I have been thinking about deserts lately, what places are desired, which ones are deserted, and by whom. Cabo de Gata of Andalusia is one of the four deserts in Spain. In 2010, it became public knowledge that the Ministry of Development planned to locate a nuclear waste dump there. The last I have heard was that they had ordered a feasibility survey with nuclear scientists, but I can find no other updates. Why would the government and academic institutions penetrate a protected region, sacred for its ecological richness and beauty? The dump would be created 1,000 meters below the surface where the radiation would be dissolved (so they said) and then carried into the sea. Whether we hide waste inside the earth or shoot it up into space or keep it in someone else’s backyard, when will we pause?
The earth never runs out of messages. But humans as a species have lost touch with this reality. The majority of the human population lives in urban areas where we consume and live processed lives. It is no wonder too few of us make grand changes in our lives concerning excessive consumerism and waste. How can we think of what we do not encounter? Milk is disassociated from its bovine origins for many, and trash is dropped off at the curb for someone else to deal with.
Even many of the items we own were made in factories in lands far off, where people have to deal with the waste to the detriment of their own environments. But who cares? That air will never reach us. The vegetation most city-dwellers (and so most humans) are familiar with is the plants and trees used to ornament lawns and landscaped neighborhood streets (when we are that lucky). This is why the desert, and any rural area, might be our saving grace.
Etymologically, the term “desert” connotes with “abandonment”: it refers to a place that was deserted. Perhaps thankfully so. The harsh conditions of the areas we modernly refer to as deserts have been inhospitable to profit and capitalism. One only needs take a road trip down I-40 in the U.S. to see vast expanses of desert, empty (from only one perspective) land. Even gas stations are few and far between.
Yet here is the paradox: in the isolation of the desert, perhaps we can learn how to become closer to one another, to heal our relationships, all of them. We can only see each other, notice the sky. When we are no longer distracted and disillusioned, looking down at our shoes and swallowed by our navel-gazing minds, nature reflects our own goodness to us, the sacredness that we have forgotten. In the city, we have broken almost all the mirrors and muted all the echoes.
Dried up river beds, sand dunes, fossil beaches, but mostly flat and uniform, dry, hot, and sparse, Egypt’s Sinai Desert has a long spiritual history. Land, the earth, is a frequent character in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Why did Jesus’ spirit call him to the desert? Is it perhaps that in the desert we have to figure out how to let go as we nevertheless struggle to survive? Jesus is led to focus on three aspects of his landscape: stones, a valley, and a mountain. When the “devil” came to “tempt” Jesus, he was in for a difficult time. Show me you are a god, show me you are a god. Do it by violating the laws of Nature. Control it. Dominate it. Own it.
But the desert is not an environment rife for falling to such temptations. The sutras of the sacred landscape help us seek synchronization with it. Into their threads we are woven, shown how to be fully human, equally non-human. In the midst of such vast, arid, unyielding nature, by the conclusion of 40 days and nights, those songs must have been written into the heart of Jesus.
“One does not live by bread alone.” So what do we also need? I imagine if Jesus were to extrapolate, he might have mentioned sunsets in the desert. Countless stars in a black night sky away from city nights. Silence. Isolation. Yet surrounded by infinite life. Serpents, scorpions, lizards. Coral reefs along the coast if he went there. Fossils of life past. Dusty wind storms. Warm, gritty skin. In the desert, these are the songs of the goddess. What attachments or desire can we maintain, what ego in ourselves would not dissipate after such an encounter?
I have long agreed with the sentiment in expressed the epistle of James, even when I was religious, that we tempt ourselves: “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; [. . .]. Do not be deceived, my beloved” (1:13-16). What a relief I remember feeling at 18 when reading this and thinking there might not be a devil wanting to trip me up. Just my own sometimes mindless self.
Now as I read this story of Jesus, I feel the desert teaching a human how to re-adjust his relationship to himself and the earth at a time when he may have needed that. Instead of resisting the stone that isn’t bread, defying gravity, and thinking of the world his to own or control, there is a self-restraint and surrender I detect in his response. A recognition that we cannot do to and with the universe as we please, and also that we are one with it: these are lessons I wonder if this story embodies.
Many traditions that suggest reincarnation assume that humans are the species most evolved and closest to liberation. But I look around and see the peace that are rocks and the sky and plants. We must continually return to these teachers, hoping, if we transform into anything, it might be a tree or a cloud. That feels like true advance to me. Let us learn from the earth. Let it inspire us to transform our urban landscape in ways that invite it in because I cannot always get to the desert when my spirit calls me. Perhaps you cannot either. And I wish that for us.
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom lituratures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.