Summer 1992, Vol.43 No. 2, pp. 161-173.
Dr. Belden Lane is professor of historical theology at St. Louis University. Known for his theology of stories and of landscape, he is author of numerous articles and of Landscapes of the Sacred.
RIDING the bus north from Santa Fe, along Highway 84, the fierce land beyond the window seemed to burst the glass through which I looked. The brilliant red hills and black mesas, the mountain silhouette of Pedemal, the twisted trunks of old piñon trees above the Chama River — all were there just as I remembered them from the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. I had come to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico for a seminar on mountain and desert spirituality.(1) My first trip there, I arrived with a bag full of mountain slides, notes on the desert fathers, and a longing for landscape. Most of all, I had come for healing, seeking respite from a mother’s dying of cancer, needing to let the poetry of Robert Bly work its way into changes begun in my life. I came to the desert to find peace, to seek a safe place, to read deep consolation off steep canyon walls.
That was what I came for, but that wasn’t what the desert had to teach me. One seldom learns what he thinks he most needs to be taught. I began on the first day of the seminar talking about “spirituality,” a word that frankly makes a lot of people gag. Too often it brings to mind a contemptus mundi tradition, smelling of snake-oil remedies, overly preoccupied with escape, speaking only of sweet and nice things in its flight from the world. Many of us at Ghost Ranch that week were looking for just such an escape — half burnt-out people coming to the desert to be put back together again. But as the Rev. Tom Marshfield learned in John Updike’s novel, A Month of Sundays, the desert rarely functions as a resort. It offers little comfort. None of its answers are easy ones.
Spirituality and the desert are alike in that regard. They share a common ambiguity, a certain difficulty of access. Their “meanings” cannot be summarized in neat Cartesian categories. In Desert Notes, Barry Lopez speaks of the opaque way in which the desert refuses to open itself to glib analysis. “You can’t get at it this way,” he says. “You must come with no intentions of discovery. You must overhear things, as though you’d come into a small and desolate town and paused by an open window” (xi). As the early desert fathers and mothers knew, the wilderness possesses a stubborn indifference to one’s fervid quest for solace. One’s entry into the desert is marked invariably by confusion and loss. Something will always seem amiss.
I sensed that keenly during my first few days at Ghost Ranch. The group was going well. The food was good. The place was beginning to grow on us all with a deep mystery. But something still was missing. We had not yet encountered the desert’s wildness. It posed no danger to us. The structures of our world had not yet been threatened by it.
DESERT WILDNESS AND WILD PEOPLE
I kept thinking of three wild people who, had they been there, would have perceived the same landscape so differently from the rest of us. We were in need of a John Muir, that crazy fool who would tie himself to the top of a Douglas fir tree, riding out a fierce storm in the High Sierras, as the tree whipped back and forth some thirty degrees in the wind. We needed Georgia O’Keeffe, that wonderfully irreverent saint who would have “thrown up” at the idea of some sappy teacher “talking about” the desert in a limp-wristed church camp where people were afraid to experience the desert first hand for themselves. And I knew what Edward Abbey would have thought of the whole thing. That wild and irascible writer of the American Southwest would have growled that the desert is “nothing but a g – – d – – – place to die;” a place where all your easy answers fall to pieces, where you yourself may end up as nothing more than buzzard meat. The desert is a place of indifference, caring nothing for one’s fragile ego and all its self-absorbed concerns.
These were the people we needed there in the desert — these wild, almost blasphemous people, whose fierce honesty may make them the finest teachers of all. It strikes us as odd that sometimes the most “irreverent” people are the ones most in touch with the holy. These are the wild men (and women) of whom Robert Bly speaks in Iron John: A Book about Men. They are a desert product, nurtured by a desolate and god-forsaken terrain. In keeping with the meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, they are “the cut off ones,” “those driven out.” Like Elijah and John the Baptist they thrive on the edges of society, threatening its structures, speaking the language of fiery serpents and Lilith, the night hag (Deut 8:15; Isa 34:14). They know inherently that “it is in wildness that justice comes to live” (Isa 32:16).
Edward Abbey came up in a conversation at lunch on Wednesday of that week. I was eating with John Fife, a Presbyterian minister from Tucson, Arizona, who has been an important figure in the sanctuary movement over the last decade seeking justice for Central American refugees. He’s a gentle man, but more honest than some people can take. I asked if he had ever met Abbey. He smiled widely and spoke of a letter he’d gotten some years before during his trial, one that wasn’t signed and that read something like this:
I’m just a cowpoke who’s read a little about what you’ve been doing. I don’t especially agree with you. [Abbey favored closing the U.S.-Mexican border to immigration.] But I had my bedroll out on the desert the other night, looking out at the stars. And it struck me that there’s probably room enough here for everybody who wants to come. So if those government agents come for you someday, knocking on the front door; and you can get out the back door before they kick you’re a – -, I’d be glad to offer you a place to stay.
There was only a telephone number at the bottom of the page. No name. Out of curiosity, John Fife called the number and learned it was Abbey. They became friends. In fact, just over a year ago Fife invited him on a float trip down the Green River in Utah, leading a group of people through Desolation Canyon. John told him that he would come with what he was as a theologian and Abbey could come with all his sharp edges and they’d argue their way back and forth down the river. Abbey liked the idea and they planned to go, but death intervened. Edward Abbey died on March 14, 1989.(2)
John Fife went to see him in the hospital before his death. Abbey asked him, “What the hell are you doing here? You didn’t come to pray for me, did you?” “No;” John answered, “I’ve got too much respect for you to do that. I just wanted to see you.” There was something about Ed Abbey’s crotchetiness and fierce indifference to unimportant things that inevitably drew people to him.
That story haunted me as I went hiking alone in the desert that afternoon. Thinking of Abbey, I determined to meet the landscape on its own terms, without expectations, submitting at last to its sublime disregard for all my petty concerns. Abandonment, after all, is what the desert teaches best. As Abbey would say, the central spiritual lesson to remember about the desert is that “it doesn’t give a s – – -.” Its capacity to ignore is immense. Yet in that very indifference, one discovers an enormous freedom. In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder says “the wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make the mistakes that will bring one to an extremity” (23). Being brought to the end of oneself is the terrifying (and winsome) possibility that the desert enjoins. Here it is that we enter an interior wilderness more fearful and promising than anything charted on terrestrial maps. The wildest, most dangerous trails are always the ones within.
With the sun still shining, I took the path into a box canyon several miles behind Ghost Ranch. Thunderstorms had been coming up every afternoon and people were reluctant to venture out very far. Yet I desperately needed the time alone, getting away far enough to approach the border of that interior landscape I had neglected so long — the one accessible only through wildness. It was a beautiful afternoon. A slight breeze rustled leaves on the cottonwood trees. The smell of sage was made sharper by recent rains. I followed a small creek into the canyon, noticing deer tracks along its bank. Later in the week, tracks of a mountain lion were seen along that same trail. It was a fine place for a lion to trap deer — up a narrow canyon with no escape.
By the time I had followed the creek to the canyon’s end, the cliffs had risen to some 200 feet on either side. The rock had chipped away from the edge at the top, leaving an overhang all the way around. There was no way out. Tripping over talus fragments, fallen from above, I heard a loud and sustained echo, filling the place with sound. It was a compelling place, a strange end to which I had somehow been invited. Certain places are like that, says Wendell Berry. They offer a sense of meeting, if one can only learn to wait and be patient (cf. Recollected Essays).
In the center of the space at the end of the canyon lay a large, flat rock. Nearby a trickle of water seeped out from under the canyon wall, feeding the creek I had been following. I lay on the rock for a long while, waiting for nothing in particular watching cliff swallows sweep over the canyon rim, noticing a hummingbird in the fir tree nearby, being aware of gradually gathering clouds. I had brought along a pipe and tobacco, but had forgotten matches. Yet the tobacco seemed a good gift in itself. Impulsively, I threw a pinch of it in each of the four directions, so as to sanctify the place and honor its spirit. At the time, the action seemed perfectly natural, not at all an effort to mimic native practice. In its origins, I suspect, ritual is not learned; it is earth-taught.
As I lay in silence, dark, churning clouds began to fill the space of sky framed by the canyon rim. Then came the first loud crash of thunder, and I knew I was about to be caught by a cloudburst in the middle of the desert. As the initial drops of rain fell, I scrambled up a nearby ledge, looking for shelter, finding the small opening of a cave going into the canyon wall. It wasn’t large. I looked carefully to make sure it was empty and then crawled in, just as the heavy rains let loose. Soon they were followed by hail the size of quarters — bouncing everywhere, ricocheting off the rocks, dancing in the fierce thunder and lightning. There I lay, under the mountain, looking out, in the midst of this wild apocalypse, wide-eyed at its glory scribbling away in the yellow pad I use for a journal.
Soon sheets of water began to pour over the top of the canyon rim — loosening the dirt and rocks high above. Then the sound of falling boulders echoed through the canyon like a shotgun blast, crashing right before me onto the path I had followed an hour or so before. I heard the sound of other rocks falling farther down the ravine. Torrents of water flowed wildly in every direction. What was it that had followed me into the remoteness of that box canyon — having stalked me to its very end, hidden now in the cleft of the rock? What had I been suckered into all along, in coming to Ghost Ranch?
I learned later that there were Indian petroglyphs scratched on the inside of the cave where I lay. I never saw them, but I knew from the place that they must have been pictures of death. There was no doubt that this was a dying place, a place where things necessarily came to an end. That is the way of the desert. The pictures there in the cave would be ones of a deer stalked by a young brave or a mountain lion. They would tell stories I didn’t want to remember. Pictures of a young boy at the age of thirteen, whose father had been suddenly and violently killed. A boy who all of his life had sought the lost father. Pictures of that same boy much later in his forties, sitting beside a mother, waiting for a long and painful death to end. A boy whose parents had both died (or were dying) at times in his life when he was struggling most to be born. I knew the pictures! But I hadn’t known enough — at first hand — the grieving that had to go along with them. Robert Bly says that grieving is the place where men have to begin their journey toward wholeness. There is no healing of wounds, no growth, without grief.
A CRY OF PAIN
The very day before this trip into the canyon, I had been given a session of shiatzu massage by a woman who was a healer in our group. Shiatzu is a Japanese form of deep massage, based on the idea that painful memories are often retained in particular parts of the body. The human body is seen to offer a micro-geography of past traumas in an individual’s experience. Through the process of deep massage, as one feels his life breath virtually forced out of him, there can be an accompanying release of forgotten pain. I had experienced this the previous afternoon as the healing woman reached a point in my left hip, pushing a finger deep into my side. It was a place that hurt intensely. But it also released an incredible sobbing that came from some place deeper within me than I knew existed. I had no image of what this grieving was about. At the time, I could only think of the Fisher King in the Grail legend — who was also wounded in the thigh. And Jacob — who limped away at dawn from his wrestling with the angel, the hollow of his thigh now out of joint. All men, I suspect, are wounded in the thigh at that place where they give life, where they are most vulnerable, where they have failed and been failed by others.
It’s only now — as I tell the story — that I realize how the thunder and the cave and the grieving over my father’s death (and my mother’s dying) were all tied together with something that had been carried in my left side, maybe for years. The healing woman had said that the effects of shiatzu might continue for a day or more, that it was not uncommon for people to be deeply touched in the spirit as a result of the fierce and hard touch experienced in their bodies.
As the rain passed, and the rock slides ended, I crawled out of the cave. The winds quickly carried the storm clouds away, and before long the sun was out again, shining on a world perfectly new. Water droplets on every leaf and rock were lit by the sun. The air was clear as crystal, cleansed by rain. Silence had come again.
Then gradually a trickle of water began to flow over the rim at the canyon’s end, cascading two hundred feet down in sunlit brilliance onto the rock where I had lain before. It grew in strength, becoming a massive waterfall of light-tan waters, fed by arroyos high above, bringing the runoff of rain from surrounding mesas. These waters of life poured into the place of death. I stood there watching; then slowly I walked through the falling water, being soaked in its sand-filled wetness, as a loud, resounding laughter erupted spontaneously from deep inside. This fierce, good laughter came from the same dark place from where the sobbing had come the day before. It echoed down the canyon, summoning everything to life.
What was this place? Everywhere I walked, life burst out of the ground before and behind me. The desert after a furious rain is incredibly alive; falling water courses over the rocks and fills arroyos. One can practically feel the trees and the sage brush gorging themselves with it. I began to walk back down the canyon, following the creek that was now beginning quickly to rise, coming to a place I had passed on the way in, where a side canyon joined the one I had been walking. The place where the two canyons met was filled with vegetation, sparkling now with life.
Here dark, red waters flowed down from the side canyon to join the light-tan waters of the upper creek, flowing side by side, then merging together in some great mystery. The new waters entering the creek were a deep, chocolatey-red, the runoff of multicolored mesas above. They formed a menstrual flow these dark waters, as if the land were cleansing itself of its life-giving blood. Viscous and thick, they poured especially heavy from between two large boulders. I climbed over to the place, cupped my hands, and let the waters fall over my head, rolling down my hair and onto my shoulders. Here, at the place of the joining of the two waters, everything came together.
Up at the end of the box canyon, I had been struck by the masculine power of the place. There the Sky Father had let loose his energy, with a wild display of thunder and lightning. It had been the place of Zeus, of Thor, Yahweh, and Thunderbird. A place of fierceness and death. But this was a different place. Here the waters from above came down to join the waters from below, and all became whole. This was the place of the Earth Mother, life-giving, connecting, sinking deep roots into the anchoredness of the land. It was the place of Demeter, Sophia, the Old Spider Woman, Mother Guadelupe. A place of birth and nurture.
This place answered the questions posed by the earlier place. How would I live again on the far side of the experience of death, surviving the loss of the father and the mother, discovering a new fierceness and rootedness? The answer came in being baptized, first with water and then with blood. Only as I began at the place of the father could I move on to the place of the mother. Only as I came to terms with the loss of the one, could I deal with the loss of the other. Only then could I be set free to live as the person I had longed all my life to become.
DREAMS ABOUT A WILDMAN
I had always sought that deep masculine energy of the wildman, who lives his life without being tentative and fearful, who (like Joseph Campbell’s hero) loves and risks much for the sake of truth. In my own dreams, he often has sat by the front window of a village tavern, drinking a glass of raki and arm-wrestling one of the young fishermen at the tables, laughing loudly. I watch him at a distance, wishing profoundly that his abandonment were mine. He wanders over, almost drunk now, and leans against the chair where I sit at the corner table, writing on a yellow pad. Always writing on a yellow pad! “To hell with your fine words, my friend,” he says with a loud voice and an arm on my shoulder. “Come, I buy you some raki and deliver you from the dangers of your pen.” I smell the sea in his beard. He is Neptune, Odysseus, the Fisher King, this man. In my dream, I laugh back. I toss my papers under the table, and with tears running down my face, I say, “Yes, father, I’ve waited for you a long time. Sit and drink. Teach me . . . to dance!”
What may necessarily come first in a man’s mid-life experience is this baptism in the wild waters of the father, the wildman. Only then can he reaffirm also the mother, being baptized with blood, accepting the feminine energy of the Pacha Mama, the Earth Mother. She is the one who knows her power to create and give birth, to put down roots, to weave the fabric of life into a mystery of interconnectedness. This is a baptism that makes possible a new intimacy. Wholeness will always be found at the middle place, where the two waters join to become one.
In the joy of that afternoon sun, I walked on back down the canyon toward home, stopping at last to take off my clothes (it just seemed the right thing to do). Walking naked through the land, I turned in slow circles, drinking in the red and orange grandeur of the rocky cliffs around me, all newly washed by rain. In those few moments, I moved through the canyon as part of its landscape, knowing the land to have taught me something I could not name.
DREAM ABOUT A CHANT
That place in New Mexico has haunted my dreams ever since. The desert still works its mystery, even in clouds of memory. About a month after returning home I had a dream that woke me up at four o’clock one morning. In the dream I was part of a circle of men, sitting atop a high mesa somewhere near Ghost Ranch. It was silent, desolate, far away from everything. I was leading the others in what seemed to be a ritual of grieving. Yet, on a conscious level, I understood nothing of what I was doing. Sitting there in a half trance-like state, I listened as carefully as I could, as if the land were speaking and I were responsible for hearing.
Slowly, involuntarily I began to speak the words for a chantlike dirge. It made no sense, but it had the feel of some medieval song of lamentation and woe. The others joined in, as our voices emptied into the vast silence of the land. This was followed next by a high-pitched cry that began to come from deep inside me. Was it some ancient mourning ritual? I don’t know. But the others joined in it as well, rocking back and forth as we gave expression to some enormous, unnamed sense of loss.
At one point, my mind seemed to disengage, and I became conscious of what was going on. It was absurd, this bizarre exercise of which I was a part. I noticed that some of the other men appeared hesitant to join in and thought to myself, “Who am 1 to be leading these people in something I don’t even know?” But then I had a very clear sense of being told to shut up and listen, that self-consciousness had no place here. I wasn’t in control. I was a recipient like everyone else.
After more silence and waiting, listening to the land, we ended the ceremony with a final song. I remember speaking its distinct words, being aware of the clarity and movement of language, but having no idea what any of it meant. Yet tears rolled down our faces. We felt ourselves a part of something grand and profound. It was as if we were singing back to life all which we had earlier mourned.
When the ceremony ended, I walked away, down the mesa, filled with questions. What was this experience? Had I just shared in some Native American ritual, evoked by the land? Did it exist somewhere apart from my dreaming of it? And what was the language I had been speaking? Still in the dream, just before waking, I happened upon a great volume of rituals, filled with rites and oracles of various sorts. There I was able to look up the language we had been speaking and remember seeing it marked clearly on the page as “Pro-Danish.” This strange authentication of the experience and the language filled me with wonder. I woke up, understanding nothing, but knowing the land to have spoken.
What is this dream, rooted in such a place? What is this mystery of a gathering of men, grieving together, listening to the land? I’m intrigued by their abandonment of dependence upon words they fully understand, their yielding to some right-brain mode of expression they didn’t know they had. I’m fascinated by their use of an unremembered language, hidden in the collective unconscious, catalogued in some ancient volume of forgotten tongues, a way of speaking given by the land, expressing grief and the capacity for life.
What does all this mean? The desert, of course, provides no answer. It keeps its own counsel, remaining mum. It speaks only in riddles. The desert fathers and mothers were like that too. Their sayings confuse as much as they enlighten. But such is the character of wildness. It invites one outside of himself. Like terrifying Shiva, it threatens life in order to give it back. This wild and seductive indifference of the desert attracts us as much as it repels.
So we kneel close to the ground with both ears alert, listening for something we cannot name. John Muir, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ed Abbey, Robert Bly all listened to the earth. In the tradition of the desert, they would call us once again to a gathering of men . . . and of women. Only in this way can we discern what is dying from what is trying to be born among us. Only in this way can we sing in the desert the song that calls us back to justice, to wholeness, to life. “Only then will the wilderness and the dry land be glad, the desert will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. . .” (Isaiah 35:1-2).
Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, New Mexico, is a National Conference Center of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The area, with its compelling rock formations and mesas, was once known by Hispanic peoples as El Rancho de los Brujos, the ranch of the witches. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) purchased eight acres of land there in 1940, living in an old adobe house under the shadow of Chimney Rock.
Edward Abbey (1927-1989) is best know for his book Desert Solitaire (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968) and his novels about the Monkey Wrench Gang, a group of anarchists and Green activists who defend the Southwestern landscape from the onslaught of developers.
Berry, Wendell. Recollected Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Press, 1990.
Lopez, Barry. Desert Notes. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1981.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.