The High Desert



The remote high desert of Southeast Oregon lies at the northwestern edge of America’s quarter-million square-mile Great Basin—a vast landscape from which no water escapes except by absorption or evaporation.  One’s first and lasting impression of this arid land is its hugeness, its emptiness and its silence. Even to those who move at high speed along its few highways, it seems endless; for some a boring though necessary hiatus between two points of desire, but for others a strikingly beautiful landscape—and for a few, a chosen destination.

Here, the complex geology of ancient oceans, dramatic lifts and repeated volcanic flows, often covered with the diminutive sagebrush, has given rise to an immense spaciousness that dominates our senses and creates a unique context that is imposed on all we see and feel.  Everywhere we look, there is expansive distance drawing our attention out to its limits; exhilarating steep canyons are carved into dramatic escarpments lifted up as much as a mile from silt-filled, alkaline playas so flat and extensive that like great lakes or the ocean, they reveal the curve of the earth.

Between the north-south escarpments: Steens Mt., Hart Mt., Guano, Abert and Winter Rims, lays a gently contoured treeless sagebrush steppe. From wherever we stand in these steppes they stretch so far out into distances that the sagebrush at our feet quickly becomes texture and texture dissolves into sinuous thin bands of featureless color.  Eventually, many miles out, even bands of color merge with the desert’s dry atmosphere leaving the eye seeing, but without resolvable object.

Overhead, regardless of season, a limitless, deep, violet-blue sky extends from horizon to zenith, uninterrupted in every direction. Occasionally, moisture-bearing storms and, more frequently, transient cloud-trains and their moving shadows serve to dramatize our perspective, to define and make more comprehensible this distance that is often difficult to grasp.

Because of the expansive vistas, the true scale of often-ignored natural events becomes evident here. As the sun sets in a cloudless evening sky, first the far off eastern horizon, and then the entire eastern sky are overtaken by the intense gold-becoming-rosy boundary of the earth’s shadow—it’s penumbra—the partial shadow-light, refracted and colored by the density gradient of the earth’s atmosphere. The lower the humidity, the greater the color intensity, while high humidity, as is often common elsewhere, obscures or completely hides the visible expression of this phenomenon. As the earth continues to rotate, the setting sun drops below the western horizon and the earth’s shadow continues to rise up from the land into the fading eastern sky where the once intense golden shadow-edge is transformed to a soft rosy glow. As the shadow rises, it leaves behind an utterly cool, ever-widening and deepening blue umbra. Finally, long before the shadow reaches the zenith, all color and light is lost and umbra becomes the absorbent depth of night, an adamantine night that reveals the quiet drama of ancient starlight asserting itself without earthly interference.

When the moon is present, the entire nighttime landscape of nearby and distant sage recedes into silvery coolness and the desert becomes so expansive and free of referential scale that even when rising over a mountainous horizon, the full moon’s orb is unable to compete with the desert sky’s expanse and seems tiny, almost inconsequential.

And again, each morning before sunrise, the earth’s shadow appears, now in the west and now warming the landscape as it descends into a rosy then golden illumination of the western horizon.  So, here in this high desert, we start and end the day with vast unobstructed views of intense beauty generated by the rotation of our planet and its doings with the sun. Twice daily our attention is led on a journey of abstraction; it moves from a distant horizon scores of miles away, up into the softly tinted luminous atmosphere several hundred miles deep and finally through the daytime blue or the darkness of night to the unfathomable distances of space itself.

There is a compelling beauty embedded in this experience of distance that attracts our heart.  By this attractive power, occurring in part by virtue of the resonance of equivalents, the desert’s hugeness reveals to us the depth, even the content of our own vast inner nature.

Along with its remarkable distances and space, we are also confronted by the emptiness of the high desert.  On its surface, many would describe the high desert as plain, stark or even austere—certainly minimalist is a fair description and it does appear empty when compared to our cities, farmlands and the glorious magnificence of many of our wilderness areas.  But there is a lesson here too, for just as the variety of life, from atom to croaking frog, emerges from undifferentiated emptiness, be it quantum mechanical vacuum state or undifferentiated pure consciousness, so, hidden beneath the high desert’s seemingly empty surface we find it to be vibrant with life, filled with intimate touchable secrets; a rich play of ever-changing fullness.

Walking on the vacant plains of the desert steppe, miles can pass and everywhere, one looks out over sameness—the almost-uniform colors and texture of sage-covered contours extending to subtly different distant skylines. Moving patches of darkness, blue-purple cloud shadows that are compressed by perspective into narrow bands and lines float across the landscape revealing, by their contrast, features in the landscape otherwise lost to the pervasive sameness.  Occasionally, looking across the land into the distance, one notices a slight but abrupt change in the scale of texture—a line, beyond which, the texture of sage becomes suddenly finer.  One sees there an unexpected break, a discontinuity, a rift in the desert fabric.  As we walk, approaching the rift, our slowly steepening angle of perspective reveals a crack that in turn, becomes a circular basin.  What our limited perspective had hidden is now seen to be half a mile or more across and deep enough that it is not fully exposed until one reaches its rim-rock edge.

These hidden basins are like secret places where life, seizing opportunity, emerges and flourishes.  Even when their location is known, they retain a sense of the mysterious, for until one can look down into their world, one is blind to the unique life unfolding there.  At the basin’s bottom there is often temporary water and with water comes visitors; unique vegetation, insects, birds, rabbits, coyotes, antelope and occasional wild horses.  After a winter snow, basins become a web of tracks revealing the play of their animal life—jackrabbits and mice feeding on seeds, coyotes bedding down for the night and the occasional pair of passing antelope.

Climbing just a few feet down through the fractured rock of the basin’s rim, one sees the sagebrush is older, taller and more vigorous.  In spring, flowers and grasses are suddenly more abundant and lizards are likely to scatter into the safety of cracks not already inhabited by pack rats.  Winter winds drift snow into these rims, and these drifts, coupled with the partial morning or afternoon shade that slightly delays melt, slowly deliver an additional increment of moisture—just enough to give life here an edge over that of the sun-scorched plain a few feet above.

Here, among the rim-rock is a rosy everlasting, delicate and fragile—a few wooly-green basal leaves and a long stalk topped with furry flowering clusters of pink, yet, true to its name, not only surviving here, but persisting in its beauty long beyond expectation.  Tiny annuals; purple dwarf monkey flowers, white alyssum and golden gilia, grace the disturbed soil at the entrance of old badger diggings and the perennial yellow, turning-to-red clusters of compact cushion buckwheat are preparing their contribution to the local food chain.  These flowers were not here a few days ago and most will be gone in a few more, but, like us, they have their season and their role.

Is the character of this empty place so different from us, from our heart and mind which in occasional moments of stillness, reveals the otherwise hidden beauty of our own vibrant consciousness? Don’t the desires, feelings and thoughts that populate our lives emerge from that seeming emptiness of consciousness?

Silence is present too and is assertive, an expression of the desert’s profoundly quiet and empty surface but also of its deeper resonant power. By far, the loudest and most common sound is that of wind moving across the land but this sound is not actually an attribute of wind, which is a silent flow, rather it is an artifact of our stationary presence, of our eardrums vibrating to the modulating pressures of moving air, itself, the medium through which sound is transmitted. Elsewhere, like in the occasional high escarpment aspen grove, the wind rattles leaves, but here in the steppe there are no trees, though occasionally, strong gusts may cause the sage to respond with a soft sibilance.  When the air is still, generally in the early morning and late evening, there is only the sound of seasonal bird song and insects.  Occasionally, in summer there is distant or nearby thunder and about as often, a passing raven makes his presence known or coyotes call to distant comrades with their high thin voices.  In winter, we hear the absorbent silence of falling snow – the deepest audible silence of all.  There are of course, the internal sounds of heartbeat, blood flow and other body processes that often go unnoticed in noisier environments but after we notice and habituate, these sounds seem to disappear.

Listening to this intense quiet results in a freedom from auditory pressure much like the inner experience of undifferentiated vastness that comes from looking into the desert’s dissolving distances.  In this silence our sense of hearing can disengage from its constant outward search and our mind can settle to its own silent ground state. From there, with the mind quiet, the heart is temporarily freed to extend both inward and outward, lovingly, without obstacle or object. In this way, guided by a suitably structured outer environment that dissolves their objects, the senses innocently bring us to an inward encounter with the silence at the very root of life.

For those who notice and are willing to give time, the high desert will capture and transform them step-by-step. First, the remarkable geography and space compels our attention.  Then with the attractive power of an irresistible, fated love, it pulls us into its unique beauty until we find that same beauty reverberating and echoing throughout our awareness. We find ourselves loving this world. An undiscovered gratitude wells up that enlivens a powerful resonance between our innermost hidden nature and the high desert’s own character. It draws out the elemental from the depths of human experience and reveals this essence as unencumbered Self.

And, what are we in our deepest nature?  Aren’t we huge, without boundary or limitation, even infinite?  Aren’t we the fullness of love and at the same time love’s infinite generative emptiness?  Aren’t we utter silence? But, being honest, do we truly know this?  Do we have the capacity to live our inner nature as our day-to-day reality?  And, if not, isn’t it our job to do so, to be what we really are in each moment—to know our Self?

If Self is not our practical day-to-day life, then where do we live our lives?  Being truthful, it is likely in a kind of fascinating private ignorance, on the surface of life, in our small busy spheres, passing from one desire, one feeling, one thought to another, constantly moving, completely caught in the exigencies of I and mine—living on the surface.

But here in the high desert, the very surface is an unbounded space whose ascendency overwhelms other experience. And, for the purpose of our education, a sight or a silence that draws us beyond sensory limits is a start at becoming acquainted with the truly infinite.  Just lifting our eyes from the ground to the distant horizon, a matter of a degree or two of angle change requiring a fraction of a second, and instantly our attention, our awareness expands from the small scale of grasses and sagebrush to a proxy-infinity.  And how many times does this happen in a day?  How many times a day does the wind stop, do the bird songs cease and we find ourselves listening to inner and outer silence? The desert is creating a bridge for us; a link between the inner and outer realities of life and by constant repeated example, we learn.

We learn like infants and children accommodating to the new world into which they are born. We respond to the desert’s unique character by making fresh neural connections. Slowly, a growing familiarity with the huge, the empty and the silent unfolds in our awareness. As we become comfortable with this transformation, as all our senses and perception freshen, the visible unboundedness of this expanse begins to be felt, the delicate fullness of emptiness is known and the sounds of silence are clearly heard; we become saturated with vastness in all its forms. Along with growth, the heart, now freed to exercise its fundamental role, is found to be longing for a unity of all things, a oneness that would permit no separation. Perhaps it is this longing that is the greatest gift of the high desert.

Does the desert really do this? Does it have intention? Can it possibly be a friend who cares for our growth? The answer depends on whom we listen to. While the heart can easily say ‘yes’, ‘the desert is my helper’, even ‘my beloved’, the mind, characterized by intellect and rationality, by its job of separating and discriminating, can probably only know the desert as a passive expression of the empirical world.  Whatever the case, the growing love we feel is real, it is not a fiction and we are not passive.  In fact we are compelled, driven to this transformation by our heart’s instinctive need for growth and unity.  And in this, at the very least, the desert is our heart’s willing partner—a benefaction that surrounds us on all sides.

How simple it sounds. But of course, there’s a hitch.  Growth here, and perhaps anywhere, would be easy if it were up to the heart alone. But we have another, less willing partner, our ego—the ‘I’, the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’. Unfortunately, the ego’s idea of growth has nothing to do with knowing and living the infinite; instead, its version of ‘big’ lies in inflation, more and more of the same old small, more of ‘I’, more of ‘me’, ever more of ‘mine’.  So, when confronted with an unbounded expanse or deep silence, much less with the infinite Self, it only knows to resist what it takes to be an existential threat.  And it’s clever; being mind, it fights back with doubt and with the mind’s ultimate weapon, fear.  ‘Identify with me,’ we hear it say. ‘Fear the solitude, the expanse and the pure elemental world of the desert.’  But, while the mind may listen, the heart knows better; ego is an error, not a partner, and its resistance to growth and experiential knowledge cannot be sustained forever.  So, with patience, faith, and above all grace—fear, along with its progenitor ego, is hammered thin here, hopefully, left behind, a forgotten steppingstone on the path of transformation.

In time, and the desert does have the time that is needed, as doubt and fear dwindle to insignificance and ignorance gives way to truth, and fullness of heart blossoms, what is properly small can become humble.  Then life can be lived simply, as it is, truly infinite, whole and unbounded.  And, throughout all, the high desert, like a gleaming anvil, remains—huge, empty and silent.

© B. Witham 2016




One comment to The High Desert

  1. Mark Zanger says:


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