Desert Reflections Part 2: Phantom Rain and Ways of Being

“Sometimes it rains and still fails to moisten the desert- the falling water evaporates halfway down between cloud an earth. Then you see curtains of blue rain dangling out of reach in the sky while the living things wither below for want of water. Torture by tantalizing, hope without fulfillment. And the clouds disperse and dissipate into nothingness….. ” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Humans are funny creatures. We project ourselves onto the world around us; we imagine that our own feelings, thoughts, and wishes are shared by our fellow Earth inhabitants. Coming from my very green home, where pampered roses grace my front yard, and juicy tomatoes ripen out in the back, I was amused to find myself walking the desert landscape feeling sorry for the plants.

It was easy enough to do. Poor things. They looked so scraggly and small, like little ragamuffin children in need of a good hug and a hot meal. I wanted to grab a watering can and get busy. Hearing Abbey’s account of the phantom rain that never dampens the Earth, I could almost imagine the desert plants crying out for mercy to the unforgiving sky.

But if I did that…the desert wouldn’t be the desert anymore. And the plants for which I felt such compassion? They would likely drown from my efforts. Unable to survive my overzealous watering can deluge, they would perish.

No. I can’t feel sorry for the plants. They belong here. This is their home, and they are well adapted to it. Through long eons of evolutionary trial and error, they have worked out their way of being in this dry world. They have made their peace with the land, and thrive where my roses and tomatoes cannot.

There are many ways to be. Many paths up the mountain of enlightenment. Many possibilities: roses, tomatoes, sagebrush and saguaro.

When the Spanish missionaries first encountered the people of the desert southwest, they did not understand this truth. Certainly some of them felt genuine compassion for the native population, but their compassion was something akin to my sympathy for the desert plants. Colonialism took a giant cultural watering can, and sought to create Spaniards from Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Acoma, with tragic results.

There are many ways to be. Navajo, Hopi, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist…African, North American, European, Middle Eastern…

There are many ways to be. Tundra, rainforest, marshland, desert…

And the phantom rain that never reaches the ground? Maybe that’s just as well. The desert is the desert, and the prickly pear are doing just fine, thank you very much. If I let my imagination run along a little more, I can almost imagine the raincloud thinking to itself, “Okay, dry land, this is your lucky day! Rain is here! You’ll be okay,” and a little later realizing, “Oh. That’s right. You’re a desert. Never mind. I’ll call back my rain. My mistake. Sorry!” And all would be well again.

In our relations with our fellow humans, we would do well to follow the example of the phantom rain cloud.

Photo Credit:  Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA, by flickr user Wolfgang Staudt at

About Rebecca

Natural spirituality writer, deep thinker, mom of 3, adjunct professor, resident of Earth
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3 Responses to Desert Reflections Part 2: Phantom Rain and Ways of Being

  1. Debra She Who Seeks says:

    Nice post, but one quibble. I don't think compassion was the driving force behind colonialism, except perhaps as rationalized ideological camouflage.

  2. Rebecca Hecking says:

    Hi Debra, I agree with you that compassion was not the driving force, but I do believe that for SOME of the missionaries, there was a measure of compassion (confused and misguided, yes… but within their cultural frame of reference).

    Have you ever seen the movie "The Mission"?? It was out in the 80s, and (I think) had Robert DeNiro in it. It told the story of a South American mission, and the external tension between the missionaries and conquistadors, along with the internal conflicts of some of the monks, who could see what was happening, but were still stuck within their own belief system.

    But yes… you absolutely have a point. :-)


  3. Debra She Who Seeks says:

    Yes, I saw The Mission when it first came out and I've been meaning to rewatch it on DVD for quite a while now. There's also a good Canadian-made movie called Black Robe about colonialism and culture clash between French Catholic missionaries and the Iroquois/Hurons.

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