Seeing the Light in the Desert
“The desert is a natural extension of the inner silence of the body. If humanity’s language, technology, and buildings are an extension of its constructive faculties, the desert alone is an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of humanity’s disappearance.”
Our trip to the States was built around the desert. I have had a love affair with desert since I started traveling in the early 90s. US, Australia, Africa, I’ve been lucky to visit a few. During lockdown I kept dreaming of the desert both when asleep and when daydreaming.
It’s an odd fascination since I have an intense fear of snakes. A few years ago we stumbled across a snakes nest on the California coast and I had a panic attack. I am fearful in the desert but somehow the fear is turned down. It’s not that I feel safe there – aside from snakes, there’s a lot that can kill or injure you – I suspect there is something else going on in my body and mind, that balances the fear. A calmness and slowness – a stripping away of other concerns & anxieties. How lucky I am also to have met Alex who loves the desert too and who happens to be a desert survival expert.
Journey to Stillness
We drove into the desert from the glitzy distractions of Los Angeles. Gradually, the human decorations fell away – billboards, and shopping malls giving way to space – vast open spaces extending as far as the eye can see. There is very little unnecessary in the desert. In the desert the plastic nonsense of humanity is laid bare. Even a Michaelangelo would struggle to cut it here. Palm Springs, for all its wealth, seems about as classy as Minehead in the Mojave. The stupidity of golf courses is hard to hide here.
Mostly in the desert we drove in silence – there was too much to see, and so few words to describe it. Shimmering mirages, otherworldly landscapes, unimaginably long freight trains spanning the horizon. Our eyes moved from narrow focus to wide lens. I felt the tension roll off me, and all the petty concerns ebb away.
We drove through Joshua Tree, The Mojave, visiting Sedona, Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell and Monument Valley. By the time we pulled up on Navajo land at Monument Valley, the desert had a hold on us. We were slow, open, minimal. It is Monument Valley I had dreamed of visiting for years. The pull to visit had been immense.
Seeing Things as They Are
It was initially too much to take in. I began by projecting on to it every image I’d viewed on the internet, every expectation, and every Western film ever set there. How can we ever really see a place? We see through the lens of our past, thrusting our story, beliefs, and interpretations onto the things, colouring them. I didn’t want that at Monument Valley – I wanted to SEE it as it is.
We stayed the night in a wooden hut overlooking the valley. As we settled onto the veranda to watch the sunset, we realised we were whispering – our neighbours too. It was almost as though we shouldn’t be there, our very presence was disturbing the stillness. This place had presence. This place effortlessly commanded respect.
And we sat in awe for hours, watching the sun set, the colours change, the shadows on the rock formations shift – faces, animals, patterns revealed themselves like a rock mirror of the ages. We took hundreds of photographs knowing full well the futility of trying to capture the moment.
And when the sun finally went down, the tablecloth of light whipped back a vast table of stars was revealed. A sky like I haven’t see in years. We watched for hours, wrapped in a blanket on the porch, the silence eerily broken once or twice by a handful of notes played on a Navajo flute. We barely slept, not wanting to miss any of it – as the dark faded into a lighter blue, we returned to our blanket on the veranda, treated to the spectacle of the dawn.
My morning meditation at Monument Valley consisted of just seeing and listening without interpretation. This place had a quality I had never encountered before, a stillness unlike any other. It seemed we were in the presence of Time itself. The history of the place draped over it, everything visible at once. People talk about how insignificant we are in the face of history – this was the first time I had really felt that. Equally, with all we had learned about and seen of climate change on our journey there, I realised that as well as the past, I was seeing our future. A World all but dead, inhospitable, with plenty of space for reflection on where it all went wrong.
The energy of Monument Valley was indifference – not in any bad sense – deep nature just is. We are inconsequential to it. Climate change is inconsequential to it. It will survive in one shape or another. We project so much onto the earth – calling it mother, or perceiving it as a barrier to progress, something to be mastered and plundered. But the fact is, it is the stuff beneath our feet. It has no emotions or judgement – it is merely exacting. You cut it and it bleeds. You burn it enough, and it changes. Not out of spite, but because that’s what happens. Cause and effect.
There is little to lose in the desert, it is the stillness of the almost dead. Life at its most basic, just earth and sky. Very little moves there; there are few disturbances and sounds. The heat is dry, the sticky emotion of moisture absent, the wind blows now and then and emptiness returns. It’s easy to meditate in the desert, so few distractions, and easy connection with fundamental issues like time, life & death. We see the bigger picture, and that which changes very little over time. Comparable maybe with the soul, something timeless and barely changing. It’s no surprise the desert has attracted mystics, artists, and seekers across the ages. It’s where you go to strip it all back.
I didn’t want to leave. Not because I wanted to stay in Monument Valley, but because I didn’t want to return to the complexities of human society. The nonsense of the economy, house prices, consumerism, the need to make money, political lies and games, wars over imaginary borders, the stupidity of climate change denial. In the face of the timeless might of Monument Valley you realise how frivolous and impermanent what we humans have built truly is. Yet we act like it’s all that’s important. We are so trapped within the confines of this mass hallucination we call “life” that most of us can’t afford the time off to even go and appreciate the land that supports us.
We left Monument Valley and traveled back to California through Death Valley. There was a poignancy to it, it was a little death of old ways of thinking. As the layers of the human matrix started to build once again, I saw with new eyes. The oil wells. Vast industrial complexes. The endless roads and trucks. Vineyards and farmland. Shops and advertisements. Houses and cars. I can’t help feeling we have strayed too far from the lessons of the desert. I can’t help feeling that we are too invested in our delusion to see the light.
I’m dreaming about the desert again, and counting the days until I can return.