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The Desert’s Cathedrals, Temples and Altars

by Tamara Freida

Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire makes me want to move to the land of sand, hot wind and red rock.  I dream of arches, and slick rock canyons filled with deafening silence. The shimmer of oppressive heat is inviting in the adventurous sense of hardship, especially from under the shade of a rustling Cottonwood.

Abbey writes timelessly; he paints a picture in the reader’s mind, but through most of this book you cannot tell it was written in the 1960’s.  His writing flows and sparkles and creates an atmosphere of the wilderness that makes you want desperately to feel the wind and heat, the rare rain, the ice-cold Colorado water, and to hear the empty and haunting calls of scavengers. His stories are filled with the spirituality of the desert.

It seems as if one could have visited Arches National Park last year and written a book with the same perceptions and the same ideas about civilization and philosophy. Think about the people who only 50 years ago were virtually from a different world and looking at the same stark and vibrant landscapes that we still see today. It’s as if we are connected through a geological time machine.  And like the time lapse photography in Koyanisqatsi, where the powerful geology is shown and the sun goes round and round and people flock in and out; the rocks stay the same as if nothing happened.

Throughout time people have basically been dealing with the same questions, the trials and tribulations in life, day to day existence, how to love, how to make a living and support a family, life, death, and the eternal quest for a higher power. Abbey’s view of spirituality and the timeless nature of his writing are so complimentary for the connection of the past to the present. Much has changed, but people’s basic needs and life challenges are still inherently the same.

Edward Abbey believes that by naming and comparing things humans can better understand them.  He relates Bach’s music to the ocean,  which can sound like constantly churning and rippling  harmonies; Beethoven is to the mountains, with the epic imagery and grand musical gestures;  Debussy’s music is a forest glade; but whose music represents the desert? Schoenberg, Berg, Ernst Krenek, Webern, and Elliot Carter. The author recalls their “bleak thin-textured work” that fits the desert’s sparse and barren landscapes, then writes:

“Quite by accident, no doubt, although both Schoenberg and Krenek lived part of their lives in the Southwest, their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also atonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, -at one and the same time–another paradox–both agonized and deeply still.”
“Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.”

As a searcher, spiritually, atmospherically and inspirationally, I was struck by this description as Abbey explores a side canyon in the section formerly known as Glen Canyon which is now under water:

“Is this at last the locus Dei?  There are enough cathedrals and temples and altars here for a Hindu pantheon of divinities. Each time I look up one of the secretive little side canyons I half expect to see not only the cottonwood tree rising over its tiny spring- the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye- but also a rainbow colored corona of blazing light, of pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name.”

He goes on to describe the weakness of mankind’s imagination. I understand him to mean that could we find enough amazement and awe in things natural, it would be sufficient to quell the thirst for wonderment.

The spiritual search which I strive for daily in playing music seems to be about the practice, the consistency. Is this practice that which binds a life? Is it creating coherence, and solidifying  or providing a foundation for a life? Without a foundation, a reason, a center or that which guides your spirit, life is reduced to anxious searching. But with this foundation, reason or center guiding the spirit, we are on an adventure to discover sense expanding experiences throughout each and every day.

Through playing music I aim to transcend to a spiritual mindset of creating beauty and nuance that both fills listeners and myself with renewed energy and positive creative forces. This is a spirit guiding challenge for excellence, and as Edward Abbey quoted a wise man: All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.