art, poetry, spirtuality

Listening For What the Desert Says

“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.

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Nicholas Samaras’ Poetry, Poems That Enable Us to See

Is poetry relevant to us today? Do poets speak to the questions we live with? When I read writer Nicholas Samaras’s poetry, I say yes. Samaras’s new book is coming out this spring, American Psalm, World Psalm, and I can’t wait to read it. Samaras’s previous book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. About that book, Laurence Lieberman said, “Hands of the Saddlemaker earns all of late James Dickey’s enthusiasm, and then some…truly an overwhelming masterwork; the whole work is a transcendent marvel.”

Taking a closer look at some of Nicholas Samaras’s poetry found on Connotation Press, “Metaphor As Identity”, “Old Calendar”, and “Petition”, I love the way these poems create space between the images and lines, opening a space for the reader to step inside.

“Metaphor as Identity” uses images that are vividly alive and felt. The stanzas describe a self that reaches below the surface into the dark space of creation where we live. This is a place where presence and becoming co-exist, a place of longing, reaching, and deep yearning to connect to the Mystery. “I am the exact space between bell-tolls to chapel” Samaras writes, and continues later in the poem to say, “I am an ascetic who cannot pray. / I am a prayer in slow making.” These images, like others in this poem, are both present and absent at the same time. They open a window into a way of seeing that enables readers to notice and step inside the ephemeral nature of our being.

If you’ve ever visited historical monuments, you will have noticed the names written in stone with dates, kings and queens, perhaps, who ruled a country, but whom you know nothing about other than their names. Obituaries list what people have done, their accomplishments. Family trees list who married who and what their occupations were–lines leading back into time. But who were these people? What was the essence of their lives, their spirits? What was it to stand in their presence? Can a whole of a life really be summed up in these references? No. What we are is some deeper mystery, and if we ask our selves who are we, and keep asking, we will eventually move past the labels to a place where we stand wordless, a place of knowing and not knowing at the same time, and this is the place that Samaras’s poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, brings the reader to. This place of knowing-not knowing is where we meet our selves, in the place between naming and not naming.

This place of not naming and naming, connects to another one of Samaras’s poems, “Eve Naming Other Animals”, found on the Adirondack Review‘s site, where Samaras describes Eve observing animals. Eve notices the way the animals move and behave, and this deep looking enables her to define and name them. Definitions separate us from the whole. They name what sets something apart from other things, and they shape the mind by calling us to notice specific elements. The very language we speak and use shapes the mind in this way, and this poem calls attention to the process. When I was an undergraduate, I had a biology teacher that took us on a walk to notice plants. Students would ask him the names of plants. He refused to tell us the name, saying if he told us, we we wouldn’t look at it longer. We’d think we knew what it was and we’d turn away to another plant, or simply walk on. Instead, he wanted us to observe closely, ask questions, notice–to really see, not just take a snapshot with our brains. Samaras’s poem shows us Eve doing the opposite, she is looking long, noticing, and calling out the essence of what she sees.

Slender horns approach, and I find
my touch makes them shapely:  fronds

of opaque light that dances from angles.
I like their intimacy more than angels,

more than that shimmer that stays in place.
Into the meadow of limbs and motion,  I trace

the bent wheat to be with them there.
Like a gesture moving through the air,

it is a gesture moving through the air.
I find this given language spare,

suddenly. It leaves too soon in breath.

The poem goes on, but you can see how Eve, and the poet as well, are living with the animals as presences, taking them in, not merely naming them in a random act and walking on. She notices the animal’s gestures, and how it is a kind of language it uses to name itself, she is calling attention to what its essence is, and using that to name the animal. We live too much in a world where being seen, the way you present yourself  and how you are labeled, how you brand yourself–as if you are a commodity, is given considerable weight, and the actual substance is hidden somehow underneath. It’s as if we have been taken over by a media presentation. The poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, however, takes us back into that place of mystery, where we can rediscover we are more than what we have branded ourselves as or how we have been labeled. We are like Eve again, looking into the face of the animal, noticing who and what it is before we name it. We are first of all being, the Samaras’s poem reminds us. We are presence, and we stand in a presence that is hidden from obvious view, and wondrously rounded in silence–“the dusty path out of sight.” We are more than what we have labeled ourselves as. We are enigma. We are mystery.

Our lives are the crossroads of all the other lives from which we come, one of the knots in the great fabric of being that we are connected to. This is part of the mystery, and we carry the history of those people and places in our bodies, even though we may be unconscious of it. We are ourselves, and we are part of the others who came before us as well. Samaras’s poem, “Old Calendar” carries the reader into myth, and into the ways we are connected to time–our own lives, but also to history in ways we don’t necessarily understand, but can feel the presence of if we listen in the dark silence. The clock, his poem suggests, may be ringing out the years of time, but we come from a place of darkness, and go back to it. The ancient Celts started their year in darkness. Out of darkness, the place of unknowing–the great void, so to speak, comes all that is. This is the wisdom of the ancients. “You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness,” writes Samaras in “Old Calendar”. We grow used to the clock tower ticking on satisfactorily, as Samaras says, but,

You hold on to the silence and chanting filters up to stars,
You hold to silence and let the years come.

Samaras’s poem shows us we live in time, but know we are part of the silence as well. 

Another of Samaras’s poems, “Petition”, is utterly beautiful, so beautiful it makes the heart ache in the way it portrays the silence, the emptiness. But the silence this poem speaks of is one that opens the heart to awe, and allows us to see ourselves more clearly, humbly. There is almost an existential quality to this poem in its opening stanzas in the way the poem poem points us toward our aloneness in the universe, but it is not an empty darkness. 

Ask the night to let you not be lonely.
Ask the night to heal your heart.

Step out into the black eve of winter
and breathe in the clarity.

Let the scarcely-seen stars glimmer
their small mercies on you, the air

The darkness and cold here are not hollow. Instead, they enable us to see ourselves more clearly, they offer us “small mercies.” I love the lines that go on to say, “to push a little past weariness is a good thing.” When we have pushed ourselves into weariness is when we are especially able to understand the intrinsic value of stillness, the absence of activity that enables us to regenerate. It is this stillness, the sabbath time, where we learn in our bones the “blessing of silence,” and where dialog with silence can begin.

Samaras’s poems speak to the deep places in the mind that we find ourselves wandering in as we try to understand who we are and how to live, and these are poems that teach us to listen in the silence and live inside the questions. I feel grateful for these poems, for the way they call my attention to what it means to be alive. The poems in both structure and content create a kind of space where learned answers are left behind, and we enter a kind of holy darkness that allows us to touch questions of existence and feel them in a tangible way. Reading them is like listening to the fine notes of a flute drifting across a winter’s meadow on a starry night from some distant place, crisp light outlining the tips of branches, and drawing shadows on the sides of buildings. You hear your feet crunch through the snowy meadow as you walk toward home. Just before you step inside your house, you turn and look at the sky–the myriad points of light, both faint and bright. You see the immensity of all that is, and know the wonder that you are alive amidst it all.

If you want to read more about Nick Samaras, you might want to check out an interview on the blog, “Just My Eyes”, or on the Antler blog here.