Last night I dreamt that the hills that surrounded my home were barren and chipping flecks of sandstone, the striations of rock horizontal with the earth and fresh like a new scar. The lushness of bay, of oak, of small streams curling down little arroyos had vanished and was left with heat, and golden hills. And I felt free there, at peace in a wild place, like Baja, or maybe it was some hidden desolation in the dry lands of Nevada.
Deserts have always fascinated me with their open spaces. As a child I used to endlessly draw dunes and canyons though I had never seen them before. Maybe the fantasy grew from reading stories of Edward Abbey. Or maybe it was simply growing up in a suburban town north of San Francisco, surrounded by so many people, so much convention, longing for a respite from the culture to which I lived, the one that still asks me and all of us not to rest, or think, but to build, to tear things down and make them new again.
I went to the Mojave desert with my brother and a few of his friends for two nights in March. I had just hurt my knee surfing on the north coast and couldn’t run or walk very well. But, surrounded by so much silence, and rocks too fragile to climb, we couldn’t do much else but sit around anyway. That’s why my brother loved this place, he told me. It was so hot, so quiet, so unwelcoming to the outdoor adventurers who wanted to climb, or hunt, or bike around.
Surrounded by yucca and many mysterious and needley plants, there was nothing to do but wander, find shade, and admire the light through the golden choya.
There was no way to build there, to make this place a destination for hoards of people. And while I do believe in access for all, I find these places, often deserts, give some of us a space to be, to find clarity isolated from the ticking of the world which most of us, rancher, writer, or cook, are bound to.
Mohammed found a cave in the desert and heard the word of God. Plato gave us the allegory of the cave to reflect on the difference between reality and perception. Where else can we find clarity besides a cave or some other space where we are able to view ourselves in stark contrast to our surroundings, and so separate from our human homes?
Perhaps that’s the fantasy of the desert. There, it’s simple to find peace, to see oneself clearly. In the heat that makes those dry landscapes appear still, there is an ever greater ability to find stillness and reflection within ourselves. In that environment, so far flung from what we as tropical primates love so fully with our bodies, we see our needs, projected onto the land like a mirage, sitting right in front of us.
It was there in the Mojave that I remembered how much I needed to be slow, cactus like in my approach, waiting out the dry seasons and clinging on delicately to the rains when they came. I had, and have, spent so much time alone in my room, writing words to myself, busying each day with menial tasks to find a sense of meaning in the din of the city where I live, trying just to hold onto the little claim I have on this land, and “make” something of myself. But in the Mojave, nothing moves like that. Animals and plants and lichens all survive, set on being a part of the living. All of this, all of our lives, are nothing more than that.
Yet, I found this peace with a gas tank and the money and time to drive south for seven and a half hours, and the generations past who built these roads, and the people who to this day maintain the way to this small sanctuary in Southern California. Without these roads, without oil, without that industriousness, I would never find myself there. Inevitably, I arrive in the desert to find peace away from society, yet society leads me, and anyone who visits, to this beauty.
In the desert, we build these roads and become interlopers, we clever creatures cleaving our way to a rocky outcropping to find peace “away from it all.” We exploited this place, perhaps at first for survival, then for profit as the western world arrived. Digging for water became digging for gold, silver, and lead. Seeking out shade turned into cutting the yucca to sell at a boutique craft shop in the Bay Area. Our love and peace was rapidly transformed to industry.
Through that industry, regardless of landscape, we as western society have altered these places well beyond the desert. From the dingo fence of Australia, the carpets of dense forest in the Sierra, the dredged marshes in the Mississippi Delta, to the building of Las Vegas in the middle of Nevada, we alter these lands through our exploits, and this morphs into the grave predicament we now face — the longevity of ourselves as a species.
And with this climate crisis, we see more of the world turning to desert.
I doubt much of what I call home in Northern California will soon turn to desert, but it is not out of the question. That dream of mine last night to live alone in a barren wild world no longer seems just a childish longing for quiet and simplicity, but a reality that the land I love will be ever shaped by what my ancestors and I have chosen to do and not do. That dream last night perhaps is an acceptance of a possible future California, one more arid than I could have imagined as a little boy, drawing desert canyons, longing to listen to their silence.