“This is how to do it. Wait for everything to get undressed and go to sleep. Forget to explain to yourself why you are here. Listen attentively. This is the sound of the loudest dreaming, the dreams of boulders. Continue to listen until the music isn’t there. What you thought about boulders will evaporate and what you know will become clear. Each night it will be harder. Listen until you can hear the dreams of the dust that settles on your head.”
-Barry Lopez, Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven (1976)
In High Rock country I lie awake under a stand of ghostly aspen, their gnarled trunks swaying and groaning in the breeze, their limbs and spatulate leaves trembling, quaking. Like jingles on a tambourine the leaves flap and rustle on pliant petioles, soughing where they meet and brush past—a convincing stand-in for the susurrus of the sea. But there is no sea here, not any longer, not for many hundreds of miles. Instead there is desert—canyons, basins and ranges, sagebrush, aridity. As I slip from consciousness in the confines of my tent, watching the moon peek over rimrock through the tent’s mesh dome, I imagine an ebb tide pulling wetly from the shore, and it’s easy to believe I’m home.
I am home. My home away from home. The aspen sighs and Pacific tides are somewhat analogous in my mind as phenomena similar in their aesthetic appeal, yet fundamentally different in mien. And equal in significance. Cut from the same cloth, as it were.
Soon there are other, competing sounds. I listen as the night watch comes to attention: bark of nighthawk, warble of poorwill, chorus of coyote, ultrasonic shriek of bat fluttering overhead on diaphanous wings. Crickets chirp behind my head; mice scamper in the grass nearby, sometimes scratching furtively, tentatively at the fabric of my tent. I deny them entry. Somewhere not far off I picture pygmy rabbits romping in a meadow, munching sage and keeping an ear cocked for owls: great horned, barn, short-eared, screech. A suite of swift, silent death borne on hooked beaks and honed talons. Somewhere in the canyon the mule deer are bedding down; somewhere up on the ridge the pronghorn and bighorn sheep do the same. Perhaps a cougar’s crawled into its den for the night, cat-napping until the urge to prowl, the stirrings of hunger grow insistent once more.
I drift off. Later, when I wake from half-remembered dreams, it is darker still and the moon’s spun off the premises, its shift over for the night. The vacancy is filled to bursting with the light of stars—swelling, birthing, dying stars—also satellites, planets and exoplanets, meteors, comets, interstellar clouds of debris, galaxies atilt and asunder. Through mesh and aspen boughs I glimpse the beginnings of time, the leading edge of our nascent awareness. The universe bears down heavily upon my tent. Despite all that empty space, it feels dense, profound, unyielding. If that’s not enough to rouse one from slumber in the middle of the night, nothing will.