“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”
Smoke trees, creosote shrubs, puffball bushes, ancient granite balancing rocks, vast seas of sun-soaked sand scattered with spiny cholla cactus and the splash of fire red blossoms on the ocotillo’s spindly spines–this is Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles in Southern California. Gone are the clogged traffic and freeways, LA’s colossal sprawl. To arrive here is to be made aware of the earth’s vast openness. Enormous basins stretch into far horizons rimmed by rugged mountains–a wide cup of immense beauty to drink in. Mountains here are stippled, variegated, and wear stripes. Everything in this desert is laid bare; not even the spiny thorns lay hidden, and to witness this place is to be filled with wonder.
The world at Joshua Tree is sculptural. Stone and soil. These are the foundations Earth is built from. At Joshua Tree we see the Earth’s purity. The rocks hold supple shape; their natural balance and grace evoke awe, and even the grains of sand hold form.
Nature has only to be itself to be beautiful, and her weathered age only makes her more interesting. This is a mythic world made visible where reality plays with the imagination and what you think you know about what reality is–how things are. In this world, rock seems to fold like butter, jack rabbits grow to the size of a dog, plants white and rounded as cloud pierce the skin more painfully than a needle, skeletons of trees cast calligraphic shadows, flowers can be the size of a grain of sand, and plants grow from rocks.
In its unique and stark form, there is a surreal quality to the desert, as well as a oneness to the landscape that causes me to ponder what it is that forms reality. In his poem, “Metaphor as Identity,” Nicholas Samaras writes,
I am a warm pocket of earth,
shaped like this and living for a while.
I am the memory of my good mentor who said,
“I only borrowed this dust.”
I am the dusty path out of sight.
Though Samaras wasn’t writing about the desert per se, to walk away from civilization for a few days to sleep and wake in a desert, allows me to enter a different rhythm of life and to glimpse an understanding that all our life is only a borrowing of “this dust.”
People have viewed the desert as a wasteland, a place where bombs could be dropped, and sewage dumped. Yet there are those, like Jesus, who emerged from the desert awakened. For me, the desert holds metaphors and messages. For example–we don’t have to be big or loud or young to be beautiful, the landscape seems to say. Strength isn’t necessarily the opposite of openness. We can be spacious, open, and yet survive. We can be empty. You can endure and be vulnerable as well. To gain character takes time, and you don’t have to be flawless. Ancient places can feed our spirits. Ancient places are necessary. Water and renewal are essential for survival. Too much light blinds. Shadows are beautiful.
In the desert, because of the scarcity of resources necessary for life there, I am confronted with the fragility of life, as well as my own emptiness and the real and imminent possibility of death. In that awareness, I’m brought to a place of humility and deep gratitude for the many life-giving things that sustain me. Spending time in a desert such as Joshua Tree, I also see that death and life are part of each other; “I am the dusty path out of sight,” as Samaras writes. In the desert’s sparseness, I experience a sense of solitude and a longing for a connection to all that is–a yearning for that which whispers beneath and inside the rhythms of life’s creative force–leading beyond the forms this creative effort has assumed–rock, sky, and plants–to speak to my state of being.
Though they commonly live from 150 to 200 years, one Joshua Tree lived to be an astonishing thousand years old. According to Soft Schools, however, Joshua Trees were also used for newspaper pulp for the London Daily Telegraph in the 19th century. Many say spiritual awareness and connection to a spiritual practice aren’t necessary to living well in our world. The world and all it holds are objects or resources, there for us to use to fulfill our needs and wishes. This way of thinking, though, can lead to our treating the world as paper pulp, so to speak. The Los Angeles Basin was once a wild desert place. Its loss is irrecoverable, as will be the loss of future spaces such as the Grand Escalante Staircase, under threat by our current U.S. government leader, who wants to reduce it by 900,000 acres, so it can be opened for mining interests or used for other potential commercial development.
Natural environments are far more essential to our being than ornamentation in our front yards, the backdrop to cities or a scenic spaces we see on a holiday visit. Our interactions with nature benefit us immensely, and can help heal us both emotionally and physically, as Adam Alter describes in Atlantic Monthly’s article, “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” We still have in our language the usage of the word sanctuary when referring to nature–a remanent of the idea that the natural world is somehow a holy place, set aside and something to be protected, but this value is endangered by the desire for money and the impression that we can use our power over the natural world and disregard its needs or what is necessary for it to function well. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves and demonstrates a lack of ability to see ourselves as connected to the land and it’s eco systems. Our very survival depends on the protection and health of the environment, and we have the choice not to accept the loss of natural environments as inevitable and necessary.
It’s worth noting that previous to modernity, Earth was seen by most to contain a spiritual presence. In her Orion magazine article, “Speaking of Nature,” Robin Kimmerer writes “indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives…We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food, plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.” There is an immeasurable worth in wild spaces beyond their commercial value– their beauty, their ability to connect us to the source of life, to restore and renew, and to teach us.
Kimmerer isn’t alone in her perspective. Since ancient times, the Greek Orthodox, too, affirm God is not separate or detached from creation. As a Greek Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit states, there is a spiritual “presence in all places filling all things.” The essayist Wendell Berry explains that “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that ‘Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.’ This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” (Christianity and the Survival of Creation, p. 30)
In another of his poems, “Old Calendar,” Samaras writes,
Arrived at home again, you disembark
from your satchel to attend Vespers.
You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness.
The now-far clock tower resonates satisfaction
Over time, your body will become used to these hours.
Over time, your body will become these hours.
You hold to silence and chanting filters up to the stars.
You hold to the silence and let the years come.
The speaker in Samaras’s poem rises at Vespers to pray. Why do we need spiritual practices, including things like walking in nature, doing art, contemplative reading, and purposeful acts of generosity. In our culture, we want to run away from time. We revere youth and scorn age. If we look at the aged earth, however, we notice how beautiful it is, and are moved to recognize its majesty, and realize to be present on earth is to be more than an object. We are alive, and that is a sacred. Spiritual practices can help us grow into a place of understanding that our bodies and time are melded together in the creative fire of life’s cycle. We can become aware that we are living prayers moving through the landscape. Like wind, frost, and sun, slowly we shape the stones and grow the flowers of our existence.
Similar to encountering serious illnesses or losses, desert landscapes ferry us into a world where we grow silent. The desert exposes life’s bare bones, lifts its shapely stones into the wilderness of cold, sun, and the boundless sky where time and wind work them into shapes of beauty. Its vast silence holds a wholeness. We practice holding the silence inside the bare and bald desert places of our world, and through the hours there can learn to find the gratitude that will hold us like granite through the years and weather to come.