You can’t beat the desert for a good parable. Early in March, about ten years ago, my friend Rick and I went fishing with our friend Jimmy at a place in northern Arizona called Lee’s Ferry. We had woken up that morning to a snow flurry, but by the time we’d rented a jet boat, towed the thing to the launching site, and trolled up the Colorado to what seemed a likely spot, the sun was out and the temperature more springlike. Late that afternoon, after we’d pulled out 22 rainbow trout (knowing Game and Fish would let us keep only eight), we felt a chill knife through the air. Looking up at the ancient canyon walls that hemmed us in, we saw they were white with sleet.
Modern man dwarfed by the rocks of ages, suddenly at the mercy of the elements. Rub-a-dub-dub/Three men in a barque? Maybe not, but close enough.
The desert attracts characters. T.E. Lawrence, himself nobody’s idea of the boy next door, wrote of the founders of the great monotheistic religions: “An unintelligible passionate yearning drove them out into the desert. There they lived a greater or lesser time in meditation and physical abandonment; and thence they returned with their imagined message articulate, to preach it to their old, and now doubting, associates.” The message they preached was one of renunciation, of world-contempt, of the vanity of human desire.
But the desert has always attracted a distinictly other breed of kook — the visionary who wants to plant cities on the sands. Successful alumni of this school include Brigham Young, Max Nordau, Bugsy Siegel, the Emir of Dubai. The Metro Phoenix area, where I’ve lived for the past 21 years, reclines in the shade of palm trees transplanted from Mexico, Morocco and the Canary Islands. It has man-made lakes, man-made green belts and man-made wetlands. But despite these concerted encroachments, the Sonora Desert survives — in the craggy peaks of Camelback and Mummy Mountains, in the Papago cliffs, red as dried brick. Wherever civilization is not, desert is. Jackrabbits and coyotes turn up in busy parking lots. Scorpions find their way into office buildings. Snakes bask on sidewalks in front of golf courses.
Was my move from Manhattan to Phoenix a self-conscious hegira? Probably it was. But unlike the prophets, the pioneers and the hucksters, I wasn’t courting a vision, or following one — unless peace be a vision. Living in a place like New York means overstimulation. The City is more alive than any human, and it sometimes seems, more sentient. It has a pulse. Its blood is commerce and ambition. Every day there are new trends to follow, new diversions to sample, new faces and tongues displacing old ones. Before these forces, the human will is as helpless as a goat in a hurricane.
Some people need novelty like oxygen. They enjoy the trial of a stern buffeting, or the simple pleasure of going with the flow. Me, I require quietude and stability. My being is as rigid and brittle as a stick in the mud, and so, at the age of 18, with a fair inkling of all this, I became a stick in the sand. For the past 17 years, I’ve lived in the very same apartment complex. Noting that the red rock cliffs making up my southern view haven’t moved or changed since the Ice Age brings the same kind of comfort as recalling that the Vatican covers the spot of Peter’s crucifixion.
Of the Bedouin he was, so to speak, embedded with, Lawrence writes: “This people was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice.” That is, the Bedouin, though embracing a way of life marked by “nakedness,” “enjoyed his little vices,” and some vices not so little, including cruelty. It may be a coincidence, but my own life tends to divide itself into binge and purge cycles. For a while, I made a point of cycling 20 miles per day, and running six (and working eight hours) on no more than 1,600 calories. At least five cell phones have perished in toilets and sinks and swimming pools when I was in my cups. That the desert should encourage self-denial make obvious enough sense, but it also encourages self-indulgence. The quietness and antiquity of the place makes occasions of sin seem insignificant, tiny blips in eternity. What happens in Vegas, as they say, stays in Vegas — a desert city.
I binge and purge on love, the way I do with food and drink. When I fall in love, I fall hard; when love spends itself or outlives its usefulness, I fall even harder, renouncing the pursuit of it for months or even years. (The world, I’m starting to realize, is full of people who are just like me in this respect, and who have a way of finding each other.) Between purge and binge comes longing; the author of the most famous love poem ever writes like someone who knew both the desert and the yearning it creates for the fertile field and the oasis:
Your hair is like a flock of goats/Streaming down from Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of ewes/Which comes up from the washing,
All of them big with twin/None of them thin and barren.
Your cheek is like a half-pomegranate/Hidden behind your veil.
The Song of Songs represents both binge and purge. On one hand, every verse makes use of hyperbole — are anyone’s breasts really like towers? On the other, its overwhelming mood is one of anticipation. Solomon is marching up from the desert to meet his bride. The lover departs just as his beloved prepares to open her bedchamber to him. The Shulammite has not yet turned so that we may look at her. In the life of the desert, that moment between desire and satisfaction can go on indefinitely.
When civlization or indulgence disappoints, the desert itself can become an object of desire — and it, too, can disappoint. One time, after an affair came to an abrupt (and, for me, unexpected) end, I accepted my friend Rick’s invitation to visit the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, near Superior. Getting the desert in microcosm, I hoped, would be the cure I needed. The reality proved deeply unsatisfying. The keepers of the arboretum had packed the one-and-a-half mile trail with flora — dozens of species of agaves and aloes, many native of other regions — in a density nature would never have permitted. At the bottom of the trail were eucalyptus trees from Australia, and an African sumac whose enormous and twisted roots would have looked perfectly in place on Dagobah.
This was not the desert; it was such a kitschification of the desert as a Hollywood mogul or a depraved Regency aristocrat might have envisioned. I raced down the well-marked trails, passing crowds of tourists in sun bonnets, led by yakking, elderly docents, and found serenity in the parking lot.
The desert yields its signs at its own pace. The first Holy Saturday of my catechesis, I planned on attending Easter vigil. Instead, having spent the day helping Rick move out of his condo, I spent the evening at his new house, toasting his happiness while he and Yuna screamed at each other, testing the slam-worthiness of the cabinet doors. The next morning, I woke up, still slightly buzzed, and went out in the yard for a cigarette. There I saw a ficus tree whose branches Rick had chopped to the quick before moving in. Against the whiteness of the eastern sky, it looked stark, black, and creepily crosslike. By the time I’d finished smoking, however, the rising sun’s rays had revealed tiny green shoots peeking through the hard wood.
The ficus, or fig tree, is not, strictly speaking, a desert plant. It thrives on the border of the desert and the sown. It appears in the Qu’ran, and in both Old and New Testaments. It was with the leaves of such a tree that Adam and Eve covered their nakedness. It was this tree that Jesus cursed for its sterility. Death and rebirth, fallenness and forgiveness, made a nice morning’s haul. I filed away the lesson, made myself puke, and slept until ten like a sheikh in his tent.