October 13, 2009 – Awakening in Death Valley
Sunrise and sunsets are said to be the thing here in Death Valley, but I wonder if on a day like this with an array of clouds opening and closing the sky if every moment isn’t a sifting of the light. I feel like flour shifted, lightened. One moment dark – then light – I face east, the rising sun, and turn; the hill behind me is glittering, glowing white.
I am reading Alan Fogel’s new book, The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness, Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense. He is a scientist, so I appreciate the embodied look at what we can do and be. I turn my head, honor my neck, sink into “movement that feels like oil or air.”
The wind is blowing softly – it is cool – no need for closed windows and air conditioning – I beckon the sound of the leaves to tune my ears – it is a swish – a broom – I feel cleansed from the inside out – I used my ergonomically designed soap this morning, the one with just the right curve and the hole in the middle – I look up now and see birds – an old locomotive – we are next to the Borax museum – one man set up a lap top and camera this morning to take time-lapse photos – I think of Ansel Adams – he is here – John Muir – the naturalists – Thoreau – Mark Twain – and I wonder if one can write without visiting spots like this – where words are stirred and yet Emily Dickinson wrote from home, from within, as a mystic who stirred all landscapes as her own.
Driving here, through miles and miles of open, empty and vacant, by human standards, natural space, I begin to see why CA has money problems. The state is huge and yes the federal government helps with maintenance of natural resources and parks but there are vast areas of uninhabited land where no taxes are paid and that is what makes this state so precious, the land. This land is active, volcanoes, water, ice. It moves. Years ago, I listened to a eulogy for my good friend Irwin. The minister was new to CA and said he understood why Californians tend toward acceptance and fluidity. The earth literally moves under our feet. Of course, he hadn’t visited Orange County where a rigid stance tends to be the rule.
In Death Valley, Telescope Peak rises 11,049 feet above sea level. The Badwater basis salt pan is 282 feet below sea level. It is the lowest place in the western hemisphere. What does it do to us to rise up and down in altitude as we drive?
I am reminded of the Everest region of Nepal, Khumbu, when I am here. We were so careful to acclimate, each step placed. We walked up, and slept down, near water. Now, we drive for miles, roller coaster up and down. There are 1000 species of plants in Death Valley. More than 50 are endemics, found nowhere else in the world. Now, I hear a siren, a sign of people, connection, rescue and care. We had to show photo ID when we used a credit card. I was surprised at a reminder drop of innocence and the consideration of change. American Indians have lived in Death Valley for 10,000 years. Now, we are here with credit cards and cash. I see that what matters here for survival is a knife. Away from this small oasis, money as we carry it, has no value. We travel with water and apples, drink often and munch.
There is a 2008 environmental sustainable report in each room. It is displayed openly and is not in the drawer like the Bible. Lights from Las Vegas affect the view of the stars. Pink “jeeps” come over from Las Vegas so people can view “nature.” The price is prohibitive. One could rent a jeep and have money to spare and yet these jeeps are air conditioned with huge windows and captain’s chairs. I remember when we went to Moab and rented an open jeep. We found an open curved place in the rocks and Jeff played his flute. The birds circled overhead. I thought of Ansel Adams this morning as I watched the man with his computer and camera equipment. We humans want to record what we see, to hold it, and share. Does a bird think of how its feathers change and filter the light as it flies?
The philosopher John Dewey said that “all art (verbal, visual, auditory, gustatory) is the transformation of the artist’s embodied self-awareness into a sensory form that leads back to another embodied experience, that of the person appreciating the work of art.” Alan Fogel goes on to say that “transformation is never perfect, hence the inherent ambiguity and generativity of art.”
I watch many of us here trying to share this experience with photographs and/or words. Can it be done? Should it? Can I honor what you are enjoying right now and not demand that you be here with me, sharing what I see, and yet, oh, yes, I want to share this movement of weather, passing through slowly, softly. I want you to know what I think I know. I want this moment to flow.
Perhaps self-awareness requires an “other.” Perhaps in my desire to share this with you, I feel it more deeply, or perhaps instead I am dividing, diluting my experience in my need to share it with you. I am trying not to judge, to not compare how I felt staying in a hotel in SF to this wider immersion in sky, earth, air. The sculptures of the Bristlecone Pines are beyond compare and yet we try in our cities to re-create their shape, but we cannot capture the wisdom of their years. We cannot re-create how closely their rings align – 100 years in an inch. Can we ourselves re-create that tight packaging of the Bristlecone Pine, that living that allows what seems, an unearthly reach? I choose now to reach and stretch, to bring my arms out from my sides to curve and hold even more uniquely the embodiment of matter in air. Perhaps there I know movement, nature, breast, and rest.