In Belden Lane's "The Solace of Fierce Landscapes—Desert and Mountain Spirituality", Lane focuses on the desert as a place of retreat (pilgrimage?) from the busyness and noise of our usual lives. He describes it this way: "I went hiking alone in the desert . . . determined to meet the landscape on its own terms, without expectations, submitting . . . to its sublime disregard for all my petty concerns. Abandonment, after all, is what the desert teaches best . . . its capacity to ignore is immense. Yet in that very indifference, one discovers an enormous freedom."
Thus, to encounter a "fierce landscape" (e.g., a desert or a mountain—or the sea) is to come face to face with a landscape that produces mixed responses in us. Reading Lane's book sent me beck to look at my images of the Arizona and New Mexico deserts (see the image above). And I was reminded of my first experience of the desert. I was driving north from Flagstaff to Tuba City. What I remember seeing is emptiness, spareness and aridity stretching out in all directions, a spare beauty that (coming from the green Midwest) was fascinating and attractive. But I also remember feeling vaguely threatened. I had read somewhere that if the car broke down in the desert, one should stay with it (friends had actually had this happen and was remembering what they said they experienced at that time). Wandering off in that landscape could quickly become life-threatening. Attraction and fear: a fierce landscape turns attention away from the self and toward (as Lane wrote) the sublime world one is experiencing but also helps one become aware of one's insignificance to the ongoingness of the whole that is that world. And in that awareness, one can also become free of one's concerns (at least for a time).
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