a meditation on wilderness
wilderness, of physical and spiritual form
We drive some distance from the city in order to find the water. This has become habit. I close the collection of essays and she drops the red pen that has ticked along the lines of the blue book and we escape to the beyond. In the last days of summer—yes, held to even when we should well admit it to be autumn—the light hangs low in the evening, the horizon becomes increasingly unmanaged after each mile marker passed. Is there wine sipped on the back of the car watching the sun settle into the place we cannot ever reach, or is that myth? Common myth we exchange years later as a reminder that keeps us afloat in the seasons of discontent? Does the fact of it matter as much in the end as the truth of it?
The truth of it is that there was wine. The fact of it I cannot speak to. Wine sipped on the back of the car watching the sun settle into the place we cannot ever reach, for this is the wilderness as we have ever known it, every generation before us: infinite, ever-beyond even but one more inch. We shall never be through it, so we often pretend that it isn’t there at all. We fear the infinite of the wilderness, so we build. We create effigies of permanence to avoid contending with our impermanence. Not unlike why we keep sipping the wine, we the son and daughter of Cain.
Las Vegas wouldn’t be Las Vegas if it hadn’t been for 1931. Not only did the year mark the beginning of construction on the Hoover Dam but also the Nevada legislature adopted the legalization of casino gambling. (And, it is fair to add, I think, the reduction of the residency requirement for divorce to only six weeks. This, too, is about impermanence.) If you think about what Vegas is, ultimately, everything removed from it that we know today, it is a tremendous stretch of arid wilderness. So we filled it. We put the great pyramids next to Italian rivieras and imported as many diverse forms of water we could justify. Justify to whom might be worth asking. Perhaps to no one, ultimately, other than the myth of us — the ever-abundant, ever-migrating, ever-making-better American conscious that often makes rounds these days as a kind of social Christianity that is at once completely foreign to Christian faith and completely indebted to it.
I digress. The point is that in the aftermath of two world wars — which remind us too much of wilderness, the infinite finitude of death — Vegas became a kind of promise of our ability to resist the wilderness, one that is not exclusively American, though we are proud of it. The UAE is an easy contemporary example of this kind of wilderness-resistant mentality, the creation of a city in the midst of desert. The UAE, Vegas, it’s a kind of mocking triumph. When an oasis can be constructed, are we much in need of a god?
A less obvious example, but one addressing the question of a god or the God, might be Mecca, the holy city of Islam. Now a commercial project for the past several years, some of the intricate work of one of the most architecturally beautiful faiths in this world is being lost to us. Jerome Taylor, writing for The Independent in 2011, noted that behind closed doors many who live in Mecca are referring to it as “Vegas”, with no sense of affection.
But this habit of wilderness resistance is not exclusive to large, communal conscious. The possibility emerged once that my father might take a job in Kansas. An inordinate amount of weight was given exclusively to the issue of wilderness. It may have been presented under the expression, “There’s nothing there,” but it was, I assure you, a commentary on landscape and our sense of place.
The old true myth of our coming into being makes note of our plight regarding wilderness. Genesis recounts in the aftermath of Cain’s murder of Abel that Cain “went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”
Nod, in Hebrew, means wandering. Cain’s punishment, in part, is to be sent out of the presence of God into a land of endless wandering. It would be in this land that Cain would meet his wife and give birth to a son after whom the first city recorded in the text would be named.
So you see, buried within the narrative, a tension emerges. There is the Garden of Eden, the place where God had been intimately known, and, after the the exile of Adam and Eve, some place beyond the garden where God still made Godself known to the children of the first humans. But there is the other place, the land of Nod, east of Eden, where God does not seem to make Godself known, a place of wandering, a place of uncertainty, and eventually a place where the first city takes shape. Perhaps in response to this absence of God, perhaps out of resistance to God’s presence. Is it any wonder, then, why the story of the flood or of the Tower of Babel follows shortly after? Each recounts the wickedness of man growing in proportion to man’s distance from the first garden, from the wilderness itself.
Yet where does God come to call Abram, to herald the beginning of the three great monotheistic faiths of this world? The wilderness. Where does God lead Israel to freedom out of the house of slavery? The wilderness. Where do the prophets flee and find themselves in the midst of God? The wilderness.
The Scriptures have a lot to say to us about wilderness spaces. But we are so busy resisting the wilderness we don’t have the time to pay attention to the promise that they might be for our good.
Surely our fear of wilderness is tied to our fear of abandonment. So much so that we describe the wilderness as something to be experienced, contained within the suitable categories of our understanding.
It’s a linguistic charade, implying dominance over the thing we most fear to dominate us. Wilderness, true wilderness, doesn’t care much what we think we known or have control over. We don’t, ultimately, either know or have control and the wilderness knows that. It knows that if we are ever completely alone in the midst of it, there is only ourselves and God. And because we fear God most when God is not mediated through the voices and insights of the crowd, the wilderness knows that we will resist this encounter above all, and, in so doing, we will be at its mercy.
Unless, of course, in our desperation to encounter God, we are driven into the wilderness. (I have written about this at some length, here.) That’s another story altogether. It involves the discerning of motivations. The question of purpose. Does Moses repel from his station in Egypt into the wilderness exclusively out of fear of his sin, or is there something that compels him into it, too? It is in the wilderness Moses meets God. Perhaps one could even say that God is brought out of the wilderness back to the city by Moses. Perhaps, but I imagine that some would consider that a great risk.
I should say something about time. Wilderness is also disinterested in our sense of time. In wilderness, when it is given the spiritual infinity it warrants, we discover that our conception of progress, motivated often by our sense of our own mortality, is futile. We are progressing generally in decidedly city-motivated manners. We are figuring out new ways to not have to account for the desert spaces in ourselves and in this world. Time is a line for us, marching onward, and each new step forward is synonymous with success toward being a better human person, an assumption of social evolution that was as robust in Nazi Germany as it is on Wall Street today.
The three monotheistic faiths that live by religious calendars offer remedies to this mentality, I think. For them time is a circle. A grand, impossible circle of repeated events and moments in historic time caught up in present time and all of that caught up into this very idea of time itself. Such religious parameters recast the vision of ourselves as soldiers on the march toward progress to be pilgrims on the journey toward wherever God is to be found.
I don’t think this is a call to quit the city, or if it is I am an unwilling prophet. I write this from the second floor of a brick building in a not-so-interesting-as-to-be-a-nuisance downtown. It’s a smallish apartment with exposed brick and unsealed concrete. Yet it is comfortable and it is, but for the dust like sand that comes with the unsealed concrete, as removed from the wilderness as anything else around me.
I am fond of it, this apartment, this life, and if this is the product of my fear I am deluded enough to call it blessed. I am not inclined to sell all my possessions, quit the apartment landscape, and move into a yurt. (Though I have friends, not twenty miles away, who have done just that. I take this as evidence that such decisions exist at least in the realm of possibility.)
No. I’m far too certain of my ability to move into the space of wilderness and make in it a city. To settle my heart east of Eden. There must be a way to remain in the physicality of the urban while spirituality abiding in the rural. That may be a form of gnosticism, I suppose.
We escape to the country. At least, that’s the bourgeois way of describing it. We live with a kind of expectancy that the wilderness can only be stomached so much, escaped to and then retreated from. The weekend away, the spiritual retreat. The names themselves betray us. The wilderness remains uncertain to us and we are not of a culture that enjoys uncertainty. We enjoy mastery, ownership, and, when those are not to be had, a kind of resigned experiential knowing of a thing, aware but not committed. But it appears that we have been living like this for a long time. It appears that the old fear in us runs deep, back into the bones of Cain, and what that says about us in the days east of Eden I don’t know, but it’s worth consideration.