I couldn’t see the lizard and then I could. I will never forget the moment. It thrills and haunts me. It wasn’t that I found it by scanning or that I was looking in the wrong place and got redirected. I was looking right at the lizard and I couldn’t see it and then I could. “The scales fell from my eyes,” is the Biblical language and I don’t mind using that language here because the moment did feel mystical. It felt like a gift had been given to me, one that I had longed for without knowing it.
After that I saw lizards frequently and easily. I also saw shapes in the rocks. I noticed holes where critters lived and tracks in the sand where something had gone by the night before. I saw things I couldn’t believe and at the same time knew that I could believe just about anything.
How much else did I miss? While I was looking for wildflowers did I miss a hawk? Or when I was hoping to spot a Bighorn sheep might a Sidewinder have slithered past my feet and out of sight? There are shapes in the rocks that seem like faces and whole stories are told about manifestations that might be one thing or another or a mirage.
“Strange things happen here,” one woman said and she wouldn’t tell me any stories just “be sure you don’t take anything with you when you cross the county line.” She didn’t mean anything physical.
None of the electronics worked properly at first, although they, like I, mostly adjusted. But we climbed a dune to see a sequence of circles cut across the surface, a sequence that stopped so abruptly at the edge that it looked like the circles had come first and rockfall erosion some unknown time later. I tried to take a picture using the phone camera I had been using all morning. Not only did the camera not work, the phone shut down and began powering up again. I loudly announced that this was OK with me, I didn’t need to take a picture. When we got back down off the hill the camera worked fine.
Being able to live here seems mostly a matter of coming to terms with conditions. The scorpion, for instance, a creature I associate with the arid wildness of the desert, can’t live more than about five minutes in the sun. It has adapted to the desert all right, but under its rocks, in the bark of its trees, or at night. Creosote bushes and Joshua trees space themselves in almost geometrical regularity across the landscape to conserve resources but can cohabit the micro-environment with other plants perfectly well. Western mistletoe is a parasite that attaches itself to a host on which it feeds until both die. It is a grim strategy that results not in individual survival but survival of the species.
As a species, humans are still working out a survival strategy, experimenting with this and that, mostly unsustainable. Believing the impossible, however, something it is easy to do in this land, creates miracles. At Ash Meadows the humans that came after the Paiute and Shoshone tried mining, ranching, farming, and even began to build a city with shopping and casinos, but it all failed. Now different humans are returning the land to its natural state, planting indigenous species to attract other indigenous species, until the whole complex, interwoven web works again in balance. It is a vision that draws on the wisdom of the Paiute and Shoshone and the experience of modern environmental science. Such a partnership might save our species.
As I flew away I thought of the woman who warned about bringing “something” back with me but I didn’t want to leave it all behind. I want to learn the teachings of the desert, even or perhaps especially the lessons that come without words. If something fierce and strange comes along with it, that will be how it is. I will take my chances.