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Lessons from the Desert

May 10, 2012

Spring has spring in the Pacific Northwest and western Oregon has donned its seasonal showy outfit of lush foliage and riotous color.  The shades of green alone defy one to find enough labels for them all.  But I am just recently returned from a trip to various parts of the Mojave Desert and, because of this, am seeing spring show of life a bit differently than years prior.

The desert has a wonderful way of causing one to notice small expressions of life.  Death Valley really isn’t dead.  Life is there, from the lichen clinging tenaciously to the rock to the larger bushes that signal the presence, somewhere underground, of steady water.  And with plant life are insects, birds and larger mammals.  I saw a family of coyotes wander in front of our hotel early in the morning, their visit timed almost perfectly to the garbage pickup which might, of course, have left behind some scraps an alert coyote could snag for the family.  Amongst the vastness of rock, salt formations and sand dunes, however, one has to look for life.  It whispers.  It peeks.  If life in western Oregon is a full symphony, desert life is a solo flute, some distance off, whose song you sense more than hear.

My travels also took me to the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.  There I visited first the marvelous rose garden, crammed with rose blooms of every color, shape, and leaf variation.  I marveled at each, and took several pictures by which to remember their brightness.  And yet, when I reached the extensive desert garden that the Huntington maintains, the sense of awe I felt eclipsed that of the roses.  Here was the life that belonged.  And here was the life whose blooms ranged from the tiniest yellow flowers to the exuberant 10-foot asparagus-like stalk shooting from the middle of a modest agave plant like a creature from outer space.

The contrasting experiences have caused me to reflect on several things.  First, I have thought simply about how I see and what I see.  Somehow, the desert’s sparseness made it easier to comprehend both the largeness and smallness of it all, its diversity and its sameness; in other words, its wholeness. Differences seem to fade in the presence of abundance.  The broad brush look with which I get a sense of having “seen” it all permits the capture of few details, of places where difference exists.

With comprehension of the desert’s wholeness came my second reflection: appreciation.  The co-existence of life and not-life, the adaptation of life – its marvelous efficiency – in the presence of scarcity impressed me.  Life in the desert must be clever, it must work hard and take nothing for granted because the boon of rain is rare and unpredictable.  Life in western Oregon can relax.  What it needs to thrive is readily at hand.

There is little argument that most of us in the United States today live and work amongst the man-made equivalent of western Oregon’s abundant natural life.  We take in the broad brush; we miss the details that reveal difference and wholeness.  We draw conclusions thinking we have “seen” and “know” it all.  Perhaps more room for doubt, for openness and exploration, would come if we even artificially created more of the equivalent of a desert landscape.

And the abundance within which we live deadens appreciation and lessens resilience.  To be sure, not everyone feels that abundance.  But we cannot escape seeing it and the seeing focuses our effort on allocation rather than adaptation.

The learning I drew from my travels is more a whisper than a shout; more a tiny cactus than a massive oak.  Those very characteristics of it, however, leave me thinking that, perhaps, I will be seeing and hearing this learning long after I would have forgotten something that assaulted my eyes and ears.  The sense of the desert will stay with me a long time.

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