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30th Dec 2021 in

Desert Ghosts

Mojave Desert - Photo by Karl Peterson

The desert is a wonderful place – a place full of wonders. Silent spaces stretch far away and surround you. You are encompassed in a sphere of solitude. Moving through the rare and subtle shades of white and yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, and violet desert light, you are absorbed into something far greater than you are. At first, you feel to be at the center of the sphere surrounding you. Eventually, the realization dawns that this is only a figment of your perspective that changes from moment to moment with each step you take. Soon, the realization dawns that each plant, each stone, each individual life form occupies its own central location within a sphere of its own. With this dawning suddenly comes the unsettling notion that you are not the center of your universe. Once committed to this path, your mind inexorably strays away from itself, shedding petty ideas of the importance of personal attitudes, beliefs, conceptions, and doubts. Even fantasies, gods, love and hate, beauty, and the hideous, succumb weakly to the far larger world and the universe beyond.

Merging your personal sphere of reference with the solitary, slow and silent pulse of the desert, you are freed from yourself to move in the world as part of it, not apart from it. This is a gift beyond measure. The desert is a place where the unexpected and beautiful, the sublime and terrifying, are all free to flow around and through you, mingling with your being and filling you with wonder. The desert truly is a wonderful place.

I grew up on the Mojave Desert in Southern California. My dad operated a ranch that he had been given by his parents. His father, my grandfather, was a real estate tycoon in the very early 1900s in Southern California. At a very early age, I grew to love the silence of that very strange desert, with Joshua trees beckoning skyward, creosote bushes exploding in fragrance at the slightest touch of rain, and dark, dark nights with the Milky Way streaming across the sky, dazzling my young eyes. My mother would often have to wander out from the safety of our adobe home at night and search for where I was staring up at one of the arms of our galaxy, star-struck and rapt in my own silent reverie. I would point up and share with her what I saw. She would look for a moment, then haul me in for bed. 

Cottonwood trunk
Cottonwood Trunk

My grandfather moved to California in the early 1900s and purchased the land we lived on. He built a house and planted a cottonwood tree in the front yard. By the time I was born, my grandparents had passed away many years before, but their house was still there, and the tree was a venerable giant, close to 80 years old and over 100 feet tall. The trunk was wider in girth than I was tall. The tree had its own smell, which I can recall to this day – a sweet, musky odor that will always remind me of nighttime in the desert. During the summer, soft sprays of cotton streamed from the tree and were carried away on the hot breeze.

One hot afternoon I was tired and sat down under the tree, leaning my back against the furrowed trunk. I could feel the cool moisture from the shady ground through my pants. I’d done this many times, and it always seemed a nice thing to do. I sat there, contemplating not much of anything, but allowing myself to drift away while looking at a rock in my hand, innocently allowing my sphere of consciousness to widen. I soon became aware of someone nearby. I glanced around but saw no one. The idea that there was someone there didn’t go away, but being young, I didn’t give it a second thought. I didn't feel threatened. Soon an old man I’d never seen became a presence in my mind. He came around from the back of the tree. He had glasses, grey hair, and old-looking clothes. I could sense the texture of his wool shirt. He didn’t say anything, and I continued my own contemplations of childhood importance. The old man never said a word, he just sat there with me. Not a word was necessary. I was comfortable with him.

My Grandfather, Harvey Duryee,1930

Later that night I thought about the old man and found an old leather-bound photograph album that I knew was my grandfather’s. I leafed through the pages and found a picture of the old man who sat under the tree with me. It was indeed my grandfather, who had died 30 years before I was born.

Granted, this is not a scary ghost story. You could say it’s not even a ghost story, but the presence I felt was real, and the experience has stayed with me vividly through the ensuing decades. I can still feel the texture of his shirt. My sphere opened then and allowed the wonder of the world to enter. I watched as the Milky Way blared overhead that night as it always did. Wonder in the desert surrounded me and I felt embraced.

Years later, on an excursion to explore the Las Guijas Mountains in Southern Arizona, my brother and I stopped and extracted a friend from his day-to-day routine. The three of us then traveled to an isolated gulch in the little-known mountain range where a family's mining in the 1930s had left a small scar on the hillside and some adobe buildings that were slowly eroding in the shade under the oaks by the side of a small creek. My brother and my friend explored the surroundings with metal detectors and gold pans looking for treasure. I was attracted to the creek and a large oak that grew upstream. A view of the scar and eroding buildings downstream occupied my interest. 

The sun was hot, and the shade sublimely cool. I sat on moss-covered mud, leaning against the friendly, furrowed bark of the oak tree while the small creek trickled over rust-colored stones and caught glints of sunlight filtering through the branches. I felt the cool, moist earth through my pants, which was a familiar sensation. 

"Little Girl", photo by Dorothea Lange, ca 1938

I felt someone’s presence, and a young girl came up beside me from around the back of the tree. She wore an orange dress with a small floral print, and her blond hair blew in the light breeze. I thought of her blue eyes that stared over at the eroding buildings. How far away those eyes seemed. I thought of the Dust Bowl, and dust pneumonia - thousands died from the clogging, blocking dust that was inescapable. Inescapable except by leaving the plains and moving to other regions like Arizona to pursue dreams of gold and riches. Sometimes even then it was too late.

She looked at me and half-smiled, her face surrounded by the sunshine tangled in her blond hair and the branches of the oak, the corners of her mouth turning up, creasing the folds of her young eyes. The creek slid by, and I stayed still while my sphere of self-importance slowly shattered and was carried downstream. I looked down at the water, then back toward the girl, but all I saw was a raven in another oak tree across the creek, cocking its head and looking at me questioningly, mocking me gently as if to say, “Did you just see something, son?"

The desert, no, the Earth is a wonderful place – a place full of wonders. Silent spaces stretch far away and surround the individual, encompassing you in a sphere of solitude. Once a part of the Earth, you may see things that you might not be able to explain, but those may only deepen your sense of wonder. My wish for you is to always remain a part of the desert, or wherever on Earth you may live, and for the Earth to remain a part of your soul. Always be a part of the Earth and life, not apart from it. You never know what you might see while sitting under a tree.


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