In the Grey Book, L.L. Nunn urges his disciples to listen to the voice of the desert. This voice, he writes, is the echo through which God speaks; His guidance enables us to comprehend and enact the moral order of the universe. I spent two years in the desert with my ears open wide.
I once went on a hike alone. I walked through Soldier Pass into Eureka Valley, then back over the mountain ridges to Deep Springs again. The entire land was still. With a pause, nothing stirred. Silence came upon me like a suffocating fluid. It percolated through my skin and turned me inside out. I recall, then, walking, walking on, shuffling the ground beneath my feet. No being, I thought to myself, had done this before. This land is for me. Where would I find myself in the absence of life? The deserted sea, the fluid—this land was a hostile land. It was for me, yet wanted me dead; it offered me no water, no food, no paths, no orientation. What would I hear in utter silence? I, I could only hear strange repetitions, loops. My mind ran circles, my feet shuffled in the same patterns that carried me on. Narratives went on in my head; music played loops in the background behind the little voice’s words. I kept thinking, thinking of myself—I kept dissipating life into myself, drawing upon my own body to sustain thought. The sea of sand, from the pass and valley, turned into a sea of boulders as I turned upon the ridge. The land refused to be land. It wanted to throw me away. As I scrambled through thousands of feet of elevation, suffocated by silence and drowned in gray, all I could hear was myself. Where was I?
Over the summer I lived out of a trailer. 20,000 acres of the southern half of Fish Lake Valley were my responsibility. 240 animal lives were in my hands as well—mostly cattle, with a few horses and a couple people. My days began before sunrise and ended with the sunset. My gaze would rest upon a soft repetition each morning—rocky soil, winterfat; disturbed area, Russian thistle; salty soil, saltbush; flood plain, greasewood; watering spot, cattle. As quiet as the desert was, its land offered a rhythm to settle in through the life it sustained. My job was to ensure harmony between the life dependent on me and the motions of the desert. But balance is difficult to find. The cattle eliminated the invasive thistle, opening habitat for native saltbush to fill back in. Yet when floods came pouring through the mountains, blossoming the saltbush and the greasewood, the canyons in the valley floor filled with water. The ground swallowed up 7 cattle, which fell into mud holes. 20 hour days passed as my fellow cowboy Aubryn and I dug the sunken cows out of the earth, while driving others far away from hostile ground. We hauled hay and water for miles on our backs every day; we nursed these 7 back to life with our sweat. In the meantime, the winterfat by the watering areas were decimated by the other cattle we neglected. The shrub fell below healthy grazing levels. 5 calves fell sick and died in the extreme heat, despite our best efforts to doctor them; 2 bulls starved to death though we drove them to feed every day. Life slipped away beneath my hands two times. The body fluttered from warm to cold, the eyes rolled back with the last excrements sliding out of every possible hole. How could I hold so much death? The land was poor, the cattle poor too; how could I call this work harmonious when all fell into disarray? I sought the voice, but I heard deeper silence still. I continued to wake up at dawn.
I live in Colorado now. I seldom find myself alone; I do often find myself enclosed. This land is technically a desert but it teems with life. There’s an incessant buzz near the cities, where trees abound; as one goes up, the trees and roads give way to deer and elk. Those creatures bugle at you, and when you hike by them, or by the insects, there’s a constant buzz that keeps you aware of their presence. With each step you invade their home—the land doesn’t mind you, but your neighbors do. You keep thinking about how you’re unwanted by living beasts. In Colorado, there is little aloneness to be had. I drive to work in a car, alone, everyday. Thousands make the commute with me. We fill out the lanes of the highway. None of us are alone, but each of us are anonymous. Metal wheel boxes keep us orderly. Most of us probably hate commuting; I constantly wonder what I’m doing in my car. I feel confused. The land feels like abstract space, gridded out and used, used every day to serve so many people, but we still wonder what for. In Heidegger’s words, we are surrounded by the they, and for the they we continue to drive—because it is what we ought to do. We are seldom alone; we are always together; we are enclosed; we wonder why.
The desert is unique. It is silent. It offers a dead hostility—or rather a dead indifference. Contained in this indifference, though, is a special thing: solitude. The desert speaks through solitude. In Eureka Valley, the land attacked and I sought only to save myself. My mind ran loops—my mind, the divine element in humanity, the one thing I was left with, the one thing I couldn’t escape, the one thing I had to save me. I sought solitude but instead found restlessness. In Fish Lake Valley, I was not alone, but I lived in solitude. I sustained a relationship with the land—and though I could only do so much for it, the sustained relationship alone constituted harmony. We tried to take care of each other. No matter how much it wanted me gone, the earth still nourished my skin when I laid down in brush or ate little leaves just to taste something. I lived in solitude—which means that, alone, I stopped asking myself why. The question ‘who am I’ ceased to exist. This is what the desert told me.