We make reference to Nature today as though we were referring to our beloved mother who has left us on our own without her abiding presence. Where has she gone; why has she abandoned us; will she ever return to be appreciated and loved as nothing else to compare with in this world? Will we ever again stand in awe of the night sky as the city of God? Will we fall to our knees in a primeval forest to witnesses the sun’s rays illuminate the forest floor like laser beams of light? Will we ever again study the snowflake, the crystal or the spider’s web to remember the intricate and intimate symmetry and perfection that lies in waiting for our expectant minds to witness and observe? Will we once again look into the cup of the lily or the blossoms of the almond tree and remember God?
We love the ocean for its angry moods. The occasional thunder-storm thrills our sensibility and souls with its shock of lightning and the awe of thunder. We may take occasional delight at the sight of a rainbow; but we ignore the road-side trees or the darkness of the night sky because of their everyday presence, while the placid lake leaves us cold because it harbors no thrill or adventure. We no longer relate to Nature in the same way people of earlier times did, We live in big cities that show us the blue canopy of the heavens in daytime patches and whose night lights wipe out the sparkle of the galaxies that drift down to earth in remembrance of the city of God. We drive through man-made tunnels that imperiously make their way under rivers and ocean channels. We denude entire forests to service the furniture and housing industries and we pollute our oceans and rivers with waste that will take many millennia to decompose. We never sleep outside in situ under the stars, and apart from the occasional jog through the park or walk through the woods, we never leave the confines of modern-day civilization to have a taste of what it means to be enclosed within the sacred ambiance of a hidden sanctuary.
Late one afternoon recently just after sunset, I drove out into the virgin desert that lay wondrously close to the small, Middle Eastern university town where I work. Because the desert is reasonably accessible from the town, a short drive beyond the fringe of the villas that face the vast expanse of desert wilderness allows me to escape from the turmoil of the busy city and all that it represents. The flaming orb of the sun sat on the rim of the horizon for several seconds as if in a final salute to the tribulations of the day before sinking like melted butter beyond the hem of the world. As I approached the rolling dunes that swept across my vision as some predatory ocean of undulating sand, I abandoned the car as the final vestige of all that I hold dear to the routine of my day, including the ability to move about efficiently and in air-conditioned comfort. Alone and on foot within this primordial sea of shadowy dusk, with nothing but the sand under my feet and the thin line of the horizon to define my vision, I suddenly feel alone and afraid within the sheer physicality of raw nature in all its purity and uncompromising truth, in counterpoint to the solitary twinkling of the North Star that interrupts the emerging night with its inviting message of light beyond the ages of mankind. The primordial fear of the unknown takes hold and seizes my heart in the grip of the unaccustomed feeling that I am powerless amid forces beyond my reckoning or control, forces that render me momentarily insignificant in the face of our Mother Nature.
What is it about the great deserts, forests, and oceans of the globe that render us as insignificant mortals when we confront them alone in all their sublime grandeur? When you come to think of it, Mother Nature has no real outside or inside—no skin and no heart—but is instead some vast combination of outer and inner worlds whose unity creates a reality that cannot be denied, a meta-cosmic symbol that transcends itself by being much more than the sum of its materiality. In the presence of pure nature we stand alone, while the mind is enveloped by the innocence of Nature’s beginning and enduring magnificence.
By the time I had left the road and walked beyond the crest of a nearby dune amid that eerily silent stillness, darkness had conquered the land. I found that the immensity of the desert had suddenly become the venue of some vast infinity. I had fallen through a crack in the universe and in doing so something within me had also broken open to allow the in-pouring of a knowledge that transcended the mere input of the senses. Overhead the night sky was rippling with stars, like diamond stones set against black velvet, highlighting in their infinitesimality the blackness of the heavens and sending their infinite specks of light across millions of light years to reach my curious eye and enter my mind to create a profound sense of wonder and awe that complemented the halo of descending dusk that cast shadows across the land. The faint light of multiple star clusters seemed to pulsate and beckon one another through those vast distances as thought they were in some kind of conspiracy to confound the insignificant mortals that gazed up in wonder upon them from the vast distances below. From the vantage point of that desert plain spread clear to the horizon, the canopy of stars overhead created great rivers of light across the celestial dome. The Milky Way streamed across the sky with its several tributaries. And the great river of light whirled through the darkness to create a grand promenade through the city of God. There seemed to be no ground under my feet but only the abyss of a star-studded space falling away forever, while those falling stars fell into my open soul as strange thoughts of the magnificence of God Almighty amid the infinite whispers of the human spirit that cascade across the deserts of the night.
And let us not forget the awesome silence that bears witness to the reality of sound by virtue of its peculiar emptiness. “Nature’s silence is its one remark,” Anne Dillard has written, as if in making this one remark, silence has uttered the iconic essence of what needs to be known. I was no longer in the desert and beneath the night sky; I felt above and beyond it, as though I had passed through these symbolic images of nature and arrived on the other side of some invisible door to witness a revelation whose significance and import would last me a lifetime. It is interesting to take note of a corresponding silence that lies within us as a premonition of something great that lies just beyond the reach of our own inner horizon. The expanse of the desert epitomizes the reality of a foreboding silence that lies within us as some primal secret awaiting the arrival of a divine whisper. In traversing the vast stretches of sand amid such silence under the depths of the night sky, one quickly comes to realize the voice of a silence that lies within us once we are able to shed the turmoil, fear, confusion and all the other psychological idiosyncrasies that make up the limitations of our mentality and inner psyche. “What makes the desert beautiful,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince to his pilot, “is that somewhere it hides a well.” The hidden presence of the Spirit that lies within me is my hidden well and I am willing to cross the landscape of a desert that lies within me to give expression of what lies beyond the mind and heart amid the turmoil of my days.