Although I do not consider myself to be a person well-suited to farming or agricultural related tasks, despite my extensive family history in the profession, I find the relationship between people and the land to be an immensely profound one and one that has deeply influenced my thinking and feeling . I have also traveled a lot around the world and seen a wide variety of terrain and conditions ranging from the Alaskan tundra to tropical rain forests to subtropical swamps to temperate high deserts. In particular, today I would like to examine the relationship between environmental constraints, hardship, and the sort of diversity and beauty of plants that can grow and thrive in a given area. Then, to the extent that I am able, I would like to discuss the relevance of this relationship between environmental constraints and hardships and the beauty of our own lives. As plants and the land serve as a rich area of metaphor for our more complicated lives, by understanding at least something about the land we can understand the underlying patterns of our lives that can be obscured by the mundane nature of our day to day existence. Despite the fact that I will be speaking a lot about deserts, I hope that the post is not too dry for others to understand and relate to on a variety of levels.
I don’t remember when it is that I saw my first desert. Growing up as I did in Central Florida, I was long familiar with the sand of the Gulf and Atlantic beaches of Florida, and in my childhood I became familiar with the beaches of places like the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago as a result of my family’s travels to the Feast of Tabernacles. I saw pictures of deserts in books and saw the deserts of the American west through airplanes while I was young, but the first time I remember interacting with a desert was when I moved to Los Angeles just after turning eighteen. Los Angeles is a deceptive desert. Despite having very little rainfall, the area has sought to present a face of plentiful water, a façade that like so many aspects of existence in Los Angeles requires a great deal of theft and deception. The history of Los Angeles involves water wars and the insatiable thirst for water that has led it to first drain its own aquifers, tame its eponymous river with concrete banks, and to steal water from the Owens River, turning it into a grim desert itself, and from the Colorado River, and from northern California. Los Angeles have even pondered the logistics of stealing water from Oregon and Canada, so great is its thirst. To the extent that this thirst involves human beings, I have a great deal of empathy, but I am not very sympathetic to a desire to steal water from desert regions so that people can grow lawns that remind them of the Midwest. My beliefs, as naïve as they might be, are that we should try to live to the greatest extent possible in harmony with the people and environment around us, so far as it depends on us, rather than act with rapine disrespect of the world around us and the people in it.
It was my travels to Turkey in 2006 and Jordan and Israel in 2007 that gave me the most interesting insights as to how people come to terms with a desert life. In Turkey, nearly every home in the country I saw had on its roof a large cistern to capture the rare rainfall that came from the heavens, so that it could be profitably used for human consumption and not go to waste. In Jordan, nearly the entire country was dry, except for the wild and untamed wilderness of the Jabbok and Arnon valleys, the small coastal areas around Aqaba that had a resort feel to them, and the area around the Dead Sea, which included a small and well-watered plain at the northern end of the Dead Sea not far from Mount Nebo. Israel’s similar climate looked much better cared for, with the skillful husbandry of resources that allowed some parts of the desert to blossom as the rose through a great deal of effort. Areas like En Gedi or the kibbutzim close to the Sea of Galilee were a reminder that just because there is an absence of rain does not mean there has to be an absence of beauty. It merely means that one must be careful and be a good steward of the limited resources that one has been given, so that they are used wisely and creatively, rather than being spent frivolously on turf lawns. From what I have read, there are similar areas of blooming deserts in South Africa near the Cape and other areas as well, a phenomenon that has inspired me to poetry and a great deal of reflection.
In 1999, the band The Counting Crows came out with a cd titled “This Desert Life.” Coming on the heels of two massively successful albums, this particular album was a reflective affair and somewhat less popular than its predecessors. It contained a hit song “Hangingaround,” that talked about the frustration of feeling that life was not going forward any. Its second single, “Colorblind,” was a reflective and even mournful piano ballad, and the band wanted to release as a third single the uncut version of a seven minute epic song called “Mrs. Potter’s Lullabye” that featured the singer trying to comfort someone else in mourning. Apparently, for the band, a desert life was one that was not a particularly enjoyable one for the lead singer. I noticed myself when living in Los Angeles that I have a particular bent towards dehydration because my kidneys do not function particularly well. This same issue with the kidneys not processing water or filtering chemicals well enough that gave me a dehydration seizure while I was in college is also responsible for the gout I periodically suffer with as well. I have also long wondered, without being able to prove it definitively, whether my kidney problems have sprung ultimately from the stressful and traumatic life that I have lived, given that kidneys tend to react poorly to the frequent excretions of stress hormones. That irony would perfectly suit my life as a whole.
As a young adult in my mid-20’s, I wrote a poem where I compared the hardships of life to the Negev deserts of southern Israel . When a desert receives rain, even a small amount of rain that would be little noticed in an area like Portland or Tampa, where the rain is pretty frequent, a curious phenomenon happens. What looked like a dead landscape suddenly is filled with all kinds of fragile but beautiful blooms that blossom and that, for a little while, make the desert a place of beauty. That which looks dead and ugly on the outside often has a beauty within that can be brought to life with only a little bit of kindness and affection. As a person, I have long lived a life starved of gentle affection, unwilling to take advantage or force others to be affectionate, but at the same time feeling starved and as dried out as one of those notorious cow’s heads. So too, my own customary kindness to everyone around me has had its strongest and most unintentional effect on those who have similarly been starved of affection and attention. I remember one notable Feast of Tabernacles as a seventeen year old where my unconscious kindness triggered the obsessive interest of a much younger girl, who chased me around the church hall to my great distress and the humor of her relatives, some of whom went to my local congregation. However distressed the unwanted interest was, or my discomfort at being followed around, I refused to be cruel to someone who I recognized that many other people were cruel to. However uncomfortable I was, I did not wish to wound or harm someone else, and simply being kind and restrained was enough to provoke an intense infatuation from someone who probably had never been treated nicely by a boy before. My frustration was tempered by my intense compassion for someone in such a situation, knowing how rare in certain contexts being treated nicely has been for me.
I imagine I present to others a picture of a desert that occasionally blossoms into life. I have a dry sense of humor, and ways that are awkward enough that it is often assumed erroneously that I am not an affectionate person by nature. In the Bible, the wilderness (often a desert, like the sojourn of Paul and Moses in the deserts of Arabia) is a place of growth and development, but it is also a place of somewhat intense loneliness and isolation. We may become better people for the hardships of our lives, for the terrain that shapes us to be more gentle and hospitable and understanding to others, but that does not make such experiences pleasant. Our longing is not to make the whole world a desert so that all may be induced by their circumstances into developing certain qualities of resilience, of wise and careful logistical skills, and of compassion on others who struggle likewise, but rather to make the desert blossom into life, receive adequate rain, so that it may no longer be a desert, no longer a place of loneliness and isolation, and so that its beauty may be seen and recognized and treasured. The same is true for lives—we do not wish for all to suffer for the good of that suffering. Rather, we wish to be happy, to be full of life, and to live lives that are a blessing to others and enjoyable for ourselves. We do not desire to die in the wilderness like the faithless Exodus generation, but to live abundant lives, so that our deserts are no longer places to cover over thanks to water stolen from other places, but are places of joy and happiness brought to life by gentle rains and a loving hand.
 See, for example: