Because this is desert, you appreciate shadows. Fear what might be lurking, too.
In my first day of solitude since moving to a new job and a new dwelling, no wonder I’m restless. At last, driving out beyond the irrigated orchards and fields of the valley, I follow a coworker’s scribbled directions higher into the foothills and eventually park beside the weathered-gray walls of what was once a one-gas-pump country store. I hoist a daypack and stumble out along a rutted trace in a search for the backbone and spirit of my new surroundings. By itself, the peculiar sunlight of this place triggers a blinding headache — compounded by the abrupt release from the crushing and inflexible deadlines of my office.
There are many reasons for entering arid expanses, as well as many reasons to avoid them. In antiquity, I could have asked Desert Fathers for details. This time, I am no trader following a caravan route or a shepherd following goats, nor am I prospecting or dodging cattle. I’m not running contraband nor am I an illegal immigrant. In fact, I’m running from no one, unless maybe myself. In short, I’m a pilgrim, one who’s been suffering long before this particular headache strikes. I have no idea my journey solicits, above all, a healing my own, as well as the planet’s. Outdoors, away from town, away from the familiar countryside of my past, I resist an intense thirst preceding the throbbing. The only shade I find is in the shell of a rusted Depression-era Plymouth, where I collapse in what had been the passenger’s seat.
The relentless glare drills another hole in my skull for a spider to enter. Every seeker who relocates to desert requires new circuitry. The arachnid rewires my human brain and lungs. Maybe Swami has sent her. Maybe Murshid. Until now, I’ve had no inkling of Trickster, whatever its particular form.
It’s hard to say, precisely, how long I remain out. It seems days, and perhaps is. Even so, in any wilderness, there’s additional jeopardy in roaming after nightfall — especially without a flashlight or torch. In the cooling air of late afternoon, I walk back to my car and steer homeward.
If I could sustain this solitude in this terrain, I would mutate into a desert rat, perhaps crossing over into madness. Instead, I’ve chosen to live at its periphery, and will enter when my calendar allows. Such a pathway, I find, is also maddening.
Desert turns everything to bone. That, or to stone. Even the scattered tufts of cheat grass and the isolated clusters of flowers turn into straw skeletons. Social conventions, too, dry away. In pursuing clarity, which parched spreads possess abundantly, I also enter an order of madness. Paradoxically, to preserve my sanity in dealing with people, it becomes periodically necessary for me to revisit this incomprehensible delirium. Settle back on this my bedrock, readjust to my own frame. Here, then, I return afresh to spaces within and without. Wait. Listen. In this place, wind is a clearing, spiraling on itself. Then, when this twisting reverses, screwing into bony alkaline soil, we give praise. At times, I even see my own heart clearly. As I come to know my way around more securely, I lift a cup of clear spring water and pour it on bleached parchment at my feet. Selah. The next day a bouquet of tiny flowers rises like fingers bent by wind. Always somewhere, wind. Listen.
I look closer and see in that runt garden herds of patient insects. Then I look across the wind to read what its elbows have written in large letters.
At last I sleep soundly, for she’s returned. Selah.
Perhaps you think it harsh, this description of the spider’s work. “Rewire?” you say. “A human’s not an electronic device!” But some ways, we are a tangle of neurological pathways that remain mysterious. Here, threads harden into wispy bone. Snare dreams in flight and hold them for inspection, for wrapping, for ingestion. Filter and stabilize the air we breathe. In desert, an outcome seldom materializes immediately. A procedure goes dormant — sometimes for years. What appears dead often is merely waiting.
Here a man will learn to pace himself more steadily. To watch for the rattlesnake, especially at river’s edge. To recalibrate his vision to the American Far West, where natural beauty assumes such spectacular proportions few notice the thinness at hand. The spider will teach all this. Clarity, like the desert itself, strips away to essentials. Sweeps away clutter. In what appears sparse, the man will gaze for episodes of miniature grace. Even elegance.
After a rare downpour, wrinkled hills sprout terraced dwarf gardens. I recall glossy photographs of tenacious farmers working green steps above Mediterranean and Chinese shorelines. I think, too, of terraced heights in the Andes and Himalayas. Applications of timeless, universal wisdom.
Around my home, blades of extended orchards flutter in the bowl of the valley. From the tawny ridges I see this as green sandals on wrinkled feet. Science that makes this dusty soil incredibly fruitful also leaves the place comparatively lifeless; the variety of life forms diminishes, even in seemingly arid desert. It’s simply a matter of maximizing profits.
My wife leaves on yet another trip, then phones to say she’s depressed. She refuses to give a reason.
Why put up with it? I’m no patriarch, and no one would allow me such influence. We’ve promised to be equals. I have enough struggles without carrying hers. She should be helping me now, building a home and a family of our own rather than running after her parents or friends. This, however, is one point where spider — and for that matter, desert rats — cannot advise me. What I do know is that when she’s happiest, she’s also faithfully practicing our religious disciplines. Too often, though, she prefers to hitchhike on my devotions.
In the midst of the next drizzle, when the clock demands I return to the office, I prefer to stay put, admiring beadwork on telephone line. Especially in desert, I examine points of rain. Zero in on one gleaming star, a coil of light as pure and functionless as mathematics. Center down wordlessly in this flyspeck and let whatever’s binding me unfold slowly. In reality, I own more time than I realize, if I act in the holy now. That, the spider whispers, is the kernel of celebration. Give praise. Selah.
In other climates, you commonly overlook the element of space, unless looking into the heavens on a brittle night. You observe objects, and space becomes the measure of distance between an object and you, or else some arrangement of objects. In contrast, desert appears more as a vacuum — a juxtaposition of surfaces, of sky and earth extending outward not to some imaged convergence (such as the perspective point where the twin rails of a train track become one) but rather away from any focus, and thus outward around both of the observer’s ears. Here, space itself becomes obvious, as if turned upright, like a wall in your face. So often in life, what should be most obvious is the hardest to see. The spider is on the window; the spider is on this page.
Despite my mission to expose the spirit of this landscape, I worship a portable deity. That is, I’m a follower of the Book. Or, according to my practice, the Spirit That Informed the Book. In a way, the Book follows me, even into the desert, not all that different from the desert where it was written.
The freedom to move about is essential to any mental discipline; I dare not get stuck in a single position. Three points are required for triangulation. How else can I determine where I am or where I’m going?
When I scan the desolation of geologic uplift and volcanic flow, I appreciate the prophetic Hebrew charge, “The gods of the nations are idols.” Nothing humanity creates can equal such an outpouring. Work yourself free of all bondage, indeed. I’ll identify idols crowding into my life, and what they demand. An old white-bearded man carried about in a box as hazardous as radioactive material? A television can be far more fatal. I’ll consider the god Brahma, to some “the most stupendous idea the human mind has ever wrestled with.” And then YHWH, the spinning Word of God, and whatever wrestled with Jacob. Some encounters go beyond human imagining. Try naming the greatest power that has wounded you. Do you rise in confrontation? Do you yield? Every road to liberation proves painful.
I return to dance and move with intellect, emotion, and muscle through the music. Or the prayer. I charge from night into dawn; from rain into full glare. Despite bruises and even bleeding from my latest encounters, I leap within my Dedicated Laborious Quest. Even so, my heart silently rages. Sometimes I’m at peace; sometimes, worldly affairs beset me. When I concentrate on rhythmic cuckoo elisions, my wrath may yet generate voltage, if I own up to my personal forms of power, however frightening they appear. At the horizon, migrating birds coil like an aerial rattlesnake. If I could circle with them, I would face the new sun. Or I could walk in the expanse until my tracks freeze in a chattering alarm as I admit genuine terror, then raise the pistol and fire. Carefully, sever the tail’s rattle for my dance shaker. Skin and tan a length of skin for my hat band. Thus prepared, stare through ghostly prairie grasses and through hardwood stretches beyond. I’ve known cornfields and soybeans, and much that has vanished. I could be the settler who leveled those forests and turned under the endless prairie; I may also be the holy visionary who will yet restore them.
Someday I will drop into a rattlesnake hole, my kiva, my own covered self. Find my private circle, my spirit hoop, a spiral turning me more completely into the sunrise. Behind me and before him are suburbs to unsettle. Wilderness, I perceive, is an illusion until mankind’s true settling. In the meantime, whatever is conquered remains despised, like a common-knowledge harlot.
There are problems in every marriage. I’ll delineate many distinctions. Selah!
And then, as I’m driving, I pull over for a hitchhiker. He introduces himself as Kokopelli.
An earlier version of “Where Space Upends” originally appeared in Jack Magazine.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.