“Hot and tired, I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Hovering around 35°C (95°F) and very dry, the air itself cannot be ignored. With every breath, precious moisture leaves the body, evaporating unseen like an offering to the gods of the high desert, residing in hoodoos and weather-carved niches on steep overhanging cliffs. After a few minutes, my mouth is again dry, and I need another sip of precious water.
I am alien to this place, both personally and evolutionarily. Humans are not adapted for life in the desert. The creatures who reside here face this world with thick scales, not tender pale skin prone to scrapes, sunburn and desiccation. Others at home here soar on updrafts, seeking out with keen vision the secret springs and tiny hidden seeps that provide life-giving liquid. Still others have learned the hard lessons of life and death, and hide away underground or in pockets of deep shade, coming out only with the stars. Onward…
Maybe it was the heat, but as I wandered I found myself recalling times in my life that felt like an emotional or spiritual desert: times when every day, it felt like my energy was evaporating with each breath. Times when I felt dried out, drained, and devoid of hope. You know what I mean, don’t you…I thought so. Oh yes. We have all felt that way at times. We’ve all had our desert wanderings, regardless of whether or not we’ve ever seen a cactus.
When wandering in the soul desert, our chances of survival seem remote, and we feel lost. We may stagger toward what we perceive to be immediate sustenance, or a quick fix, or the way out. Frequently, that turns out to be a mirage, and on we go, aimlessly and as miserable as ever. In our inner journey, maybe the best strategy can be found by considering the creatures of the literal desert, who manage to make a living in a harsh world.
The lizard strategy might be to toughen up, and develop a thick skin capable of enduring the rocks and sharp edges that life sometimes offers us. Holding our own center and deploying our defenses to the world is a lizard strategy. So is strategic camouflage. There are times in our lives when our spirit is vulnerable, and our best bet is to blend in with our surroundings. This is not a permanent option even if it is necessary now and then, since even a lizard cannot remain immobile and blended in forever. We must move on.
The falcon strategy is to see the big picture, to soar over the arid landscape riding the wind. Seeing the big picture helps guard us from becoming wrapped up in the minutiae of our daily lives. We can begin to realize that although the desert is vast, it does not go on forever. Off in the distance there are mountains, or even an ocean. The falcon also sees the tiny pockets of green in the dry land. These are the hidden springs, the tiny seeps of dripping water. These are no mirage. Inwardly, a falcon strategy helps us see the tiny joys and aspects of our lives that offer sustenance in the midst of our own desert.
Fox offers us yet another strategy to survive our own desert times. In the daytime, a fox will keep to its burrow, sleeping and conserving energy in the heat of the day. At dusk, it emerges, and hunts by moonlight. Fox teaches us of the importance of having a protected, safe space, and going there on a regular basis. Our “burrow” might be a meditation corner, a nature trail, or a religious sanctuary. It is a place where we feel safe and protected, where we can let go of our troubles and for a moment, escape the world. Everyone needs a burrow.
Harsh and inhospitable, the desert is still beautiful. It speaks to us of survival, endurance, persistence and strength.
Note to Blog Readers: This is the first of a four part series based on my travels in the southwest U.S. this summer. As I traveled, I read Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, that also served as an inspiration for the series. It’s good to be back. I missed you all.
Photo: Balanced Rock with rising moon, Arches National Park, Utah, USA. Photo by blog author.