Desert

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

America, A Horse With No Name (Todd Terje edit)
Desert, Newberry Springs, CA
Newberry Springs, CA

I went to the desert. It was not entirely what I expected.

Arizona. To start with there was more vegetation, though different from what I am used to: scrubby, survivors. Then there were always mountains in the distance, seemingly, never to be reached, forever at arm’s reach… Then Tonto – Sedona – the Grand Canyon.

I loved it all. The vastness of it has undone something in me. Pulled the rug from under my feet. Cut me down to size. Cast me adrift. … Choose your cliché. Clichés are only clichéd because they tell a truth.

I am disturbed. I miss it. I haven’t yet come to ground. I long to be back there. What name have I remembered? The world is big; I am little. Every which way I looked, every way in which I looked, there was an expanse I was unable mentally to fathom.

I encountered four dimensions of ‘vast’. The first was the flat, almost featureless, extent of sand and scrub. A first glance showed a landscape uniform in all directions: each bush as alike as its neighbour a few feet away; each unmarked and unremarkable hole remarkably alive with ants determinedly about their business. But here’s the thing: each bush and ant colony is a world in its own right, each as important as the civil, dear-to-me world I inhabit.

The second dimension of largeness was driving up a mountain to the pass and looking down at the terrain – or fetching up on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, 10 miles to the north rim and a mile down to the Colorado River.

Neither wideness nor height and depth were new to me. The globe itself is great, but the human project has managed to encompass it in all but the most inaccessible places. America is not tamed, but it is traversed, by track, tarmac, pylon, and radio waves. People are amazing, ingenious, inventive, dauntless but our apparently unassailable longing for significance and immortality is destructive, and will, ultimately, be fatal.

I gained the third perspective coming upon numerous settlements, from a few dwellings to cities of millions, in the ‘middle of nowhere’, on the shores of a lake, or the confluence of rivers. It struck me that each collective contained people mostly engaged in the same endeavours – building a life, a family, a home, making and selling (though more selling than making), getting and spending, constructing a set of friends and colleagues, real and virtual – all conferring the semblance of significance. Repetitive; imitative. I knew nothing of them, nor they of me, but our lives were largely interchangeable, and unremarkable, I fancied.

What tugged most insistently at the construction of Pick-up sticks of what I fondly like to think of as my life was the time-scale revealed in the geological calendar of the Grand Canyon. I learnt that the canyon has been carved by the Colorado River over the course of 5 to 6 million years. That’s a long time. However, it turns out that the layers of sediment were laid down over a much longer time-scale. Standing on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, I could look back in time, scanning down through the strata, terracotta and tan, disintegrating and dusty, to where the river runs now, deep and hidden, on rocks that are 1.8 billion (1,800,000,000) years old. Now that really is a long time. It is 6,000 times the current extent of the Homo sapiens project. It exposes my 60 years to a new perspective.

I regret missing the opportunity to look at the stars from a place relatively free of light-pollution. There, finally, is the unfathomable, unplumbable, and unimaginably vast.

What is the name I have remembered? I have remembered that I am not important; that I am a small thing on a small, blue planet; that I am not all this worry about my life, my decisions, being liked and valued, being safe, having control. I know my name is not all this.

What is my name, then, if I have one? What is my significance, if any? What are we for, if anything? I have no answers. I find no resolution between longing for significance and the feeling of disappearing into a perspective, like the vanishing point of railroad tracks, that I cannot get my head around.

It is difficult to convey in these words the deep, disturbing delight, the delightful disturbance, of these questions. It is crucial to understand this: yes I am disturbed, but the delight, the relief, the gratitude! I loved the desert and the vastness in space and time. I want to be there. I want to know that what I fondly think of as “I” doesn’t much matter, when push comes to shove.

I have no future. I have no past. When all is taken away one thing remains. All I have is now. My name is “now”. The only viable response to the vast beyondness of things is to be fully present to the moment, this moment. My name is “one who breathes”. In a breath, felt from the nostrils to the belly, breathed with and into the heart, is the whole world, eternity, You.

The things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment.

Andrew Harvey, A Journey in Ladakh (quoted in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p.54)

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