“This silence is so…so…absorbing. So all-encompassing. It’s like sound just disappears into this vast stillness.       I can finally hear myself again; I can remember who I am; I can see myself clearly and open up to life and nature. I didn’t even know I needed this.”

We were sitting in the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park. It’s a place I fondly refer to as an “Ocean of Stone” and home to “the loudest silence you’ll ever hear”. This is especially true at this darkest, chilliest time of year, when one year turns into the next. I have been coming out to the desert with wilderness quest groups every New Year’s since 1996. Other times of the year find me making a pilgrimage with a group to other desert and mountain locations. As a wilderness guide and director of a growth-oriented wilderness program, I spend time in a lot of amazing wilderness.

Equally remarkable though are the soul openings and personal transformations that I witness on a regular basis. If you have a little preparation and an open mind, the desert can be relied upon to bring healing, growth and self-discovery. In over two decades as a wilderness guide, I have seen remarkable experiences when a person genuinely opens her/his heart to the desert. Sometimes these changes or interactions are subtle and at other times dramatic. Either way, the person is transformed and her/his relationship to the natural world is strengthened.

Much attention is given to the economic, recreational, ecological, and other values of wild desert places. I would like to suggest that in the 21st Century the transformative quality of wild deserts are at least as crucial to the well being of our planet and the human species.

Our mainstream culture is steadily accelerating in its level of activity, consumption, and stimulation for the average person. Entertainment, advertising, and all forms of communication are increasingly fast-paced and syncopated. In the face of this barrage, various aspects of the psyche and the senses must retreat and shut down. The result is a drain on vitality, creativity and our sense of wellness and wholeness. Meanwhile, despite this being an ‘age of higher connectivity’ everyone gets more and more busy and has less and less of a felt sense of belonging to the larger web of life. This emptiness is easily exploited as a reason to do more, purchasemore, be busier, etc. Or as Mary Ellen Edmunds eloquently puts it in her book by the same name, “You can never get enough of what you don’t need.”

The antidote to this intense activity and over-stimulation, which causes much of the stress-related psychological and spiritual unhappiness, is to slow down and seek out a place of quiet and openness where nature’s own rhythms can rebalance us. I believe that, more than any other setting, the sparse and expansive vistas of our deserts and the predominance of rock, sand, and silence are exactly what our over-taxed, 21st century, but still animal, selves need. To help make this point I offer a classic story from a desert wilderness quest several years ago:

Helen (not her real name) had come out to the desert to try to rejuvenate her life, to somehow uncover or free up something that was missing in her daily existence. In her mid-40s, she was successful in her job as a corporateevent planner and had created a nice home and long-term financial security for herself. But her life felt flat, and she knew something was missing. Following her three days of solitude in the wilderness, Helen rejoined the group of other questers. When her time to share her experiences came, she prefaced it by saying “I don’t really think much happened out there….”

After several minutes of sharing seemingly mundane details, she reached into her pocket saying “… but I did find these heart-shaped stones”. She then proceeded to pull out not just one but 4 or 5 rocks shaped like perfect valentine cutouts. All the while repeating, “I just don’t know what to make of this…stone heart. Hearts of stone. Petrified heart.” None of the rest of us had seen even one stone like this.

Then all at once, in very uncharacteristic fashion for this tightly-wound woman, her tears began to flow, and flow, and flow. As quiet as the desert itself, she sat before us, tears freely flowing. Finally speaking up she said, “It’s been so many years since I’ve cried, since I’ve let anything touch me. I got hurt a while back and in trying to stay safe, my heart has hardened. These are all names for who I’ve been: heart of stone, stoneheart, hardheart.”

And as she spoke, the tears began again in earnest. “And now that I can at last see that this is what’s been going on, I can find another way to be in the world. If the desert hadn’t shown me this, I don’t know how long I might have continued on in the same closed-down way.”

I repeatedly witness the desert reflect back to people their own needs, fears, gifts, and personal triumphs. For the person who is willing to be honest with him/herself about his/her own longings or attachments, the desert is indeed a priceless resource. The desert is a place where we can go and know again who we are and what we need to heal past losses and to gain vision and inspiration for ourselves and our communities. In this era of global environmental crisis and cultural complexity, isn’t this enough reason to cherish and protect our wild desert places?

This article was originally published in “The Desert Report: News of the desert from Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee”, June 2008. www.desertreport.org.

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