Thursday, June 21, 2012

Showdown in the desert

The ash-flow volcanic tuff of Fort Rock rises
above what was once the bed of a 170-foot deep lake
As someone who’s lived most of his life in western Oregon, I will die a committed webfoot. I love it here. I’m never more at ease than in a soft spring rain under a shroud of gray. This is what makes my deep attraction to desert landscapes so paradoxical. When I seek out wilderness, my preference is that it be arid with a distant horizon unobstructed by greenery. It’s here, in a peculiar sense, that I meet God beyond words, beyond image. I’m fascinated with the metaphor of desert as an empty place, where we can rid ourselves of visual and mental clutter and find solace in hard, raw beauty.

On a whirlwind tour of the Oregon high desert last weekend, I introduced my family to some of the best this patch of earth has to offer: the improbably named Hole in the Ground, Fort Rock, Crack in the Ground and Lost Forest. This was a reunion of sorts, as I’d been to the same hallowed ground decades earlier in my impressionable youth. I spent a vividly remembered New Year’s Eve atop the rimrock at Fort Rock with friends, howling with the coyotes at a searchlight moon. The sky was so clear and hard that night that the batteries in our trucks froze and we drank all our booze before it had a chance to do the same. We kept from freezing in our sleeping bags by piling ourselves in the middle of a cavernous canvas tent and giggling ourselves to sleep.
The silent immensity of that desert place remains, as does its capacity to absorb all the grief I can pour into it.  In the time I had to mumble a woebegone prayer from a rocky precipice out over the sagebrush plain my 20-something children scrambled above me to even greater heights. They are now the age I was then. The desert brings to us, in turn, melancholy loss and joyous discovery. Presbyterian minister Belden Lane has written that it’s a place of threatening indifference but also, unexpectedly, of love. In his inimitable style, environmental anarchist Edward Abbey has written that the desert simply doesn’t care about us. “It would as soon kill ya as look at ya.” The fierceness and beauty of the place puts me on a spiritual knife edge that can strip me bare and skin open my soul.
In geologic parlance,
"The Crack" is a graben-- a
depressed block of land
bordered by parallel faults

One can’t be a lover of lonely places full of jagged rock, and a Christian, without recalling Jesus’ showdown in the desert with the devil. After being baptized in the River Jordan (the local equivalent of western Oregon?), Jesus was led by the spirit to the Judean desert for a fast of 40 days. It’s no wonder the devil tempted him first by suggesting he turn stones into bread; he must have been famished. The devil then offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his fealty, and finally urged him to jump from a high place in order to test God’s promise of physical safety. Satan failed in each of his temptations. Jesus won the showdown, despite what surely must have been a temptation of a different order to simply destroy the tempter and be done with the whole tedious affair.

I have never witnessed an embodiment of the devil, but I have toed the edge of cliffs from which a fall would mean certain death. These occasions have not been temptations per se but rather the urging of the spirit to experience the exhilaration of unattainable space. In this life my feet are bound to the earth, but there are moments when I wish I could be free of it. I trust God’s care, but not enough to test my faith by stepping into thin air. I’m left to envy birds of prey for their freedom and power.

Female Ferruginous hawk gave
us hell for trespassing on her turf
A few miles southeast from the aeries of Fort Rock is a two-mile long, 70-foot deep rocky fissure called Crack in the Ground. Fault lines like this are normally filled in with soil and rock by erosion and sedimentation, but because Crack in the Ground is located in such arid country, barely any filling has occurred. That means you can hike, scramble and climb your way through the crack in a sort of negative space that reveals a different sort of desert truth. The ground is damper here, the air cooler, the rock smoother. I had the random thought as I squeezed between rock walls that should the earth around me shutter, my human remains might be bonded permanently into the lava. I would, at the molecular level, be one with the earth—a human fossil. As we emerged from the first half of the crack, we were sternly acknowledged by a nesting pair of Ferruginous Hawks. They were greatly annoyed at having to share this place, which is normally devoid of human presence. The birds belong here; we were merely passing through.

I once was found but now am lost
Our final stop at Lost Forest came after a long rumble over washboard roads to a speck on the map about as distant from civilization as you can get in Oregon. I wanted only to stand with the old-growth Ponderosa pines that grow improbably among inland sand dunes, and which appeared little changed from the last time I laid eyes on them. In geologic time, I’m a grain of sand, but even in botanical time, my presence next to a Lost Forest pine is like a seed that falls on fertile ground, is watered, sprouts and grows, and then withers in the sun. The tree lives on. These particular trees survive as a remnant forest only because of a shallow aquifer that feeds their roots. Their endurance is the result of another geologic oddity—an underlying ancient lakebed that’s nearly impervious to water. From an inorganic, unobservable geologic process centuries in the making comes life. It’s an oasis of western Oregon, one might say.

The fourth-century desert fathers in Egypt practiced a spiritual virtue they called indifference, apatheia, a stubborn refusal to be distracted by unimportant things. They went to the desert to say “no” to a culture where consumerism and militarism and careful cultivation of one’s reputation were the highest possible values. They said “no” to what wasn’t important so they could say “yes” to what mattered most. These are the basic desert questions: what do you ignore, and what do you love? Answer these questions well and you’ll have won your own showdown in the desert.

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