Desert as Metaphor


I said my life has picked up recently. Specifically, I’m on the academic job market for the first time, and over the past three weeks I’ve had about 25 applications due. Rebecca Schumann has a good post here about how much time that can take. Also, over the past three weeks I presented a paper at a conference in Georgia and attended a wedding in far west Texas.

By “far west Texas” I mean Marathon, in the part of the state known as Big Bend, about a seven –hour drive from our house. It’s a beautiful drive, moving from the Hill Country of central Texas into grasslands that, somewhere between Sonora and Ozona, give way into the desert that leads up into the low mountains of Big Bend. Or at least I find the drive beautiful—another wedding guest complained at the rehearsal dinner that there was nothing to look at on the drive up.

To be honest, I didn’t look at much on the way up, either, except my laptop and my phone. I was sitting in the passenger seat, typing job documents the whole way. I think I actually applied to three jobs between Ozona and Fort Stockton. But I had some time to get away for a run on Saturday morning, and so I laced up my shoes and headed down Avenue D, across 1ststreet and a pair of train tracks and, a quarter-mile later—no suburbs or outskirts in Marathon—I was in the desert.

Joan Didion says we’re “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be” because “otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” Well, seventeen-year-old me isn’t as mad as Didion’s younger self sounds, but he was out there in the desert nonetheless, asking Why haven’t you been back here?

It hit me on that run that it had been almost seventeen years—half my life—since I had been in Big Bend country. Which is strange because the area held a sort of epic importance to me as a teenager, which itself is strange because I only visited it twice. I guess those two visits made an impression.

The first came after my freshman year in high school, with my (Episcopal) church youth group. The second time was the spring of my senior year, as a part of series of field studies for an ecology course at my (Catholic) high school. That second visit gave me words for what I had sensed but not understood on my first trip. Our teacher (an exceptional man who died four years ago of ALS) showed us that what from our bus windows looked empty and barren was actually teeming with life, and not just any life but the most extraordinary, the heartiest, the strangest and most beautiful plants and animals. We went out into the rocks and saw miracles of color, bluebonnets twice the normal size, insects that could lay low a 200-pound man, cacti that could give you hallucinatory visions, mountain lions, century plants, cactus flowers… We learned that what looked “all the same” from the highway was actually an endless series of micro-climates, that, owing to tiny differences in sunlight, elevation, and temperature, creatures that couldn’t exist in one spot were thriving a hundred yards away. He made it impossible, in other words, for me to see a desert and say there’s nothing to look at. 

I was thinking about all this as I ran away from Marathon when my thoughts, as they tend to do, cycled back to sex and religion. 

The desert has always been a central image for Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the desert as the opposite image of the garden, as a symbol of death that had to be conquered in order to find life. G.K. Chesterton wrote that the Desert Fathers, ascetics who fled the cities of Egypt in the third century for lives of solitude, hoped to get away from the earthiness of the pagan world:

Nothing could purge this obsession but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could find no flowers or even into the cavern where they could see no stars.

But both Chesterton and Benedict are speaking of the desert symbolically, as a place entirely devoid of life. The real desert isn’t like that. You can’t escape nature in the desert—if anything, the desert is nature distilled. I think this is an important lesson, too. It seems to me that Christianity is all about seeing the life where everybody else sees death, where there’s supposed to be nothing but emptiness. I think that’s why my church and my school took us out to Big Bend. Or at least that’s what I learned out there. 

Ok, ok, but sex. What does this have to do with sex?

Well, the desert is one of the first metaphors cultural conservatives turn to when describing sexual acts they don’t like. In part this is because cultural conservatives only see one real end for sexuality—procreation—and our language has always described acts that don’t end in procreation as “barren.” But it’s not just contraception and gay sex that get the comparison:promiscuity is also a wasteland; so is IVF.

But that metaphor fails when I consider the wondrous lives of people I know who have chosen not to have kids, who practice contraception, who have fallen in love with someone of the same sex. There’s nothing lifeless or empty about their lives. Or maybe the metaphor is just too perfect: maybe the people I argue against on this site are just like the wedding guests who can drive all the way to Marathon without seeing anything worth looking at.  

“Who would want to go to a desert?” they ask. “Nothing lives there.”  

That question doesn’t make sense to me. It stopped making sense years ago, when I was counting species with my ecology class at the base of the Chisos Mountains. And the full incoherence of that question hit me that Saturday, all these years later, running outside of Marathon. 

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