There is dry and then there is dry. I am speaking of the kind of dryness one might experience in the desert. Here in the high desert of central Oregon, depending on the location, we have an average of between eight and twelve inches of precipitation per year. But sometimes we do not even reach the minimums. This year we are experiencing a rather waterless fall. When I go on my frequent walks about forty miles east of Bend, the landscape looks like a vast dried flower arrangement. Everything is crunchy.
The desiccated flora has a beauty of its own. Seed heads and dehydrated flowers punctuate the terrain like little brown to golden wheat clusters, bouquets of desert wisdom. I say wisdom because the plants exhibit survival skills far beyond human capability. Imagine something that can be reduced to zero moisture and still sprout and grow when moisture returns. This is a miracle of nature that will far outlive us water-dependent life forms.
One of my Buddhist teachers once commented about how this arid environment is very favorable to spiritual practice. Unending horizons and spacious blue skies reflect the same in our original condition. Our Buddha-nature is equally unending and spacious. It takes a willingness to dry out a little bit from the water-drunken ego to recognize this. People speed along highway 20 passing by the eastern Oregon desert, never stopping because the landscape seems dead to them. I wonder what they do not see in the vastness of their inner desert.
I am walking now among alternating stands of big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) and low sage (Artemisia arbuscula). The plants are fragrant as ever, even though they are entering a period of dormancy. Seed heads of the low sage shoot upward toward the sky and, when sunlight strikes the dried clusters, they glow with a golden radiance. Low sun angles this time of year seem to make the desert pop with color. Bark on large junipers reflect the low rays and emanate in shades of red and ochre. Everywhere you look there is a luminous glow.
When I witness light bouncing off what many see as dead, I am reminded of the places in my own awareness that I ignore. So much of our natural wisdom is cloaked in dormancy, just waiting for us to wake up and smell the sage, so to speak. In the arid expanse before me I am embraced by the pungent scent of sage and my vision is entranced by sunlight illuminating a distant rise. I remember something of my original nature.
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance—
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are …
From “A Walk” by Rainer Maria Rilke