Deserts and consciousness [locations: Tunisia]
The Eye of the World
I’m lying in bed trying against the wind to fall asleep. The chiming clock in the hallway strikes out an anemic hour, the notes mangled by a low battery. There’s no reason it should, but it triggers a memory of standing on the rim of Africa. Of when I stood in the dusk at the edge of a continent; then I turned around to stand at the edge of a sea.
Awake beneath my blanket, restless on the far shore of dreams, I’m staring out into a great frothing blackness undulating with nightmares and lullabies. I think of that forlorn evening in Tunisia – our last – kicking rocks off the cliffs of Cap Bon into the Mediterranean. We were excited by the wrecked ship below us – surely a nightmare – hoping some fantastic tale would come wafting up from it, a classic drama that, just by breathing in the rusted air, would come alive in front of us. So close to shore, just beneath the land’s eyelid – moored, marooned, tucked into that boundary of sleep forever. What happened to the crew? Did they step off and swim themselves awake? Or do they lurk beneath decks, rotting and crystallizing into a salty crust?
The speakers from two different mosques were calling evening prayers into the air. It was as if the voices were searching, probing the void; searching like the SETI, broadcasting their prayers, the same over and over as if they didn’t know there was another land just across the sea. Just up the coast, at the highest point on Cap Bon, rusting cannons point menacingly outward, originally installed in World War II. A nice man opened the gate for us to walk around the base of the large telecommunications tower and down to the cannons, not otherwise accessible to the public. Peering down cannon barrels under a salty gray sky, the force of the wind nearly ripped us from the hemline of the continent as if it meant to re-stitch the water to the land a little further inland. I struggled to keep my footing.
From the speakers atop the mosque minarets, the prayers, five times daily, cry for someone to hear them, to come to shore; and the cannons insist that no one come, promise to repel anyone who tries. There is an uneasiness there at the edge, a subtle tension lining the rocky coast.
It seems that in the gathering darkness, which we had no flashlight to penetrate, when we turned to hurry back down the hills and cross the valley to reach our truck, some part inside me failed to turn around and leave. A little kernel stayed looking out across the calm water – calmer than I’ve ever seen the sea, as if it had just been abandoned like the ship … the myriad creatures and the motion – the wind and the moon – all just left the sea to idle as a brilliant, turquoise, stagnant pond. And tonight when dreams have left me, I’m standing lonesome at that eerie shore, calling out. It feels like no one else knows we’re here – we, this continent and I – like we’re lost.
Long ago, the Romans knew this part of the continent well, sailing over from Italy and founding hundreds of cities in their North African “breadbasket.” Their sticks and bones still lay about everywhere like native shrubbery; my kernel, without roots, is just a tiny pebble on the surface. I fear lying for eternity at that precipice above the sea, etched not into here or there but into the slim sill which is both, where I stopped for a moment alone, with my back to the great birthing grounds, to face a vast sailors’ tomb. The sun set on my left as I looked up at my husband on my right, climbing ahead of me, climbing east up into the darkness, becoming a silhouette, as if he were walking into the dream-sea to leave me behind with the prayers.
But this isn’t really about the sea. Maybe I put it here because everyone likens the desert to “a sea of sand.” In the interior of southern Tunisia, I stood at the shoreline of an enormous desert. And it isn’t just the desert’s vastness that is like a sea, the quantity of sand like that of water, but the sand itself is fluid. The Saharan sand is so powdery fine that it moves like a thick liquid though it is utterly dry. It’s as dry as the water is wet.
I’ve never actually journeyed across an ocean on a ship. I’ve taken day-trips on small boats, gotten a taste of what it is to leave land behind, to be surrounded by water, to be convinced that land never existed, yet plagued by the illusion of horizon. Once you step into the water, you are in the body of the ocean, and once in the body there seems to be no specificity to your place within. Driving into the desert is similar.
My husband, Erik, and I approached the Sahara in our trusty Nissan 4x4 we rented in Djerba. We drove through the delta of scrub-brush country, through sand dunes and murky horizons up to the edge of the true desert. And there is in fact an edge, razor thin. This was the most unexpected thing. Here, the sterile sands don’t just melt out into the other land, fade away gradually. There is a literal wall of sand that marks the boundary; it’s its own fence. One moment you are not in the Sahara. You take one single step, and then you are inside, enveloped, not to emerge again for thousands of miles – nearly 3,000 if you traverse toward the western edge, or 1,200 if you head for the south. It’s a tall step, that first one, for the wall is many meters high. You’ve now entered an entity as large as the United States.
There is an oasis breaking up this stretch of sand-cliff, the last oasis in many barren miles. It was the one place in Tunisia where the guidebook highly recommended a splurge. So Erik and I spent a hefty pocketful of dinars to stay in the posh comforts of a desert-side mini-paradise. Our tent was air-conditioned by a generator and furnished with a comfortable bed and a small bathroom with plumbing, and the natural water supply at the oasis afforded a swimming pool amid the tents. Trees were nourished by the natural spring, and there was a line of them at the perimeter of the oasis like a hedgerow. When we stepped beyond the last tree, we were suddenly completely inside the desert. Later we took a short camel ride further in. And even though I was barely inside the desert’s periphery, I felt deep, deep into the heart of something so vast that the heart is in fact the thing: not the pit at the center but the whole fruit, so that to step across the border is to step into the whole, just as a black hole or the universe has no center—there is no plot for your position; you are merely in or out.
As we drove toward this oasis at the Sahara’s hem, I soon understood what people mean when they say the desert is beautiful. I used to look at the photographs in coffee table books and read the photographers or authors espouse the great beauty of these lonely, barren places, and I thought the people were over-dramatic and clownish, trying to make poetry out of something unpoetic, something profound out of something mundane. After about fifteen or twenty kilometers driving through the proto-desert – the flat, scrubby, colorless sandy plain leading into the true desert – I was struck by the beauty, almost like a cartoon character being hit on the head with an anvil. It was quite sudden; I just got it, and it was overwhelming.
I’m a mountain girl. I live in them now, and I grew up backpacking through them. In the rugged mountains, especially above tree-line, you always have a sense of direction – there are monstrous landmarks all around you. You can get turned around in the forests, especially on cloudy days, but even then the trees look different from one another, there will be rivers somewhere, the land is stationary and has slope, angles, degrees. There is topography and feature to grab onto and use.
Trying to reach the Sahara, five or six kilometers after turning off the paved road at a lonely little sign pointing ambiguously to Ksar Ghilane, we came upon our first fork in the dirt road. The map showed only one … period. Eyeballing distance on the map, it would be about 30 kilometers into the 80-kilometer stretch of no-man’s land. All we had to go by was a dotted line on the map heading west through this featureless area to eventually cross the pipeline road that runs south along the desert’s margin. The single fork turned due south to curve down toward the military zone at the border of Algeria. Obviously this was not the map’s fork. Each arm here proceeded roughly west. I only knew west from my miniature compass that had been attached to the zipper of a winter coat my husband had bought a couple years ago in a department store. It’s cheap and crude, but it has served me well. The sun was completely obscured in a sandy haze – the sky was as bland as the land. There were some low hills beside us whose ridgelines meandered away from us. The intersection at this Y was a very acute angle, both roads seemed equally wide and well-traveled, both headed approximately west, neither one due west. For no convincing reason, we chose the left arm.
Four kilometers later, another fork. We chose the right arm, trying to stay west. Two kilometers later, another fork. We were slightly aghast, and glad we had started the day with a full tank in our diesel truck, ten liters of water and a couple packages of cookies. At this third fork I got out a piece of paper and wrote down the direction of each turn we’d taken so far and the odometer reading of each. Six kilometers later, another branching of the road. One and a half kilometers later, another. It was a fairy tale of mazes. I thought about dropping cookie crumbs as we drove further into the sandy labyrinth.
We had our compass and an estimation of which path looked more traveled. But the paths became fainter and fainter and soon were but slight tire tracks, perhaps laid down only once. Small sand dunes covered portions of the questionable tracks. We put the truck in low-4, second gear, and plowed through, keeping the revs at redline. Anything lower and we would lose momentum and sink irretrievably. (Afterward, I read about modern-day desert travelers who let their tires down to 15 psi and have to stay above 45 mph to avoid sinking.) At first this was nerve-wracking, but then it just became the way things were, and eventually we thought little of it, except for the really deep dunes when I couldn’t help but squeal with my knuckles bent beneath my chin, thinking “Go, go go, little truck, go!”
And so we made our way toward the eye.
It was rough, bumpy, and slow going; all the time we just tried to stay heading west. Erik had had a lot of coffee for breakfast, and he had to stop and get out of the truck regularly to pee. I got out, too, and that’s when the anvil dropped, in the middle of that maw of silence. The silence was so deep that the idling truck didn’t even penetrate it or distract from it. Normally I would want to turn the engine off to immerse myself in the silence, but we didn’t want to risk not being able to start it again, and it didn’t matter anyway … the engine could affect the silence no more than an ant could make a dent in the trunk of a redwood tree.
It wasn’t that the scenery suddenly seemed pretty, but all those phrases about beauty being inherent in the barrenness, in the vision of raw vastness, now made sense … that glimpse of eternity. It’s like a physical manifestation of a state of meditation. “Clear your mind,” they say. “Thoughts are only bubbles that float away back out, never meshing into the mind but passing through without footprints.” Like the way the sand immediately swallows yours and the breeze blows over, and you’re hard-pressed to prove you ever were there. The desert enforces the present – the past is immediately erased and the future can’t be ascertained in the shifting sands.
In the mountains you contemplate God for majesty, for the color, shape and complexity around you; in the desert you contemplate God for pure magnitude, something more cosmic, as in of the universe rather than of the earth. Or perhaps you contemplate the possibility of his absence, mulling over the phrase “god-forsaken land.” Previously, I’ve thought of the desert as crushing the earth’s spirit with its barren sterility, but in fact it has freed it.
This part of the earth is only just waking up, wiping the sleep from its eye and yawning, stretching, thereby freeing the other half to dream. For there to be dreams, there must be wakefulness; it’s the contrast that gives them definition. But we the dream inevitably fall into the abyss of consciousness. To live in the desert is to live under a cold acknowledgement, to be perceived with calculation rather than imagination. Think of how you wake up from your own dreams in the morning. You’ve been somewhere rich with imagery, symbolism and metaphor, possibly somewhere fantastical or in an improbable plot filled with intrigue, in which you have amazing powers of transportation from one location, scene or reality into another. You wake up and open your eyes to look around your bedroom, where you see furniture, ceiling, motionless objects held together by laws of chemistry and physics, which are not fantastical or improbable, but rather the most likely things to exist given the present conditions and laws of the universe. You know approximately the number that your clock will indicate as the amount of time that has passed since you last looked at it. You know approximately what you will see when you look out the window. You know approximately what you will do next as you swing your feet onto the ground. This is the sterility of waking life – when we’ve used up the imagination of sleep. When the earth has used up green and yellow and trumpeting pink, when it can no longer conjure tails or legs or ears, it must open its eye to the spare latticework of element and force, acknowledging the geological certainty of desert sand – the surface currency of Earth’s entropy.
The earth is just an egg laid by God. Huge cosmic chickens rule the universe, you see, and they run around laying planets for eggs. The atmosphere is like our eggshell, protecting us while we develop and grow inside, beneath the cusp of consciousness. It’s our destiny as a developing embryo to consume all the natural resources of our mother earth and to destroy our atmosphere, so rather than dying out we just hatch out of our atmospheric shell and we’ll be free to go wander the universe at large. Mars was indeed once inhabited, like Earth. All its canals and pyramids and technology are now sand; the planet awoke and its people left long ago. Its eye gazes at us with nostalgia while it remains in orbit, the discarded eggshell of a civilization that has hatched.
Slowly, slowly, consciousness creeps over us.
The Sahara has numerous sisters: the Gobi and Taklimakan, the Kalahari and Arabian, and numerous lesser deserts on every continent. They grow day by day, flaunting their esoteric beauty, their power of raw truth, these wastelands of planetary debris – the detritus, the flaking of the earth, like dandruff. And it builds up and up; it advances like a sentient menace, taking over, moving in like a glacier, covering villages in a fortnight and sometimes a single night. I still double check with myself: this is beauty? This brown opacity, this sludge that, when wet, sucks on truck tires like a vacuum? This bland and malevolent compound – silica?
Oddly, you could ultimately make sand a metaphor for clarity. Though it’s more like a pre-metaphor … the truth before you know it’s the truth, like unproven science that becomes fact as soon as you discover its proof. Superheated sand can turn into glass. The substance of abstract beauty, primarily silicate mineral, is the exact same substance that, when heated, represents tangible beauty, the quintessential clarity.
The other day my friend and I were watching a glass blower at work. Looking into the kiln from which the glass emerged all gooey and malleable, my friend said, “Look at that color, the color of heat.” That incredible yellow-orange, the visual expression of the tactile intensity. While we watched the blower twirl the molten glass around at the end of his blowing rod, I wondered: If the planet continues with desertification, currently converting millions of hectares into desert each year, if it turns completely to sand, when our sun goes supernova will Earth turn into a glass ball? I picture a ball like the one Glinda the Good Witch of the North rides around Oz in, floating serenely through space.
Apparently, meteors that fall to earth in the desert can turn pieces of it into glass. Now there’s something I’d like to see. You’re standing in the desert, feeling oppressed and melancholy at the sand, sand everywhere. Five days yet to go with your camels until you reach Timbuktu or whatever your destination, and then wham. A blinding flash of light, a pain in your ears so intense you’re not even sure if it’s sound, an impact that shakes the ground like an earthquake; you’re momentarily stunned, confused. Sand rains down upon you, blotting out the sun; you have to cover your face. When you can breathe again, you gather your senses and look around, and there is a shard of glass sparkling in the sand. You wonder, Have I really gathered my senses?
There’s a field of green glass chunks in the desert in Egypt: “Libyan glass.” Some are confused by its presence, finding no immediate evidence of a large meteor impact, seeing no explanation for the heat that could have fused the silicate material into glass. But the earth is a master of secrets; sometimes her whisper takes a long time to reach deep enough into our ears for us to hear it. The explanation here doesn’t stem from space, but from biology: Every eye needs an iris. The earth’s eye is green.
When I look back on my trip to Tunisia, in which we saw so many cool and interesting things, driving to Ksar Ghilane with our pickup truck across the scrubby desert country with only our mini compass as a guide was the most appealing part. Navigating right along that eyelid, so near to tucking underneath it. We could have driven up the sandy ridge of the bony eye socket. We could have even driven across the giant eyeball itself over to the cornea and parked right on the colorless abyss of the pupil. We would have run out of gas by that point and died there in the wistful glare of the sun, with the earth staring right at us.
As we neared the pipeline road, at which point we’d found a wide braid of parallel paths – a well-traveled route across the land – a Land Rover came racing up the “road” behind us and passed us. Then after a minute it stopped and the driver got out. We pulled up to him, stopped and rolled down the window. My French is passable for only the most minimum of communications. But as he stuck his head inside our car and looked around, surprised that we were just two white tourists by ourselves in a truck, he traced his finger all around the dash area and rearview mirror. It was obvious he was asking where our compass was. I showed him my tiny one in the palm of my hand, and he burst out laughing. He took the compass from me and stepped back inside his vehicle to show his passengers what a foolish thing we were using to navigate the desert with. Few people transport themselves across this country; most hire guides, and I’m presuming most independent travelers are a little better equipped. The guide told us we were the first people that day to cross through the dunes, which had rearranged themselves since yesterday. He was obviously impressed.
The next day, after spending the night in the oasis, we headed back north along the pipeline road, from which we could see off to our left that improbable wall of sand rising up and comprising the horizon. Large herds of camels wandered about the land between us and the wall. We turned off onto another dirt road to head toward Matmata. When it turned out to be a well-maintained dirt road with only a few sudden car-destroying pitfalls to be avoided, Erik and I found ourselves a little deflated. We yearned for more adventure that necessitated focus and concentration singularly on our present. We wanted to know how stalwart we are. Like many people, we thought we might discover the extremes of our limits within the extremes of nature.
But the desert isn’t a mirror to look in and see your reflection. It is, actually, the piece of glass its silicate material suggests it to be – a window to look through and see things on the other side. Cupping your hands over your eyes and looking into the Sahara, you can see the ethereal freedom, see beauty redefined and released. Similar to looking through the glass windows in the zoo at the animals on the other side, the glass a metaphor for not being able to touch that part of our past or common ancestry, that distant, distant history. Whenever I put my hand up to the window at the gorilla exhibit and the toddler gorillas put their hands up to mine, I’m overcome with chills and shivers. I’ve nearly fainted at our proximity. But more distant than that, before we were life, we were mineral; when life runs its course, we will eventually be mineral again – maybe terrestrial dust on this or another planet, maybe cosmic dust, maybe with some luck a glass ball formed in the kiln of a supernovae. Though, some say our sun will merely wither into a brown dwarf with no spectacular exit, and the earth will just become colder and colder; night will descend endlessly. The eye will have nothing to do but scan the heavens and watch the stars bloom.
Now with our sun providing us cycles, the other stars beyond are only seeds at night – tiny seeds furrowed into the fertile acres of space. The star-seeds are sprinkled around the heavens by the cosmic ranchers who own the cosmic chickens who lay the planet-eggs. Anyone who spends any time with the night sky arrives at explanations, stories and destinies for the stars. The problem is that those explanations are mostly anthropomorphic. This is what I’ve deduced: The stars bloom with the morning glories, with each new revolution of our planet, unfurling each day in the deep woods of our unawareness, blooming in the voids left by our daytime inattention, by our affair with the sun. They bloom and die and re-seed themselves by dusk each day, and the sun goes down as water into the well of night. The stars drink the sun into their roots –when they twinkle, that’s them slurping up the water – and they sprout again at dawn.
I wanted to see the stars in the Sahara on a moonless night. I left my shoes in our tent, and Erik and I walked away from the oasis, which was flooded with electric light keeping the swimming pool bright and a light outside each tent for the people staying there in the isolated paradise. We wanted to get out and sink down behind the dunes, use them like a blanket to throw over the coursing electricity. The terrain alternated between stretches of flat, pebbly plain and super-soft, dense sand dunes. It was difficult to navigate in the dark; I couldn’t tell when a dune was imminently ahead, and suddenly my bare foot would hit the slope of a dune and I’d almost fall forward on my face from the sudden impact, for it instantly absorbed all of the energy and momentum propelling my legs forward. The pebbles on the flat ground were pokey on my tender soles, but the sand that enveloped my feet as I climbed up and down the dunes was like silk.
Slowly losing our sense of direction, we stumbled into the Sahara in the darkness. I wanted to keep going and going, staggering into the void, but alas we stopped and sat down, and stretched out our toes into the great, wide silence, looking up into the great, wide beyond. As we sat looking up, the stars began to drop from the sky one after another, as if the universe was falling apart. We sat wide-eyed and quiet. The universe was unbelievably simple: sand and stars. One was falling down into the other. Maybe meteors were forming glass all over the desert. But I’m just sure these weren’t meteors. The stars themselves were raining down upon us. That night it was the end of time: all the sand had run out of the hourglass and piled up on the earth’s floor, and when that last grain of sand fell at our feet, the sky began to fall after it. All the stardust everywhere poured down through the waist of the hourglass, coating us with nanoseconds and hours, millennia and eons.
Then the eye closed and we walked back to the oasis, back into the dream.
If the African jungle is the heart of darkness, you could say the Sahara is the heart of light. Blinding, searing light that’s just as oppressive as darkness, barren openness that’s just as cumbersome as dense, machete-dulling jungle. Inhospitable, impenetrable. For a time it was “easier to map the surface of the moon with a telescope than to produce a detailed map of Africa.” We really were lost that one night in the dusk, Africa and I, when I stood on the cliffs of Cap Bon. The voices from the mosques had only just reached the Mediterranean shore from centuries ago, calling out from the barren heart of the desert, “Does anyone know us?” Riding the current of galactic thoughts as they occur one by one to our burgeoning planet.
Several millennia ago, when this Saharan land dreamed, while it was still in the watery womb, it was filled with savanna animals – hippopotamus, giraffe, crocodile and elephant. People hunted the animals and swam in deep lakes. They drew sophisticated paintings on rock walls and overhangs, depicting the details of this life. It was such a violent dream of paradise that even now, in consciousness, the eye carries the scars deep in the retina. Two hundred miles from any water source today the detailed art remains on the stone, stone that has managed to stand up to the scouring power of the wind. Those sketched memories are the deepest tissue in the ancient wound. Now when humans pass through, peering into the cold, wakeful eye of the earth, searching for those scars, they are heroic in their survival; where the living was once easy, in the dream, it is now nearly impossible. To walk this far in is to shed your leg for an albatross wing.
The morning that we awoke in our tent at the Sahara’s edge, we awoke covered in sand, a fine layer all over our bodies, like frosting on our hair; it infiltrated into our suitcases, into the pockets of our clothes, coating the words written inside my journal. After only one night, one step before the event horizon, we were assaulted with this silt as a caution from the heart of light: if we cross the wall of sand and walk back in, we’ll lose the strength to fly back to the dream-shore. We’ll lie beached like the ship off Cap Bon, lodged in the undulating sand dunes that froth in the wind like waves, while the prayers drift over us, searching for the consciousness which we already lie within.
Licking our gritty teeth in the dawn, self-conscious and nervous now that we’ve been made manifest, now that the eye has seen us, we’re compelled to wade ashore from the fecund dreams of infancy, to leave behind our bag of fantastical stage costumes and accessories. We must carry only the essentials into our dromedary dream.
Steadily we inch our way further into the paradox, into the profound absence formed by the only material tough enough to compose our eternal freedom – the silken silica that drafts the earth’s portrait in time, element and motion. In the very place where nothing seems to exist, if we lie down, existence will cover us up, smother us and lead us back to the starkness from which we came – back down the pipeline through biology and chemistry, back through physics, back through math and probability, back down to that single, naked, undeniable point, one step over the line that separates us from nothingness.
Honorable mention in New Letters Awards for Writers