A traveler who had been all over the world so as to see holy places like Bethlehem and Mecca .. this traveler once said that Kitt Peak was the most spiritual place he’d ever visited.
The beautiful mile-high mountain has a great serenity, grace and peace about it, as if it were a natural cathedral. The Tohono O’odham nation, upon whose land Kitt Peak sits, recognize it as the holy place that it is –for it is where their elder brother deity resides. Their creator deity lives on Baboquivari Peak, the sacred center of their cosmology. You can see Baboquivari from Kitt Peak’s fabulous summit.
Kitt Peak has the earth’s largest collection of telescopes so you’re seeing this strange mix of high-tech meets mountain wilderness. As you drive up the mountain, the telescopes first look like a field of little R2D2s.
But they are much bigger than Star Wars droids. The Mayall telescope has an 18-foot dome, and it’s so huge that you can see it from 50 miles away.The equipment is crisp and white against the big blue Arizona skies, and it holds all the promise of a sea voyage on a crisp blue day in a white clipper ship.
The various telescopes have different jobs. Some are solar telescopes that make the sun look like a gigantic red fireball with fire flares darting around its edges. But oh! the pictures the night telescopes can make! Pictures of impossibly beautiful colors and amazing shapes! Pictures of billions and billions of stars in billions of galaxies, billions of light-years away!
You can go inside some of Kitt Peak’s gigantic telescopes and watch them operate in perfect mechanical symmetry.They move in a high art form, the kind Stanley Kubrick captured perfectly in his movie 2001 when he made intricate technology dance in perfect synchronization to soaring orchestral music.
Plato said, “Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.” I think that is what makes it a beautiful and benign science. It reminds us that our small planet is part of something beyond ordinary comprehension. It is a science where there are no national identities, no boundaries .. just purity and universality. It is the place where science touches the spiritual.
Vincent Van Gogh understood that intersection because he said once … I have … a terrible need… shall I say the word? … of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.
A Starry Night (courtesy of Vincent-Van-Gogh-Gallery.org)
I like to go out to the Saguaro National Monument because it is a lonely place. Because it changes in different lights and in different seasons so that it never is the same. Because it is a forest unlike any other forest. Because there is nothing else like it.
The Saguaro National Monument is called a forest but it is nothing like your idea of one, a forest with a green canopy of leaves over your head and soft mulch under your feet. Green forest is much noisier than the Monument –your walking makes noise, you hear birds singing and the rustle of animals moving about – furry big-eyed animals with faces like humans. The smell of green forest is lush and green, especially after a rain, when you smell the sensuality of wet earth.
No, the Monument forest is nothing like that. It is more open. It is more still. It is more wilderness. It is just as much about the spaces between the cactus trees as the trees themselves. The spaces enable you to see the shape of each cactus –its arms, its vertical ways. The spaces make this forest quiet.
The Saguaro National Monument is also about the light that makes the saguaros change color. In sunset the whole forest turns red. In twilight the cacti can look golden. In winter when it snows, the saguaros turn gray.
I love the way saguaros just stand in stoic silence, even in broiling desert sun. You can learn from their silence. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his book, Stillness Speaks, “We have forgotten what rocks, plants, and animals know. We have forgotten how to be. We have forgotten how to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is: here and now.”
“Stillness is the only thing in this world that has no form,” Tolle writes, “but then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.”
The saguaro already knows these things and can teach you them.
We go into wilderness silence to find ourselves, and instead we find something greater than ourselves when silence speaks. We realize only that we are part of something bigger than our individual selves.
John Steinbeck described the still wilderness experience something like this … One time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, and he found he just has a little piece of a great big soul. A wilderness is not any good because a little piece of a soul is not any good unless it is whole, unless it is with the rest of the great big soul …
The other day I came across a machine that gives out ice cream.
Hi there, Mr. Tall Redwood tree!
I was surprised to see a sign on it that said,”Like Us on Facebook,”
as if you could be friends with an ice cream machine on Facebook.
Then I thought about Martin Buber’s beautiful book, “I and Thou.” Usually I only think about this book when I am in nature, but someone it fit the ice cream machine situation as well.
Buber’s work isn’t easy to read, especially if you try to “think” it rather than “feel” it. His book is like scripture that way — very poetic, very intense, and only difficult if you don’t open your heart to it. You feel and do Buber rather than read him intellectually.
Buber has several really revolutionary ideas that seem more relevant today than when he wrote them a half-century ago.
His big idea is that we either experience or encounter. Most of the time we are in our ego-mode, and we simply have experiences.
We experience everything as an “it,” the way an ice cream machine is. We depersonalize everything and name it all “it” or that which is other than me. We slice and dice things. We make them useful. We give them purpose. The “I-It” way of viewing the world is not bad because it helps us survive. Yet the “I-It” experience is what makes us feel alienated and crazy all the time. We never feel part of our own world. We’re always walking around alone and detached, and figuring out how to use the people and things we come across.
Hi, Beautiful Rock Formations!
On the other hand, when we encounter another being as a “you” or “thou,” we feel something akin to love.
Hi Mama Bobcat!
We feel that our own spirit is the same as the “thou” of the person in front of us. We sense a cosmic force that is always with us, the force that Buber calls love. We can have I-Thou encounters not only with other human beings, but also with animals, flowers, rocks, the sky … whatever. Every I-Thou encounter connects us to something other than ourselves. Every I-Thou encounter opens our hearts to the ultimate encounter with the “Thou” of the universe, the God of Love.
The friend who first gave me Buber’s book had battled polio, which left him with a withered leg. He felt that those people who stared at his withered leg turned him into an “it,” rather than a “thou.” He wanted people to see him as a thou, as a person, and not as the guy with the peg leg.
Hi-Thou Ice Cream Friend!
My friend taught me that when we perceive someone as different or put the person into some category, we lose the I-Thou encounter that is so important, even vital, to our souls.
So going back to the ice cream machine … Maybe this machine makes people happy on a hot Arizona day. They look forward to seeing him, they appreciate the cold wonderful treats he gives to them. They think of him as a thou, even as their friend. I think Mr. Buber would like them back.
El Jefe came up out of Mexico to the Santa Rita Mountains to live just north of the city of Tucson, Arizona. He walked across the border — El Jefe’s not one for fences.
The Tucson Jaguar made the 130-mile journey by himself, but then, he is a jaguar and jaguars like to be alone. This animal is now the only known living wild jaguar in the United States.
El Jefe (“The Boss” in English) is afraid of nothing for he is on the top of the food chain and prey to no one. There is no animal his jaws can’t take down. He stalks and ambushes his prey with a bite-force that is the most powerful in the New World. The Tucson Jaguar can bite through the armor of an armadillo, and we now know that he kills black bear.
We also know that El Jefe has been living in Tucson for at least five years because hunters, hikers, and ranchers have taken hundred of pictures of him. Some have seen his enormous paw print. It looks like that of a mountain lion with four toes without claws, but his heel pad is much bigger.
When biologists from the University of Arizona and other agencies tried to capture El Jefe on film with temperature-sensitive cameras, he eluded them. Finally in February 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity took the very first video of this magnificent cat. He is walking near water, which is typical of jaguars who like to live near rivers and in the rain forests of South America.
El Jefe lives a solitary life. He moves around in his beautiful muscular stealth way in the hours of early dawn and dusk. His spots are called rosettes of all things, and he is the only big cat that can roar. He roars to warn his competition to stay away from his territory.
Once American jaguars roamed from Colorado to Texas, as far north as the Grand Canyon and all the way west to Southern California. Now all we have left is El Jefe, the Tucson Jaguar.
I watch his beautiful glowing eyes and his muscular tawny body, and something about him is bright and burning. The Aztecs, who had elite Jaguar Knights, believed something similar about the jaguar too. They believed the jaguar gave fire to humankind, and that seems right to me. El Jefe has a light about him, he has a splendor wonder … or in William Blake’s words, a fearful symmetry.
Drawing by William Blake
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Like people everywhere, we who celebrate Arizona Thanksgiving have much to be thankful for, such as the election is over. Thanksgiving here is unique in that you can eat your dinner outside on a picnic table, just like a Pilgrim. This made me think about other neat things to be grateful for about Arizona like the months of October through April, and that the last two surviving jaguars in the United States live in our state.
I’m also grateful for the beautiful way the Anglo, Mexican and Native American cultures come together here.
I’m grateful for amazing sunsets every single afternoon, and the beauty of a zillion stars against unpolluted black night skies. I’m grateful for the vastness, silence, grandeur and solitude of the Sonoran Desert.
So as the song goes –when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad– I simply remember my favorite things about Arizona. Other times I just think about them for no reason.
I love to lie on the ground and look at clouds. It’s not for everyone –there are people who don’t like clouds. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen them look at a bright clear sky and say, “Hooray! Not a cloud in sight!” which is hard for me to understand because some of my best days on this planet have been spent watching clouds. But as Jane Austen wrote, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”
Because I’ve spent many lazy days looking skyward, I never agreed with Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Clouds don’t look lonely to me at all. They look as if they are having a great party up there, just dancing along in elaborate formations with all the precision of a medieval cotillion.
I love all kinds of clouds … the slant ones… the big puffy ones … the ones who walk the straight and narrow. Some are little tufts in the sky like playful wafts of smoke from the pipe of an old man amusing his grandchildren, while others form lines so straight and horizontal that they look as if they’ve been drawn from an architect’s red pencil.
I like all the familiar forms a cloud can make and the ones you can imagine that they are– like seahorse and face-in-the-moon clouds … the Puff the Magic Dragon clouds and the ones shaped like ducks and giant caterpillars.
I like the way clouds can take all day to build up to a thunderstorm. I like the way they hide in the crevices of mountains, softening the look of harsh grey rocks, and then emerge like smoke from great smoldering fires within their captors’ deepest cauldrons …only to later light up the sky with a rainbow.
I particularly love the thunderheads you see out West. If you climb up high enough and look down from hundreds of feet so that you can see for miles and miles, you’ll see rain coming from a thunderhead that causes not even a sprinkle just a foot away.
But I do think that even non-cloud people agree that clouds are everything when it comes to fabulous Arizona sunsets. You need those clouds to create those fabulous colors and form those beautiful horizontal patterns like gigantic Navajo rugs in the sky. Otherwise your sunset is just plain vanilla.
And even non-cloud people know that Western landscapes would be dull without them.
Philosopher John Lubbock wrote, “Happiness is a thing to be practiced, like a violin. Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water and watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” Just saying.
Jane St. Clair’s essay “Nowhere Near” appears in the 2016 Fall issue of Ruminate magazine.
One morning –very early–for it was dawn and dark outside– I saw two strange birds outside my window. I could see only their silhouettes which were enormous as birds go. At first I thought they were hawks, but their heads were too big, and their bodies too square and chunky. Then I thought they were vultures, but they did not have hunched shoulders. They were roosting high up in the tree next door, but not near a nest.
As the dark light changed into yellow sunrise, I could make them out better. Not only did they have enormous bodies, they also had enormous heads with tufted ears and big round yellow eyes. They stared back at me in this patriarchal way, as if I were a court clown annoying a pair of kings.
I had never seen owls this big before. When we lived along the Ohio River, we often saw a family of owls but they were funny little creatures — a gray mama with her five white babies that lined up in a row and turned their heads back and forth as they said “who who who.” They had a sweet energy about them and reminded me of that nursery song, “‘Sing,’ said the mama, ‘Sing if you can,’ and they sang and they sang all over the dam.”
But the owls next door are different.
They stare back at me as if they wish I’d fly away. They stare with those eyes — oh! those yellow eyes! and those big straight eyebrows that tilt up, as if they’re making strategies for Wall Street. And they have these enormous muscular legs –with fierce claws mean enough to carry off a cat or a small dog!
The owls next door are there every morning, staring back at me. Some days I see not two but four of them! Between them they have enough fierce energy to take on Patton’s Army! They have a name: Great Horned Desert Owls. They are predatory creatures of the night, and they are at their deadliest when the sun goes down. Once I was able to watch one of them zero on a little rodent with those terrible swift eyes and then –with all the pressure, purpose and precision of a high-tech drone– he angled down and grabbed that rat.
The Native American tribes here near Tucson respect the owl kingdom very much –in fact, some even say owls are harbingers of death. In some legends owls are a channel between this world and the world to come.
Albert Einstein wrote, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that we can comprehend the universe.” I think he meant we can understand physics in terms of numbers and formulas and pi’s written in white chalk marks on never-ending blackboards. But what is just amazing to me is that we can understand and relate to strange creatures like Great Horned Owls in the way all living things understand one another, even though our lives are quite different.
Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that the most incomprehensible thing?
The Nature Conservancy’s beautiful Ramsey Canyon is where Tucson people go to escape the heat …
People ask us here in Tucson,
“How do you stand the 110 degree summer heat? “
We desert rats think to ourselves,”What wimps for asking!” …
… yet our polite answer is, “We go up to the High Country!”
Arizona High Country is only a few hours out of town. One nice place in High
Country is Ramsey Canyon, world-known for gorgeous hummingbirds
And dorky looking frogs.
The Ramsey Canyon trail is steep and uphill, but worth it for the view. The
country is a mix of desert and mountain pine, because it is where the
Sonoran desert meets the Rocky Mountains.
About half-way up I see a mama turkey with six babies. I did not know
that turkey babies climb up Mama Turkey’s back for rides.
I make friends with a squirrel. He jumps around in Shakespearian iambic
Under the Greenwood tree …
who loves to lie with me …
Here shall we see no enemy
but winter and rough weather …
Da Dum da dum da dum da dum…
I forget that the Canyon has bears and puma and I take the colors of
the many greens and the sweet way the trail winds.
I watch a spider happily at work.
And I spot a gentle deer in the meadow, and watch him as
he leaps like a springer spaniel to eat some leaves.
I follow him into tall grass,
all the time all spaced out watching him, all rapturous like St John of the Cross
I was so caught up and rapt away,
In such oblivion immersed,
That every sense and feeling lay
Of sense and feeling dispossessed;
I do not notice a coiled-up rattler at my feet —
his hissy sound like water rustling —
his mean little hooded eyes —
and his awful open serpentine mouth!
YIKES! Run away!
Suddenly formerly friendly forest is forebodding!
Every tree looks like a monster!
Friend-squirrel stops to eat; he knows my mind is playing forest tricks
on me. He also knows I stepped on the snake first.
Did St John ever get so spaced out that a rattler snapped at him? I think
about that as I wander up to the top of the mountain and watch
civilization below. I take it in, no longer thinking, just feeling the
transcendental experiences St John knew so well:
I entered – where – I did not know,
Yet when I found that I was there,
Though where I was I did not know,
Profound and subtle things I learned;
Nor can I say what I discerned,
For I remained uncomprehending,
All knowledge transcending.
It is time to leave, but in the new stillness of my heart,
I know that I will come back to High Country sometime soon.
Jane St. Clair’s very short story,“Roadkill,” won Literative’s July 2016 Contest.
I’ve never seen an Arizona Jackalope myself but then, Arizona Jackalopes are quite rare. Part of the reason is they only mate during lightning strikes in monsoon season.
Common jackalopes, sometimes called warrior rabbits, are native to Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska and Colorado. They aren’t the same as Arizona Jackalopes.
Common jackalopes look like huge rabbits with antlers. They’re extremely mean and fierce. The Arizona jackalope is much bigger than the common jackalope, who only grow to be about two feet tall. Ours are at least eight feet tall and weigh well over 1200 pounds.
Back in the Old West, Arizona cowboys rode jackalopes, especially during round-ups, because they proved to be more durable than horses.
You can catch jackalopes by putting whiskey out for them, their favorite drink. Once your jackalope is drunk, he’ll move slowly and unsteadily, and therefore he’ll be easier for you to trap, although it will still be very hard to do. The problem with capturing jackalopes is they can use language. They’re known to yell, “He’s over there!” in order to throw you off track when you are trying to catch them.
The Arizona Jackalope is an endangered species. However, the little bitty ones in other Western states are not. In fact, you can still get a hunting license for the Wyoming Jackalope, although their hunting season is restricted to June 21st between the hours of midnight and 2 A.M.
Jackalopes are probably related to wolpertingers.
Wolpertingers are a German species that also look like rabbits with antlers, except wolpertingers usually have feathered wings. Another distant cousin to jackalopes is the Swedish skvader, a cross between a rabbit and a grouse.
The Arizona Sand Shark
Arizona Sand Sharks are often confused with California Sand Sharks, even though they are two distinct species. The main difference is since Arizona has no ocean, our Sand Sharks swim only in washes and rivers, which are dry most of the year. Arizona Sand Sharks have adapted to land, but they can only live without water for a few days.
Arizona Sand Sharks are deadly to humans, so it’s important to remain at least three bus-lengths away from them. As you can see, our Sand Sharks have rows and rows of lethal teeth as sharp as a new Bowie knife.
(It was very dangerous to get this picture for you.)
(Especially when he jumped up for an attack!)
You’ll only see Arizona Sand Sharks after a desert wash or a dry desert river fills up during monsoon season.
On the other hand, California Sand Sharks are very common. They often scoot along beaches, terrifying everyone in sight. By the way, beach balls look exactly like seals’ eggs to California Sand Sharks. Since seals’ eggs are California Sand Sharks’ favorite food, this means you have to be particularly alert when you’re playing beach volleyball.
In 2012 a horror movie called “Sand Sharks” went straight to video, becoming an instant classic among those of us who love these amazing animals.
The other day I was reading a crime scene investigator’s textbook about stages of bodily decay, a process used in CSI to determine time of death. It made me think of wabisabi, the Japanese idea that decay is part of beauty. I found it hard to believe in wabisabi while picturing Norman Bates’ mummified mother, until I remembered a wabisabi fable that goes like this.
Once there was a monk-in-training who could not get his mind off a beautiful young woman. He thought about her day and night, and finally told his master, who ordered the young monk to go ahead and keep thinking about her day and night. That was a perfectly okay thing to do, as long as he meditated on how this woman would grow wizened and old, and then die and decay.
Through this meditation, the novice found out that every stage of her life is part of loving her and part of her beauty. Perfect wabisabi love is loving the imperfect. Very Zen, eh?
You as a human being are NEVER going to make anything that is perfect. Whatever you make is going to rot and decay and get left behind. Perfect art is imperfect. We are ourselves imperfect wabisabi beings.
If beauty is in imperfection, you’ll see the most beauty if you look at the world in an earthy and authentic way. If everything around you is shiny-new and corporate, if you have fresh paint and plastic people everywhere, your world is hard and cold and ugly. You need wabisabi for balance.
Then there’s the Sonoran desert where I live. The natives say nothing dies on the desert, and it’s true. The heat and low humidity means everything here lasts forever. Cars don’t rust, cattle skulls just lay there in the dust, and everything from rotting window sills to crumbling murals just hang around forever.
In fact, whole towns just lay there where people left them. We have one ghost town that still has a table with poker cards on it –left there a hundred years ago when the copper mine closed and all the cowboys and miners left town. The ramshackle remains of the town are wabisabi.
Wabisabi reminds us to seize this day and to be unafraid of what is ahead and changing. Wabisabi looks into forever and takes us there with it.