I kept walking, leaving the canyons behind. The eerie stone pillars and rugged topography of the badlands faded away like a mirage, and soon, the land was flat and featureless again.
This part of the desert was what geologists called a hamada, a low, level plain of boulders and stony soil. Low, wind-carved dunes rose in the distance, and far beyond them, hazy with distance, stood the ever-present mountains in whose rainshadow this barren land lay. My steps crunched on the rough gravel, whose wobbly and irregular stones threatened to twist a carelessly placed ankle.
Out on the open plain, there was no shelter from the sun’s brutal heat. I pulled the brim of my hat low to shade my face, but I could feel beads of sweat sliding down my back. The ground was brilliant white, a blinding dazzle, and even if there had been anything to see, it was hidden in the heat shimmer. Under those circumstances, it was no surprise that I almost tripped over the stone wall before I saw it.
Regaining my balance, I took a step back and surveyed the scene. The wall was no more than knee-high, made of rough, natural rocks that someone had carried and fit together. It was circular in shape, enclosing an area the size of a small room. It was much the same as the stone walls you might find on an old farmstead, but here in the desert, beneath this blistering sun, the labor required to build it must have been grueling.
I walked around the perimeter of the wall, trying to guess who might have built it and why, when I got a second violent shock. Someone leaped up from where he had been crouching behind it, someone I hadn’t seen before, and glared full into my face. He had skin the color of leather or old parchment, a long, scraggly beard and a balding head of wispy gray hair, and wore only shapeless, colorless rags. His eyes were set deep in his skull-like face, and they darted around like the eyes of some trapped animal.
“Enemies!” he shrieked, in a voice like an old cracked radio. “Danger! Beware! Enemies all around!”
With that, he dove back down, huddling behind the wall as if it could shelter him. I glanced out across the scorched plain, but from horizon to horizon, there was no one else in sight besides the two of us.
“What enemies are you afraid of?” I inquired, as politely as I could.
He leaped up again. “Terrorists! Immigrants! Gays! Communists! Scary dark-skinned people! They’re coming to take our guns and our Bibles. We have to bomb them, we have to occupy them. We have to invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity! The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!”
Despite myself, I was impressed. He had delivered that entire rant without pausing for breath.
“I think you’ve spent too much time listening to the gossips and scandal-mongers out here in the desert,” I said. “Is this how you live? Have you ever stopped to consider why it is that you spend every day being told about the newest group of people to hate and fear? Your leaders do it on purpose – fill your head with fear, teach you to jump at shadows – because people who are angry and afraid don’t think. They’re easily herded, less likely to think rationally, and they’ll gladly follow anyone who promises them safety. It’s a tactic that political leaders and demagogues have been using successfully for centuries. The script stays the same every time; it’s only the name of the enemy that changes. And the remarkable thing is that this works even when the designated victim is a small, marginalized, almost powerless minority, and it’s the large, powerful majority that’s being told to be afraid.”
I couldn’t tell if the raggedy man was even listening to me. He paced back and forth inside his circle of stones, muttering words under his breath as if deep in thought. “The powers that be are watching. The Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. Children dragged away by jackbooted thugs for praying in school. Satanic cults and their baby sacrifices. Evolution is a fraud. Global warming is an invention of Big Environmentalism. Christmas is under attack. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cell phones cause cancer. Toxins in our vaccines. Teach the controversy!”
“And isn’t it remarkable that you see yourself as surrounded by enemies?” I asked. “Who here is really threatening you? What rights of yours are being taken away? You in the desert far outnumber us in the garden, you realize. We’ve never called for the conquest of the desert by force, nor could we succeed even if we tried. All we’re doing – all we’ve ever done – is to assert our right to live as we choose, and ask that you respect that by not trying to coerce or bully us. Our society has gone so out of kilter that you have special privileges which you’ve come to think of as your due. When fairness prevails and those special rights are taken away, you think you’re being unfairly persecuted, because you don’t realize that no one else has ever had them.”
The strange man shook his head, but I couldn’t tell whether it was in response to what I was saying. “All flu shots are poison, you know. 9/11 was an inside job. HIV doesn’t cause AIDS! HIV was man-made to cause AIDS! They have secret technology to cause earthquakes and hurricanes. They put fluoride in our drinking water to keep us under control. Chemtrails sprayed from airplanes. The moon landing hoax. Who really shot JFK? Big Pharma is hiding the cure for cancer – there are natural cures they don’t want you to know about! You can run your car on water. Big Oil is covering it up!”
“Have you ever heard the theory,” I asked, still unsure if my words were falling on deaf ears, “of the hyperactive agency detector module? Human beings are primed to see intelligent agents even in natural cycles where none exist – or to see broader patterns of agency and intent where the actions of one or a few are a perfectly sufficient explanation. It’s as if we have a predisposition to believe that the intent must correspond to the cause – that a huge disaster can’t be caused by random chance, or by basic human motivations like self-interest and in-group bias, but must be the product of an equally huge and powerful conspiracy.
But don’t you see what all these conspiracy theories require you to believe about your fellow human beings? They force you to see us – to see everyone outside your narrow circle of like-minded allies, as not merely ignorant or indifferent, but as actively malevolent. They force you to see other people as strange and dangerous aliens whose wants and desires can never be reconciled with yours. Do you really find it plausible that we’re so different from you? Despite the scare stories, all we really want is the same things you want: peace and safety, health and prosperity, and the right to make our own choices in life. We’re all human beings trying to live together on this world, and the things which make us similar are far more important and meaningful than the ones that make us different. You really don’t have to be afraid.”
I awaited another burst of accusations, but there wasn’t one. Instead, when I looked up, the man was staring at me with a haunted expression. “I really don’t have to be afraid…?” he said hesitantly. He took a step forward, but flinched back from the boundary of the stone wall.
“It’s just a little step, you know,” I said.
He stepped forward again, and this time he didn’t flinch back. He stepped over the stone wall, and the instant that he did, he vanished like a swirl of smoke: no longer a denizen of the desert, but gone on to some other place entirely. In the same instant, a startling change came over the circle of desert enclosed by the rock wall: suddenly, it was no longer a desert at all, but an oasis. Where once there had been sand and stones, leafy flowering plants and tall palm trees now shaded a shallow pool of bright, clear water. It might not last forever, I knew… but even in the desert, such places did appear sometimes. More importantly, I knew I could use it as a path home. All gardens were connected at some level.
I looked around the otherwise desolate land once more. “Until next time,” I murmured, and stepped into the shade of the trees. I knew there would be a next time… but if there was a prospect of causing more gardens like this one to bloom in the desert, the thought of returning didn’t seem nearly as dreadful.