The Desert Whispered To Me
The first evening I walked into the Arizona/Sonora borderlands, I felt a companionship with the desert life that surrounded me. Countless stars overhead, so many I could never name them all. Noises I’d never heard before filled my ears, the chirping insects and night birds, the wind, the dust over the ground. My eyes trained on plant silhouettes and the dark shapes of the mountains in the distance; the rocks at my feet felt new and yet very old. I was falling in love with the land.
I vividly recollect my first taste of the desert, intoxicating like a new dish of food with spices wafting over that I had yet to taste. The hot air hit my eyes like a hair dryer; all was heavy with dust. There was dryness persistent everywhere. The air pulled moisture from my skin with attitude and determination.
The land was asking me to pay attention to it, to respond to it whole-heartedly, openly, without forethought of consequence, and with the confidence that I was supposed to be there. The desert whispered to me: observe, open up, take in, breathe, respond, and connect.
My first moments in that land were unexpected and anxious and interesting and adventurous all at once. The desert didn’t play games, and never pretended to be an easy place to set up camp.
Earth. Rock. Desert.
Nothing about the desert is neutral. This quote by Terry Tempest Williams describes the harsh vibrancy of desert life that is often uncomfortable and revealing, offering experiences in which fear and desire hold hands. In the desert, a relationship with the land inspires love, while also demanding attention and engagement.
“Earth. Rock. Desert. I am walking barefoot on sandstone, flesh responding to flesh. It is hot, so hot the rock threatens to burn through the calloused soles of my feet. I must quicken my pace, paying attention to where I step. For as far as I can see, the canyon country extends in all directions. No compass can orient me here, only a pledge to love and walk the terrifying distances before me. What I fear and desire most in this world is passion. I fear it because it promises to be spontaneous, out of my control, unnamed, beyond my reasonable self. I desire it because passion has color, like the landscape before me. It is not pale. It is not neutral. It reveals the backside of the heart. I climb the slick rock on all fours, my hands and feet throbbing with the heat. It feels good to sweat, to be engaged, to inhabit my animal body.”
Lessons From The Desert Borders
Life on the border taught me elements of what it means to become humbled by life and our dreams. I thought I could come to the border with arms wide open and “fix” all the “problems” I saw. The complex ecological and social life of the borderlands doesn’t ask us for simple solutions. Rather the complexity of life there in which everything connects and is interrelated asks of us to create solutions together that are as complex and interrelated as the challenges we face.
Through the desert, I learned to be an activist. I learned to find beauty amongst the rocks and crags, the sharp edges and unforgiving terrain. In that land, I practiced coming to terms with the present moment, and finding hope in places where others could not see it. Most importantly, the desert land taught me to seek radical integrity. To care about how I showed up and acted when no one is watching.
The desert also taught me about change. Monsoon torrents ripping across the land. Cactus needles or venomous fangs giving no warning. Whipping winds. Often times there’s no easing into the capricious and changeable moments of life in the desert. Things happen quickly, without remorse. And then, they shift again just as quickly as they happened, and the land settles again over time. The desert doesn’t pretend, it rages its grit and abundance, discomfort and passion, all at once and all the time. The desert is a living system, to love it, is to accept, appreciate, and value all the parts that make the whole.
My Desert Love Story: falling in love with the land
In my desert love story, I was connecting, and cultivating, growing in relationship. The land became my place to learn, grow, and discover new possibilities. Relating to the wolves, the song of the wind, the feel of the rocks taught me that sometimes falling in love means falling deep into connection, that sometimes you have moments where you can’t tell where you begin and the other ends.
When we open ourselves up to the possibility of falling in love with the land we inhabit, we open ourselves up to one of the most profound relationships possible.
My time in the borderlands taught me the value of love, dignity and respect for the land. When we open ourselves up to the possibility of falling in love with the land we inhabit, we open ourselves up to one of the most profound relationships possible. Where complexity and difference doesn’t have to equal heartache or chaos, but instead the complex systems of the land can teach us that it is possible to create healthy and harmonious relationships even in the midst of harsh circumstances. The land can teach us so much through its rare and wild generosity if we have the courage to fall in love with the places we call home.
More poems about the borderlands, A Small Story About the Sky by Alberto Rios
A Love Poem to you, Borderlandia
Your sky reaching tattooed saguaro elbows
Your death grabbing arroyo washes
This skeleton spread of cattle and human, the sun’s hot dinner served tonight, nothing fancy
Your dust tears pock dry earth
Confusing messages you leave me, trying to love the tears of the Mother, hate the tears of these migrant trail walkers,
Rain blessings, water sacrifice, empty black-painted plastic containers follow footprints made on your face
Your small wind pulls at feathered milkweed seeds
Collected in my sweaty palm
This is the stuff of gods I whisper to you and my tired hiking feet at once
May it go forth and prosper and bring mariposa warriors the same, you miss their light landing on your native pods
You’ll love it or you’ll hate it they said of you
Spend a summer here first
But I love the white hairs drinking saloon margaritas beside bee inked whiskey and plant choosers
And old cowboy’s finger ripped in an old cowboy’s rope waving about telling tales of these red mountains
Where I can’t tell if I learned to love you because others love you so much.
You say that’s a good way for our love story to start
Biophilia Foundation contributed, financially and technically, to help establish the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute, now called Borderlands Restoration Network. To learn more about this project and how you can become a partner please read more here.