". . . In the pre-dawn hours I watch the sky, the small distant suns, as winter comes on, of Orion and Canis Major shining above the southern horizon. I can easily imagine a planet among them on the surface of which someone is standing alone in a clearing trying to teach himself to whistle, and is being watched by large birds that look like herons. (I reach out and begin to dig in the sand, feeling for substance, for stones in the earth to hold onto: I might suddenly lose my own weight, be blown away like a duck's breast feather in the slight breeze that now tunnels in my hair.)
I stand up, resume the watch. I know what I'm looking for. I wait.
I do not know what to do with the weariness, with the exhaustion. I confess to self-delusion. I've imagined myself walking away at times, as though bored or defeated, but contriving to leave enough of myself behind to observe any sign, the slightest change. I would seem to an observer to be absorbed in a game of string figures between my fingers, inattentive, when in fact I would be alert to the heartbeats of fish moving beyond the surf. But these ruses only added to the weariness and seemed, in the end, irreverent.
I have been here, I think, for years. I have spent nights with my palms flat on the sand, tracing the grains for hours like braille until I had the pattern precisely, could go anywhere - the coast of Africa - and recreate the same strip of beach, down to the very sound of the water on sea pebbles out of the sounds of my gut that has been empty for years; to the welling of the wind by vibrating the muscles of my thighs. Replications. I could make you believe you heard sandpipers walking in the darkness at the edge of a spent wave, or a sound that would make you cry at the thought of what had slipped through your fingers. When tides and the wind and the scurrying of creatures rearrange these interminable grains of sand so that I must learn this surface all over again through the palms of my hands, I do. This is one of my confidences. . .
I have spent much of my time simply walking.
Once I concentrated very hard on moving soundlessly down the beach. I anticipated individual grains of sand losing their grip and tumbling into depressions, and I moved at that moment so my footfalls were masked. I imagined myself in between these steps as silent as stone stairs, but poised, like the heron hunting. In this way I eventually became unknown even to myself (looking somewhere out to sea for a flight of terns to pass). I could then examine myself as though I were an empty abalone shell, held up in my own hands, held up to the wind to see what sort of noise I would make. I know the sound - the sound of fish dreaming, twilight in a still pool downstream. . . "
from River Notes - Barry Lopez (pages 63 & 64)
Don Binney - Kotuku, Puketotara III (2006) Acrylic & graphite on board, 430 x 645MM
I discovered Barry Lopez - his library of tenderly observed, exquisitely paced books - whilst traveling in New Mexico last month and referenced Desert Notes in my post The land does not give easily. Since then I've been on a search for his writing. A couple of days ago, Desert Notes - Reflections In The Eye Of A Raven and River Notes - The dance of Herons arrived in my mailbox. I'm immersed in both; an incongruous pairing some might think, but no. To the contrary, the experience of one heightens the other, provides relief, dimension, illumination. Reading them together feels like carving a route out of some inarticulable barrenness towards succor, softness, comfort and understanding ('. . . I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn't believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. . ') or of being plucked from dark water a moment before drowning, delivered to a shore with substance, stability, infinite promise and purchase. ('. . . When you are suddenly overwhelmed with a compassion that staggers you and you begin to run along the bank, at the moment when your fingers brush the soft skin of a deer-head orchid and you see sun-drenched bears stretching in an open field like young men, you will know a loss of guile and that the journey has begun. . .' pg 67)
We all experience desert times - in life, work, the vortices of inner/outer conversation - and times when the river flows. Today, I'm grateful for the encouragement that arrived on the backs of these six words - 'Dig down, the earth is moist.'
Perhaps what we consider to be desert is in fact river?