|I’ve been on a little retreat this week, traveling through many kinds of desert with Jen. Death Valley, Nevada, western and southern Arizona, the Sonoran desert, and now southern California. This pic was on our walk near my sister’s home near Tucson, two days after some significant rain. The crackled dried mud in the wash bed is a deep memory from my childhood, fun to crunch under feet, leaving footprints that last for days or months until the next rain.
These deserts all have a stillness to them that I feel viscerally. It’s not the silence, although there is a lot of that. It’s not the overbearing sun or bone-dryness, as the weather has been mild, and there is some moisture this week. It’s not because desert is dead…each place we visit has a surprising amount of life; we’ve been watching roadrunners, lizards, dove, quail, ravens and hummingbirds all day today. We’ve seen and heard coyotes five times, nearly hitting one trotting across the road in Nevada. Yet the overall experience is like a prolonged meditation, where systems inside me grind to a halt, and I notice my thought processes more easily. What is that?
It seems like a more subtle thing, something larger than ourselves, caused by primordial forces at work. The air is so clean and crisp and dry, each breath feels like something is getting cleansed. Geologically, the basin-and-range country has the thinnest crust on the surface of the earth, so the heat and force of molten rock are less than twenty miles beneath our feet, even though we cannot directly feel it. Every plant seems to grow slowly and deliberately, securing a toehold in a hostile environment. We saw a barrel cactus that had been blown over within the last few days, nearly four feet tall, more than 50 years old. And we’ve been surrounded by saguaro in fantastic formations, each a hundred or two hundred years in the making. Some scientists think the oldest living beings on the surface of the earth are creosote bush, seen all over the desert, which spread by roots and may be a single connected organism all over southwestern Arizona.
Perhaps it’s just the size of the space. Desert is big, I’ve been looking at mountains twenty to fifty miles away for days. Walking out into the middle of the Sonoran desert is akin to seeing myself from space, “an invisible dot, on an invisible dot”, as Douglas Adams said. I think the amazing part is how precious each plant can feel, in the midst of miles of open space. Sitting in the stillness, each living thing seems unique, including myself. How unexpected, that I feel myself more profoundly in the largest of spaces.
One of the oddest conundrums in my life is my history with firearms. As a buddhist, I have vowed to not take life, and as a result, I have little use for rifles and shotguns. Yet I was a competitive target shooter through high school and college, spending one or two hours per day refining my skill. I still benefit from the honed concentration that I developed.
I have inherited a handful of rifles and shotguns over the last fifteen years, and each one has a story. All are at least 40 years old, some more than a hundred, It will take a while to find proper homes for them. This rifle, perhaps sixty years old, has me musing, and it’s on a journey that started today when I pulled it out of storage.
My father was in the Army from 1954 until 1958. the year when I was born. He served at Fort Knox (the US gold repository), and in Germany as part of the occupation forces. I have dozens of letters that he exchanged with my mother during that period, speaking of poker games, guard duty, training on artillery, the strangeness of being in new places and distant lands. So was particularly interesting to pull this rifle out of storage today.
It’s a Springfield infantry rifle, 30-06 caliber, a weapon issued to infantry in the Korean war. It’s accurate, powerful, and heavy — a bolt-action, slow firing weapon more suited to open fields and long distances than the closer fighting and dense vegetation of Korea. It literally weighs more than twice what a current Army infantry weapon weighs. In fact, the ammunition does too. I have no idea how my father obtained it. Did he just steal it and bring it home when he was discharged? Did the Army care? All I know is that it’s in good shape, it fires a heavy-caliber cartridge that is common, and it probably kicks like a mule.
This thing was a beast to lug around. It must be twelve pounds. I imagine it was his rifle throughout his service, that he learned to disassemble and clean it, and did so on dozens of occasions. I imagine he carted it, with pounds of ammunition — and a state-of-the-art 1955 field pack — on training exercises. It’s nothing special, there is no star on the receiver suggesting that it’s a match-grade, especially accurate weapon. It’s simply an infantry rifle, in good condition, well cared for, and I’ve oiled it and treated the leather, and kept it in storage since 1998 when he passed away. I’ve never fired it.
Now I’m packing for a road trip back to Arizona, where I grew up, and one of the things I’m bringing is this rifle. My sister lives outside of Tucson, well out in the Sonoran desert, and I’m going on a road trip with Jen tomorrow morning to spent a week in the desert, relaxing. Tucson is our furthest destination, and I’m so looking forward to our visit. My sister occasionally has use for a weapon, surrounded by miles of open desert and critters, and she is a competent and measured soul, so it seems only right to bring it along and bestow it upon her.
This is part of a the diaspora, the cleaning out of my home, the releasing of artifacts from my father, my stepfathers, Nancy, and my mother. I’ve become the custodian of stuff from three families, three generations, and several lineages. I’ve dealt with a lot of it, but there is still more. Springfield, I release you.