There is no sound more beautiful than the silence of the desert
June 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment
I don't know whose quote this is, I am not even sure whether it is a quote from somebody more or less famous. I read it years ago in a bumper sticker attached to an old jeep in Death Valley, and it stuck, because at that point I realized that that is how I had always felt. Being completely alone in the desert as the sun rises, especially on a windless dawn, is a profound experience, one that you are likely not to fully understand unless you have experienced it. And, if you share my feelings towards deserts, one that you will want to repeat again and again. But not everybody will find this experience to be a beautiful one, as some of us do. There are those who love deserts, but I can see why many people have a strong dislike of them, and find them lifeless wastelands (in fact, that is the German word for desert: wüste). What I find difficult to understand is indifference towards deserts. If deserts don't move you in some way, if they don't affect you in one way or another, then there may be something wrong with your capacity to understand your surroundings. If you have never been to a desert, or have just driven through one with windows closed, air conditioning on and music blaring inside the car, you may find this statement difficult to relate to.
We all have different and unique ways of relating to our surroundings, and in particular to the natural world. For example, although I can understand the beauty and the biological significance of tropical forests, I am strongly repelled by them, in an almost atavistic fashion. Something very old inside me sees them as places of terror, death and decay. I don't remember when I began feeling this way, but I do remember that, when I was a freshly minted geologist and I was in one of my first jobs as a minerals exploration geologist in the Paraguayan forest, I already felt this way. It was a strong rejection of, and revulsion at, my surroundings. I had not spent much, if any, time in rain forests before then, so it may be that I was born with this ancestral fear. More likely, the loathing of tropical forests grew out of something that I read or saw in the movies as a child, and that is otherwise deeply buried in my neural circuits (for that is all that conscience at its different levels is). Interestingly, I do not have this same feeling towards temperate and boreal forest and woods, in fact I like them. So it is not the trees, nor the darkness, nor the limited horizon. It is not the possibility of having unexpected encounters with fauna of varying sizes either. It is something that is barely defined, that has to do with constant growth and decay, and with corrupt humanity (in all the possible meanings of the word). Perhaps Joseph Conrad felt the same way, and was able to translate his feelings into that masterpiece, Heart of Darkness. In another masterpiece, the film Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole (T.E. Lawrence) is asked why he loves the desert so much. His answer could have been mine: "Because the desert is clean". Clean as in honest, pure, naive, pristine, permanent. Tropical forests are, for me, the most unclean environments on Earth. Of course, they are essential cogs in the planet's machinery. They must be protected from destruction and human encroachment (is there any difference?), for the sake of all of the non-human beings that live in them. But I don't want to go there.
I began this blog entry talking about deserts, and so far have used almost as much space talking about tropical forests. Perhaps I got sidetracked, but it is just as likely that I was trying to describe all that is beautiful about deserts by describing what I see as their antithesis. No matter. In my photography you will find many desert images, especially of North American deserts. This website will always be a work in progress, and only a few galleries are online as I write this. Among them is one devoted to the many moods that sunrise can take in Death Valley. I invite you to visit this gallery and spend a few instants with each image. Perhaps you know these places, and my photos will bring back the sounds and the smells of the Sun slowly rising over the Mesquite dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, or over the Zabriskie badlands, or behind Dante's View on a very cold December morning. If you have never been there, then it is my hope that through these images you may understand why the desert is such an important place for some of us. Perhaps one day we will meet out there?
Keywords: Death Valley, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Mesquite dunes, T.S. Lawrence, Zabriskie, badlands, conscience, desert, neural circuit, rain forest, silence, tropical
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Photos, commentary and opinions by Alberto Patiño Douce