This place is so beautiful that it’s going to kill me. I am at Ucross, Wyoming, population 25. It’s a grassy and mountain-fringed artists’ colony that hosts writers, painters, composers, choreographers, badgers, wolverines, great horned owls, nighthawks, ospreys, and wild turkeys. A rich and very generous man named Raymond Plank purchased the land for the Apache Corporation, which is ranked 438th on the Fortune 500 list, and is an oil company. That’s the first thing that the artists learn when they come to Ucross: My second day here, my fellow artists and I sat around in a goddess circle and got read into the oil facts. You are residing in paradise for four weeks in order to make art, and it’s all on account of oil money, one of the residency managers explained to us plainly. I turned and made meaningful eye contact with my fellow creatives in an effort to convey how important it is to be conscious always of one’s own participation in destructive processes that create global warming. Outside, the sun gilded the green leaves of the sumac and chokecherry trees, and a woodpecker rattled away. One day, maybe the earth itself would be a cinder in part because I had taken two planes to come to Ucross and write short stories about the abysmal acid reign of Scott Pruitt at the EPA. But instead of falling backwards in a faint at my own Byzantine or actually quite simple moral structure, I listened to the turkey gobbling out in the buffalograss. Once our initiation was over, I ran out to go find it.
This is not when Ucross started to really get to me, though. That process began about a week and a half into my stay. I woke in the dark to listen to the red winged blackbirds and yellow warblers sing in the trees next to my bedroom window. It was 4:15 a.m. I rose from my bed and went outdoors, to see pink and blue waves flow out across the wide sky, which hosted clouds that looked like huge unreal islands. The pastel glow drifted down on hills and the shortgrass prairie, which bustled with literally prancing white-tailed deer. In a cottonwood nearby, a fluffy adolescent owl flapped its just-molted wings. I felt a rare sensation that used to arrive in my youth when I believed in God, and that still graces me sometimes now during sexual intercourse and when I visit museums: Joy.
It is hard to experience radiant joy in the San Fernando Valley, where I live, because I am so busy angrily recycling and lecturing my students about the legal duties we should owe to the international community of environmental refugees. L.A.’s pollution does make the night sky into a red and bronze wonder, but the Trader Joe’s and Sephoras sprinkled across Ventura Boulevard crowd up into the empyrean and make our exquisite sunsets hard to see. Is the problem also that it is so noisy? I am not going to bash L.A., it is my hometown and I love it. However, in Wyoming I have stopped grooming and every morning I dash out my cabin door at around four a.m., to just look up. I sit in an Adirondack on a porch and stretch out my hairy legs and watch as the clouds begin to catch fire. They streak across my irises like the Monets in the Getty. The white, outlandish puffs drift and shudder through the indigo like Zoe Leonard’s Untitled 1989 series, which are pictures of amazing clouds that I saw last winter at MOCA. Happiness wells up in me like a panic and I keep shaking my head. I have been getting five hours of sleep per night for weeks because when I lay in bed I feel so excited that this scene awaits me just before dawn. That is one of the reasons that Ucross is killing me.
When I get back home I will store the glass in one bin and the paper in another. I will take Uber, pluck my eyebrows, and stop being feral. The traffic will get to me, I will scram around the new openings at the Hammer, and I will prepare to teach world-destroying property law in the fall semester. I will have some light insomnia, not because I’m noticing everything around me but because I will worry about my interpersonal dynamics and productivity. And I think there will come moments when Wyoming will come flooding back to me in L.A., and I will wonder who and where I am. In Los Angeles, my ethics are habits, and the blood-red sky crawls around the cell towers and power cables. In Wyoming I am ecstatically conflicted, my abbreviated dreams are alive with frightened polar bears and cheeping composers, and I think I will have to start popping Ambiens like mints if I don’t soon get out of here.