Well, it happened again: the high-desert high. I don’t know if it’s something only certain people are liable to – some peculiar set of eye, brain, and metabolism – but every time I go into high desert, whether southern Sinai, northern New Mexico, or as this time, the 5000-foot high volcanic hills northwest of Guadalajara, my mind and body seem to soar. The air is clearer, the colors sharper, the dust cleaner. I feel lighter on my feet, lighter in spirit. I become a mountain goat again, trotting up narrow mountain tracks and leaping from rock to rock across foaming streams, always (nearly always) sure-footed, as though I was born into such a wild and harsh landscape instead of into the placidly tamed greenery of England’s Thames Valley.
So the accidental theologist in me wonders: is there a direct correlation between physical light and spiritual light? I mean, is the mystical metaphor – seeing the light, being in the light – a function of climate and physics as much as of imagination?
I don’t think there is such a thing as accidental geography. Not when it comes to ancient sacred places. No accident, then, that Jerusalem is high desert. Mecca and Medina (well, Medina, in any case): high desert. The Hopi mesas: high desert. The Iranian holy city of Qum: high desert. It’s nothing as simplistic as nearer-my-God-to-thee and all that. It’s that high desert air really does have a heady quality. Then add in water — the oxygenation of a bubbling spring — and what can an over-stimulated brain do but start bubbling too?
I understand animism. I once spent an hour crouched by a spring on the Golan Heights, watching and listening as the bubbles came to the surface at irregular intervals, each one bursting with a little pop. Even now, years later, there is no way my rational mind can overcome the feeling that the spirit of the spring was talking to me. I did the same just last week at a spring feeding a natural grotto in the Bosque de Primavera, the rock gouged out by steaming hot water, the algae in it shimmeringly turquoise and dark green and Virgin-Mary-blue from the volcanic metals it contained. Mesmerized, I knelt down gently and settled in for a while, some primal part of me convinced that if I was patient, if I listened carefully, I could decipher what it was saying.
“Silly,” you say? Well, part of me agrees, but then another part of me thinks you a fool for taking a cursory look and walking right on by. Hey, this is water coming out of the rock. Why else would Moses striking the rock with his rod and making water gush forth be such a big deal? It’s the grateful astonishment of water in the desert, the miracle – yes, dammit, miracle — of a sudden ribbon of vegetation coursing down a bare-rock ravine, of the scent of sage and mint mixing with that of dust and sun-baked stone, of shade and softness where you expected only harshness.
Or I can understand how you might venerate a tree. I think of the golden spruce, sacred to the Haida of British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands and the iconic center of John Vaillant’s wonderful book by that name, subtitled “a true story of myth, madness, and greed.” Or solitary trees growing out of rock, like the gnarly Yosemite pine photographed by Ansel Adams, shown here, or the ‘lone cypress’ on the Monterey Peninsula, now cutely trimmed and walled up and all but labeled “Icon,” to be photographed by everyone who’s ever heard of Ansel Adams as well as many who wouldn’t know the man from the beer. They may have none of his patience or sense of light and shadow, yet still they feel compelled to perform the most popular 21st-century form of worship: to take a picture. And why? Because life growing out of rock seems to defy all odds. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, of course, yet the human mind, self-centered as always, attributes human qualities — grittiness, determination, the will to live – and admiration turns to awe.
I could, I suppose, now be accused of tree worship. Each morning in Mexico, I’d wake before dawn, make some coffee, read for an hour or so, then grab my iPod and go out in search of the first rays of sunlight hitting the valley, with Johann Sebastian or Paul Simon or Nusrat Ali Khan feeding straight into my brain. And when I found that place, a different one each time depending on which ray of light I followed, I’d face the rising sun only to be blinded by it, so I’d turn around, the sun warming my back, and focus on a tree – the most generous one nearby, the spreadingest one. I’d watch the glitter of the leaves in the light, the way what I knew to be green was really silver and gold, and I’d stand there gazing up at the tree as though I’d never really seen one before, and dance, a fool for light, just me and the tree and the fresh new sun.
Was it too much sun? Something in the water? A sea-level brain reacting to altitude? Who cares? The memory of those early mornings is imprinted on my mind, and I’m inordinately grateful for that overwhelming sense of light and color and warmth: it will see me through the damp and gloom of another Seattle winter.