The Ephemeral Forever

A. Salt on Mina Mina (2007) is a 244-by-168 centimeter painting by Aboriginal artist Dorothy Napangardi. It is on display at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France. In it, white dots form off-kilter lines of varying widths and spacings from one another to create, all together, an askew grid. From afar, the painting suggests an old Sanborn map, revealing the alleyways, tenements, yards, and boulevards that make city grids imperfect. Or a satellite image: Manhattan at night. Yet the painting feels more animated than either of those. The lines pulse and flow. Their vibrations envelop the viewer.

B. Every year I attend a retreat for women ranchers. The first year we gathered—I was still working as a ranch hand then—we showed up baring our tanned, sinewy arms, and one by one qualified our introductions by saying that we hadn’t wanted to come hang out with a bunch of women, we never hung out with women, that was why we worked in ranching in the first place. It was only because of the insistence and generosity of the woman who organized it, a personal friend of nearly all of us, that we had relented. I had wanted to come but for the same reason as they hadn’t: I wanted to find other women who felt like I did about being a woman.

C. The word ephemera, derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “lasting for only one day,” frequently describes the natural world. Ephemeral plants are those with life spans shorter than a growing season. The mayfly family is named Ephemoptera, “ephemera with wings.” Ephemeral water bodies exist briefly following precipitation or snowmelt.

A. Mina Mina is the name of the region of the Tanami Desert surrounding Lake Mackay, or, in Walpiri, Ngayurru. With a surface area of over eighteen hundred square miles, Mackay is the largest of hundreds of ephemeral salt lakes scattered throughout Western Australia, and it is Australia’s fourth-largest lake. It fills seasonally, when cyclones and storm systems cross Northern Australia, if it fills at all. Salts come to the surface via capillary action as the rainwater evaporates from the soil, producing a reflective white surface that glitters. “Most of the time it’s dry. But when it’s filled with water, it’s really beautiful, like a paradise,” says Walpiri activist Jeannie Herbert Punayi Nungarrayi. “There are so many shells, water animals, and waterbirds there hovering around the lake. Like seagulls and other seabirds, beautiful black swans and kestrels and things like that.”1

B. At the retreat, one woman started the conversation by talking about how her dog had lost a leg because her husband hadn’t taken her seriously when she said not to let it ride on the back of the truck on a muddy day. Another said she didn’t feel like there was space for her to feel sad when she and her husband found dead animals. Everyone started to crack: we had never had the experience of sharing our emotional worlds with people who understood them. Then we all had to go home.

C. In order to be able to complete their life cycle in under eight weeks, desert ephemerals are small, have shallow roots, and grow fast. Unlike succulents and perennial grasses, two other types of desert groundcover, they are not true xerophytes: rather, they are drought-escaping, living in seed dormancy most of the year. In the U.S. Southwest, desert ephemeral forage includes filaree (Erodium cicutarium), red brome (Bromus madritensis), and fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii). In Australia, button grass (Dactyloctenium radulans), whose inflorescence of three to eleven spikes looks like the segments and vesicles of an orange, is known as “the most ephemeral of ephemeral grasses.”2

A. Dorothy Napangardi was born in the early 1950s in Mina Mina, her father’s country, a landscape of spinifex, sandhills, and clay hardpans. The family lived on lizards, bush apples, berries, and seeds. When she was around ten, the family was forcibly moved to Yuendumu, a settlement town founded in 1946 by the Native Affairs Branch of the Australian government. The family was unhappy in town and attempted to walk back to Mina Mina at night, but were apprehended. Napangardi moved to Alice Springs in the early 1980s with her first husband, to whom she had been promised. In 1987, she began taking classes at the Centre for Aboriginal Artists.

B. This seems to me the tragedy of female friendship: by the time we’ve processed all the things that desperately need talking about in our relationships with men, we’ve run out of time. Instead of getting to move on to other things, to be women together, we have to return to living alone within men’s structures. Our own lives rarely pass the Bechdel Test.

C. In California, Spanish settlers brought cattle along with eastern Mediterranean grasses, ephemeral annuals whose ability to shoot up, drop seeds fast, and endure long droughts while dormant quickly outcompeted the existing perennial grasses and flowers. The California Plateau’s grasslands are completely changed from their pre-Spanish ecology, dominated now by oats (Avena spp.), bromes (Bromus spp.), barleys (Hordeum spp.), and ryegrasses (Lolium spp.), whose annual diebacks give the state’s hills its golden color. When they are not grazed, their dead husks cover the ground with thatch, layer upon layer each year, until they catch fire.

A. Though she received little formal schooling, Napangardi received instruction in Jukurrpa— known in English by the imperfect early-anthropologists’ translation “Dreaming.” Jukurrpa recalls an epoch in which the land was inhabited by ancestral figures, many with supernatural abilities, who dictated the rules of life for Aboriginal people. Cultural studies scholar John Frow describes it as “a complex of story, ritual, dance, body decoration, and song, and a temporal structure that is at once ancestral and present, transcendental and yet immanent in daily life.”3 In the words of Nungarrayi, Jukurrpa is “an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment.”4

B. After the Ghost Ship fire, a friend wrote: “i want love and i want poems that are life- affirming…i want queer and trans lives to stop being so precious as in, so fragile and able to be lost, to slip away, to evade life entirely.” The ephemeral is an abiding part of queer life, present in the specter of violence, the memory of AIDS, in fleeting hookups, and, most of all, dance. But I think ephemerality is part of women’s lives too—the real inner lives women live, not the fixed and permanent roles they inhabit, which can overwhelm the rest of them, so fragile and able to slip away. Time outside of families and workplaces so guiltily stolen.

C. The placenta is considered an ephemeral organ, extant only during gestation and pregnancy.

A. Certain Dreamings—stories pertinent to one’s country and their associated dances, body decoration, symbols, and ceremonies—are “owned” by a group, and passed on only within the group. Some are strictly “men’s business” and some “women’s business,” but neither has greater spiritual importance. The Mina Mina site belongs to the Walpiri women of the Napangardi and Napanangka skin groups.

B. “Dance exists as a perpetual vanishing point. At the moment of its creation it is gone,” wrote Marcia Siegel in 1972. In 2009, queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz responded that “queer dance, after the live act, does not just expire…for queers, the gesture and its aftermath, the ephemeral trace, matter more than many traditional modes of evidencing lives and politics…after the gesture expires, its materiality has been transformed into ephemera that are utterly necessary.”5

C. A distinctive feature of California’s Central Valley is its vernal pools, depressions in the ground underlain by clay hardpan. They are ephemeral wetlands, winter wet and summer dry. Because the clay soil is too fine for water to soak in, it has to evaporate. It does so in concentric rings, drying from the outside in. More than one hundred plant species and varieties are associated with vernal pools, many of them endemic—native and found only in that micro-ecosystem—because they are adapted to survive in wet, damp, and dry states.

A. Because she had left Mina Mina when she was very young, Napangardi didn’t have the right to paint it: with only firsthand child’s knowledge, the country and its Dreaming did not yet “belong” to her. In 1997, she made a trip with her whole family, visiting the site for the first time in thirty years, in order to be given knowledge about Mina Mina’s Karnta-Kurlangu Jukurrpa, or “women-belonging Dreaming.” The Dreaming describes the journey of a group of creator-women of all ages who travel east, starting from the place at Mina Mina where karlangu—or digging sticks, which are strongly associated with women in Walpiri culture—emerged from the ground. The women take the sticks and dance their way east, using the digging sticks to create the landscape as it is today. The place where the ancestral karlangu emerged from the ground can be recognized now by its stand of desert oaks (Allocasuarina decaisneana).

B. “Dance always leaves traces,” agrees Lydia Okrent in the introduction to Mariana Valencia’s Bouquet. One queer man, one queer woman, both dancing, both resisting the vanishing point. I understand why dancing is so fundamental to queer theory because I’ve lived that, both getting to know my body while dressed like the boys in ballet class and releasing it in the ecstasy of hole-in-the-wall electro-cumbia dance floors, surrounded by glitter and tattoos. But what I want to know is: Why does the ephemeral have to be such a crucial force in living a queer life? And how do we hold on to those traces?

C. Ranching is a settlers’ land use, and settlers are not good at sticking. Kate Brown writes of mining company towns in Montana that the companies encircled workers’ lives “so fully that they never caught sight of the incorporeal, ephemeral forces ruling them.” Ephemeral indeed: how many of those companies are still around?

A. In the videos available of Walpiri women’s dances on YouTube, from festivals in Lajamanu and Yuendumu, one woman sings a tune at once monotonous and pleasantly melodic. The dancing women’s breasts, shoulders, and upper arms are painted with an off-white body paint of parallel lines surrounding circles at the shoulders, sternum, and nipples. The graphics of the body paint are part of the ceremony passed down between women. The dancers move in a stooped shuffle, digging sticks in hand, or in a low jump, feet barely leaving the sand. Stephen Page, director of the Bangarra Dance Theater, describes Aboriginal dancing as “foot to earth.”6

B. The third year we gathered, Dede, who raises chickens, pigs, ducks, and turkeys, gave her update: “I turned forty, my partner moved in, we got married, and she’s pregnant.” Dede had remained on the outskirts of the group even after everyone else had bought in, despite the fact that everyone respected, even adored, her. Her reserve made me curious, seeming to indicate some distance between womanhood and queerness. Then: “I just—getting married, having a family—I never thought it would be possible for me.”

C. In my lifetime, climate change—the ultimate settler pillage—has made everything about the natural world feel ephemeral.

A. After the trip, Napangardi’s painting technique changed forever. She stopped using traditional iconography and began painting only in black and white, the large canvases of dots-into-lines-into-wavering-grids that she would paint for the rest of her life, simultaneously narratives of ceremony, recreations of the process of creating the landscape, and landscape painting from an ontology unimaginable to Western viewers. The white dots resemble the trail of the women’s dance as well as the lines of crystallized salt—but then again, it was the ancestral women who created those salt lines in the first place.

B. Alongside dance, death, and the ephemeral, one of queer theory’s recurring themes is scorn for queers with families, oftentimes lesbians. In How to be Gay (2012), David M. Halperin describes a family of two trans men, one of whom has carried a son, offering that it would be hard to imagine a queerer family. Yet he quotes one of the new fathers—“[s]ince the baby arrived, there are precious few moments when Matt and I can meet each other alone…Yet we continue to be loving and kind with each other”—solely to mock his sincerity. Halperin writes that such “over-compensatory rhetoric” is part of a cultural trend of gays insisting that they are not only normal, but “utterly banal,” with the effect of “eras[ing] the specificity and distinctiveness of queer life, thereby denying its ability to contribute anything of value to the world we live in.”

C. In 1968 the Bureau of Land Management initiated the Special Ephemeral Rule, which required district offices overseeing desert country in Arizona, California, and Nevada to only authorize grazing on allotments with predominately ephemeral forage in years when precipitation was sufficient for such plants to bloom. “Ephemeral range does not consistently produce forage, but periodically provides annual vegetation suitable for livestock grazing,” the BLM writes. In those years, ephemeral plants can produce a quantity of biomass many times the average annual production. Yet, “favorable years are highly unpredictable and the season is usually short lived.”7

A. Dorothy Napangardi died in a car accident on June 1, 2013, on her way back from hunting in the bush—one of her favorite things to do in the world. Of her art, she said, “I want my grandchildren to know the country.” Dreaming has survived changing worlds: it is said to have fifty thousand years of history in Australia. Passing on ceremony and ritual is one way to grasp the traces of the ephemeral—song that dissipates into air, paint that washes off, dance that vanishes. The permanence of painting is another.

B. “Would you ever want to get married?” I asked Mariana.

“For me marriage was always something for a visa,” she said.

“But would you want to get married for love?”

“Of course,” she said. “I just never thought it would be possible for me.”

C. In 2005, Nature Conservancy scientist Jaymee T. Marty examined the effect of different grazing regimes on vernal pools. She found that after three years, ungrazed pools had 88 percent higher cover of non-native grasses and 47 percent lower relative cover of native species, and that grazing was key to maintaining conditions for the reproduction of California tiger salamander and fairy shrimp. In a second paper published that year, Marty and another ecologist, Christopher Pyke, wrote that three years after the removal of grazing, ungrazed vernal pools dried up an average of fifty days earlier than grazed ponds, offering that grazing had the potential effect of confounding the regional hydrological effects of climate change.

A. I saw Salt on Mina Mina because I had traveled to France to see two close friends, one of whom was finishing an apprenticeship to become a winemaker. It was a strange feeling to look back and realize that our friendship had lasted ten years; stranger to realize I hadn’t seen either of them, people I love and used to see daily, in four years—ensconced in our relationships, our careers, our ambitions. As Anna Akhmatova writes in her poem about Lot’s wife (in my translation): Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not / The least of our losses, this unhappy wife? / Yet in my heart she will not be forgot / Who, for a single glance, gave her life.

B. When we decided to go through with it, it was just that: utterly banal. I took a break from my desk to lie down with Mariana as she was waking up from a nap. She had been chatting with a friend in Los Angeles.

“Ernesto says if we want to move to the U.S. next year, we should start applying now.”

We both agreed. We talked about who could help us decide between an I-129f and an I-130. Whether we trusted the consulate in Juárez or the USCIS Field Office in San Francisco to interview us. Whether and how to tell our friends and families.

“I think we’ll be really happy,” I said, remembering that love was part of it.

“We already are,” she said. “I want to be this happy forever.”

C. One thing I forgot to mention: none of the women ranchers own their land. They are tenants, drawn to the work to care for country and animals and feed people in a way that is healthy for all. The land “belongs” to them only in the way that Country and Dreams “belong”: as stewards taking care of something and passing it on intact. Ranching—by women, at least—as a way of aiming to make peace with settlement, with legacies of destruction, with the question of how to inhabit our bodies in a fragile landscape.


B. Some of the most beautiful parts of love are the banal ones. What if the radical contribution of queer lives is the commitment to offering love and care, permanent love and permanent care, to those who didn’t think it was possible for them, people who the world’s structures had forgotten? For lesbian lives, marriage seems to me a way of stealing old tools to achieve a queer dream: a way of making ephemeral possibilities into a way of life, of clutching the gesture and placing a bet on it.

C. For me, haunted my whole life by the question of living sustainably in arid lands, ranching—its unavoidable daily contact with the landscape, the way that dirt and hail and hide and blood layered on my skin, the way long hours turned slowly into an ability to see fecundity in what others saw as desert, a knowledge of the pieces of the landscape down to the individual species of grass and an intuition of how they work together, the opportunity to feel change, in my body, as both season and cycle—felt like an answer.

A. The decade passing like a breeze on my cheek as I looked over my shoulder.



1 Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney, N.S.W.) and Glenn Barkley. Volume One: MCA Collection. Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012.

2Jessop, John. Grasses of South Australia: An illustrated guide to the native and naturalised species. Wakefield Press, 2018.

3Frow, John. On Interpretive Conflict. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

4Nicholls, Christine Judith.“‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’–an introduction.” The Conversation, Accessed 31 October 2022.

5Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009

6Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009.

7United States Bureau of Land Management. Yuma District Resource(s) Management Plan (RMP) (CA, AZ, NV): Environmental Impact Statement. Northwestern University, 1985.

8Christine Lennard/Gondwana Gallery

Caroline Tracey is a journalist and essayist whose work focuses on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. Her essays appear in the Kenyon Review online, New South, and elsewhere. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she is the Climate Justice Fellow at the High Country News. Her manuscript-in-progress, Salt Lakes, won the 2022 Waterston Desert Writing Prize.