3.21.2007,12:25 PM
Desert Solitude: Strength in the Desert
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So far as man's conception of time is concerned, the American desert is, always has been, and always will be.
- Robert T. Hill
Running the Canons of the Rio Grande. 1901
Some view the desert as a Paradise, God's Country, perhaps even Utopia. Other's curse it as the Devil's Playground, Living Hell, or a Land of the Accursed. It is neither and it is everything.

Arid climates are a testing ground for trials and tribulations. It is equally a land of beauty and violence. From the core of the earth from which it violently arose to the cells of all life that inhabit the surface. Survival challenges any life form to adapt or perish, including man.

Many people perceive the desert as never changing. But if they look close enough they might see how this landscape has changed over eons, and continues to do so. If you look closely around your feet near the top of the mountains you might see miniature life cast in time, thousands of years old, their remnants leaving imprints in the sediments under and around them. Many areas of the desert are teeming with fossils of sea creatures that lived under water when that land was submerged thousands of years ago.

If you are observant you may notice that nearly all the vegetation is simple in detail: narrow thick leaves with waxy surfaces to reduce water loss, silvery-gray pubescent leaves that reflect the harsh sun and catch the morning dew, an abundance of shapes and sizes of thorns, and nearly all plants grow close to the ground. Some survive only in the late afternoon and evening shade provided by canyon walls, or in nooks and crannies of cliffs where pockets of moisture accumulate. Some plants wait years to flower and only after an abundant rainfall and then die. Flowering and producing seed are expensive. Only in times of plenty will they propagate; and then they die.

Beauty and death go hand-in-hand in the desert.

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Animals are small and quick, some have large surface area for evaporative cooling or to cool the blood as it circulates, like the big ears of the jack rabbit. Large mammals tend to be nocturnal or hunt only in the cool of the dawn and dusk, taking refuge in shaded caves and overhangs in the heat of the day. Reptiles are the most abundant creatures of the deserts. They survive the extreme temperature changed by easily controlling their body temperature. Lizards and snakes camouflage themselves by assuming the colors of their environment.

Food and water are scarce; all sources are claimed by the victorious. The cycle of prey and predator, food and water, is forever there. Life relies upon learning quickly: you adapt or die.

Standing there at the top of a hill alone in the desert can either break a man with its loneliness or fill another with its richness. The land and life there is not one or the other, it is all. It just 'is'. The only rule is what you see: survival. It imparts a humbleness that no other landscape can. Out there you are not 'top dog'. You are only another creature of the desert striving to survive.

Perhaps that is part of the magic. This raw existence, it's timelessness, the magnificent beauty, lack of pretension, a forced honesty. Every creature faces the truth there, including us humans. There is no room for false beliefs. You are stripped of all the conveniences, luster and comforts that we are now so accustomed to. You are forced to acknowledge what we are: another creature in the desert. Where anything goes. All is fair in the desert because the only rule is to survive.

For some of us the attraction is just that. We struggle to survive on our own guile, rely on our selves. Or because we are forced to cooperate and rely on each other. Simple things in life that we take for granted are treasured there: water, food, friendship, instinct, and shelter. Time takes a new meaning in the desert, where the passing of days are measured by the moon and the sun and the passing of seasons.

The desert gives some of us a sense of freedom and insignificance that instills importance and fulfillment. And a strength that cities and technology can't provide. You are on the same playing field of everything surrounding you.

Standing on a cliff overlooking the canyon and basin below, the mountain ranges in the distance, the immense sky above and you can't fathom where one ends and the other begins. Open your arms wide and surrender yourself to it all. As if standing naked, vulnerable, yet empowered. The desert will reveal to you what is inside of you. It is a mirror looking back at you. In some people, that incites fear, in others it instills a comfort, a sense of belonging to no where but yourself.

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There's a solace in the solitude in the desert, evoking a myriad of emotions that change with the changes in the desert. The sunrise and sunset, the shadows as they slither across the desert floor and mountains, the deep darkness of the canyons that contrast with the brightness in the open, the beauty of desert flowers and the skeletons and remains of animals.

I stood on a mesa and watched this all transpire, caught in between being something and nothing, and in a timelessness that confounds the mind. As the wind whipped through my hair and along me, the sun bathing my skin, I was lost for a time I can't measure. Somewhere out there. Feeling moisture on my cheeks I realized they were tears flowing down my face.

I hadn't even noticed.

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posted by Macrobe
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