Insights from the Desert

After settling my middle daughter into her reduced-usage dorm space for the semester in Southern California last week, I got away to the desert. There’s a lot of it in those parts and I chose Saddleback Butte State Park, an off-the-beaten-track destination featuring some outcroppings called ‘buttes,’ a plethora of Joshua trees (sort of cactuses but sort of not), but mostly just miles and miles of undeveloped, uninhabited land.

I had a good two-hour hike in this wasteland. So utterly different than the well-watered forests, streams, and springs of Western Maryland. And yet, deserts have always been excellent metaphors for troubling times, for times of scarcity, for times that lack direction, for times of soul-searching and hope-seeking. Many religions reference the desert including my own (Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus all spent significant time there).

Our country is going through a desert-like experience. We can learn from the desert how to navigate a ravaging pandemic, a polarized political landscape, escalating racial tension, and growing hopelessness among the poor and the young alike. Here’s what I learned about getting through times like these by spending two hours in the desert (maybe I would have learned more if I had spent a few days!):

1. Living in scarcity is different than living in abundance. When you see how dry it is, you look at the shrubbery and you think, ‘how could they ever turn green at all with so little water?’ In the promised land of the USA, we expect abundance. We come here so we can have discretionary resources, we can live beyond hand-to-mouth, we can have lots of cushion in our bank accounts, loaded pantries, extra sets of wheels. So when abundance disappears, we wonder where we are, forgetting that most of the world lives in scarcity. Most of the world is still pinching pennies, calculating carefully-tweaked food budgets, leveraging every gallon of gas for maximum distance to and from a sole source of income. In the desert, scarcity is not an evil; it’s a given. It’s reality. And you simply learn to live with it.

2. Not everything is scarce in the desert. Sure, water may be measured by the milliliter, every plant cherishing every drop it can lap up. Shelter can be almost impossible to find. But if you’re looking for air, sunlight, soil, wind, not to mention sheer space, you have them all in spades! I think of life during COVID: money, travel, entertainment, and social life may all have been reduced. But outdoor life, communication, pets, home life, and free time are at a premium! There is abundance, if we look for it in different places.

3. You have to plan more carefully. Water bottle, sunscreen, high-heeled shoes, map – these are optional in most parks but here, mandatory! Carelessness in planning can be life-or-death. Living in abundance makes us sloppy and haphazard when it comes to savings, medical check-ups, fitness, or relationships with neighbors. Now that we’re not living high on the hog, we learn to store up for rainy days, make the most of every dollar, and take extra precautions with masks and social distance. It’s a pain but it makes us grateful for all that we have had.

4. Know who your friends are and who you can befriend. The desert can be a cruel place; many dangerous predators – rattlesnakes, scorpions, etc. – lie lurking around the corner. But you’ll also find some of the sweetest most generous friends – like the park ranger: she was a wealth of information and made sure I was prepared for the hike. Friendship in the desert is not scarce, just more discerning. And when I can be a friend to someone in need, it’s all the sweeter.

5. Stick to the path. The path up the butte was clear in some places but not all. But it doesn’t take a park ranger to realize that one deviation from that path and you could be miles off track before you know it; knowing your on the right path is everything in the desert. Those who are suffering most in this pandemic are those who have lost their path, can’t find their moorings, are no longer sure what they are living for. In the garden, disorientation is a setback; in the desert, disorientation can be the end. If you don’t know who you are and what you’re all about, now’s a good time to figure it out!

6. The greater the perspective, the better the view! The view from the park ranger station was impressive. The view half-way up the butte was dazzling. But the view from the top of the butte was transformative. Every 100 feet of height gave the viewer another whole level of understanding of one’s setting. Likewise, when it comes to navigating current events, the news media may be helpful. A good book from a wise expert can really shed light on our plight. But spending time discerning one’s Creator’s perspective opens up a world of insight. Getting a better perspective pays off.

I don’t know if I would ever want to live in the desert – it’s a hard life – but I am definitely drawn to it. Its unadorned, stark landscape is clarifying and illuminating. Its silence is rejuvenating. Its grandeur inspiring. Likewise 2020, and maybe at least a part of 2021, has much to offer, even if we rightfully look forward to its passing.

These words on the back of the state park pamphlet speak to visitors to the desert and citizens of a troubled nation with equal poignance:

“The desert reveals its true character only to those who come with courage, tolerance, and understanding. For those, the desert holds rare gifts.” (Randall Henderson, “On Desert Trails”)

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