Nov 282013


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.

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