APPRECIATING WHAT’S FUNDAMENTAL, EVEN PRIMITIVE

Throughout history, people have turned to pilgrimages, monastic retreats, or fasting as pauses in their daily customs — opportunities to reflect fully on immortal objectives before returning to everyday demands. Modern versions include vacations, travel, and outdoor pursuits such as camping — typically without the dimension of worship. Whatever the form, people return home with renewed appreciation. Maybe my wife’s trip on the bus held an element of this; perhaps it was just an escape.

The desert is similar. It’s made me recognize fundamental, even primitive, life requirements clearly, as though chiseled by flint instruments. Like the multitude of crickets chirping in the garden, much we take for granted — rain, clouds, family, especially — now magnify in consciousness. I could lay out some generalized principles and then form a big picture.

Tell me, then, Kokopelli insists. So I do.

Begin, for instance, with a line found on few maps, one that nevertheless defines the United States as much as the Appalachian mountains, Mississippi River, or Mason-Dixon Line do: to its west, less than thirty inches of rain falls in an average year. Because they require at least thirty inches of rainfall a year, leafy trees never extended across the Great Plains or Far West, except along streams or in pockets settlers planted and irrigate. The line drops across the map like a spider’s exploratory filament, a perpendicular sheen from a ceiling. The Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are cleaved. Further west, forests return near mountains, which generate their own weather patterns. Snowfall and rain, in part, explain the conifers of Western forest. Explain, too, the smell of open air, crackle of fire, proliferation of wrinkles in neighbors’ cheeks and foreheads. More lines can be drawn, leading to some web: the treeless expanse, for instance, between the Rockies and the Cascade or Sierra Nevada ranges.

Within the treeless expanse are other circles, other webs. Take center-pivot irrigation, patented in 1952, and count how many mile-wide green circles it’s spun across the Western landscape, each one requiring the electrical power of a city of ten thousand and a reliable source of water, generally fossilized or snowmelt. Back east I had rarely considered such matters. A drought meant no rain in several weeks. Dew was dependable. I knew about farmers, not cowboys. Grass was thick and green rather than sparse and dun. Summer air heavy with humidity made the sky milky rather than this piercing blue. On the westward journey, I barely noticed how loam is a table tilting to sky until we ran up against the forbidding wall of the Rocky Mountains. Now I measure summer nights that plunge fifty degrees, yet desert thermometer readings don’t compare with the comfort and discomfort known elsewhere. Thirty or sixty days without clouds oppress me as much as continuous rain would. I need new prayers. New magic, too.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

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