While walking slowly through the Mojave Desert I found what looked like part of an old desert tortoise’s shell.
Sun bleached and chalky, broken into pieces that fit together like a puzzle in large geometric shapes to form what might have been the bottom plate of his shell.
Who knows how old he was when he died. He didn’t keep track, I’m sure. He could have been 100 years old when he took his last step. A noble desert traveler returning to dust, being carried off on the wind, the whispering desert wind.
At twilight the red and purple sky and the sinking desert sun played backdrop to the yipping of coyotes off on an opposing ridge, the wind would sometimes stir through the Joshua Trees like a whisper of cool air. If I listened closely enough and with a mind settled like snow on a frozen lake, would I hear what it had to say? Could the wind talk? I like to think it can, but only if we listen, which we’re not likely to do anymore.
I had lost my way.
I used to have a mindfulness practice but it went by the wayside some time ago. I was caught up “in the web” or like a fly in Vaseline—mind like a “monkey mind” the Buddhists say— darting this way and that with no control whatever, truly a “mind of its own.”
I wonder if some of my lack of awareness, my decreasing attention span and scattered mind, might be because the internet is rewiring our brains. Making us less able to concentrate. Less able to pay attention, to listen, to be present. Throw in cell phones, texting, earbuds—well now you have one culture hellbent on doing something other than whatever it is they’re presently doing (like just sitting, waiting, eating).
For a long time I had a mindfulness practice and have done residential meditation retreats in silence, practicing for seven days starting at about six a.m. and lasting until about 10 p.m. each night. I have studied eastern philosophy (Taoism, Buddhism, Yoga, etc) for over 18 years. But I had let my practice go by the wayside—and it showed.
Meditation can change our brains. So to the desert I went. I went to rewire my brain and take it back from the busyness of the modern world. To reclaim what is I think our ancestral heritage (and right) to silence, peace, calm.
When my mind has been as active as it was, it takes some time to settle down and become quiet. I knew this from years of practice, so I was patient. Eventually my mind gave up trying to get my attention and that first instant when it finally shuts up and all I have is the warm sun, the endless blue sky and the monzogranite boulders beaming light from the quartzite gems embedded in them.
That first instant of silence is like a great massage of the soul. Like a giant exhalation casting off the fetters of a tense and stressful grip, releasing me into a timeless moment that most cultures before us probably knew, like the Hopi, or the Lakota or the Mojave.
Along with listening, I watched. I took slow walks, sat out in the open desert, scanning the silence and the desert floor for a rock that moves slowly. I’ve never seen a desert tortoise but I know that from a distance it looks like a rock. And then it moves, surprising the unsuspecting witness, taking its time. Slow time. Deep time.
The desert tortoise has patiently plied the Mojave Desert for centuries, eons really, with little care about getting anywhere at all. Its sense of time must be very different than ours. We’ve lost a sense of time that is grand, that is slow, that is quiet.
Most of what drives our lives now, most of what we acquire, the “stuff”, all of the activity that fills the gaps between the activities, the new car, the new house, a different job, Facebook, texting, tweeting—all of it is racing towards us or us to it, in order, in my view, to avoid one thing: Boredom.
So I sat in the desert and experienced boredom to its fullest. I watched as my mind wanted to hike, or bike, or run, or surf the internet, or climb or do something dammit other than just sit there. And I became comfortable with boredom again. I think I briefly sank into slow time, deep time and I imagined that when all of my “stuff” is stripped away, all of my busy body activities are removed, that the peace I felt was something that was a genetic right I inherited—that all humans inherited and that somehow we’ve managed to push it away. I think it is a tragedy that we’ve lost our right to just do nothing.
No agendas. No deadlines. No schedules. No time.
I think that if we were to ask the desert tortoise how he deals with boredom he would look at us with confusion (sadness really) and wonder what we were talking about. It’s like when the Dalai Lama was asked about self-hate and he didn’t understand the question. When it was explained what self-hate was and that many Americans experience it, he became very sad and shook his head. He couldn’t understand such a thing.
I imagine the desert tortoise reacting the same way to a question about boredom. I see him shaking his head, slowly lifting himself with his stout legs and walking off at a measured, deliberate pace, picking his way through sage and cactus with no specific destination in mind nor schedule to meet. I would watch him until he disappeared (which would take a long time) to grant him the respect an old sage deserves, a desert wanderer with nothing to accomplish. No one to impress.
Early in the morning, I would search for bobcat hunting the deer mouse (or jackrabbit) but mostly I saw raven. A black form up in the deep blue desert sky cawing, gurgling an almost heinous sound, and then back to cawing. Maybe he was telling the desert tortoise to rise. “The sun is fast approaching old friend, come out and take your rightful place among us.” The desert tortoise would be too smart to listen to raven knowing he was trying to trick him. So the tortoise would stay in his burrow until February or March, waiting for the cold nights to pass and days that bring higher temperatures under the hot sun.
I imagine that in spring, from raven’s perspective up there, he can see rocks down below that slowly start to move. The desert coming alive, slow rocks shifting in no particular order, no sensed pattern, no goal in mind. Patient desert wayfarers that thank the morning sun and move on slowly toward no place but this place. Right here. Right now.
I mimicked the desert tortoise’s pattern of stirring when the sun was warm, retreating when it dropped behind the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Their numbers are falling. Another threatened species to add to the list, their habitat shrunk due to human encroachment they are now confined mostly to the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.
They’ve come so far through time, deep geologic time, only to arrive to a shrinking world around them. The closing in of their world brought about by a species that thinks in terms of accumulation, consumption, a single generation. A species that has things to do, promotions to achieve, sales targets, retirement homes to erect. And they have very little time to do it, it seems, the way they race around like they do, the tortoise must think. “What’s the rush?” I imagine him asking, “Who is chasing them?”
The human species is but a brief moment in deep time, a mere blip in the scale of geologic time so in terms of earthly seniority, we are the greenhorns. You would think we would show a little more respect to those who came before us. And yet.
At night the stars in the desert sky arc over like those quartzite gems in the boulders on the desert floor and twinkle in blue, orange, yellow and red pulses—the only thing piercing the dark silence is the occasional rumbling jet high above racing towards another landing. Then another takeoff. Then another landing. The desert tortoise waits below the earth, deep down, patiently as he does, for the warming soil, the golden rays increasing intensity to beckon him out. “Come out old friend,” I imagine the sun saying to the tortoise, “Come take your rightful place among us.” And when this happens months from now in spring, this time the tortoise will listen, trusting the old sun, thanking him for his warm embrace as he slowly emerges from his winter burrow. And then, just as the heat of the desert floor shimmers in the distance, when the raven whirls above in dark angles, the rocks will begin to move. Slowly. Just as they have for centuries. Just as they have for eons of deep time past.
This article was first published by the Daily Kos under the title A Brief Moment In Deep Time.
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Assistant Editor: Holly Horne/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: J. Jason Graff (Mojave flickr photo set)