Friday, August 28, 2009

Scale and Balance for the Human Heart: the Comfort of Feeling Small and Significant

I watched a National Geographic special called The Sahara last evening. During the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, the area approximately the size of the United States that is now barren desert was once a verdant temperate zone teeming with plant and animal life--and, of course, inhabited by people who hunted and gathered to feed themselves.

A cyclical change in Earth's axial orientation to the sun brought a about such swift climatological changes that advancing desertification would have been evident within a single person's lifetime. Lake Chad, which was once the size of Texas, shrank to the size of Vermont. The mighty horse once used for transport could no longer bear up under the conditions. The camel was introduced from southwest Asia, soon to become the embodiment of all that is harsh about living in the desert: two eyelids, one of which is clear to keep out driving sand; wide feet to prevent sinking into loose sand; a hump of stored fat to provide nutrition over long periods during which food is not available.

If you close your eyes, I'm betting you are able to imagine a caravan in silhouette on some long-ago evening against the red fading light of a setting sun as the long chain plods along the crest of a sand dune (some dunes are as tall as a 50-story building). Can you also imagine the next day as Homer's rosy-fingered dawn unfurls ribbons of light and brings the desert into relief under the morning sky? And later as shimmering sheets of heat disorient you to both time and place, and your depth of field is ratcheted down to only what you could capture with a macro lens? Any time of day, the Sahara is unfathomably broad.

Saharans and visitors alike describe being overcome with a sense of the immensity of the universe as the sand stretches out below and the stars above. They say it creates a distinct awareness of the place in creation occupied by human beings, specifically the individual who is sitting in awe of being cradled in this environment.

Early Moslems called the Sahara The Garden of Allah. In my ignorance, I thought the idea was perhaps an analog to the Garden of Eden, or even a reference to a heavenly installation similar to the lush paradise gardens the Arabs built on the earthly plane. But The Garden of Allah is much more than that: it is an empty and private place where Allah can go to be alone and think. Even Allah acknowledges the vastness of the Saraha.

You don't have to go to the Sahara for this experience. One evening under the stars in even the Mojave Desert provokes similar sentiments. Is it the desolation, and the awareness that one is there despite such obviously great odds? I don't think so, because the same feelings of being part of something much larger can come to you on an empty beach on Oahu or during a quiet break at the side of a groomed slope high upon a snow-covered mountain.

I think it is the separateness. All evidence of human context slip away in environments such as these. A person stands alone as if it were the first moment in time. Ticklish reminders of daily life do not enter such rarefied places: it is you--mind, body and spirit--and your creator in a moment of intimacy seldom available to us in the rush of quotidian getting and spending. No wonder clarity descends like manna from the heavens.

But it is also possible to see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour. William Blake's words suggest we can find the same peace by inverting the vast and concentrating on the small. For example, there are extraordinary goings-on in your own garden right this minute in these last days of August, where now the spider's web drips with early morning dew and awaits the stumbling flight of an insect losing body heat as summer turns to fall. Chlorophyll no longer holds center stage in the chromatic scale, and where buds once formed, now there are acorns.

What immortal hand or eye could frame such a world? Hold this question in awareness as you go through your day, and hold it despite all the mounting evidence around you that to do so is to indulge in a flight of fancy. Night will come again. It will blanket you with stars. The majesty of creation will once again be self-evident, and you will no longer doubt the wisdom of the tenderness you allow into your heart when you contemplate such thoughts as these.

Let yourself be. Let Earth be your home and heaven your state of mind.

A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all heaven in a rage.
--William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, written 1803, published 1863

Photography: Sahara Desert in Tunisa and Shadows of Camels and Travelers, Alexey Kkrapckhen Moscvitch, 2004; The Large Turf, Albrecht Durer, 1503, The Albertina, Vienna; The Pleiades, NASA/ESA/AURA/CalTech; Sahara, 1908, Page; Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Rosino, December 2005

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