The air is still, hot and oppressive. Glaring sun scalds rocks, sand and exposed skin. Dry lips stick to your teeth. Plant thorns surround you and the silence is deafening. Jagged mountains rise like angry fists, arroyos gasp with thirsty seams and canyons gash the surface like gates to Hell. There is no green grass, babbling brooks, or shady tree canopies. This is the desert.
A subconscious fear creeps in while driving through the desert in your comfortable and cozy vehicles. Vacant stares reflect a barren landscape and emptiness. “There’s nothing here,” you say. And move on.
Yet something –inexplicable, indefinable, and unforgettable- touches you; lingering in your subconsciousness, imprinting memories, tickling curiosities. And sometimes, it tethers you with an elastic rope which pulls you back –again and again.
Big Bend is a banquet, a buffet, where scientists, humanists, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts can feast on diverse curious delectables and come back to the table over and over again. You can gorge yourself and remain hungry for more.
Why? What is it about the Big Bend region that affects us so deeply? Is it the mystery, the natural history, the romance? Could it be the solitude and remoteness? Or perhaps the extremes, diversity and ghosts?
I wrote the above as a journal entry. Then decided to expand it for submission as an article. But I haven’t been able to finish it. If I disengage myself spiritually from Big Bend, I would write how other people see it. Or present Big Bend so that others can relate to it. But it’s that ‘Nature’ thing. I would be establishing a virtual rendition of the Nature of Big Bend. Then a ghost rises out of me and taps me on the shoulder, asking me again, as it has for so many decades: What is ‘Nature’?
Nature is a human contrived ideal. It is what we each perceive as being natural. But that concept -what constitutes natural, and as Nature- changes at so many layers and levels, places and time. The American tendency is to see Nature as Eden, the biblical equivalent of perfection and ‘good’. In our modern comfortable virtual natures, we have control: everything in its place, clean, orderly, songbirds and butterflies. Yet anything can happen in the reality of nature: floods, fire, drought, freezes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fire ants. These are the Satans of Nature; the antithesis of Eden and ‘good’. Nevertheless, we, and all that surrounds us, are all apart of it. We are all in this together. And because of what we are, we have a responsibility to live in harmony with nature. Not destroy it. Because if we destroy nature, and all that we share this planet, we destroy ourselves.
So, why Big Bend? Why this northern part of the Chihuahua Desert?
I know what attracts me to Big Bend. The chaos, the unpredictable, and the extremes; the Eden and the Hell. The mountain lions, coyotes, falcons, thorny shrubs and cactus, shortage of water, heat and cold, the uneven and rocky terrain, and the silence that is not of lambs. I am not in control; I am responsible for my own welfare and life. I have to work and provide for myself: water, food, shelter, and heat. Many times it is uncomfortable and hard work. I can fail. I can lose my life. But at least I used my own hands and feet, my head and my heart, to do something for myself rather than have it all done for me or dictated how it should be.
Money and things I can buy don’t give me the satisfaction in life that I want. Neither does living in cities. But being responsible to myself, others around me, and to the environment that challenges me does. Learning to derive a life from that which the environment can support. And the intense wonderment and awe of a land that refuses to be controlled.
That is what attracts me to this spot in the desert.