"...angle of repose designates the maximum angle at which a slope of loose material (such as soil or sand) remains stable. It is the point at which gravity challenges friction, the tense moment before one succumbs to the other. Particulate solids, poured onto a horizontal surface, will form a conical pile; the resulting slope - which depends on particle size, with larger particles supporting steeper slopes - is known as the angle of repose. [...] "You were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest..." (Wallace Stegner) ~ Home Ground, Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney
The air feels different in the desert. Hotter, obviously, but also lighter, as if the molecules are trimmer, more lithe, well-muscled dancers skimming easily over a wooden stage. We hiked last weekend in Jericho Tree National Park, the middle of the Mojave desert. The temperature said 90 F, but it felt cooler than that, manageable. We drove through the park until we found the trail we'd chosen, an old dirt road that wove through low hills. Cool as I felt, the sign at the entrance said, "Turn back when you've consumed half your water." I'm susceptible to the suggestion of the written word. Visions of a tortured death arose. I'd had plenty to drink before we arrived, but I was suddenly conscious of my mouth, the weight of my tongue, the painfully dry patch at the back of my throat. I dug a couple of pears out of the backpack and handed one to my husband, bit into the wet coolness, relieved.
The path we followed was littered with quartz, pink and glittering under the sun. Along the trail edge, sharp-limbed shrubs in pale green reached to touch us. Our feet kicked up yellow grit. A mile in, we walked across a dark line on the landscape, the scab of a recent fire. The Joshua Trees here were bent in half, split open and showing their fibrous hearts, black and sooty. I put my finger into one and felt the texture of it, rough, like a doormat, or the skin of a coconut. When I pulled my hand away there was a ring of ash on my fingertip. I rubbed it into my palm until the skin accepted my gift. We pushed on.
At the end of the trail there was an old gold mine, stuck into the hillside like a shelf fungus. We climbed to the chain-link fence enclosure and I tried to imagine what had led anyone to tunnel into the earth here, what sign had given away the secret of the earth's hidden cache? One hill in this place looked like any other, yet men had come and dug deep, built scaffolds and trails, carried gold up from the depths on horses' backs. As far as I could see there were more hills and more trees and the faint tan lines of more trails, yet someone had chosen this particular place for the point of their spade.
Earlier, on the flight down, I'd contemplated a quote a friend had left on facebook:
"When you get your, 'Who am I?', question right, all of your, 'What should I do?' questions tend to take care of themselves." (Richard Rohr)
It was a goldmine line. The moment I read it I knew this was it, the place I needed to start digging. Sometimes we can smell it in the air, the hoard waiting for us under the surface. Over the past months I've asked myself a lot of 'What should I do?' questions - about faith, writing, work, love, purpose - but I'd been missing the most essential question of all, the only one that could distill for me the truth.
I was born in desert-country - different from the Mojave, but the same gold and brown heat, the same light-fingered air. As a child we lived on a hillside like the one in Jericho Tree, tucked away from the main road, unseen. We had one neighbor, the ditch-rider's family; for awhile I was allowed to play with their daughter. In my memory she is dark-haired, round-limbed, but blank-faced. We'd sit for what seemed to me hours, the two of us, straddle-legged on the untraveled dirt road, digging. We had poor children's dreams. She was looking for old nails, rusted metal, stray nuts and bolts; she wanted to build a robot. I was hungry for minerals. When I dug up a rock I'd take it to the stone wall that lined the yard and crush it into powder, collect the dust into heaps. There was pink quartz in that desert too. I remember the sparkle of it in the sun, remember thinking I could spread it across my cheeks, or my lips, turn myself into something earthy and beautiful.
That afternoon, as we began the hike back to the car, my husband turned and snapped a picture of the mine. We showed it to our children later, at home. They squinted into the screen, shook their heads. From that distance it looked like a pile of timbers on a brown hill. "Someone found gold there," I said, but that didn't make it interesting. What I couldn't say was that a man's dreams came to rest in that spot, that this lonely place is where he put all his strength against a shovel and answered the question of who am I? with his own sweat and some stupid faith. It makes me smile, the absurdity of it: one adamant soul out there under the sun, digging away at his legacy in a field of dreams. I'm drawn by the unexpectedness of it, the isolation of a single man and his own determination.
Too often what is done in our modern life is done for the notice, for the likes. It's been a stumbling block at times, this feeling that I am obligated to crave someone else's approval, that in order for my work to be worth my time I should have followers, communal acceptance, or worse, a payback, or a paycheck. I resist it, rebel against it, end up closing myself down. That world isn't for me.
Who I am is part desert-child, part thirst, split-open and ash-tipped, unsatisfied, hoard-seeker.
Know yourself, Rohr says, and the other questions resolve.
Who I am is burst of pear in the mouth against need, heat on the skin, mineral-hungry, quartz-lipped, earth-digger. Who I am is singular and multiple, lithe and resistant, simple and faceted, revealing and retreating. Who I am is a woman suddenly at peace. I am coming up from underneath; my arms are full of gold.