was the greatest prize of any of those years prior.
I am reminded when I think of this story that the creative life is also travel. At times we are thirsty and starved, with many more miles to go. But we began the trip for the purpose of discovery, and the rewards often surprise us. When I am in the midst of this travel, be it via essay, story, poem, or painting, I am aware that the rewards are all around, like the fruit of that plum tree, waiting to be discovered by a traveler who had the will to find it.
This is what I seek as a creative; the unexpected treasure at the apex of a long and committed journey.