Man Walks Into a Desert...
It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.
“The Great American Desert”
I’m not talking about the T. E. Lawrence kind of desert, mind you, but the greener and wetter variety. After the fog lifts and the sun breaks out, it is scratch land and cactus, Ocotillo in terminal bloom and bloom everywhere. I don’t believe I have ever seen these tall, spinous things showing off their bright red-orange blooms before. The flowers are like ornaments atop the deviled shafts of their long, leaning stems. The desert, it seems, is a multitude of armament: choose your rod; choose your scoring staff. Ocotillo is also known as: Coachwhip, Flaming Sword, Candlewood. Oh-coh-tea-oh (it should be the bird call of some desert finch). It looks like the lash that Jesus bent beneath. Apparently this plant’s first duty in spring is to flourish its colors when the rains come, when the fog coats them with the water that is the frivolous currency of reproduction in these dry southwestern landscapes. It is said that sometimes the Ocotillo blooms and does not bother to leaf at all in the driest of springs. Priorities, we must have priorities.
Out of the fog, a hawk crosses the hills. This is a sentence that can stay in the head. The words stay longer than the hawk. The image afterward is a fleck of darkness fading, misshapen, quickly losing its hawkness. We shade our eyes. My daughter and I stare into the cactus blooms. We blink. These also leave glaring afterimages when the eyes are closed. They are wondrous cupped flowers in their yellows and reds—Prickly pear virtuosos, blazing Pitaya, claret cups, the blood and gold waystations of the desert bee. I sniff them again and again but I find they do not waste their energies on their exudations, they do not broadcast for the nostril, they are built for the eye of the wasp and the hummingbird, the ready retina of the stunned easterner. Possibly my daughter’s nose cross-powders a prickly pear flower while she bends here and there in her goings, she being the newest and lankiest of this desert’s spring pollinators.
A Javelina stands aside the roadway and we all come to a halt again. Pig, man, woman, girl—ah, the ancient quartet. This pig looks maverick and somewhat dirty. And now that I think about it, Javelinas probably pollinate in the desert as well—an unusual thought. Rubbing and ravaging about with that pink nose, in the roughest kind of floral copulation, they also eat prickly pear fruit. (both creating and removing, an I for and I, so to speak.) What does a flower care about who brings the dusted sparks of sex? Rubbed off by a pig, those offspring still burgeon and unfold into more cactus generations and into blooms just as stunning as the bee born blooms, just as bright as the blooms from a child’s nose. This particular pig is wet. We stare at each other. We wonder at our next move. It is a short, collared beast with a ragged hairshirt. It has alert piggy eyes. It casts its nose at us and then decides to turn back into the mesquite and stonewash where it vanishes.
Mountain walls loom in various directions, high, rocky things bedded in lines of rust and relic. They are not encompassing. They are distant and shadow laden. Clouds form on their downwind ridges and blouse up in a surrender of distant moisture, like great white curtains dragging low. The air above our desert tears the hapless cumulus apart before they are truly born. Beneath it all, I touch at the closer stone beds. Cloudywing butterflies lift and flutter on the moist cuts, tonguing the brittle shale seeps. I envision fossils everywhere in the walls around me. I envy those who can touch at the imprint of a fallen lizard or fern and sort the eons in their heads, date the places where the spackle rose. It is a skill I have wanted, the bookmark for another life.
Teilhard de Chardin had the skill, he could do it—read names and history in the shrapnel of mountains. A Frenchman, he wandered the Asian deserts for much of his life. He discovered the bones of ancient men which the locals there liked to grind into powder and take in for their special qualities—a sort of weird failed rejuvenation, I guess. The fossil hunters found the great bone site by asking around in the nearby shops and there they found an ancient human tooth. Teilhard, unleashed on a jumble of antique skeletons, could sort jawbones and teeth like they were the toys flung from God’s toybox. He did it, I like to think, with a smile.
In our own dryscape, we are alert for snakes and their Texas kin. But then we are always alert for such things. Lizards skitter and run. These earless southwestern varieties roll their black and white banded tails at us. They are pajamed in blues and yellows and greens; they are intense pastel lizards, desert runners. I try and try to hold one for my daughter but they know their spiny hideouts well, they know too precisely the bad speed of a human handslap.
The sky breaks further open into blue when I am alone. The family naps in the hills somewhere out of the sun. I walk up a valley where an old homestead stands. I have been there many times. Every time, in fact, that I have been to this countryside, I stopped by this particular canyon. The place has long stayed in my head in waiting. To the west several storm tops build and break apart inside all the light. I skirt one edge of rain. I can see the shining drops coming down to batter the dust. I can also see where they do not come down. They are huge drops, striking the skin like the taps of a finger. They would batter an eye shut. The sky could come and wash me away with a booming cloud full of these but this one just taunts me with the smell of its rain. It slants its jewels away and breaks off to the north and the east, leaving me dazzled but not in the least wet. I watch the beams of light sort themselves out across the western valley. God, I think, is busy today, toying with His palette.
Later, at several stops along the isolated highways, I watch the other people who are here in the desert. You don’t just luck into Big Bend. You don’t just stop along the way. It is not really on the way to anywhere. It is several hundred miles south of anywhere. If you are here, you meant to come here. There are no other ways of arriving. But several people do not look too sure of their choice of destinations. And I watch to see how many of them glance at the cactus blooms. In places, the blooms virtually glow in masses of a hundred large flowers—little vernal supernovas. If you can walk by them and not see them then I cannot have hope for you or your offspring. But again and again the visitors stroll towards some signpost or waystation and they just go on without flowers in their heads.
..under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.
T. E. Lawrence
At night, the desert sky can take you under. You have no explanations for why you don’t spend all your time just staring out into the Milky Way. Your jaw goes slack. The rest of your life becomes puzzling and wasteful. There are no streetlights, no glow from the earth of its other distracting activities. There is just the darkness and the stars.
Jupiter was so bright, I thought it was a visitation. I made my wife drive out onto the open roads. We’d stop; we’d turn off all the lights; we’d stare at Jupiter until it pitted our eyes in their centers like a spike. Meteors slashed; the galaxy arched over like it always has. Rolling on, I was in the jump seat, waiting to jump out for living creatures on the road. Spider eyes glowed. We dodged around those—I knew I could not grab a spider in the dark. A toad hopped. I stopped for it and of course it was alien. It was spotted with red. And it turned out that its name was the Red-spotted Toad—so wondrously simple. We zigged and stopped, braked and wheeled, chasing night things. My wife nearly had a breakdown. But just before we turned back toward home, the holy grail of desert mammals, a Ring-tailed Cat ran out and along the edge of the highway and then vanished in the dark again. My daughter whooped. My wife gave me a look of relief. She knew I could go home then.
I went riparian one morning, (not easy there) walking among the greenery around an ancient windmill which still pulled enough water close enough to the surface to support an entire ecosystem. There were real trees—cottonwood and oak. I chased metalmarks in the surrounding thorn. They ran up and down the dry washes. All the plants tore at my knees, my ankles. Even the innocent brush in the lowlands rips flesh. I fondled the green leaves. The soil looked almost moist in places after the recent rains. Inside the deeper shade, I could imagine myself in a place of real water. But it did not look like home. The yellow blooms there were not cactus-magnificent but still they pulled the metalmark butterflies out of the air and girded them with their local glow.
The town of Terlingua, Texas is built on red, rolling dirt that looks baked even in spring. It is not that hot in April, but still it looks that way. We stop at a stone shop. My daughter wants to look for gemstones. Indeed, it is really the only shopping around. This man’s shop is neat and orderly. He has glass display cases that show he has an eye for looking at a rock and seeing through to its potential. Some of his cut rocks are stunning. He sells them by the carat weight. I know that in hand they must have looked like any other rock.
He also has a cat that roams. It wandered in from God-knows-where. He has stories. Desert cats, he tells us, often die in the talons of Great Horned Owls. He says this like a man who loves both owls and cats, like justice puzzles him sometimes. He lives out back in a trailer that must turn into some kind of human oven in August. I can only imagine. It would be best to just sleep under the darkness directly, I think, except for the scorpions, except for the active evening serpents or the desert owls that might try to lift a sleeping human head toward the stars. Dragged by the eyeholes toward the moon, I think, and I will, no doubt, have lingering visions of this fate. My daughter picks a lapis that Rockman says he bought from some Afghan Freedom fighters. I believe him. It is a blue, blue thing. I choose a rhyolite myself, a flat brown stone that has a burst of hieroglyphic dark markings across it. Rockman says he spent eight hours going through a bin of rough rhyolite at another man’s place. He says it is just the opposite of many other stones. In most of them you want to weed out the flaws and keep the pure stones. In rhyolite you want the venous cracks and flaws to be right in the heart of the pieces. It is around these flaws that the beautiful black markings arise. In my hand, this one that I buy looks like some feathered galaxy trapped in pink ice. I like a thing that improves with the complexity of its flaws.
In the desert, Teilhard worked the site of the Peking man fossils for ten years. He lived with villagers. He found and named saber-toothed tigers, ostriches, hyenas and dated the Peking skulls to the Pleistocene. Surely he also found the bones of some desert pig? He looked hard for the longbones of ancient men. They were not to be had. He prayed everyday. His face grew furrowed and dusky. The sand crept into his soul and he liked it. Just one of the ancient bones was enough to make him famous. “Heads,” he later modestly said, “they found nothing but heads.”
Many of the modern religions are based on the experiences of a seer who went to the desert to brush closer to his God. Godwanding or seeking, you might say. I stared into many cacti in Big Bend. It is the landscape of beautiful demons. Only in the breaking of the stormlight did I catch my breath, feel the stirring of some presence. The beams were walking over the hills and canyons like searchlights, like the prison torches scanning for anyone who thought they might be free. I almost, at one moment, ducked behind a large stone. Teilhard said, “Throughout, my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within.” In the desert, I am alert to the light at all times. I sit on the stones and look and look.
And at the end of the window trail in the central mountains of Big Bend, my daughter and I have walked miles and miles through a downward canyon to attain a view of a valley through carved stone. There is light out there that seems too much for us, though we came from the very same place this morning. Confused by perspective, we are shaded here as we stare at the unworldly brightness to the west. My daughter dips her hand into a spring of clear water that falls off into the dry nothingness in front of her, into vapor trails. I am not sure what to think. Her mother is in that distance, beyond miles of light and shimmer. We both hope she sleeps.
We have to walk back before dark. My daughter is foot weary. If I have to, I know I will carry her. I still can. It is the least I can do after she led me through all those butterflies. But for now she sits and stares off into the desert space through the gap in the mountain wall that is like some monument to western light. Lingering, I know she will remember it. And she will keep it longer than I can hope to. Like the hawk that has faded. She’ll keep everything longer than I hope to, in fact, if the world cants right. I’ve shown her the desert. It is another check on the caretaker’s list for a child truly shown. The list that I have, anyway, filled with hummingbirds and bees, desert nightsky and some one thousand other kinds of light that I haven’t yet named.
I should sit down one day and try to get the names just right. But, fathers in eternal distraction, isn’t that the way of the world?
Or is it just me?