Ghosts

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As in all these blog posts, any pictures below are all linked to full-sized versions.

I originally wrote this years ago, and since then have been poking and prodding it into its present form, so I thought I'd let it see the light of day. Any criticism in the comments would be welcome.

Desert Ghosts

Mojave Desert - Photo by Karl Peterson, 2018

The desert is a wonderful place – a place full of wonders. Silent spaces stretch far away and surround the individual, encompassing you in a sphere of solitude. Moving through the rare and subtle shades of white and yellow, red, blue, purple and violet desert light, you are absorbed into something far greater than you are. Even though you seem to be at the center of the sphere surrounding you, eventually the realization dawns on you that this is only a figment of your perspective that changes from moment to moment with each step you take. You soon realize that each plant, each stone, each individual life form occupies its own central location within a sphere of its own. With that dawning suddenly comes the unsettling notion that you are not the center of your universe. Once committed to this path, your mind inexorably strays away from itself, shedding petty ideas of the importance of personal attitudes, beliefs, conceptions, and doubts. Even fantasies, gods, love and hate, beauty, and the hideous succumb weakly to the far larger world and the universe. Merging your personal sphere of reference with the solitary, slow and silent pulse of the desert, you are freed from yourself to move in the world as part of it, not apart from it. This is a gift beyond measure, and is a place where the unexpected and beautiful, the sublime and terrifying, are all free to flow around and through you, mingling with your being and filling you with wonder; it's a wonderful place.

I grew up on the Mojave Desert in Southern California. My father operated a ranch that he had inherited from his father. At a very early age I grew to love the silence of that very strange desert, with Joshua trees beckoning skyward, creosote bushes exploding in fragrance at the slightest touch of rain, and dark, dark nights with the Milky Way streaming across the sky, dazzling my young eyes. Star-struck on icy evenings, my mother would often have to wander out from the safety of our adobe home to find me staring up at one of the arms of our galaxy, rapt in my own silent reverie, and haul me in for bed. 

Cottonwood trunk
Cottonwood Trunk

My grandfather homesteaded the land we lived on and built a house there in the late 1890’s. At that time, he planted a cottonwood tree in the backyard. By the time I was old enough to appreciate it, the tree was a venerable giant, more than 70 years old and over 100 feet tall. The trunk was wider in girth than I was tall. The tree had its own smell, which I can recall to this day – a sweet, musky odor that will always remind me of spring nights.  During the summer, soft sprays of cotton down would stream from the tree on the hot breeze.

One hot afternoon I was tired and sat down under the tree, leaning my back against the furrowed trunk. I could feel the moisture from the shady ground through my pants. I’d done this many times, and it always seemed a nice thing to do. Sitting on the ground, contemplating not much of anything, but allowing myself to drift away while looking at a rock in my hand, letting my sphere of consciousness widen, I became aware of someone nearby. I glanced around but saw no one. The idea that there was someone around didn’t go away, but being young, I didn’t give it a second thought. Soon an old man I’d never talked with became a presence in my mind. He came around from the back of the tree. He had glasses, grey hair, and older clothes. I could feel the texture of his wool shirt when I thought about it. He didn’t say anything, and I continued my own contemplations of childhood importance. The old man never said a word, just sat with me, not a word was necessary. I was comfortable with him.

My Grandfather, Harvey Duryee,1930

Later that night I thought about the old man and found an old leather-bound photograph album that I knew was my grandfather’s. I leafed through the pages and found a picture of the old man who sat under the tree with me. It was indeed my grandfather, who had died 30 years before I was born.

Granted, this is not a scary ghost story. You could say it’s not even a ghost story, but the presence I felt was real, and it has stayed with me for the past 40 years. I can still feel the texture of his shirt. My sphere opened then and allowed the wonder of the world to enter. I watched as the Milky Way blared overhead that night as it always did. Wonder in the desert.

Years later, on an excursion in the Las Guijas Mountains of Southern Arizona, my brother and I retrieved a friend who lived nearby from his day-to-day routine and traveled to a gulch where mining had left a small scar and some outbuildings that were slowly eroding in the shade under the oaks by the side of a small creek. My brother and my friend explored the surroundings with metal detectors and gold pans looking for treasure, while I was attracted to the creek and a large oak, with a view of the eroding buildings. 

The sun was hot, and the shade sublimely cool. I sat on moss-covered mud, leaning against the friendly, furrowed bark of the oak, the small creek trickling over rust-colored stones as the water caught glints of sunlight filtering through the branches. I could feel the cool, moist earth through my pants. 


"Little Girl", photo by Dorothea Lange, ca 1938

I felt someone’s presence, and a young girl came up beside me from around the back of the tree. She wore an orange dress with a small floral print, and her blond hair blew downstream. I thought of her blue eyes that stared over at the eroding buildings and how far away they seemed. I thought of the Dust Bowl, and dust pneumonia - thousands died from the clogging, blocking dust that was inescapable, except by leaving the plains and moving to other regions like Arizona to pursue dreams of gold and riches. She looked at me and half-smiled, her face surrounded by the sunshine tangled in the branches of the oak, the corners of her mouth turning up, creasing the folds of her young eyes. The creek slid by, and I stayed still while my sphere of self-importance slowly shattered and was carried downstream with her hair. I looked down at the water, then back toward where she’d been, but all I saw was a raven in another oak tree across the creek, cocking its head and looking at me questioningly, mocking me gently as if to say, “Did you just see something, son?"

The desert, no, the Earth is a wonderful place – a place full of wonders. Silent spaces stretch far away and surround the individual, encompassing you in a sphere of solitude. Once a part of the Earth, you may see things that you might not be able to explain. My wish for you is to always remain a part of the desert, or wherever on Earth you may live, and for the Earth to remain a part of your soul. Always be a part of the Earth and life, not apart from it. You never know what you might see while sitting under a tree.