The Desert Tells   12 comments

An entry in the Encounters series

Six weeks ago, I walked amongst the red rocks surrounding Sedona, Arizona. I was in Sedona after having driven my mother there and was able to take a few days to enjoy the local landscape, to sit in the sun and read, to walk in the desert and reconnect to a place I had visited once fifteen years before, when I lived in Arizona for a year. Ever since that year, I’ve felt a connection to the Arizona desert landscape and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the chance to return to the state.

Bell Rock. Taken by Ken Thomas.

Twice while there, I walked the trails looping around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, winding my way across the red sandstone and between the twisting Junipers, the trail dipping down into washes and scaling rock outcroppings. On February 4th, I skirted around Bell Rock and took Llama Trail, which meandered away from Courthouse Butte. I lost myself in the rhythm of the hike, my breath syncing with my steps, the landscape unfolding around me. A bounty of birds flitted about in the branches of the surrounding Junipers—which were short and squat, hunkered down low to the ground—and I would stop on occasion to watch them for a few minutes, their quick and jerky movements mesmerizing. The day was a bit cool, the temperature in the fifties with clouds passing overhead. The sun peeked out at times but proved hidden more often than not. As I traversed farther along Llama Trial, the passing clouds turned dark and borderline foreboding, kicking up winds that suggested an oncoming storm.

Climbing up and out of a wash, I crested a small hill and came out the other side of a stand of trees, looking upon a wide expanse of red sandstone marked with small cairns. Off to my right, nearby cliffs towered high, as red as all the other rock and dotted with trees. Beyond the cliffs stretched the sky—and a series of heavy clouds promising rain. I carried a rain jacket in my backpack but no other rain gear. I hoped that any rainfall wouldn’t be too heavy.

In the middle of that stretch of sandstone sat a pair of large rocks, one of them perhaps three feet in diameter and the other a bit smaller and higher. A cairn balanced upon the smaller rock. I walked over to those rocks as an increasing wind stirred around me. From the vantage point of the two rocks, I saw a series of shallow pools forming a line in the sandstone, the worn cavities holding stagnant water from the previous rain. I dropped my backpack on the ground, next to the larger rock, and then went to one of the cavities, kneeling to inspect it. A dead scorpion caught my eye at that moment, its dried husk of a body perched on the rock about a foot from me. Just as I focused on the scorpion, a rain drop hit the stone right next to it, creating a sudden and surprising, tiny burst of darkness. It startled me. I glanced up at the dark sky and then over at the cliffs to my right. There, a mist in the distance—a fuzzy opacity in front of the cliffs. Rain falling. Moments later, more rain arrived, increasing in scale and intensity. The rain patterned the rock around the dead scorpion. Ripples spread in the small pool of stagnant water.

What am I to do in places like this, at such moments? I considered this as I retreated back to the pair of large rocks, toward my backpack and rain jacket. The wind grew stronger and the rain continued to fall, insistent but not overpowering, not yet drenching. I wondered how long the storm would last and how strong it would become. I could have retreated at that moment, beating a path as quick as possible back to the parking lot, but even that would have been something of a futile effort. I had no car at the parking lot—only the prospect of a further walk back into Oak Creek and the condo at which I was staying. Furthermore, I didn’t want to retreat. I wanted to experience. What am I to do in this situation? Abandon the desert, taking shelter somewhere inside, in an insulated building in which I can’t even here that it’s raining, in which I can forget what the world is doing and instead exist in my own oblivious comfort? Turn my back on the desert when it doesn’t provide my every comfort, a perfect encapsulation of my desires? Or sit on a large rock and welcome the storm, feel the water against my skin, the wind slipping around me, and smell the wetting of the desert rock and sand? I donned my rain jacket and chose the latter, settling myself upon the larger of the two rocks, crossing my legs and facing away from the nearby cliffs, looking out toward Bell Rock, the red ground, and the twisted Junipers.

As I sat there, staring out into the desert, the wind blew hard against my back, driving rain against the back of my head. The wind and rain were cold, but not freezing. Rather than discomfort, I felt exhilaration at the power of the weather—the heaviness of the clouds above me, the force of the wind, the abandon of the rain. The water opened up the sands and the desert plants, bringing forth a familiar and comforting scent. I reveled in the fluctuating sensations the storm provided.

Rain splattered against the stretch of sandstone in front of me, creating intricate patterns on the rock. As the wind blew, it brought the rain in waves. The waves painted the rocks—a visual representation of the wind pattern. Even as I watched it, though, the sun emerged from behind the patchy storm clouds and shone down as the rain continued to fall, alighting each drop on the stone, illuminating the wind’s pattern. As more rain fell, each hit upon the rocks created a short burst of reflected light and before long I saw the wind’s pattern in the waves of light—a rhythmic pulsing of cold wind and water coupled with the sun’s light, the collaborative art of the elements. It was beautiful. It was a magic, far better than any Christmas light display.

I marveled at all this. The visuals, the sensations of the storm against my skin, the sound of the wind flowing across the desert land and through the trees, the push of that wind against my back, the simultaneous chill of the wind and rain on the back of my head and the warmth of the sun on my front. It all came together to create a weaving of contrasts, a heightening of sensation that thrilled me. It awoke and inspired. It lasted long minutes that weren’t long enough.

Eventually the squall passed. The wind calmed and the rain trailed off, the sun-accented patterns on the ground drying and disappearing. I sat on the rock for awhile, holding onto and reviewing the memory. I thought of what it meant to be out in that power and restrained fury—at how much of a presence could arise in so little time, uncontrolled by us humans but capable of so much consequence. I recalled that first surprising moment of the rain drop next to the dead scorpion, its sudden appearance at the exact moment I trained my focus on the scorpion shocking me into the present world. I thought about sitting on the rock in the storm and how it might contrast with sitting under a tree, or under a rock ledge, in a yurt where I could hear but not feel the storm, or in an open field. I breathed deep the smell of the wet desert and for a few moments I stared at the cairn on the rock next to me, wondering about the person who had made it, about their love of this particular place.

Then I slipped off my rain jacket, returned it to my backpack, shouldered the pack and continued on. I continued following the Llama Trail for awhile until I stopped, pulled a small notebook from my back pocket and a pen from my front, and wrote, No machine, no matter how powerful it makes us feel or how much destruction it lets us wreak, can make us gods. Those machines are as dependent on the wide world as we are, and if we continue to degrade our home, they will fall first—followed shortly by us.

No machine is as powerful as that small storm. No human being is as significant. And nothing we’ve ever created is worth disavowing that beauty and power and exhilaration. Sitting on the rock, in that storm, I remembered how small I am as a human on this planet and how big the world is—how huge and daunting and empowering this world is, every day, if only we’ll acknowledge it. Everything we create is a piece of that world. Everything we create is subordinate to it.

We need those kinds of storms to remind us of this. But we need them, also, to remind us that such a reality is a good thing. If we could tame such storms through our creations, the world would be a lesser place. If the world was of our making rather than something far larger than us—far more complex, mysterious, magical and incomprehensible—than it would be a lesser place. I’m happy we’re subordinate to the world and not the other way around. I’m comforted by it, in fact. It means that there will always be those moments when the world takes me over, surprises me, asserts itself in the most unexpected of moments and makes me remember who I am, where I am, and how little I know. It can be just a rain drop, at just the right moment. It can be the art of sun and wind and rain. It can be hot and cold at the same time—front and back, two powers meeting. It can be the world, finding me on a desert afternoon, out on the rocks with nowhere to go. But it’s all beauty, and power, and magic, and appropriate. And I’m thankful that I was there that afternoon, that I saw the world’s beauty in a way I never had before. I’m thankful to have been reminded in that moment of how small I am and how large and unexpected the world is.

I’m thankful for what the desert told.

12 responses to “The Desert Tells

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  1. Quite a beautiful commentary on the magical red rocks and desert of Sedona!

  2. Great story, I think you would like the Arizona hike I did just this last weekend. Check it out and let me know what you think.
    http://thebackpackingjournal.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/hail-storm-hiking/

  3. Hi Joel,

    Very nicely written. Your hike sounded very enjoyable and it’s good to be able to experience nature in all its raw force. Do you go hiking much? I read a Bill Bryson book about his hike up the Appalachian Trail with a mate of his and it sounded pretty intense. It is really special having remote places to yourself too.

    The season is turning to cooler weather here. The wood stove is going tonight too – probably shorts and t shirt weather for you maybe, but chilly for me! The leaves on some of the trees are just starting to turn and the vegetable beds require far less water than even a month ago. Haven’t quite figured out tomatoes though as they are only just now ripening on the vine (as are the neighbours too). A greenhouse or poly tunnel seems pretty necessary – down the track though.

    Interestingly too, the chooks with molted feathers are now regrowing them for winter, so they’ve stopped laying eggs. It’s down to about 1 to 2 eggs per day now for 14 chooks. Commercial egg farms don’t have this down time because they run the chooks under lights to keep production up. Still it kills off the chooks though very quickly. I know of a lady who has a 17 year old chicken, although she is also one of Australia’s best organic gardeners. This is only my second year with chooks so I’m still unfamiliar with their cycles, it is especially difficult because there are a couple of different breeds in the run.

    Have you thought about different goat breeds? Apparently goats are much cleaner to milk than cows from reading – no experience though. Goat curry is good too!

    Regards. Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      The hike was wonderful. It was also one of the last ones I was on and I’m really in need of another good hike. The weather hasn’t been too great here—definitely not shorts and T shirt! We’ve actually had a couple dustings of snow recently and had four inches about a week and a half ago, which isn’t common for us. March isn’t normally a nice month of weather, though. While it doesn’t generally snow, it’s usually cold and rainy and often hails. We’ve had plenty of that, too. Today, though, it’s sunny! Which is exciting. I need to go out here in a few minutes and feed the animals and then maybe I’ll take a short stroll around the fields. I would go for a hike, but I have a friend arriving in a few hours, so I need to stick around. Maybe we’ll go hit the beach when she gets here if the sun’s still shining.

      Anyway, I do go hiking a fair amount and get a real itch for it when it’s been awhile. Of course, I often allow the rainy weather to discourage me from it. Sometimes I’ll suit up and head out, anyway, but I haven’t done too much hiking this winter. That’ll have to change. Hopefully we’ll get a stretch of nice spring weather I can take advantage of—though I should use any such stretch to get going on the gardening, as well.

      Ahh, the molting chickens. Having the ducks to cover for eggs during that time last fall was very nice. Our chickens up on the farm I just left stopped laying for the most part for a few months. We were getting a similar rate to you. Twice as many birds, maybe 2 or 3 eggs a day. Sometimes not even that. We don’t run lights on them at all, of course—wouldn’t have the electricity for it even if we wanted to!—so they go through their natural cycle. They’re getting on in years for laying and I think Ginger’s planning on introducing new blood into the flock this year and doing some culling. Chicken soup.

      A 17 year old chicken—that’s fantastic.

      I haven’t thought much about goat breeds, I suppose mainly because I haven’t had to consider it at all. But I could consider getting a goat for here, I imagine. That would be interesting. Based on my very limited time around and my much less limited time around cows, I would imagine they would be far cleaner. Cows are nice, but they’re . . . well, shitty animals, in the most literal of senses. Maybe I’ll start thinking about goat breeds. It would be fun to get one and start learning them.

  4. If you are serious about goat herding, an interesting read is Goatwalking – A Guide to Wildland Living by Jim Corbett. Some insights worth considering.

  5. Man, synchronicity in the post petroleum human tribe!! I can’t put the words on it…I have has this blog in my head since two days ago when a hail storm came through these parts. I stood covered by my garage with my wife, watching mother nature assert her authority on my smallness. I watched golf ball sized hail bouncing off of the land, off of our vehicles, waiting for glass to break, the rough to be destroyed, my two month old transplants being beaten to death with nothing I could do being 50 yards away. A man could lose his life in that storm. Knowing that a tornado was likely to descend and remove all of my domestication from the face of my existence.

    Luckily I put the glass in place that covered my custom cold frame made from wooden siding from my old house, box spring wood, and refrigerator glass. The 30 peppers and tomatoes that are 2nd generation from my own breeding survived, but the 30 that were outside in various recycled containers were beaten to death…none survived the onslaught that were outside…exposed to the elements. I learned a powerful and otherwise obvious lesson…mother nature has the last word on our control. We are nothing but withered lawn clippings catching the wind of our own discontent and blowing to nowhere.

    • Excellent! Well, not excellent that you lost those 30 plants. That seriously sucks. But hail does have a tendency to teach lessons about unprotected plants. We get hail here all the time, throughout most of the year but particularly in the spring, it seems. In fact, your comment is a good reminder that as I finally get my gardening going—which I don’t have going yet at all—and I’m going to have to think about some kind of protection from hail. I wonder if I can dredge up some remay for relatively cheap.

      Glad you were able to save at least half of your plants. Mother nature does tend to have the last word, however far ahead of her we think we’ve managed to get. It tends to be a nice mixture of awe, respect, humility and horror when she decides to remind us how very small and insignificant we are—and how blessed we are for each day that we manage to get through without a much more brutal demonstration of our fragility.

  6. I’ve never kept goats, but I’ve researched it, and the one thing that kept recurring is that they are social animals, and if you keep just one it will be miserable because it will be lonely. I only bring it up because you said you were considering a goat…don’t do it, get goats or don’t at all.

    • Thanks for that, Aaron. I don’t have any immediate plans to get goats, as I don’t even know what my long term situation is here (or if there will be a long term situation.) But I appreciate that input. It makes sense, from what I’ve seen of goats. They’re playful buggers—no doubt they would be sad without someone to play with.

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