Shadowlands: Clarity in the Desert

After more than a year of confinement in our bunker by the sea, sacraments of interruption lead to an unexpected journey of discovery in the high desert.

Apologies for the radio silence, dear friends, readers, and lookers-for-light.

I’ve taken most of April off, shutting down my socials, turning on the out-of-office replies, going largely unplugged, pulling up the drawbridge, and endeavoring to focus on a couple of book projects. Still, it’s been an eventful few weeks.

To wit: An update, live from a quiet corner of California’s Mojave desert.

After 13 months or so of home confinement and with the hopeful assurance that being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 brings, earlier this month I slowly emerged back into the world.

I began toeing the now-unfamiliar waters of public life by venturing out to doctors’ offices for long-overdue, in-person check-ups and then to the local café that has for the last nearly dozen years served as my second office for what was the most perfect almond milk latté I’ve ever had (enjoyed in the new expanded outdoor seating area in what used to be a tiny café-adjacent parking lot.)

We welcomed our first house guest in more than 15 months—our favorite Glaswegian music man, intrepid coronavirus survivor, and hands down one of the most fascinating people in the world, Martin Hanlin—for dinner a few Fridays ago, toasting our collective survival with Moscow mules on the lanai while the sun set north of Catalina Island in a flourish of purple, saffron, and claret. And our 21-year-old son, who had been living elsewhere since last summer, moved back home.

All was starting to feel right(er) again with the world.

Of course, this was a couple of days before largely indecipherable spray-paint markings appeared on the curb in front of our next-door neighbor’s house. We could make out the words “septic” and “gas line 200 feet behind”— tell-tale signs that a significant construction project was in the offing.

Lately I try to think of such unexpected turns of events as sacraments of interruption, which sometimes helps mitigate my frustration when plans go awry. This relatively new spiritual practice of reframing annoyance as a sacrament came in handy early one morning a week later when a construction crew with trench-diggers and jackhammers appeared in our neighbors’ backyard.

“Uh, hi guys, good morning,” I shouted as cheerfully as possible from the porch outside our second-floor bedroom to the workmen already standing knee-deep in muck in the adjacent garden where the last residents’ lovingly-cultivated, bountiful lavender plants once stood.

“Any idea how long this might take and the, um, jackhammering might go on,” I asked, trying not to sound as desperate as I was feeling.

Four or five days, they said, apologetically, which I was certain actually meant a fortnight in contractor-speak.

“OK, thank you,” I said. “That’s helpful to know.”

“HONEY!” I bellowed to my husband who was working in the living room a floor above me, signing into our Airbnb and VRBO accounts before bounding wild-eyed up the stairs with laptop in hand.

We quickly decided we would get the hell out of Dodge for at least a week because working from home with Zoom meetings and live online classes while attempting to finish a few sizeable writing projects with jackhammering 8-to-10 hours a day was 100-percent untenable. (Several summers ago, we’d barely survived two book deadlines with non-stop construction on the houses on both sides of us with our sanities intact. Been there. Done that. Never again.)

WAGONS EAST! #DesertOrBust

Since we moved from Chicago to Laguna Beach in 2009, the California desert has been our go-to getaway destination for long weekends and other mini-breaks. Whether we wind up in a cathedral of mid-century modern architectural swankitude in Palm Springs, a biennale in Bombay Beach along the tragic shores of the Salton Sea, or an bohemian encampment on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park, our time in the desert is reliably restorative. I always return transformed in some significant way, be it temporal or eternal. The desert is a sacred space because, as Joseph Campbell explained such places, it is where I can find myself again and again.

Two hours and countless biomes away from our oceanside village where houses are crowded cheek-by-jowl to take advantage of glorious seascape vistas, in the desert, whether Sonoran, Colorado, or Mojave, the sunshine that illuminates wide-open spaces is all crystalline brilliance. The shadows here are long, and the geography is an intoxicating paradox of desolation, isolation, dynamism, and natural magic.

“One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from Le Petit Prince

Even though it’s not so far from our home overlooking the Pacific, to me California’s high desert feels wholly other—an alternative reality where the wind erases footsteps in the dust as soon as a heel is lifted, stillness wraps around you like a weighted blanket even as unseen bands of coyotes howl at a full moon, and the light—O, the light!—is like nowhere else.

The light is what draws me back time after time. It is a trickster light that makes the sky seem almost incandescently blue and, depending on the vantage point and time of day, causes the muted palette of flora and fauna to evolve like the colors of a bruise.

Last week in the Mojave desert town of Yucca Valley, for instance, the same Santa Rita Pricklypear plant with its pancake-shaped pads that appeared to be shades of turquoise green-blue when we walked the dog in the morning, was all dusky violet and plum-mauve when we returned for our evening constitutional not long before the last sliver of sun disappeared behind San Gorgonio Mountain.

A tiny Allen Hummingbird sat atop a feather-lined nest the size of an upturned baby portabella mushroom cap in a desiccated fireberry bush outside the bedroom window of our VRBO “ranch” appeared to be dun-colored at dawn but by the time the sun reached its apex in the noon sky, had turned a fairy-like iridescent green.

Did you know that hummingbirds (and honey bees, too, apparently) can see ultraviolet light? I wonder how the brilliant blue sky I see appears to their eyes? The answer is likely “even bluer” and perhaps also surrounded by a halo of purple haze.

Hummingbirds Can See Ultraviolet Light

I discovered that fun fact about hummingbird UV vision only recently while doing some research about the science of desert light. Is it really that different from the light elsewhere?

The short answer is yes, and it has as much to do with air as it does sunlight.

The air in the Mojave desert is substantially purer than it is in, say, Los Angeles or Boston. Because the population is lower and the climate significantly drier, desert air contains fewer particles and water droplets (i.e., aerosols), which create a hazy or foggy effect and scatter sunlight across the spectrum as white light, in turn diluting the appearance of blue light. (By the way, the sky isn’t actually blue, as we humans perceive it to be. That, too, is a trick of the light.)

“Light from the blue-violet end of the spectrum is much more likely to bounce off an air molecule than is light from the red-orange end,” according to the Desert Museum. “As a result, most reddish light travels through the atmosphere more or less unimpeded, but enough bluish light is scattered into our eyes to make the sky appear blue.”

The absence of pollution and particles in the air combined with a jet stream that carries clean air from the Pacific Ocean inland, help make desert sunsets so vivid. The relatively unfiltered light paints the evening desert sky in watercolors and also may have given the “Pink Supermoon” earlier this week the peachy hue we saw here (even though the color is not the reason why April’s supermoon was dubbed “pink” by the indigenous inhabitants of this land.)

Sunrise, (Super)Moonrise

Last weekend, we visited with Christina Bjenning, an artist friend who relocated from Long Island to the Mojave desert a few years ago and now lives on a five-acre ranch on the outskirts of Joshua Tree. Christina, a jewelry maker and silversmith whose designs you can find here, says the desert and its light are “clarifying.”

By that I believe she means that in the light (real and metaphorical) of the desert, we are able to see things—including ourselves—as they are. More clearly. And sometimes even in technicolor.

In his novel Desert Solitaire, the late environmentalist and writer Edward Abbey described it this way:

"The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom."

The desert reveals itself and its truths to the patient and the present—those who are wide awake and paying attention. “It was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names,” Michal Ondaatje said of the desert in The English Patient. “It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.”

Nature makes woodwind melodies from gentle zephyrs and heady gales that move amidst a tableau of organic and human-made detritus. There’s a low, steady hush of air rustling creosote and sage. Winds whistle and moan through the broken windows of skeletal buildings and abandoned vehicles.

A couple of mourning doves coo from their perch on a sun-bleached telephone pole. Nearing sunset, a covey of quail congregates in a glass-strewn lot next to a decidedly immobile mobile home. They chortle and hoot-bob as they flee en masse to a stand of brittlebush when a passing pedestrian and her small, ridiculous dog inadvertently startle them.

Such are the sounds of silence in the high desert, the soundtrack of wordless stories told in light and shadows along dirt roads that lead deeper into seemingly lifeless, arid panoramas that are anything but. Through the silence, something throbs, and gleams….

Here in unincorporated Landers, the backyard of nowhere in what is classified as a “dark sky” site devoid of most light pollution, it never gets completely dark. A luculent tapestry of stars and planets provides enough illumination to navigate by foot even on a moonless night.

“You cannot see total light or total darkness,” Father Richard Rohr says in his The Naked Now.You must have variances of light to see. The shadowlands are the only world we live in.”

Whether you find yourself in desert or shadowland, may you have the clarity you need to continue the journey.

High Desert Mandala: A Windmill Meditation


                                Breath of life,
                                                     Siansán gaoithe,
                                                                                Invisible made visible,

Moving across the surface of the desert.

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Thank you for reading. #LuxInTenebrisLucet

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