I wrote this essay in 2009-10, in Missoula, MT, where I read it at a reading held in a fly-fishing shop. It was a lovely experience. The essay combines personal non-fiction and one or two fictionalizations of real accounts. I guess one has to declare such things, these days. It is a little heavy, but it’s one of my favorite pieces.
The title is from Job 5:7: “Man is born to trouble, like the sparks fly upward.”
Like the Sparks Fly Up
Prologue: Deserts frighten me. I come from the Midwest, and with the exception of the anomaly in Wisconsin, we have no desert; we have trees and grass in abundance. As a natural landscape, deserts push against the forests I am familiar with and do not make sense beyond a raw, rudimentary notion of scarcity. I’ve been in deserts and I can not see them clearly; I want a way to see the desert clearly. With this hope in mind, I have been turning to the Encyclopedia of the Solar System. My human view may be too intimate. The cosmic view, sometimes, provides clarity our proximity cannot offer. How does the place look from space? Discussing the terrestrial geomorphic process of weathering, the Encyclopedia reads: “Aeolian, or fluvial, transport of fine material can only occur if a source of fine material is available to be transported.” Weathering is the process that produces fine material for transport. As consolidated materials are broken down into fine materials via weathering, the fine material is moved throughout the terrestrial landscape via the fluvial and aeolian transport systems. Or, sand is moved by wind and water.
Is that it? Sand, wind, water. Is there something to fear here? The Encyclopedia relates that such Aeolian transport of grains on Mars provides “important information on current wind regimes and on the constitution of fine material based on observations and modes of terrestrial dune morphologies.” Those words don’t mean much to me, but I learn there is desert on Mars, and the prospect of alien deserts, like terrestrial ones, is frightening. The cosmic view, after all, cares little for my dread.
Are the things we fear indicative of that which we hold dear? In some way, what puts the fright in my soul must relate to the meaning I find in the world. So what does this mean? I am afraid of the desert because of the things I have always feared. I fear mysteries; I fear a paradox. I fear the perpetual darkness; I fear God. Some of these things I believe in despite the lack of reason or logic or evidence of support, but not all. Lately, I’ve been thinking that, in the end, these words may all be one word. For twenty-eight years I have been searching for something to give this place sense, provide meaning. The project seems awfully similar to seeking sense in this string of words.
It has been a measly attempt, twenty-eight years, but it is all I have. If the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, that means I’ve been at this for twenty-eight of them. Twenty-eight out of 4.5 billion, or 0.62^_ x 10^(-8). I don’t know what these numbers mean. They were provided to me by a friend who can use numbers to tell stories, but to me this means nothing. Not just this string of numbers, but the idea of 4.5. billion years of history. But I keep trying, and I have made strides in my 2.8 decades. What I have so far: I can imagine nothing more terrible than finding out that 1) there was a god all along, and 2) that god enjoys anonymity in the desert.
Mystery: I used to wonder how the speechless man lost his face. This is a mystery. We met him when our truck sunk into sand. Three recent college graduates, one Toyota pickup, and one man without a face. The mystery was as much his appearance as it was his presence at all.
How did it happen? Did a fire burn him? Scorched in boiling water? Too close to that which his mother always told him to keep away from? Something took his face. I don’t remember what he looked like as much as I remember what he did not look like. This memory strikes me as terrible and absurd, like remembering a particularly remarkable hole in the ground. And yet we fly across the world to view just such things. We call holes wonders of the world. Come, children, and look where something was once, remember what that must have been like, in time immemorial. Do they say that about the face? Remember what was there, once?
The man never spoke, so whatever it was took his face might have taken his voice too. Or he could have just been shy. In long nights I’ve thanked the dark that he never spoke; his physical presence was, like that of all mysteries, more than we could stand before without falling on our knees. What might we have heard in his voice? With a voice our bodies might have exploded into dust, broken through, like those unfortunates who must hear the voice of God.
We talked about him all the next day, to ensure that he was real, and that we would not forget. Agreeing he was indeed real, we speculated on his story. What did he go through? What happens to time in a fire? Does the moment of burning end? Or is a burned body always burning, like a lost limb itching, burning like a flame eternal on the outer layers, finding crevasses to sink deeper and deeper as the days pass? Of course, we have no idea. We are dramatic and cannot relate. We wish to know his life because we are whole, and have always been whole, physically at least. But I have learned the hard way that we need not always be.
Likely, he simply had nothing to say to such fools. What might he tell the city dwellers who have known only the trees and the grass, who thought they knew what they did? The desert landscape means something to him, something we could not or have simply chosen not to imagine. I have thought, and like to think, that for this man the desert provided solace in life, provided something natural to believe in. I don’t know that it does. I do know that it meant something else to us. We drove the roads through the desert, stopping from time to time to survey the land and take a photo of the emptiness. We found nothing, because we were new here and did not know what one looks for in a desert, and thus thought there was nothing to find. Not to be bested, we simply drove in, assuming this pick-up could make it back out. It did not. Only heaven knows what brought the truck driver into that desert. I don’t know that heaven cares much, but he still found us. We were off road, not terribly far off road, but out of sight nonetheless.
He was a god from another time, before gods abandoned the earth, when they took the time to pull fools out of the sand they have sunk into.
In no estimation am I acquainted with the desert. But I have found myself deserted from time to time. These might be related.
Paradox: The paradox of the desert is the presence of people at all. If one were to make a list of desirable traits for survival in a human habitat, would any of them be found in the desert? I find myself more and more associating the heat of the desert with the heat of fire, pulled close by the heat despite its danger. I’m not the first one to feel such a pull.
Seventeen hundred years ago, or thereabout, a small group of men dissatisfied with their lots in the culture of their times, picked up their few belongings and moved into caves in the desert. They would be followed later by people from across the world. People who admired, I suppose, the commitment that would bring one to live in desert caves. But for several years this was a small, isolated patchwork of monks. They told pithy tales to each other and about each other and for their guests, which they had frequently despite their isolation. These men today are referred to as the Desert Fathers, and their terse and lovely tales are the Sayings, or the Lives, or the Wisdom of the Desert. It is, to be candid, full of the paradox of the desert. What in hell were they doing there?
Try to think of making a life in a cave of a desert. Before approaching the tales of the Desert Fathers, it is important to attempt a modern conception of such a life. I was stuck in the desert for a few hours with two others, a truck ten inches deep in sand, and a bottle of unopened wine on the dash. It was a terrible few hours. Imagine making such a life.
First, there are the practicalities to deal with. What would one eat? I suppose someone would have to provide food from richer lands. Water? A river here or there I suppose. Hauling a mat or cot from the nearest city to the cave would be quite a labor, but only a one-time burden. Besides, there might be enough brush or dried vegetation to construct something to lie on for the night. That’s the easy stuff. What about the hours? Sun up every day to the faces of this group of ruffian monks who left civilization to live in caves and tell stories about making friends with wolves. Sun down to the darkness and the caves themselves. Did they share caves? One man to a cave or two? How many caves can there be, really? In my mind, I picture row housing, cave after cave after cave. The same neighbors, the same complaints. What could Abbot Ammonas have to say to Father Anthony after a week of life in the desert? Get off my sand.
There are many collections of the Wisdom of the Desert, but none I have found as pleasing as Thomas Merton’s. A certain delight must have been found in Merton’s Kentucky hermitage as he translated the words of his forefathers. If I could be so bold, I would posit that Merton would have loved to have joined those desert monks, granted his pen and paper, whiskey and bookshelf all could make the trip. Sitting in Kentucky, in his seclusion over the hill, smiling, I imagine Merton playing in pleasure with his words, stroking each carefully, recognizing just how funny, just how unfathomable these cave-dwellers were. I’ll show you what I mean. Here is a story from the Desert, it hangs on the pinboard above my desk, and I read it daily, if not more.
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: Now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to the heavens, and his fingers became ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
I have never read anything so beautiful, and must admit, I am terrified of this story. When presented with the desert, its very existence drains me of logic, and leaves a paradox I can only stare at, slack-jawed and dumbstruck. Once I stood in a desert, alone on a range as red as fire. Alone on a mountain north and west of the desert city that lights the sky neon. I stood, being burnt by the sun at the summit of an unknown mountain somewhere off the highway that runs west and north of Vegas, my car left in the sandy ditch of the freeway. There, alone, I found myself burnt by the fire of the desert, and I did not want to be changed into fire. My sinews snap and my body falls before such paradox as peopling the desert. Maybe it was just dehydration; maybe I should have known better than to be there in the first place.
The Dark: A fear of perpetual darkness is, like many other fears, an irrational one. It has nothing to do with the desert, or any other location on the earth. In the wilds of the wild, there is no possibility of perpetual darkness. How could there be? Daylight, if nothing else in life, promises its return. Possibly under the surface of the earth, deep in the underbelly of the world, one might find ever-present darkness. That place I leave for others; I will never go there. I would sooner go to hell. I imagine the darkness there would be difficult to match even in the deepest holes we have found.
Only once in my life have I spent a night in the desert. A friend and I had found internships in the film industry, and left St. Paul for Los Angeles to try our luck. Somewhere in the transition between sagebrush country and desert sands, my friend’s fuel injection pump broke and brought our two car caravan to a halt in the heat of the Great Basin. There was nothing in this space but road and rock. Our tow truck was two hours coming, our return to town two hours in the wrong direction. The lost fuel injector became an overnight quickly. Looking at a map, there are no notable traits, at least not to my untrained eyes. Occasionally, dots sprinkled near the names of towns unrecognized. But a town of a few hundred has all that is vital to survival. A single house, really, will suffice in times of need.
I’m not complaining; this is beautiful country. Being stranded anywhere in this country, we could have done much worse. That evening, I found the closest mountain, and found my way to the top, in a lovely dusk light of late summer. At my little summit, just out of town, I sat in silence. Silence, for some reason, has always been sought as a benefit, spiritually at least. I have never been afraid because things are too quiet.
Not so the dark. Darkness always served another purpose. On the descent I found my steps difficult, in darker dusk than expected. Then it was dark. This darkness became, as far as any I have experienced, complete. I don’t know what happened, and when asked, can only give vague guesses towards why the night sky disappeared. It doesn’t make sense. Ascent was in the light and descent in the dark; this much follows. The sky was blue in day; in the night the sky was black. Moonless, but also starless. Where were the stars? Does not a clear day produce a starry night? I follow this rule, because it follows my logic. But what has logic to do with it?
This night, between sagebrush and dune, accounts for my fear of perpetual darkness. I don’t know that the thought had ever occurred to me before that night, when the darkness was total. I did not know previously, and have not known since, darkness as it was that night, in a canyon corner somewhere in the Great Basin. The thought of such a thing existing as darkness like this was, like a lost love, deafening to my soul. I was not physically afraid; I could not even see my body. I feared only that this darkness would never cease. For a moment I thought I might be blind, then I thought of the blind, and wondered if darkness could describe such a life. What if the light never came?
The following day was long. Neither of us felt much like finding our way into the desert. We sat in a diner and flirted with the waitresses from breakfast until about four p.m. when the shop called to say they had fixed the car. We drove on to L.A. My internship was a failure, and I returned home a few months later.
During the descent, I simply scurried down the rocks. Light came as I rounded a hill and saw a lamp over an empty street. Total time in the dark was, in all likelihood, twenty minutes. Such an exhausting twenty minutes I have rarely known.
Fear is a dramatic bath; I do not like wading in, and once in, sense washes away.
God: These are the deserts I have known in my short life: Mystery, Paradox, Darkness. I believe in these things in the sense that they are real; I have encountered them. But I also believe in them because they are not real. Isn’t that what the word belief means? I believe that they are here and present in the daily life I lead, and you lead. But their presence is also their absence. In my life these things have taken meaning from inside the world, and placed it outside of the world. They leave me searching for clues. Thus a mystery is a mystery. Its meaning is elsewhere. The aeolian transport of fine material created through chemical or mechanical weathering is a process that accounts in part for the desert. But all this means nothing, if the desert does not mean something itself. I don’t know that it does, it certainly does not need to, but I suspect it does and that I simply lack the knowledge of where or how to find it. After all, I have only been here twenty-eight years. Nothing has been revealed. If I were ninety-five, would the answers be clearer? What is ninety-five?
In the end, in the desert, I am mostly afraid of God, especially an anonymous God. I have said this before, and will say it again: I am terrified of God. But in my bones, I am also frightened by the prospect of a no-God world. And this, like the desert, combines my fears. The question of God is a mystery. Both sides, belief and un-belief, are a paradox. If there is a God, how could he have fucked it up so bad? If there is no God, then, why this, or any other, place? If God is, and is anonymous, like the meaning of the desert, it is all perpetual darkness. The world of an anonymous God, if one wants a God, seems worse than the no-God world. Then the desert would not just be a desert, it would be the hiding place of the almighty, frightened by what it had done.
Why I choose to associate all this with the desert, the landscape of least sense, I do not know. I do know that I believed in God, wholly, once. Now such belief, or disbelief, seems beside the point. I will return, instead, to the desert in search of clues.
Epilogue: A man named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote about some of this. Teilhard de Chardin was at once a Jesuit Priest, an anthropologist, a geologist, a paleontologist, and in general, a troublemaker. He was a man, if I can be so bold, who loved this world; he loved the mysteries of the world, including and maybe foremost, the God he met in this world. The Catholic Church of the early 20th century did not appreciate a Priest teaching what the Church did not then believe. Evolution is a sticky subject after all, filled with the primordial goop of life. Once you open your doors to Evolution it clings to everything else, fills in all the pores, and becomes near impossible to remove. The proprietors of the house of Christ, whom Tielhard clearly loved, may have resented his bringing too much muck into the sanctuary. I can imagine the cardinal and Pierre, whispering in the background of vespers. “Who do you expect to clean this up, Pierre?” Much of Teilhard’s work was not published in his lifetime, and after his death, his writings were denounced by Rome.
One of his sins, in my estimation, was searching for his answers in here, instead of out there. A paleontologist, Tielhard de Chardin must have understood time. What do 4.5 billion years mean? Can such a number hold any meaning in the mind of a human being? Only, it seems, in the cosmic picture, which is what the church is all about, after all.
Twenty-eight years, my life-span to now, is not time, if the universe exists in time. Twenty-eight years is a spark, flying upward into trouble, and disappearing. Each desert is one place, a single landscape on a single planet, seen from a single pair of eyes in a single body composed of the same fine material as the deserts of Mars. Mystery, paradox, the dark, these unfold in earth time, not human time. They do not make sense to human time, be it twenty-eight or ninety-five years. And God, hidden in anonymity, exists in universe time, not in earth time. That is, if God exists in the first place, but this question belongs to no time. This question just sits, silent and dark, outside time.
But all we have is human time to make our way through. I think of what I believed, presented with the absurdity of my little collection of fine materials, cells and tissues moved by wind and water, stranded deep in the sands of a desert created over the millennia by the transportation of the same fine materials making up my cells and your cells, and I consider the value of these questions I have spent my little portion of existence asking: that the last thing that I can stand believing in is an anonymous God allowing what happens on this place to happen on this place; I ask this to the desert and the desert stares back and offers only itself and its fire, its fire that could take a man’s face from his body, take a group of men and change them totally into flame, take a world of light and turn it black, and I think, twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight years in this world.