Volcanic outflows and cones make for a toothy skyline.
So great is my hunger for community I recently committed a desperate act. I bought a lottery ticket. The papers had been full of how the cash pay-off could be the largest in history, never-mind the 25 million to one odds. I snuck off to a convenience store and traded my dollar bill for a quick-pick chance at fortune. I slid the ticket under a Yellowstone Park refrigerator magnet and waited.
The man who won seemed a decent sort, so my disappointment abated. But I sorrowed for lost chances to be a monsoon shower of philanthropy for drought-stricken charities. I imagined invitation to instant community by the recipients of my generosity, especially from those whose mission it is to conserve lands in the path of development. My consolation prize, appropriately enough, was to visit a nearby desert habitat that could have been secured had my ship come in.
The morning of my visit was brightened to seamless blue, tiresome theme color of our prolonged drought. I hiked off the highway two miles, just beyond range of vehicle sounds, though not of the inevitable target shooters. The terrain is rugged. Volcanic outflows and cones make for a toothy skyline. I soon encountered Saguaros, celebrities of this Upland Sonoran ecosystem. I cheerfully acknowledged their upraised arms with a wave of my own and pressed on, determined on this day to seek out less obvious features of the desert. Perhaps this wish was a hang-over from my hope of winning the lottery–a kind of winner-takes-all mentality that suggests only money–lots of it–buys happiness. Could happiness be found in lesser denominations of a landscape intimately known?
That morning, the first small change discovered was a track-way which opened out like a children’s book illustrated on pages of pale sand. There were forked tracks of quail, road runners, and white-winged doves. Many arrowed toward the desert stream, others circumnavigated green boles of Palo Verde trees. Some were cross-stitched through embroideries of Teddy Bear cholla who stood like Yodas in cloaks of diamond bristles.
Now the tracks belonged to rodents. Frenetic foraging of kangaroo rats and grass mice brushed rice-paper texture of river sand with the delicacy of a 16th century Kano fan painter. One read in these picture stories desires for food, for companionship, for escape from predator beaks. On occasion smaller tracks were crossed by those of bobcats and in one case a mountain lion. Finally, there were the cloven-hoofs of cattle, the proxy signature of humankind.
The desert seemed a very busy place and the ears of my imagination composed a symphony of rustles and gnawing, the hiss of reptile tails dragging through warm sand, the rhythmic whump of owl wings low over moonlit water in search of smaller searchers. I felt like the last one home from an all-night party.
I eased myself into a steep-sided wash and where it elbowed around an upraised fist of red granite a small miracle presented itself. It is Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi), a six-foot shrub heavy with purple blossoms. Bees buzzed in gratitude at this winter bounty. I pressed close to inhale perfume so rare on the air of a midwinter’s day dream. The wash escorted me to another surprise–a stream threading across the hot belly of one of the driest deserts in the region in the afternoon of a prolonged drought. The stream is no wider than my belt and yet where it pours off a ledge of welded volcanic tuf it sings a confident ditty, as if to reassure itself that it will survive this relentless aridity. Despite its modest presence, the rivulet has over the years sculpted its companion channel into shapes suggestive of bubbling pancake batter or the lace doilies perched on the arms of Grandmother’s divan.
the rhythmic whump of owl wings low over moonlit water in search of smaller searchers.
I was surrounded by neighbors who watched from secret clefts.
The sandy bottom of the interior basin is perforated with burrows whose entrances range in size from dimes to grapefruits. There are no names on the mailboxes, but scat, chewed cholla fruits, and flecks of shed skin, create a census of artifacts that reveal dwellers of these cozy bungalows to be western whiptails, collared lizards, hognose snakes, and antelope chipmunks. Each step enhanced the feeling I was not alone, that I was surrounded by neighbors who watched from secret clefts, or who dreamt on furry paws and stirred in sleep with the vibrations of my passing feet.
The longer I walked the more I found to value in the desert realm, which to the hurried eye suggests the least of life’s riches. The more I found to value, the deeper grew my appreciation and wonderment. By the time I reached my vehicle for the trip to my own desert burrow, I was so laden with sensory gifts I had to sit down and sort it all out like a man who has stumbled upon a treasure and must begin to measure the worth of his booty.
The first coinage I identified was that my well of well-being was filled to the rim. My only investment had been to nudge open my heart’s front door to value little offerings the natural world presented. Translated in terms of our society’s obsession with money, I enhanced my portfolio of wonder–my miraculum–by enlarging my capacity for interest in the “small change” of the desertscape. This attention earned compound interest on the principle of affiliation with the world as it was first created.
Further benefits accrued to my memory account from the desert sojourn. I could recall at will sights and sounds of mundane miracles of nature that garbed my naked loneliness in the warmth of relationship. This has helped me to resist marketing messages targeted at my starving consumer consciousness and to wean myself from the need to purchase items for a momentary rush of shopper’s excitement. Why assume burdens of debt when the means of lasting enrichment are literally at hand and foot?
My Sonoran stroll helped me to remember that the best things in life are free-ranging creaturely brethren and their free ranges. These natural neighbors to humanity freely share their beauty and interesting behaviors if we will but notice. Each discovery of another critter–out in a distant desertscape or even inside the house or backyard–is instant enrichment. Each falling in love with life in our respective neighborhoods of the big Blue Planet is an investment in connection. To walk in a place where you have searched out the intimacy of little lives at every step is to never walk alone.
The living world costs little more than our responsibility to preserve its health. We can do this in the same spirit by which we protect our own children, those innocents who must be sheltered from the harms of the world by vigilant and loving adults. As we grow to understand the need for homeland security for all creatures great and small, wherever they dwell, it occurs to us that each place is a nursery where next generations of winged ones and hopping ones, two, four, six, eight or more legged ones, are being born as our neighbors and as our extended family.
I feel fully healed from not winning the lottery. I lost nothing. But through my quiet walk in the desert a few days later I gained a world one sandy track and one purple blossom at a time. By that same mathematics of incremental gain I have pledged dollars usually sacrificed to lottery gambling to efforts to conserve local nature. Each dollar so gifted will pay dividends for the rest of my life and will grow a trust fund for the coming generations. This trust is formed of the eternal and beneficial powers of the living world. Giving to my human and other-than-human neighbors is philanthropy that makes durable the only true and lasting wealth possible–being bonded in love and responsibility to a living community.
I could recall at will sights and sounds of mundane miracles of nature that garbed my naked loneliness in the warmth of relationship.