Archive for the ‘storm’ Tag

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.

The Juxtaposition of Comfort   4 comments

A major storm hit us today, dropping multiple inches of rain–including one particularly insane stretch of a downpour–and sweeping heavy winds across the farm. Facing such inclement weather, Brian decided to fire up the hot tub, which sits under a roof as part of the farm’s solar bath house but is otherwise exposed to the outdoors, making it a particularly alluring experience on a night such as tonight. The extreme comfort and relaxation of soaking in hot water contrasts nicely with torrential rain and driving wind–the discomforts of a particularly cutting storm.

While the rain had tapered off by the time I was soaking, the south wind had kicked into high gear. Occasional, loud gusts would swirl around me, the air cool and insistent and charged with an uncommon power. As the gusts hit, I found myself sitting up in the hot tub, exposing more of my upper body so I could feel the air–that energy, that coolness–and revel in the juxtaposition between it and the hot water that otherwise engulfed me. This juxtaposition of sensations reminded me of the often-noted idea that to appreciate something, you have to experience its opposite. The comfort of that hot water was, in a certain way, offset by the blustery cold of the wind. By raising my body from the hot water to feel the cold wind, I better appreciated and experienced both sensations–either one heightened by the contrast with the other.

The way the hot tub is heated, at least in the winter, is via a wood-fired stove. Water siphons through an intake pipe near the bottom of the hot tub, heats as it circulates through a pipe in the stove, then streams out of an opening above the intake. The water continually circulates, slowly heating the entire tub. The water coming out of the stove eventually becomes extremely hot and, as you sit in the tub, a layer of that very hot water forms at the top of the tub if you’re not circulating the water yourself. This layer makes itself particularly apparent when you sit up, as your upper body passes through that hot layer, creating–for me at least–a tightening of the chest and a brief moment of discomfort and shortness of breath. It’s not so extreme as to feel dangerous, but it provides a juxtaposition between the hot and the very hot, the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

As I experienced these contrasting sensations–the differing levels of hot water, the hot water and cold wind–I couldn’t help but again think of the ducks. The storm-heightened comfort of the hot tub seemed another version of my musings on the ducks. Their seeming ability to stay comfortable in the storm (and based on my observations today, they were plenty enjoying the storm) spoke, I imagined, to their enjoyment of it. Similarly, I spent the rainiest stretch of the day in my yurt reading, with the wood stove going, luxuriating in the warmth and the deafening sound of rain pounding upon my little home. This was the height of comfort for me: another good book, a dry wood-burning heat to contrast the drenching rain outside, and the understanding that the deafening roar around me was cold, nasty, driving rain that I did not have to be in. I had my warmth, I had my shelter, and I had my comfort even as all the opposites raged outside.

This, then, is part of the beauty of living simply, even of living in what can be defined as poverty. By living in a yurt–a very simple structure–I stay connected to what is happening outside. I hear the wind and the rain, I feel the cold and damp if I don’t have my wood stove cranking and I can very easily bring in a warm summer’s night breeze by opening the door and cracking the dome on the roof. Outside activity is accessible to me. In most houses, that isn’t the case at all. Rain often cannot be heard at all, unless it’s particularly heavy, and it’s the same for wind. What’s happening outside can easily be a mystery. Climate control, as well, can negate the impacts of the heat and the cold, keeping an even temperature at all times. In fact, the act of heating or cooling a space is often not an act at all, but an automation, maintained by machines with only the barest of provocation of humans: the turn of a thermostat. I can certainly heat my yurt, but it involves me actually building and maintaining a fire, and is thus a conscious act rather than an automation. As such, it helps to keep me in tune to what is happening around me. It makes me think about my comfort and to take responsibility for creating it.

I think this is good. And I think climate control is in many ways bad. In attempting to automate comfort, we lose sight of it. In living in environments in which comfort is a constant, we forget what comfort is. When it’s always 72, you cease to appreciate it. When it’s always warm inside while cold outside and always cool inside when hot outside–and you never play a direct role in making it so–then you often cease to even understand what hot and cold is. You become a slave to constant, moderate temperatures and your body loses much of its ability to adjust to anything else.

We’ve built, purchased, engineered and automated comfort to such an extent in our society, I think we’ve lost sight of what comfort is. We need the contrasts–the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort–to keep us attuned to the reality of comfort and to allow us to appreciate it. We need cold mornings so we can burrow into–and fall in love with–our warm beds. We need the sound of rain on the roof–not to mention an occasional, or perhaps regular, drenching–to appreciate being warm and dry. We need, too, the actual act of creating our comfort so that we can understand it as something we do for ourselves, rather than something that just occurs, automated, always. Comfort is special and resonant and it can only remain that way if we don’t normalize it, don’t automate it, and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable at times. We need that juxtaposition so as not to slip into a life of sleepwalking, divorced from sensation and severed from true contentment.

Posted November 22, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 656 other followers

%d bloggers like this: