When I was a boy, my family frequently camped at Joshua Tree National Park, a huge and beautiful desert park in Southern California. It was there I learned to savor and love deserts. While we often think of deserts as barren, empty places, they are nothing of the sort. At first glance, deserts can seem, note the word, deserted, but in truth, they teem with living things. It’s just that the animals, plants, and birds who thrive in deserts have adapted in radical ways to the severity of the desert environment.
Deserts possess a merciless efficiency. In most deserts, water is rare and heat can be brutal. In the same twenty-four hour period, cold can be punishing in the desert night too. So all that lives in the desert either adapts to those realities or it dies. Think of the Barrel Cactus that stores water deep in its cistern-like core so that when everything else is shriveling in the dry, hot air, it still has moisture. Think of the needles on various species of cacti which serve to collect the smallest drop of morning dew and then transport that tiny bit of water to the cactus’ flesh. Consider the various deserts birds who know which cactus to drill with their beaks in search of moisture. Similarly, various species of scorpions and snakes know precisely how to navigate a burning, inhospitable climate.
Deserts reduce most things to their essences: the need for water, shade, and air. For humans to survive in the desert, we need more protection than we’re usually willing to abide. So for many centuries, deserts were boundaries for migration. We couldn’t find ways to adapt to the harsh truth of deserts. Many people still assume that deserts are barren, unlivable places.
Recently, my partner and I spent a few days in the desert of Southern California, not far from Joshua Tree National Park. The temperature soared to near 110 each day. So when we wanted to hike, we had to go early in the morning. We had to carefully plan to carry enough water, far more than we would normally use during a day in a more moderate climate. We had to plan for shade and rests. We hiked in a beautiful place called Indian Canyons, just outside Palm Springs, California. The Agua Caliente Band of California’s Cahuilla Indians offer part of their reservation for hikers. We hiked two of their canyons: Palm Canyon, in the photograph above, and Andreas Canyon. We went early and saw the morning heat rise to a level we could not have tolerated later in the day. The desert doesn’t negotiate. We had to adapt to it, enter it on the desert’s terms.
While in the desert, you can see and feel the distinction between necessities and extras. You see your place in the world, our wonderful human smallness. The perspective the desert offers is brutal but real. We are small. We control very little. We are only part of a larger, sometimes cruelly connected web of life. In these things, the desert teaches us lessons nearly impossible to learn elsewhere. The desert’s lessons are inescapable while you are in it.
Interestingly, in the early years of Christianity, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, many Christians, certain that official acceptance would dilute the radicality of their faith, fled to the deserts around the Mediterranean where they sought to maintain a more pure form of Christianity. Because the desert allows for few flourishes and extras, the Desert Tradition kept Christianity’s basics alive in its monks and nuns: silence, simplicity, prayer, hospitality, love of neighbor.
There is an inevitability in deserts as well. In Joshua Tree National Park, huge and curious rock formations, which I loved to climb and explore, shot out from the desert floor. These wild rock formations jutted up out of the sand at angles that amazed me as a young boy. You could see too that the desert’s sand, was just a broken version of these huge rock formations. This was not the fine and drifting sand of an ancient desert. These huge rocks were always and slowly becoming the desert’s sand. One could say every stone’s future is a desert. Everything breaks down, including us, into a sort of desert.
I remember also, as a boy, my parents’ book called The Living Desert. I loved the photographs and drawings of terrifying rattlesnakes, elaborate cactus blossoms, the odd plants like yucca and jumping cactus. Clearly this place called the desert is not an easy place to be, but it is a fascinating one. When we see life at its most basic levels, what we truly need becomes far more clear.