Joseph Ross: The Necessary Truth of Deserts

“The Necessary Truth of Deserts” is a lovely short essay by Joseph Ross about Palm Canyon and Andreas Canyon in Southern California, which the Agua Caliente Band of California’s Cahuilla Indians offer as a place for hiking.

Joe, author of the amazing collection of poems Meeting Bone Man, has a clarion-clear voice for human mystery.

Here’s an excerpt from his essay:

While in the desert, you can see and feel the distinction between necessities and extras. You see your place in the world, our wonderful human smallness. The perspective the desert offers is brutal but real. We are small. We control very little. We are only part of a larger, sometimes cruelly connected web of life. In these things, the desert teaches us lessons nearly impossible to learn elsewhere. The desert’s lessons are inescapable while you are in it.

Interestingly, in the early years of Christianity, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, many Christians, certain that official acceptance would dilute the radicality of their faith, fled to the deserts around the Mediterranean where they sought to maintain a more pure form of Christianity. Because the desert allows for few flourishes and extras, the Desert Tradition kept Christianity’s basics alive in its monks and nuns: silence, simplicity, prayer, hospitality, love of neighbor.

There is an inevitability in deserts as well. In Joshua Tree National Park, huge and curious rock formations, which I loved to climb and explore, shot out from the desert floor. These wild rock formations jutted up out of the sand at angles that amazed me as a young boy. You could see too that the desert’s sand, was just a broken version of these huge rock formations. This was not the fine and drifting sand of an ancient desert. These huge rocks were always and slowly becoming the desert’s sand. One could say every stone’s future is a desert. Everything breaks down, including us, into a sort of desert.

I remember also, as a boy, my parents’ book called The Living Desert. I loved the photographs and drawings of terrifying rattlesnakes, elaborate cactus blossoms, the odd plants like yucca and jumping cactus. Clearly this place called the desert is not an easy place to be, but it is a fascinating one. When we see life at its most basic levels, what we truly need becomes far more clear.–Joseph Ross

Read Joe’s lovely essay The Necessary Truth of Deserts.

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