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Archive for the ‘Deserts’ Category

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?  – Thomas Merton

Chen Jiru (1558-1639), Thatched Hut by Tall Pines.

Chen Jiru (1558-1639), Thatched Hut by Tall Pines.

Richard Wilhelm, Chinese scholar and theologian, told the story of the Rainmaker to Carl Jung while at a gathering of the Psychological Club in Zurich in the 1920s. It is a story that so impressed Jung that throughout the rest of his life he repeated it as often as he could, sometimes annoying his audience with the endless retelling. But good stories should be retold, over and over, penetrating our dim consciousness a little deeper each time. Wilhelm referred to the story as true, and although truth comes in many forms, I believe that Wilhelm’s claim is not a plea for legitimacy, but rather a call for deliberate attention.

And so the story goes:

In the ancient Chinese province of Kiaochou there was a drought so severe that many people and animals were dying. All the religious leaders attempted to solicit relief from their gods: the Catholics made processions, the Protestants said their prayers, and the Chinese fired guns to frighten away the demons of the drought. Finally, out of desperation, the town’s people called upon the Rainmaker, and from a province far away there appeared a shriveled up, old man. The old man immediately requested a small hut on the outskirts of town, where he locked himself up for three days and nights in solitude, and then, on the fourth day, it rained. In fact, it snowed at a time when snow was not expected.

Wilhelm, who was allowed to interview the Rainmaker, asked him how he made the rain, and the old man responded by exclaiming that he did not make the rain, that he was not responsible! Not satisfied with this response, Wilhelm pressed on, “Then what did you do for these three days?” And the old man explained that he had come from another province where things were in order with nature, but here, in Kiaochou, things were out of order, and so he himself was also out of order. Thus, it took three days to regain Tao and then naturally, the rain came. (Adapted from C.G. Jung, CW 14, pp. 419-420, note 211).

Zeng Jing (1564-1647), Portrait of Gu Mengyou;

Zeng Jing (1564-1647), Portrait of Gu Mengyou;

Upon hearing the story of the Rainmaker, like Wilhelm, I cannot resist asking what happened inside that hut for those three days, and how was the rain made? Is the Rainmaker harboring a great secret? Is he being truthful? Does he not feel the least bit responsible for making the rain? Or is this story just a quaint parable, illustrating a spiritual lesson that has no bearing on actual physical events, such as rain? In other words, is Tao only an inner, personal phenomenon, or has it any bearing on the physical world? With the severe drought conditions in California, and global warming increasing each day, these seem like important questions to answer.

And yet, the point of the Rainmaker story is precisely this: That the inner realm does touch upon the outer; that the Rainmaker’s ability to achieve Tao (whatever that means) did touch upon the clouds, the moisture, temperature, and wind, which allowed it to rain and even snow. It is a mystifying idea, indeed, because we in the modern Western world are not trained to see this interdependence. But, in a place far beyond vast oceans and time, as we see in the Rainmaker story, all things are interconnected, including that which we think of as inner and outer. As much as the ego insists on its separate singularity, ultimately, we are not our egos, imprisoned inside our skin, or inside our skulls, however you will have it. When I ask my students where the unconscious resides, most of them point to their bellies, as I do. When I ask about the ego, immediately fingers go to the head. Never does one point to a glass of water, to a tree, or to the surrounding air, even though without these things none of us would exist.

Chen Hongshou (1599–1652).

Chen Hongshou (1599–1652).

And still, I wonder, what did he do in that little hut for three days? How did he make it rain?

As far as my pea brain can fathom, to be in Tao, is to recognize our oneness with all of nature, or more so, to recognize that we are nature, that humans and nature are the same. The philosopher Alan Watts says it is a fundamental scientific truth that human organisms (or any organisms) cannot be studied or known apart from the environments in which they exist, and for this reason, ecologists speak not of organisms in environments, but of organisms—environments, indicating the inseparability between the two. We are not born into nature, Watts continues, but from it. This subtle, but significant shift in language transforms us from being aliens who invaded this planet, to full-fledged child-members born from it. And yet, although the scientist knows this, rarely does he feel it (Watts, Does it Matter, p. 90).

On the other hand, “A mystic is one who is sensibly or even sensually aware of his inseparability as an individual from the total existing universe” (Watts). The mystic and scientist both understand our inseparability from nature, yet perhaps the mystic is different because he feels it and lives it as so. The Rainmaker, obviously, felt the truth of this oneness, although it took him three days to get there. I like the idea of being a mystic-scientist, but for me, it might take three hundred years. I am still learning to identify the flowers in my backyard, or how to grow a sweet tomato.

CottonWood Canyon

But, on this afternoon, as I sit on the knoll over looking the canyon in Death Valley, I ponder the story of the Rainmaker and the meaning of Tao. Each year, I go into the desert for four days and nights of fasting and solitude with my friends from Lost Borders, and this is third day of uncomfortably hot weather, although it is only February. In spite of the heat, I muster up a playful spirit and pretend that I am a creosote bush inseparable from the rocky wash in which it grows, awakened by the afternoon breeze, waiting upon precious rain. I am no different than the creosote, or the rocks, or the tiny cactus that pricks my butt. And more so, even when I fail to recognize I am no different (which is most of the time), I am still no different. Which reminds me of the Zen teaching that says we are all Buddha, each and every one of us, no matter how screwed up we may feel. Even when I fail to feel my inseparability from nature, it is impossible to be separate. Perhaps, this is what the drought has to show us even if in the most painful of ways: that, no matter how separate from nature we imagine ourselves to be, we still rely on rain.

After my musings on the Death Valley knoll, I tucked myself under my tarp because clouds began rolling in from the west. And, truth be told, that night it rained! All night. I woke up early the next morning to the sweet and sexy smell of a wet desert, a cold northerly wind, and a silky blanket of snow on the peaks all around. Glory! And, I swear, I had nothing to do with it. I am not responsible.

SnowPanMt

And, of course, I later found out that rain was predicted in the forecast, and that it came as no surprise to my fellow fasters who had the acuity to read the weather report beforehand. But does the weather report discredit the Rainmaker, or does it affirm him? Or does it even matter? Science or mysticism, predicted or unexpected, we are nature. We still live by rain.

* Chinese drawings taken from the Artful Recluse Exhibition, Santa Barbara County Museum of Art

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Falling Back to Earth

Anyone who has participated in a School of Lost Borders program has heard some rendition of Steven Foster’s phrase about the Big Lie. “The Big Lie”, Steven would boldly say, “is that we are not nature!”   These words have echoed throughout my life for the last fifteen years, reminding me that not only do I love nature, and want to spend as much time as possible in the wildness of natural places, I am nature. I am the very stuff on which I stand. I am mineral, water, roots, flesh, and fungi. My brain, as Gary Snyder writes, is “rolling, crinkled, eroded, gullied, ridged” just like the washes of Death Valley, or the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.  My blood is a river, my veins its canal. My eyes are translucent pools.

Image

Still, after fifteen years of hearing Steven’s words play over and over in the singsong strings of my mind, I have barely the slightest inkling of what this actually means. I am nature? How do I live knowing this? How do I digest it? When my father took his last breath and I watched his body slump heavily into the mattress of the hospital bed, I may have understood, briefly. But then I turned myself toward the door, back to the light of day, and it slipped away.

It seems true that it is not until I am faced with loss, when I feel the heaviness of grief that I really get it, even if just for a sweet and terrifying moment. To be nature, not just a part of nature, is not an abstract concept. It’s not a fanciful or playful idea that I like to toss to my students (which I have done). It is not an amusing phrase to put in a glossy conference brochure (yes, which I have done).  It is as real as rock. We age. We die. And when we do, we fall back to earth.

I cannot say it any better than Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen, who gifted us with these words, “We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea that permeates American Indian life; the land (Mother) and the people (mothers) are the same.” How can this so easily be forgotten? When in a drought, I become cranky and thirsty. And when it rains, I drink. When the land provides me with food, I take and eat. When she gifts me with beautiful sunrises and eternal vistas, I believe.

We don’t choose the landscapes that we love. They choose us. Never once have I decided to love a desert valley. I can’t fully describe how this happened; I feel it. The love rises spontaneously up through my feet, crawls up and over my skin, and burrows right into my heart. Almost always it is met with tears.

Image

Desert dweller, Edward Abbey, may have had a similar feeling. The desert chose him. While others saw the desert as a wasteland, he saw color and life.  He saw red rock sculptures and claret cups. He saw beauty in scorpions, snakes, and sandstone. He saw rain fed emerald pools reflecting back his tears.  And he saw bulldozers tear up the virgin soil. Developers love the desert too, but for very different reasons. The land does not choose developers. They choose it.

With the force of a flash flood, Abbey was prone to extreme expressions of opinion, which involved cutting down billboards and putting sand in crankcases of the bulldozers that were ripping apart his beloved desert. In response to romantics like myself, he wrote, “Sentimentalism without action is the ruin of the soul.”  As an introvert, and a sentimentalist, I shy away from activism. I cringe at the thought of speaking out, exposing myself, being ridiculed, being wrong. I like to keep my dirt orderly and clean. But, I also detect the ruin, as subtle as it is, slowly eroding away the force of my life. If I am the land, and the land is destroyed, how could I possibly extricate my soul?

And so today, I write on behalf of the Owens Valley as part of a community effort to stop the pending industrial scale renewable energy developments in the valley. It is not easy being an environmentalist campaigning against renewable energy, so I’ve had to do some homework.* What I’ve discovered is first, it’s a complicated issue but worth digging into and secondly, it is possible to support renewable energy without handing over one’s soul to corporate developers, even if they are in the solar business.  Still, the tension is not easy.

If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check out the 4000 acre Ivanpah solar facility near the Mojave Preserve in southern California. I’d give you directions, but you won’t need them. Just take a drive along Interstate 15, between LA and Vegas, or better yet, visit the Mojave Preserve. You’ll see the facility even if you don’t want to. It’s Gotham City at a distance. Or something that Andy Goldsworthy’s evil avatar would create on speed. But this is not virtual reality, especially if you’re a desert tortoise. It’s real. It’s hard to say how many of these endangered species have died so far, because many of them live underground where they also burry their eggs. Some tortoises have been relocated, but they have a hard time making it when removed from their territory. And then there are the flying creatures: birds, bats, and insects. When birds fly too close to the facility, their wings scorch in the 1000-degree temps, at which point, they fall to their death. Not surprising that just days before it’s grand opening, The Wall Street Journal, dubbed Ivanpah as “The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project”. Butterflies and moths, I imagine, just combust.

bird

There is a creepy atmosphere of stupor when it comes to the government’s involvement – or lack thereof – with monitoring renewable energy developments.  Some companies have been given 30-year permits to kill bald and golden eagles; some have been given the nod (hush, hush) to kill critically endangered California condors. And then back on the home front, in the Owens Valley, a February 26th meeting with the Inyo Planning Commission left everyone angry and confused when the entire commission, save one, essentially approved setting aside 10% of the county for renewable energy developments despite the public’s furry over a misleading public document.  As Marvin Gaye would ask, “What’s going on?”

I don’t know anyone personally who disapproves of solar energy power. The problem is not renewable energy, but rather how it is to be implemented. Tearing up pristine deserts, critical habitat, sensitive cultural sites, and scenic byways is absurd when there are so many viable options. Options that have been studied and proposed by respected environmental agencies. Furthermore, rooftop solar has been hindered by large utility companies in spite of a recent study that showed how Los Angeles County alone could power half of California with rooftop solar.

And while all this battling is going on, in distant lands, far, far away, glaciers are quickly melting, and entire eco-systems are slipping into the cold abyss of extinction.  I’ve never seen a polar bear, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to know that if I lived in northern Alaska, Greenland, or northern Russia, I’d be screaming and yelling at every warm weather bastard to build as many solar farms as possible, and quickly.  Like the Judgment of Solomon, it sometimes feels like we’re being asked to cut the baby in half.

So after all my ranting about solar farms and planning commissions, at the end of the day, I’m still faced with grief. And it is taking a huge amount of will not to lash out, or blame, or take it out on those I love.  It comes from an unresolvable conflict that drops me a few more notches closer to earth. It puts my face in the mud. It fills my mouth with foul tasting muck.

whitney

And it is here, in the mud, that I realize now why I dislike activism. It’s because I know I am never completely right on any issue. And, that I don’t live up to my own standards. That, in truth, it is impossible, no matter how hard I work at doing the right thing, I am a hypocrite. This is not about self-belittlement. It is the truth. What I most dislike about activism, precisely, is that it makes me have to look more carefully at my own shadow.

And if that is the case, then it must be a darn good thing.

For those of us who love this world, who fall in love with lizards and snails, smooth skinned mushrooms and green mossy rocks, lichens and orchids, tortoises and condors, and all the thousands of precious things, may we never forget that one day, every single one of us, will fall back to earth.  May we have the grace to do our best, whether it is fighting global climate change or for the survival of one tortoise, to make sure there is some earth left to lovingly catch our fall.

Please take a moment and sign the REGPA petition to stop inappropriate industrial solar/wind developments in the Owens Valley.

* I wish to express my gratitude to Chris Clark for helping me do my homework. His invaluable articles, which have contributed to this blog, can be found at http://www.kcet.org/user/profile/cclarke.

Sitting next to a newly installed Big Pine Creek

Sitting next to a newly installed Big Pine Creek

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Lately, I’ve been contemplating wholeness. I know that wholeness is something to be desired, but what is wholeness, really? Wholeness is one of those abstract words we carelessly toss around – similar to ego or self – but when asked, it is difficult to come up with a clear definition. When I Googled the question “What is wholeness?” this is the first thing I found:

“Wholeness is a concept that has many meanings in our culture. It is spoken of by New Age gurus, preached from the pulpit, and bandied about by pop psychologists. Yet none of these can give you a straightforward answer as to what wholeness really is”.

Perhaps, it is easier to describe wholeness by what it is not – via negativa – for I can easily identify the moments in my life when I have felt anything but whole; times when I felt alienated from others, periods of self-doubt and humiliation, and those many instances when I wasn’t understood or when my feelings were denied or devalued. It is times like these that my body and mind fall out of sync, scouring against each other like two opposing sides of a fault-line.

We do know from trauma studies that dissociation, or psychic splitting, takes place when an unbearable event such as child abuse or a natural disaster occurs in the life of an individual or community. Dissociation is a psychological maneuver that fragments the psyche into various compartments where the painful material can remain safely tucked away, enabling one to continue living without having to bear the full weight of the trauma. Thus, dissociation is a helpful survival mechanism, but not without great sacrifice. Whereas a traumatized person may be able to function in the external world of work, friends, and family, the inner world may be beset with a host of tormenting symptoms which cramp down on their ability to express themselves and move comfortably through the world. If they were Elk or Caribou, it would be like having fences erected around their migratory paths.

Unfortunately, too many of us know the impact of trauma in one form or another. Yet, within mainstream psychology, little attention is given to the pervasive trauma of global warming, the loss of habitat, or the destruction of wild places. And yet, the wounding impact of these events is palpable to anyone who has ever had connection to place. Each time I travel to my mom’s house in the Coachella Valley, for instance, I become disoriented, uncomfortably altered, and despairing as I watch more and more of my favorite desert places swallowed up by Home Depots, golf courses, and mobile home parks. And what makes this worse is that very few people understand or recognize these feelings. My guess is that this is due to the fact that environmental devastation is so all-encompassing and out of control that it is just too disturbing to give it words. How can I possibly ever be whole when the places I love are disappearing? My best memories live in these places. Where will my memories go when these places are gone?

And, of course, this profound loss is nothing new for those who have lived here long before the era of Manifest Destiny when rapid expansionism buried the ancient teachings and storylines under the rubbish of ignorance and greed. I can only trust that if we pay attention long enough and allow ourselves to listen intensely; we’ll discern the stories that still live deep in the belly of the earth, waiting in dark silence…

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it
See, it is moving.
There is life here
for the people.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Although my ancestors are not native to this continent, I feel a responsibility to live as if I am, and to walk lightly so as to not harm the old stories that live in the land. And eventually, as I continue to walk, my own memories of trauma and loss find refuge in the stones, washes, and trees and a new story begins to take form. Something instinctively within me wants to continue the migration toward wholeness and all the living pieces are slowly making their way across the land. Memories gathering into a story. By our stories we are healed.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

And now it occurs to me that wholeness is no different than wildness and wildness is the ability to move freely through this world. In the past, I imagined wholeness to be like a hardboiled egg in which all things are held together tightly in place, but now I understand wholeness as that which is boundless and unrestrained, yet orderly within its own natural system. A plant that is wild is self-propagating, free to flourish according to its own unique endowments. An animal that is wild freely moves according to its own internal patterns. And, a human who is wild tells their story without fear or intimidation.

Speaking of wholeness in this way, Gary Snyder writes,

Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order….To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive” (The Practice of the Wild, p. 12).

It is thus no mystery why the work we do at The School of Lost Borders is so healing. Not healing in a fix it kind of way, but in an expanding, opening way. It is so simple. People gather together, go out alone onto the land, create ceremony, and then come back to the group with a story. It is healing because it reconnects us with our own wild system, knocking down fences, breaking apart dams, removing the barriers of shame and silence. This is our Practice of the Wild. This is our Practice of Wholeness. 

The only cure
I know
Is a good ceremony
That’s what she said

–          Leslie Marmon Silko


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Walking on the Moon

The moon woke me. I was sleeping soundly in a remote wash tucked up a canyon in Death Valley, but when the moon rose to its zenith, full and fiery; I could no longer remain in my sleeping bag. I was compelled to rise and walk.  Actually, I had planned to take a night walk anyway, so I was relieved when the moon pulled me out of my sleep rather than me having to force myself awake. The rain had finally stopped and the icy wind had calmed itself to a breeze, so this was as good a time as any.

This was the third night of a four day vision fast. By this point, without the distractions of food and all the clutter that fills my life, time had really slowed down to a tortoises’ pace. Although I was wet, cold and hungry, it felt good to sink into the natural tempo of the desert. It is a state of being that my body knows intimately. This simple act of sleeping on the ground and rising to the light of the moon reminds me of my evolutionary origins, which at times can feel as comforting as the warm breath of a lover. And yet, it is an aspect of myself that I can so easily belittle as sluggish, primitive, and unconscious.

So, my intention for this fast was to find a new connection to the moon and to a consciousness that needn’t rely on such bright clarity; one that could withstand the ambiguities of nature, love, and creativity.  True or not, I consider myself a highly rational person having spent the last ten years of my life in institutional academia. I am also dependable, responsible, and even tempered; all qualities that I admire. But lately, this rational side has left me feeling depleted and sterile, and frankly, resentful toward life.  More than once, I actually caught myself fantasizing about personal catastrophes in the hopes of shaking things up a bit and to provide myself with an excuse to be a little crazy (which makes me speculate that maybe our culture’s current fascination with apocalyptic imagery is actually a grotesque expression for a desire to connect with the “crazy” unconscious). There has got to be a better way. I look to the moon.

But the moon is crazy! The moon is nuts. Lunacy. Fickle and erratic. Light and dark. Helpful and menacing. Intelligent and absurd. Ask any woman (or any man, for that matter) how entering into the moon cycle, or confronting the lunar snub of menopause, can make one feel insane.  Nevertheless, on this night, I followed her light along the path to the rocky mesa…until, that is, she forsook me for the clouds and all became dark. I felt shaken and disoriented.  I could not find my way. I stumbled along, walking in circles, getting nowhere. And it occurred to me, “This is what it is like to walk in the realm of the unconscious”.

And then I remembered him. I won’t say his name, but he is my inner guide. He came to me years ago. He is kind and smart and has a hearty laugh.  An alchemist of old. Just saying his name invited a feeling of lightness. Soon after, I arrived at my destination. I said my prayers and made offerings. The rest of the story is secret, except I will say the sun did come up, quite unexpectedly, and it felt like Christmas.

This I now know. The moon is fine.  The feminine is fine too. She is my nature. She is nature. But without the discriminating light of the guide, in this case the helpful masculine, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to find connection to her.  As Helen Luke writes, “when the feminine soil of which she is working refuses to come to life…she has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illumined and come to its fruition”.

But, to me, it is all best said through poetry.

Moon Poem #4

She takes my scorched hair
with slim hands of soft light
she combs through forgotten fields
of unwanted land, dry and harsh
brushing aside the cinders,
all that is consumed with ash.
In the brightness of her grace
even the old creosote
casts a shadow in this place

How the liquid of the moon
bleeds from beneath the shadows
to erase these hard lines of
barbed wire and rusted tin,
How her waters round out the valleys
like an old bear’s hip
and softens the edges
with mugwort and sage.

Moon, Moon
your name rests upon my tongue
colors my lips
drips down my jaw
onto belly and toes
dreams edge from the deep comfort of sleep
a drop of water falls
a perfectly smooth bead
awakening the tortoise

who moves slowly
not by clocks, or fancy thoughts
but by inner rhythms
of trees and of seasons
to the place of beginnings
of birth, and death, and where
the expectant earth,
waits without time
for the rain,

for the moon

illuminating

the stone

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Devil’s De-light

Sunset Middle Cowhorn

As I was cleaning out my office this week I came across a file containing a collection of letters, notes, and photos from my early years with the School of Lost Borders. While sorting through the pile, I realized that I participated in my first “vision fast” over twelve years ago and have been doing so each year ever since. I suppose this confirms that vision fasting has become a firm “practice” in my life. To go into the wilderness, alone and without food and shelter, may sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it serves as a sort of periscope for me; a means for traveling through the rich dark matter which lies beneath the surface.

There is something absolutely elemental about stripping oneself down in a wild landscape. To be exposed in nature, hungry and alone, arouses a remembering, both in body and dreams, of our primordial lineage – a connection to our wildness that can never be fully shed. As human ecologist, Paul Shepard, writes, even though we have become largely domesticated within our surroundings, “Wildness is a genetic state…”It is that genetic aspect of ourselves that spatially occupies every body and every cell”.  In other words, we cannot leave behind our wild nature. We can only suppress it. And, when we suppress it, it usually returns and bites us hard in the ass.

And thus, this September I find myself, once again, in the Inyo Mountains, hungry and alone and wondering why in God’s name would I do such a foolish thing.  Joe has joined me this time, although he is out of sight and earshot, situated on the ridge across the valley from where I have placed my tarp and sleeping bag.  Four days and four nights – right here. Not much to do except wait, watch, listen and try not to go insane.

Stone PileIt has become so painfully difficult for me to remain still. With my dad’s dying, in addition to a heavy workload, all I did last year was move from one location to another, back and forth, and at high speeds.  Although I hate it, I have become addicted to movement.  When I stop moving, the devil shows up.

Particularly on this fast, the devil appeared in the form of fear – fear of pain, loss, and death. Really, ultimately fear of the wild aspect of nature that I mentioned above because to be engaged with Nature is also to recognize that she both creates and destroys, gives life and freely takes it back. This terrifies me, but it is only in the presence of death that I can truly be wild. It is only by embracing death that nature is no longer tagged as evil. To find oneself calm and unwavering within this tremendous paradox is key to being at home on this planet.  This is the gift of consciousness that Earth gives us.

Shepard’s words are particularly interesting here. Speaking of those who have left the regions of the wild for a more sedentary life, he writes, “Those who fear death become politically and socially conservative and less tolerant of other species, other creed, and any deviation from their own mode of life”.

My guess is that all of our social and environmental ills can be traced to our personal and cultural fears of death. It seems essential, therefore, that we return to the place of darkness, into our own wildness, so that we may see the light.

I’ve got a long way to go…

2nd Lake Sunset

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It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed.” – Annie Dillard.

yucca

The most unusual thing happened last week – it snowed in Yucca Valley. Betraying its own feathery lightness, the mounting snow weighted down the branches of the mesquite tree that stands outside my window and, at one point, I began to worry that my flat “made for the desert” roof might cave in. But nothing of the sort happened. The only travesties were a leaky roof and a broken electrical wire that connected me to the outside world. Other than that, I was simply stranded at home.

In my fantasies, I would welcome such an occasion. My biggest complaints are that I never get enough solitude and that I am always expected to be “somewhere” other than where I currently am. Over the last year, due to family and work responsibilities, it has felt that my life was reduced to the meaning expressed by my car’s odometer.

So, what is a better excuse to stay put than to be stuck in snow? Oddly, I found myself feeling trapped, not by the snow, but by my own mind. As soon as I realized that I was really house bound, thoughts began to swing about recklessly from one branch to the next. It was as if, by having to be still, a horde of miniature monkeys were set free within the walls of my head.

Ven. Thubten Chodron describes it this way:

“Who is imprisoning us in suffering? Your mother? Your father? Your boss? The person who cut you off on the highway? Are they the ones who are imprisoning you in suffering? No! We are our own jail-keeper. We construct the prison, we put ourselves inside the cell, we lock it up and throw away the key. And then we blame the world for it.”

In the meantime, the snow continued to softly fall outside my window. I noticed the quail taking shelter under the mesquite. Hungry, no doubt, but looking quite protected in the cavern of the snow covered branches. While my car disappeared under the snow, the footprints of the quail made an impression. I stepped outside and gathered a few more pieces of wood for the fire. The fire burned furiously. I decided to sew.

quail

“Loneliness invites the unconscious”, write Marie-Louise von Franz.

“If you are alone, a lot of your life energy, normally used up in relating to outer things, one could say the whole “social energy,” is suddenly dammed up and has no outlet and therefore flows back into and constellates the unconscious. That is why in all religions isolation is one of the means by which to meet the Gods, or the ghosts, or the spirits or by which we become initiated into inner experience.”

There is a death-like quality about the snow. Its cold white carpet descends upon us, silencing us and awakening the demons inside. Nobody can avoid nature. We all vanish under the white cold carpet. Our footprints make but a brief impression.

By the next morning, after the storm fled, I encountered not a chilling loneliness, but rather a crystalline miracle; a mixture of excitement and serenity. Today, I can’t go anywhere. My roof is leaking and the world is rushing in.

joshuatree

Here are words written down –

footprints on the sand,

cloud formations.

Tomorrow

I’ll be gone.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Journey”

early-morning-snow

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Each year I go into the desert usually someplace in Death Valley or the Inyo Mountain Range, to spend four days and nights alone, without food or shelter, and to engage in what many call a “vision fast”. This has been my practice for the last ten years, and although it has become quite ordinary for me, each year carries its own surprises, trials, joys, and thrills. The four days feel somewhat like an extended “active imagination” (to use a Jungian term) in which the ego begins to soften, allowing unconscious material to reveal itself in the surrounding rocks, trees, flowers, bugs, clouds, and critters. Like living inside a crazy dream, I never know what to expect. Tears flow, unexpected sorrows crop up, laughter and song take on a will of their own. Each thing reveals its own unique essence.

 

In previous fasts, I have endeavored to find some new guidance for my life.  What tidbit of insight will I find that will serve as a compass for my upcoming year?  What new revelation will I bring back with me? But, my goals and intentions are beginning to lose their potency.  I don’t want to expect anything anymore and my inner process is beginning to sound like blather. Rather, I simply want to go into the desert, in solitude, and be present to any phenomenon that enters into my perceptual field.

 

In many respects, the desert is a goalless terrain; there are no destination points, no lakes to camp by, no shorelines to walk. It is no surprise that in this landscape of endless no-things, one is compelled to create tangible images: False gods and idols, a Golden Calf, a stone to hold on to, anything to scratch a mark on eternity. But eventually, even stones turn back into sand. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). And, as the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes, “No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”

 

Still, we are told, “Seek and ye shall find”. Find what?  What exactly are we looking for out here?  When one enters the desert there is nothing to find but more desert. The boundlessness of the desert unhinges the stasis of the fixed mind; exposing the ego, bringing in a rush of terror and a fear of annihilation.  Surely, deeply embedded in the collective unconscious the desert archetype knows that what is being sought is more than an object of fixation.

 

Perhaps what we find in the desert is freedom. Paradoxically, we gain freedom from ourselves so that that we can find ourselves. As Thomas Merton says of the desert fathers, they did not seek spiritual enlightenment, or to escape from the hassles of everyday life, or even God. Rather…  

  

the simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world.

 

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Searching for Bighorn

Last fall, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I had just entered the first week of my sabbatical when the news came in.  Something unusual had been found on his pancreas. A month later, the cancer was confirmed.  My world caved in. During sabbatical my goal was to make good progress on my book, but I had a difficult time focusing and my achievement driven persona quickly turned into a mushy slough.  Something in me began to shift – something big – although I am still not sure what it is.

 

Recently, while in the backcountry of Death Valley National Park, I had an encounter which somewhat eased my sadness. Over the last few years, I have been captivated by Desert Bighorn Sheep; drawn by their graceful ability to blend in with the natural landscape and to captivate the imagination. Bighorn are like archetypal dream images; their presence is made known by their footpaths and scatterings, but when we try to track them they quietly disappear, drawing us even further into their wanderings.  Although I have carefully looked for Bighorn along the desert peaks and rocky alcoves, I have never seen one in the wild, which I sadly attributed to my dull senses and overly rational mind. It takes a special kind of seeing to see bighorn, a kind of seeing that looks in unpredictable places, an ability to see beyond the surface of things.  Perhaps, encountering death is that which clears away the debris and sharpens our vision into this non-linear realm.

 

Holding the pain of my potential loss, I took a long walk down a deep arroyo.  Although, I had my sights set on a particular goal, I eventually succumbed to an irrational impulse to stray from my path and head up a dark canyon where I eventually came upon a large circle of black stones. I stepped into the stone circle and sat for a long, long time. I wept in that valley of death. When I finally stepped out of the circle, I turned my head and immediately caught sight of the bleached bones of a bighorn ram, the horns still intact, sturdy, and secure.  The sight of the ram’s head filled me with an unexpected surge of strength and I knew at that moment that I could navigate my way through this difficult passage, knowing that the pain of death is also accompanied by the beauty reflected in these bones.

 

A couple days later, while leaving the campsite, I was looking up toward the mountains, hoping to see the invisible bighorn. Suddenly, as if my eyes miraculously opened, I saw a clan of ewes grazing near the wash.  They appeared to be pregnant. No doubt, what I saw were the bighorn sheep, but I was also ecstatically filled with the magic of their archetypal presence. A moment I will never forget. 

 

Due to habitat loss, hunting, and the introduction of domestic livestock, the existence of the bighorn has become severely threatened. By the beginning of the twentieth century, even the most moderate conservationists were convinced that the bighorn were doomed to extinction. Fortunately, and with large effort on part of many dedicated individuals, the bighorn are still with us but their survival remains tenuous.  Whether one ever sees a bighorn or not, to lose their presence would be tragic both for the natural world and for psyche.  No longer would their hoofprints captivate the imagination, drawing us into the realm of the unseen, giving us cause to pause and wonder. No longer would we have reason to imagine that beyond the boundaries of civilization are wild beings ready to give birth at any moment. The land would be empty, silent, void of mystery.

 

 

To observe desert bighorn in the wild is a tremendous gift. Not only does it provide hope that, despite all loss, these creatures may continue on earth, but that psyche, too, continues to walk along the high and luminous places, watching from above, gracing us with her hidden presence.  And, perhaps, all we may hear is one tiny pebble set free by one slender hoof, but that is enough.

 

 

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Lost and Found

 

I finally enrolled in a map and compass class with the Desert Institute in Joshua Tree National Park. The instructor, Karl VonHalle, an animated, unruly haired man in his, say, fifties, captivated my attention with stories of hikers getting lost and found (some dead) in desert mazes such as the Wonderland of Rocks in JTNP. I’ve hiked in the Wonderland, by myself, but my survival radar always kicked into gear before I went beyond the point of familiarity. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist the temptation to go deeper into the rocky canyon as if there is some treasure to be found in the center of it all.  Just one more arch, around one more beautiful bend of boulders, deeper and deeper into this mystical maze, an innocent child lured into the potential jaws of hell, another Persephone swept away by the force of nature. No doubt, without good navigational tools, this place could swallow one up.

 

Despite its beauty, the desert can be harsh. Without intelligent preparation a person can face a speedy death in the desert. Studies have shown that in desert temperatures of 120 degrees, a man without water can last two days if he sits in the shade doing absolutely nothing. If he decides to walk, he may last a day, at best. And, to make matters worse, in the winter, temperatures often fall below freezing, slapping a cold chill across one’s face. But the scarcity of water is primarily responsible for desert inhospitality. A simple definition of desert is an area that receives an average of ten or fewer inches of precipitation annually. One notable example is taken from Bagdad, California, in the Mojave Desert, which holds the record for the longest dry spell in the United States with 767 days – October 3, 1912, to November 8, 1914 – without rain!

 

All to say, much of the cushiness of desert romanticism has been largely influenced by air conditioning, dependable transportation, and huge amounts of pavement.  

 

Learning how to use a map and compass may not insure my safety in a place like the Wonderland of Rocks, but it certainly gives me an opportunity to at least pay attention to what is around me. Good navigation is all about paying attention to points of reference – to the contours of the landscape, the characteristics of each wash, the positioning of the sun, the onset of clouds, dust on the horizon. It’s no less than a meditation practice of simply being in the present moment without falling prey to mindless malice.      

 

 And this is why I go into the desert.  

But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the world. That’s why”. – Edward Abbey.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

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