"In a landscape where nothing officially exists... absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen."
Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta, 1982
The Mojave Desert is a beautiful and devastating prospect. An unrelenting light falls in fiery shafts across mountains and valleys. The shimmering dry heat conjures watery visions on the floodplain and the wind blows with a searing breath, withering flora and fauna. It’s as though early settlers were being tested to see if they had what it takes to reach the promised land of California. And now that everywhere has been conquered and exhausted, people are heading back inland in search of themselves and the so-called wilderness.
Deserts stand as a monumental symbol of emptiness, a seemingly infinite landscape that serves as a powerful incarnation of the ‘natural’ and the sublime. But travel through the boulders and dunes, the washes and the canyons and the image of virgin territory is revealed as a mirage. Just beneath the surface, the sounds and traces of all kinds of activities, experiments, myths and utopias can be heard, tales of exile and promise, temptation and death.
These desert communities offer the opportunity to begin again, providing a blank slate of sorts for people attracted to this fragile environment, to make a new life in a ruthless clime that is no where near as empty as it looks. The longer you remain in wild places the more you hear, smell, see and feel. A level of endurance is demanded of desert dwellers to gain access to its theatre of wonders. It is an illuminating stage on which to observe the grace and ingenuity of a wildlife that evolves to survive in a hostile environment. Flowers emerge from the driest rocks and wrens dart deftly in and out of the ferocious cholla cacti.
Life is tough out here and not everyone adapts. The vastness of the desert can scare people, fear of being lost in the distance. But that lack of features on which to rest the eye can also be calming, mesmerising. There are no buildings, fences or forests for our attentions to bounce back from, so like sonar, our thoughts go on out into the ether. Nowhere else on earth is geological time so exposed as in a desert. Everything has taken thousands of years to develop.
The high desert is not the sweeping dunes of cultural imagination but crisscrossed by many mountain ranges, a land of splintered peaks. They surround you with a torn horizon, muted pinks, purples and beiges, bare faced and gradually over eons, softened - as sands are washed down from them into the plains and playas below. The desert playas are the flattest geological features on earth and a staging ground for military and art performances of epic proportions. These ancient lake beds are made up from layers of silt, left by cycles of flooding and drought. Revelation comes as the flash flood washes through and the world is laid bare for us all to see.
And then there’s the darkness, almost as blinding as the light of the day. At night in this parched air, the stars come down just out of reach of your fingertips. There’s no escaping we are on a revolving planet as we clearly see the moon and sun, rise and fall and the milky way slide into view. It’s no surprise that great concepts of transcendence and cosmic order are born in the desert, these are stories of creation and ending.
The desert is very much an idea, as most things on the edge are, it is sometimes thought of as a Badlands where outcasts are banished but most people are here on a quest for solitude and to reposition meaning in their lives. They have a passion for this land and its unconventional grandeur. They are the new prospectors, but instead of gold this time they are mining for silence, significance and inspiration. It’s an exposed way of life. You can’t avoid the elements. Submit to the great meteorological forces and it’s a reminder of how it feels to be alive, drawn to this edge, like someone experiencing vertigo, with an inexplicable urge to jump into the abyss.