Desert Visit Journal Notes...
©1994 by Spider Johnson back to Essays
May 20, 1994
Arrived ~6:00p at the Rock Art Foundation White Shaman site, 1.5 mi. W. of Seminole Canyon State Park turnoff, N. side of road at a marked gate. I walked down the trail into the canyon of the White Shaman and visited the elaborate, ancient paintings on the cliff walls, the images overlapping and crowded, reverent testimony to a striking inspiration, particularly in this harsh place, of a mysterious people who lived here continuously for 10,000 years then suddenly vanished a thousand years before Europeans came and claimed their abandoned home for the Spanish crown. Alone, gazing at the anthropomorphic figures glowing golden in the full, late daystar's glow, images that have bravely weathered centuries of exposure, I wonder what more ancient renderings we will never know about, erased time and time again by the interminable cycles of the cosmos, Golden Era after Dark Age after Doom and Rebirth, and only glimpses and hints of such stellar pagentry keep us coming back again and again to these flinty, dry, remote patches of the planet to witness and marvel, marvel and witness, report and return, poking with science and philosophy to reveal something vital about ourselves that we have somehow missed from all the previous pokings. On the way back to the camper I think, "Poetry will have to suffice, and by God, that ain't bad." Well, this is damn sure the place for out-of-work poets.
I hiked down into the head of a canyon North of the campsite and the White Shaman canyon, explored some small wind caves, an interesting place. I feel a warm solitude here, sitting beside a tinaja under a small oak grove, listening to the wind and a distant canyon wren, natural players in an elusively rhythmic concerto. As I sit in this delicate, quiet place, I wonder about our ancestors who favored this territory enough to paint wondrous figures on its cave walls and grind their food in the floor's holes. I wonder how they came to favor it over the verdancy of the accessible and bountiful tropics within this same continental land mass. Did they never know about those southern paradises? Or did they see a powerful, compelling beauty here in the desert that no other place possesses? Its thorns, its hidden larders, its scarcity of life-sustaining water, would seem hostile to a social life, much less mere survival. Yet their art reveals a transcendent experience of life in the desert--or really, of life in this world. Perhaps they knew that the division between this familiar world and the world they preserved for us on those silent sentinels of stone was and is, after all, illusion. Yet, it's curious that they had ready access to that world while we seem not to. What wisdom have we missed?
One of the tinajas is large for the desert: about 40' by 20'. It's deep, so deep it's menacingly dark and free of reeds and algae, almost as if to warn "This place is fraught with danger for the unwary and uninitiated; proceed with caution, visitor. You will find no accomodation here--only detached witness and fierce compassion." I wanted to jump in, but the subsequent horror of such a thought suddenly restrained me. Further down, a shallower, friendlier tinaja invited me to remove my shoes and bathe my legs in its cool soothing refreshment. I did so as a conciliatory gesture to the desert's sovereignty.
Sitting on Theresa's screened porch, drinking Tequila & lime from an engraved insulated metal cup given to me by Cousin Blake, I pause to marvel at the play of early evening's sunlight on the last of three heavy metal-framed beds, the wire spool table in the corner, a solitary urn atop it, the cracked concrete floor. I marvel at the struggle I often face, when presented with such a moment, between the ecstatic joy and inconsolate sadness it brings. How they meld, I cannot say. I can only see it for an instant, that inspired moment of Light, and I sadly long for it the next instant. This mystery is prolonged in this place of stillness, and it touches an endurable place within me of remote blessing, like a comet passing the Earth. I feel full--of Nothingness--whole, then, somehow.
With the Desert Fathers you have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one's life into an apparently irrational void.
-Thomas Merton, quoted in Barry Lopez' book Desert Notes
Later that evening
One looks for movement out here in the Desert, and one finds it between places. One beetle, casting a lonely heading towards no obvious place in particular, just north across a vast desert pan unbroken for threescore miles. A pair of buzzards floating so high that only their searching, circling pattern distinguishes them from imaginary specks, faults of vision. A blade of grass, one single plant unstiff enough not to resist the constant wind. Then, there's ants, too many for this place, moving too quickly. But upon closer seeing, they aren't really ants like other ants at all--they're spindly, dried, animated thorn bushes, black and red-brown, scorched and parched, like everything else here, resolutely dedicated to a fathomless purpose, manifest through an indecipherable dance. Everything waits here, rocks, plants, animals, insects, sunlight, moonlight, starlight. Flash floods, thunderstorms and the brief blush of Spring barely punctuate the patient vigil. The Desert waits. Purified by patience, it waits. For What? For Whom? For When?
I am sitting on writer Tom Gaffaney's latilla-covered porch, gazing at the Chisos mountains through clear 105° F. atmosphere. I reluctantly left the serene keep of Theresa's canyon home late this morning, stopping in Presidio to get fuel and a few provisions before preparing some Go-Cooker queso dip and heading for East Terlingua. The wave of stillness from Theresa's is still rolling through me, cool and exciting, like the thrill of scaling a rocky, thorny cliff near her house, each challenging foot an embracing of Earth's ineluctable Beauty, where a misstep or unfast handhold meant mayhem or death. It seems I've shed the old carapace of a rational, creeping Melancholy, anxious to explore before a new one hardens, uncertain what follows. I told Gaffaney earlier that this sojourn was a Holy Grail mission, and I had found a few pieces. One piece is a need for ways to remain inspired, so that I may stay connected with the people and this world I love so piercingly. Another is a need to recharge my soul, perhaps by visiting the Desert, perhaps through writing, meditation, making music, art--I don't know. Like Siddhartha, I'll wait to learn. Something has shifted in me--it won't revert, I am certain--yet what does it portend? I stand at Eternity's great door, and a million trails of Light and Dark recede into Infinity.
The piercing blue of the crepuscular sky pours through the shrinking latillas of Tom's porch like thick syrup, electric and soothing, cool as aloe on hot skin, dangerously inviting like a lusty naked woman. But I'm not quite ready to fly alone yet.
The muted golden cerise playing on the distant Chisos is too beautiful for words, evanescent, immutable. Traffic sounds travel, but do not intrude. This is a magic time of day--the rocks move, birds and insects speak briefly, the sky yawns, night stirs. I run up the hill by Tom's to see unobstructed. My legs thrill under me, toughened by Theresa's canyon climbs. Edges sharpen in the twilight, the distant Chisos slowly darken into deep purples and grays while the nearby adobe and stone ruins momentarily brighten with ochres and whites. Pebbles crunch distinctly underfoot, doves call, swallows hunt for nests, crepuscular rays stretch. I breathe in and out, deeply, grateful.
Memory is Time's Fool
There is no Time--Now is.
We forget Now
Which is our Folly.
We Remember Past
Which is our Folly.