fool’s progress

Contemplating space-time, dimly (photo by stephanie)

Contemplating space-time, dimly
(photo by stephanie)

“What are you going to do with your life, Henry?”

“My life? Do with my life? Why should I do anything with my life? I live my life. Or—is it mine? Or am I merely the temporal instrument of my life? A reed in the wind, a seed passing through the bowels of a cactus wren, a swirl of dust rising from an alkaline playa in the heart of the Black Rock Desert, a ripple of motion across the surface of a pond, an ephemeral downward shift of sand on the slipface of a dune?”

-Henry Lightcap, from Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel (1988)

“‘Tezyeme,’ he said, which meant something on the order of ‘it is happening the way it is supposed to happen.’”

-Ursula K. Le Guin, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994)

To say that I am planning-averse is to understate the case. People often note that hindsight is crystal clear—but what’s the word on foresight? Excepting the seers, prognosticators and visionaries? It’s said to be a key trait in separating the sentient from the merely living, this sense of peering into the future, preconceiving of the later, the after, the next. This sense is obviously more highly developed in some humanoids, less so in others. Mine appears to be cataracted, clouded over, depauperate.

Too often I find future-tense an abstraction, a theoretical quagmire, as cognitively distant to me as starshine from the heavens, millions of light-years away: a truly confounding divide. An incomprehensible rift between that which I know to be true and that which I can only speculate upon. There is no grand scheme to my existence, no idealized template to which my life will conform. I preoccupy myself with minutiae, comprehending the larger picture only much later, if at all. I bow easily to caprice; I am guilty of quixotic notions from time to time. (Read: All the time.) I am present but flighty, aware yet unaccountably aloof.

I came out to the desert on a whim. I craved a change: change of scenery, of pace, of overall milieu. There was not much thought put into how I’d adapt; the adaptation was implicit, elementary, like wading into water and getting wet. It was, in retrospect, a drastic shift from what I had known, the pre-Black Rock experience ensconced in drippy trees and persistent cloud, a life in thrall of the sea. But my temperament naturally allowed for it.

So—thus far, what have I done here? What am I doing now? Is it worthwhile? And what—perish the thought—comes next? These are big questions. I don’t know the answers, but sometimes a long ruminative walk makes me feel better about things.

Full moonset

Harvest moon, setting

The sparrows fly before me as I wend a path through the gnarled sagebrush and scratchy shadscale, the peach-colored granite clasts crunching beneath my soles, the sun low on the western horizon. Wind cooing softly from the north, cool and without malice. It is early evening and I am restive, peripatetic, wandering. Flitting from shrub to shrub, the sparrows’ flight is facile and almost playful in appearance: a wingbeat or two for loft, then a sinking pause; flap, sink, repeat. Brewer’s sparrows. Small, brown, unremarkable. Ubiquitous. They bob across the desert, chipping and whirling about, alighting on sage boughs to check my advance. If they are leading me, they make no effort to wait up, flushing as I draw close and moving twenty, thirty feet ahead, maintaining a lively patter all the while: seep seep seep!

I follow a route known well to me, a looping trail through the shrub-steppe that passes no notable landmarks, no scenic overlooks, nothing outside of the usual Black Rock tableau viewable from a thousand nameless points. Just a loop through the shrubs. There is the greasewood with its plasticine, disc-shaped flowers, its needlelike jade leaves and bacilliform fruits; yonder is desert blite, barren and blackish green in its sparing foliage, a perpetually moribund-looking plant. Always on the verge of wasting away, it seems.

As I crunch around the southernmost toe of the Granite Range—following prints of antelope, mustang, coyote, cattle—smaller creatures dart from the path, skittering across gravel to the shaded lees of rocks, shrubs, the odd gnarled juniper. Ground squirrels, jackrabbits, gopher snakes and locusts. Horned toads. Dragonflies. Matte-black beetles with abdomens tilted skyward. A covey of California quail burst from a rocky alcove, taking flight for mere yards before touching down and running up the scree. Fence lizards clamber atop boulders, brazen and blue-flanked, pumping their spiny bodies up, down on sprawled forelimbs. They eye me, their heads swiveled to gauge my reaction. Push-ups as intimidation. I am perhaps slightly impressed.

The sun hangs low over the Smoke Creek Desert; the sky to the east, above the Selenites, fades rapidly from pink to rusty orange to a deep, bruised purple, the lines of the peaks bluing, blackening, soon blurring from view. Up rises the moon amidst purling wisps of cloud. I make my way back in the ebbing light, completing the loop, following a dirt road glittering with broken glass and heaps of rusted tin cans to either side. An erstwhile dump just outside of town, its half-century-old contents corroded and worn down by alkali dust and gnawing wind. One is reminded of packrat middens, eons-old piles of refuse preserved in crystallized rat piss. This place has endured humanity for many thousands of years, but it is nothing, a tenure of trifling import—a blink in geologic time, a scrim of trash constituting the uppermost stratum, exposed to the elements. Eventually to be effaced, like all else.

What good is it to know horsebrush from winterfat, ephedra from desert peach, buckwheat from budsage and squaw currant from bitterbush? To see a raptor take wing and know that it is an osprey, and not a golden eagle, not a Swainson’s hawk, not a kestrel? To observe an eroded hillside at the foot of a range and declare it an inset fan, as opposed to a ballena? There is value in the difference. There are subtle forces at work, forces that shape one as its kind and not like the others. Lifeforms, landforms alike beholden to universal laws and mandates, eternally and inflexibly directing the pressure. Slowly these forces push and pull them, whittling and tamping: they are changed, changing, always in flux. Their presence today speaks of time on an epic scale—time enough for adaptation, speciation, specialization; time enough for weathering and conglomerating and reconstituting of the earth itself.

These plants and animals and landforms—so fine-tuned in their phenotypic expression and geomorphological mien—appear almost immutable from the human perspective. In our lifetime these species and petrified formations may change little, if at all. But this is our biased view. We struggle mightily with so-called deep time, measured in millions and billions of years, a span so far beyond the ken of human mortality as to preclude relatable discussion, even rational thought.

But of course it’s rational (if not altogether certain). The laws of the universe dictate as much. Ultimately, I guess what I’m trying to say is that living in the desert has connected me to the natural world in a way I’d never known. An indelible way. A way wholly unexpected and supremely gratifying in its manifold returns. It’s a connection bridging eons, opening my eyes to a stunning natural history writ large upon the land, a living breathing tapestry laid bare across the basins.

To what do I attribute this experience? Isolation, mainly. Lots of free time. Room to wander. Very inspiring, this place. I’m inclined to return.

I may not think too deeply about the future now—what with most of my time spent dwelling on the past, dabbling in the present—but there’s always tomorrow, right? A brand new day, ripe for amendment? I’m looking forward to it.

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