Category Archives: Nature

Superbloom

The Yucca schidigera, aka Mojave Yucca, aka Spanish Dagger. I prefer Spanish Dagger. It sounds dangerous and romantic, and it also reflects what this plant will do to you if you’re not careful around it.

This spring we’ve had a superbloom in the Mojave Desert. We get these every so often, when the rain gods feel generous and bestow a few extra inches of precious precipitation upon our parched earth, during the Fall and Winter months.

Purple sage embowered beneath the reticulated frame of a dead cholla cactus. A copse of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) in full fruit, stands guard nearby.

I thought I’d share some photos of our current superbloom as a little Mother’s Day gift, for all the mothers who follow this blog. But the muthers are welcome to enjoy it, too.

The fruit of the Joshua Tree. This fruit has a soapy, bitter taste when eaten raw. Native Americans were outstanding chefs. They figured out how to roast it just right, to remove the bitterness.

I can’t show you all the different kinds of flowers that have bloomed this year, because there are just so many. Deserts have as much diversity in plant species as found in tropical rainforests. This becomes most apparent during a superbloom.

California Manroot. This vine makes tiny parts of the desert resemble a jungle, as it festoons California Junipers with its lush green leaves and spiky fruit.

A Spanish Dagger, with Purple Sage in the foreground, and purple and white mountains in the background. That’s Mount San Gorgonio, which is the tallest peak in Southern California, at 11,503 feet.

Superblooms attract hordes of tourists that can make viewing a hectic or commercial experience. And so, while the flowers bloom, your spirit is left barren.

Encelia farinosa, aka Brittle Bush. These happy yellow bouquets spring up to greet you, in unexpected corners and alcoves of the desert.

You must know the secret places, to enjoy a superbloom in peace and quiet. And you must take the trails less traveled, that lead to magical glens guarded by rattlesnakes and loneliness.

Rancher’s Fiddleheads, with stands of Purple Sage in the background.

A hillside of white flowers.

Every caring mother wants her child to bloom. But to bloom you must take risks, and go to places and do things that may leave your mother worried, if she only knew.

This Spanish Dagger seems to have strayed a little ways from its family.

You must develop courage. Strike out on your own. And avoid the trammeling crowds.

Then look to the skies and fervently pray to the rain gods.

A Monoptilon bellioides, aka Mojave Desertstar. These cheery members of the Asteraceae family, erupt after periods of heavy rainfall.

You may endure many years of thirst, heat, and dry seasons. But one day the rain gods may hear. And you, too, will have a superbloom.

Another Spanish Dagger. This one has gothic, purple petals that resemble corn husks. You may have noticed that every yucca produces a unique flower. No two yucca flowers look exactly the same.

A superbloom you can proudly share with your mother. On Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Naturebook

Naturebook offers an unlimited choice of wallpapers, including this one from Zion National Park.

There are all kinds of social media, such as WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. But have you ever heard of Naturebook? It’s my favorite social media site. Naturebook allows you to socialize with non-humans. To access this site, just put on your hiking boots, grab a daypack, then trek off into the worldwide web of wilderness.

It’s very interactive. Your input is simply your boot print and physical presence. But nature replies in a much more varied manner. Naturebook offers input for all the senses.

You’ll feel the sweep of wind across your skin. You’ll catch the aroma of sage and pine, and dust up your nostrils. And you can chaw on stuff, and taste the bitter green blood of grass, the gooey sweetness of manzanita berries, or the shocking tingle of Mormon Tea. And nothing is filtered or censored. With Naturebook, anything goes.

The landscape is like 3-D wallpaper, with undulating mountains, thick forests, and broad brushlands. And the cloud is not some place where you store data. Rather, it is a constantly changing formation made of tiny water droplets, sometimes wispy, sometimes towering, and sometimes a gentle, foggy blanket.

For the spiritual sense, there’s the call of soaring raptors. They serve as security reminders, forewarning small creatures of the ground to frequently glance upward.

An uncommon silence can lure you deeper into the wild. Here, Naturebook offers its users much more privacy than Facebook. For the deeper you plunge into this site, the more solitude and privacy you’ll enjoy. And if you honor this site and treat it with respect, then when you finally leave, your browsing history will vanish without a trace. It will be as if you were never there.

Except in your memory, where it can never be deleted.

The Life and Philosophy of Seagulls

My wife and I cannot visit the ocean without buying a loaf of day-old bread. Or box of crackers. Or bag of pretzels. We don’t buy it for ourselves. No, we prefer donuts. We buy it for the seagulls. My wife loves feeding these white-winged scavengers, and so every walk on the beach involves being mobbed by gulls, circling and diving and fighting for a free handout.

My wife feeding seagulls at Will Rogers State Beach, in Santa Monica, California. “For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

You have to be careful when feeding seagulls. I advise wearing a hat, and maybe a raincoat. And be quick. If you hold the food too long in your hand, a gull may fly straight into your face and snatch it away, while grabbing a finger in the process.

Some seagulls trust they won’t be grabbed by humans who offer food. And some humans trust they won’t lose their fingers while offering food. “Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

We like seagulls, so it’s nice to know that they thrive on every continent. Most are migratory and don’t give a damn about borders. Some travel all the way from South America to Canada, and back again, without ever acquiring a visa. One time we visited the Mexican Riviera during the summer, and noticed with disappointment that there were no seagulls. Hell, they’d all flown north, enjoying the cooler climes of such resort towns as San Francisco and Seattle.

“The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulls have very smart bird brains. Their communication skills are more complex than any teenage girl’s. And they gather in colonies, where they yap and yawp and squawk at each other, while establishing an intricate social order. Kind of how committees work. They do this once per year, during their breeding and nesting season.

A Ring-billed Gull during a light rain, at Hammonasset Beach State Park, in Madison, Connecticut. “With the same inner control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into dazzling clear skies . . . in the very times when every other gull stood on the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Marriage is a sacred institution for seagulls. They are monogamous, tying the knot for life. On rare occasions a colony will allow a couple to divorce, but afterwards those poor divorced seagulls are treated like pariahs. They aren’t even allowed inside singles bars. It’s worthy to note, by the way, that over 800 years ago, Saint Francis of Assisi converted all seagulls to Roman Catholicism.

A California Gull against the Santa Ynez mountains, at Santa Barbara, California. “His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Their political form of government is Socialist. When seagulls gather together in their colonies, they are all apportioned a circular plot of land, sometimes up to 30 feet in diameter, and mortgage-free, for nest-building and raising their brood. And the whole community pitches in at child-rearing, because the parents will often receive outside help to sit on their eggs. It’s called Seagull Daycare, and is an official government program of the Democratic Seagulls Republic of Oceania.

This Western Gull appears to be delivering a speech, on the taffrail of a cruise ship docked at Ensenada, Mexico. “I have no wish to be leader. I want only to share what I’ve found, to show those horizons out ahead for us all.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

All seagulls are required to join the Air Force while living in their colonies. And when a predator dares to venture near, the alarm goes out, and squadrons upon squadrons of seagulls are scrambled, which dive-bomb the intruder until it dies or runs the hell away.

“Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulling doesn’t come easy. It takes a long time to learn how to be a seagull. Seagull school is very challenging, because these birds must learn how to acquire their food in countless different ways. Here’s a list of some of the food-gathering techniques employed by gulls:

• Dumpster-diving.
• Stealing fish from other birds.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Killing and eating other birds.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Stealing eggs.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Pecking out the flesh of whales, as they surface.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Baiting fish, with food scraps.
• Dumpster diving.
• Catching crabs.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Hawking insects in mid-air.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Digging for worms.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Pecking seeds and fruit.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Cleaning up road-kill.
• Dumpster-diving.
• Begging food from my wife.
• Dumpster-diving.

Seagulls can be omnivorous. They can learn to eat just about anything, such as these remains of a cracker box we emptied on the beach. “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Seagulls are also one of the few birds that know how to open a clam shell. They fly it up to a great height, and then drop the clam onto rocks, or some other hard surface. What a horrifying elevator ride for the poor damn clam. This is the most difficult skill of all, for seagulls to learn, and so older gulls tend to be more successful with it than younger ones. Or maybe it’s because when the youngsters try to get the oldsters to teach them this skill, the oldsters clam up.

Hawking is the practice of snatching insects in mid-flight, from a perch, as this keen-eyed Western Gull is preparing to do. “Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing?” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Eating may pose a learning curve for seagulls, but drinking does not. They possess glands in their skulls that filter out salt. So that leaves the entire ocean available to them, for slaking thirst. You’ll never encounter a seagull at the beach trying to bum a drink from you.

This Ring-billed Gull at Lake Champlain, Vermont, must have been very drunk or very brave. It allowed me to approach within a few feet, to steal a closeup. “Jonathan sighed. The price of being misunderstood, he thought. They call you devil or they call you god.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

There are many different species of seagulls. Which, by the way, are scientifically called “gulls”. As far as ornithologists are concerned, there’s no such thing as a “seagull”.

The “Little Gull” is, coincidentally, the smallest of the gulls. It weighs just 4.2 ounces, and is only 11 inches long. The largest gull species is the “Great Black-Backed Gull”, which weighs 3.9 pounds, and is 30 inches long. And it has a black back, in case you weren’t aware.

Now that you know all about seagulls, perhaps you may want to take a trip to the beach, where you can observe them more closely. Seagull watching can be fun, so I’m sure your trip will be worth every dollar you spend on expensive motel rooms and parking meters. But while you’re packing your swimsuit and setting your GPS, my wife would like to remind you of something. Please, don’t forget to run down to the grocery store and buy a loaf of day-old bread.

“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said. “There is no other.” ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

If you’re still not clear about the philosophy of seagulls, perhaps Neil Diamond can help you, with his soundtrack from the movie, Jonathan Livingston Seagull:

Walden East & West

We recently toured New England to peep at the autumn colors. But while there I had to take a side-trip. A pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to visit Walden Pond. My wife had no interest in this body of water, but we compromised. She very much wanted to visit the witch city of Salem, Massachusetts, so we agreed to a few hours at Walden, and then the rest of the day at Salem.

She came to regret that compromise, for Salem was nothing but a tourist trap, crowded and bustling with hucksters. As we departed that wicked village, she pined for the peacefulness of Walden, and wished aloud we had sojourned the entire day there. It was Walden, not a witch, that ensorcelled her.

Walden Pond is the very spot where Henry David Thoreau resided in a cabin, built from his own hands, on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His life and experiences in this sylvan paradise inspired his book, Walden, which was recognized as an American literary classic after his death.

You can visit this replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the parking area of Walden Pond State Reservation. Stolen Quote: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau (HDT), Walden

Walden is an autobiographical tale by Thoreau, journaling how he lived self-reliant and in harmony with nature, in a 10 by 15 foot cabin near the shores of the pond. But it is much more than autobiography. Thoreau essays on many themes, including nature, economy, and companionship. His sentences soar sublime, and his insights penetrate the heart. He touches an earthly, wild humanity that ruminates deep within the spirit of all of us.

He began living his back-to-nature lifestyle on Independence Day, July 4th, 1845, near his 28th birthday, and departed Walden on September 6th, 1847. Which was strangely close to the Labor Day holiday our country began celebrating in 1894. Was Thoreau prescient?

The actual site where Thoreau built his cabin, on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property. Stolen Quote: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” HDT, Walden

I devoured Walden when I was 22 years old, and my appetite transformed. I began hungering and thirsting for nature and wilderness, and lost all desire for modern civilization. Thoreau became my idol, and I wanted to be just like him. And I yearned to try my hand at a Walden experiment myself.

There were a few failed attempts but finally, at age 29, I managed a degree of success. I purchased three acres of remote Mojave desert land. I garnered the help of my brother-in-law and his Kubota tractor, and built an 8 by 16 foot, underground log cabin. A dugout actually, lined with peeler logs.

I posted about my life in this underground cabin, nearly three years ago.

My one and only photo of my underground log cabin in the Mojave Desert. Stolen Quote: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” HDT, Walden

But I was not as successful as Thoreau at living off the land. He had the benefit of water, fish, and abundant wildlife and plant life. I, on the other hand, struggled in a desert desiccated by severe drought.

Thank goodness my hunting skills led me to a supermarket just a half-hour’s drive away.

I did manage to kill a rattlesnake once, which I boiled and dined upon for several days. I also shot a rabbit with my 22 rifle. It kicked in the dirt, screaming. Have you ever heard a rabbit scream? I quickly finished it off with a second shot, but have never forgotten those hideous leporine cries.

I stopped hunting after that. Nonetheless, the pathetic little cottontail was boiled and eaten, supplying me with meat to supplement my dry goods over the next week.

Due to the drought there was plenty of deadwood to scavenge, so I never lacked for fuel to warm my earth-insulated cabin.

This part of Walden Pond is known as Thoreau’s Cove. Thoreau built his cabin just a few hundred feet above the reeds you see in the distance. Stolen Quote: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau was a transcendentalist and avid meditator. I was not. So my insights did not soar to the lofty heights his own heart and mind achieved. My back-to-nature experience did not equip my soul sufficiently to be like Thoreau, and write an American literary classic. I guess you’re just gonna have to get his book.

A closer view of the reeds at Thoreau’s Cove. Stolen Quote: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” HDT, Walden

What I learned from my life in the wilderness was how to be a cheapskate. I learned the feeling of security from knowing I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to meet the basic necessities of life, and live in basic comfort. I already knew this to some degree, so this was just a lesson reinforced.

I also learned the precious value of spare time, and how relaxing it can feel to loaf around all day. Yet another lesson reinforced. But this reinforcement motivated me later, to work hard for an early retirement. I understood more than ever that one must work, in order to loaf. Or at least to loaf feeling safe and without worries.

So after leaving my cabin, I worked hard and saved most of what I earned. And I studied books on how to invest, in order to preserve my hard work and make it continue to work for my future benefit. It strikes me odd how little forethought most people put into investing. I guess they don’t value loafing around as much as me.

My biggest lesson from my personal Walden is that life is easy to enjoy when kept simple. A freedom is born from this that feels exhilarating. A box of Cheezits and a nap for me, and I’m often content for the day. And when bored I chase unicorns. Which is easy because it doesn’t have to cost a penny. There are plenty of unicorns out there just begging to be caught.

Walden Pond from the surrounding forest. Stolen Quote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau did not live nearly as long as me. At age 18 he contracted tuberculosis, and this eventually killed him at the young age of 44. But though his age was young, his soul was old. He was wise well beyond his years.

He remains an idol to me. An early guide to my life. A lodestar, pointing me toward the things that truly matter, and away from the artificiality of the quietly desperate.

A snipe at Walden Pond. When I was a Boy Scout I was sent on a snipe hunt. I was unsuccessful but never gave up, and continued the hunt in secret. Now, after all these years, I finally found one at Walden Pond. At last, my desperate search is over. Stolen Quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau lasted two years, two months, and two days at his Walden Pond cabin. Or Walden East, as I like to think of it. I wasn’t quite so enduring, lasting not a day beyond two years in my Mojave desert hermitage. Or Walden West, if you will. I finally ran out of money and had to rejoin the civilized world, due to my desire to keep eating groceries.

There are all kinds of Waldens. Walden is not just a pond in Concord, Massachusetts. You can find your Walden anywhere. I found mine in the Mojave desert. Others have found theirs in such environs as Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, or by living on a sailboat in the sea.

It’s also a state of mind. If you love wilderness and visit it often, you possess a Walden spirit. If you respect the wilds and take care to cause as little disturbance as possible when venturing forth into unpeopled lands, you follow the code of Walden. And if your life is carved from self-reliance and simplicity, you’re as Walden as Thoreau.

This lone loon monopolized the very middle of Walden Pond, seeming to treat it as a place of refuge from hikers on the shoreline. Stolen Quote: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” HDT, Walden

I circumambulated Walden Pond, paid homage to the original cabin site, and gazed searchingly through the pellucid waters that Thoreau fished, all the while mindful that my wife awaited the witches of Salem. After about an hour-and-a-half I found her sitting spellbound. But not from black magic. She had been calmed by the stillness of the shore. But even so, she looked forward to our next New England adventure.

The amazingly clear waters of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” HDT, Walden

Soon after, we motored away, with Walden in my rear view mirror. But that’s not really true. Walden has never been in my rear view mirror. Since departing my cabin in the Mojave, Walden has always been in front of me, beside me, and within me.

I can never leave Walden.

A mushroom near the shores of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” HDT, Walden. And that’s the morel of this story.

Crazy Colors

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine.

I’m an infonaut. I explore the vast universe of the internet to discover information and get my facts straight and solid. I like to get everything right. Including when the fall foliage is going to peak in New England.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

Problem is, the universe is crazy.

My internet research indicated that the fall colors in northern New England would peak in late-September. Therefore, that’s when I planned a leaf-peeping trip for my wife and me. And I used the internet to make all the reservations, three months in advance.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

But after traveling 2,611 miles by air, and a few hundred more by rental car from Boston to the rimlands of the Canadian border, we were surprised. We discovered that in spite of all my internet research three months before, the autumn colors were peaking late this year.

Crazy.

A changing tree in Jay, Vermont.

Why don’t autumn colors peak at the exact same time every year? In fact, why is it that nothing in life seems reliable? We can do tons of research, file our facts, and institute order. But then it all falls apart, because life is so crazy and unpredictable.

Changing foliage in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we were ripped off by mother nature. She was still beautiful. Her reds and purples were in near-full glory, and her yellows and oranges were just starting to show. We didn’t get much of the hills-on-fire effect from bright orange shining leaves, but at least we got a hint of it.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine, showing just a hint of the hills-on-fire effect.

This may sound crazy, but I like craziness. A completely predictable world would be completely boring. If I knew exactly what was going to happen to me, day in and day out, 24/7, 365.25 days per year, I’d have to shoot myself. I want strange, stupid, and undesirable things to happen to me. I don’t always want to get what I want. I think life must be challenging, unpredictable, and at least occasionally, a terrifying trip through hell.

So let the fall colors peak late. Or let them peak early, as they did last year. And just to surprise us tourists, let them peak on time once in awhile.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

I think a little crazy is healthy. But a lot of crazy, maybe not. For example, research shows that abscission of leaves is necessary to prevent snapping of branches from the weight of a zillion snowflakes. If trees take too much time to change color and lose their leaves, an early blizzard could devastate them. So trees must be reasonable in their craziness.

Tupper Lake, in the New York Adirondacks.

But then again, maybe I’m crazy for thinking a lot of crazy is unhealthy. After all, if you want some real hardcore craziness, just consider that we humans, with all our intelligence, can’t predict the day of our death. You or I could die one second from now, or we could live for many more years. Who knows when our colors will change and our leaves will drop? Nobody.

But just think how boring our lives would be, if it was otherwise.

A changing tree at the end of an alley, in Salem, Massachusetts.

Untimely death, random rip-offs, miscommunication, and of course, mental illness, are all some of the craziness that can interfere with the course of our lives. From the car that won’t start, to the deal that falls through, to the underwear we accidentally put on backwards, we are enriched every day with craziness.

And so, as our rental car cruised down the country lanes of New England, I reflected on all the greenery powering through the reds, purples, yellows, and oranges. And I muttered, “Screw you, mother nature!”

But thank you, also.

Thanks for your magnificent craziness.

Green and orange foliage in the New York Adirondacks.

Zen Garden Mind

The largest gypsum dune field on Earth is located in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico. It’s been around for 7,000 to 10,000 years, and humans these days call it White Sands. These dunes are composed of gypsum crystals, from gypsum that washes down from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento mountains.


I recently visited White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Or as I like to call it, the world’s largest Zen garden.

Within Zen Buddhism there are two main traditions, Rinzai and Soto. They’re kind of rivals.

Most sand dunes are composed of quartz crystals, not gypsum. Gypsum dunes are very rare, because gypsum is highly water soluble, and rarely has a chance to crystallize. But this gypsum is carried by rains into lake beds that have no outlet to the sea. And so it remains in situ, desiccating and forming large selenite crystals up to three feet long. These crystals are broken down by weathering into fine white sand crystals.

Rinzai Zen is a little strange, due to its recondite nature. It advocates achieving enlightenment through meditating on koans, and supposedly solving them. Koans are mystical riddles such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Who the hell cares?” is my mystical answer.

You’ll get third degree burns on the soles of your feet if you try to walk upon quartz-based sand dunes in the summertime. But gypsum sand is inefficient at absorbing solar heat, making it possible to stroll barefoot on the sand on the hottest summer day. These are my bare feet on the first day of summer, with the outdoor temperature at 100 degrees.

Soto Zen is odd due to its simplicity. Soto Zenners think they can get enlightened just by sitting cross-legged on a zafu, letting go of their thoughts, and following their breath. For them it’s a gradual journey to enlightenment. It takes a long time, and can’t be stumbled upon suddenly by solving some occult riddle.

I prefer Soto Zen and kind of practice it, though I threw out my zafu years ago. And I wouldn’t dare sit cross-legged ever again. It’s bad for the knees. And it’s very hard to nap meditate when your knees are throbbing.

I like Soto Zen for its simplicity, just as I like White Sands National Monument for its plain whiteness. The simplicity appeals to my laziness.

All kinds of critters live on these dunes. These are the tracks of the Pogo-Hopping Desert Gerbil, a small rodent that hops about on a stick to avoid being eaten by sand crabs hiding just below the surface.

But for me, meditating successfully is difficult. Because I cheat a lot at it. I lay supine. I snooze. I scratch my nose. I shift my restless legs. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. I don’t always follow my breath, but instead follow more interesting things. Sometimes I try to solve problems instead of letting them go. And on and on I go, breaking one rule after another.

This gigantic Zen garden in southern New Mexico reminds me of all the tricks my mind plays upon me while meditating Soto style, both when I follow the rules and when I cheat.

There was a time when I followed the rules rigorously. Back in my less lazy days I could create stretches of sterile wordless peace within my meditative mind, just like the dry lake beds that break up the dunes of White Sands. But those lake beds are what actually produce the dunes. And so my mind would rebound, producing a gigantic array of words, just like the billions of gypsum crystals within a sand dune.

Lake beds like these catch the gypsum runoff from the mountains, and convert it into sand crystals. These alkali lake beds were first visited by Europeans in the 1500s, when Spanish miners drove ox carts here to collect salt. They used the salt to process silver ore extracted from mines in central Mexico.

These days, when I cheat, thoughts, strong emotions, and belly-burning motivations steal upon my mind like the white dunes that swallow up cottonwood groves. I forget that I’m meditating, and become lost in various fantasies. And then I remember that I’m supposed to be meditating and let go again. And the thoughts recede like so much swirling sand.

In this area of White Sands, the dunes have swallowed a grove of Rio Grande cottonwoods, that weren’t able to run away fast enough.

Or maybe I’m bragging. In fact, my mind is often like one of those unfortunate cottonwood trees at White Sands, that’s completely buried in the dunes. My mind is so distracted by all the cares and delights of the world, that attempting to meditate is futile. Just the same, I attempt anyway. Why? I attempt in order to attempt. Besides, cheating makes attempting easy.

Sometimes the cottonwoods are completely buried, and stand no chance of survival.

Other times a little mindfulness keeps me barely aware of my swirling thoughts. This is when my mind is like those cottonwood treetops of White Sands that poke out just above the drifting sand.

These cottonwoods gasp for life, with just their treetops able to reach above the surface of the sand.

And believe it or not, there are times when my meditative metacognition is stronger. And then my mind is like one of those White Sands’ cottonwoods that are half above the sand and half below. At these times I well know that I’m daydreaming even while I continue to daydream. My meditation is both lucid and lapsing. Disciplined and wild. Aloof and befouled.

This cottonwood has managed to free itself from much of the dunes’ suffocating grip.

And there are those rare times when I fool the gods and get away entirely with cheating. My mind is completely free, with all wandering thoughts swept away by the wind of my breath. Just like a fully freed cottonwood in all its verdant glory, shimmering in the breeze, having conquered the dunes of White Sands. At least for a little while.

This Rio Grande cottonwood has completely escaped the dunefield. It stands tall and free, at least until the next dune comes along.

A day will come when I’m no longer hagridden by the cares and delights of this world. Perhaps I’ll stop cheating and slip into an honest meditation as I float away. And all that I let go of will never return.

Perhaps then my mind will be like the cottonwood that stands free and clear from dunes of sand, but has lost its last leaf.

Rio Grande cottonwoods are very hardy. But nothing lasts forever except change.

Its only remaining cotton being a few ethereal white clouds, caught in its branches, only to slip free to dissipate in the sky.

Burro Loop

I like to hike alone. I enjoy traipsing through the wilderness far from the nearest human heartbeat, other than my own. I’m misanthropic, I guess. But nothing seems to crowd the wilderness more than another human bean. If a human stands in the woods and no one sees him, will the woods be crowded? No. They won’t be crowded until the moment I become aware of the human’s presence.

Hiking clears my head. It opens my environment from the confines of my zoo cage I call a home, to the wide-open space of nature. My adaptable mind expands to accommodate this newly-found space. I become more reflective. My attitude waxes magnanimous. And I can feel wisdom growing within, faster than farm crops respond to a load of manure. Yes I really become full of it.

A December morning, 6:21 am. I embark upon a challenging journey. Burro Loop Trail. It’s six miles of moderately strenuous hiking, covering rocky hills and pediplains cut by arroyos, beneath a blazing, shadeless sun.

Burro Loop Trail takes hikers close to the town of Joshua Tree. That's Copper Mountain in the distance.

Burro Loop Trail takes hikers close to the town of Joshua Tree. That’s Copper Mountain in the distance, and to the right.

But the sun is not out yet. It’s 44 degrees, and I’m bundled in layers. I have a bad leg and two bum shoulders, and I’m not sure if it’s smart to be doing this. Search and Rescue may find my bones in a couple of months, but I must get out of the damn house.

6:50 am. I’m thinking about the old burro. Back in the 90’s, a wild burro found its way to our desert. Sightings were like Big-Foot anecdotes. People had stories, but no definitive proof. Except the tracks. The burro left all kinds of tracks and trails in an area about 25 square miles, in Joshua Tree National Park.

The main trail that the burro traveled followed a loop. And this main trail was eventually converted into an official trail by the park service. But without the signs, you’d hardly know it was there. It’s barely a trace in spots, with many faint side-trails that can get you lost for hours, if you accept their invitations. It’s very deceptive. That crafty burro sure knew how to confuse people.

Which goes to show, you must always be careful when dealing with a jackass.

This is a million dollar house ensconced in the rocks of Joshua Tree. It's called the "Artist's House". Many artists have made their home in this town, and have constructed unusual architectural specimens. But I doubt few artists could afford a home like this.

This is a million dollar house ensconced in the rocks of Joshua Tree, near Burro Loop Trail. It’s called the “Artist’s House”. Many artists have made their home in this town, and have constructed unusual architectural specimens. But I doubt few artists could afford a house like this.

7:20 am. The sun’s been up for a half-hour and I’ve already shed three of my layers. I stuff the last layer into my backpack, then remove a water bottle and take a drink. It goes down the wrong pipe. I cough and choke and hack until I fear I’m going to black out. There’s nobody near to whack my back or do the Heimlich, because I love so much to hike alone. So leave it to me to drown myself while hiking in the desert.

7:45 am. My near-death experience with the water has led my mind down a philosophical path. Or maybe it’s the play of silence and Joshua trees and jumbled rocky hills all around that affect my mind. Or perhaps it’s the aches and pains that are growing in my legs and back and shoulders, inducing delirium in my brain.

For some reason I feel happy on this hike, in spite of nearly drowning. Deliriously happy. My philosophical mind ponders happiness. It occurs to me that hikes don’t always make me this happy. Nor does drowning. Sometimes I’d much rather be napping at home, than struggling for survival afoot in these rugged lands.

I call this "Snowman Rock". I really like this sculpture. Maybe that's because I prefer the art of Mother Nature over that which our residential artists produce.

I call this “Snowman Rock”. I really like this sculpture. Maybe that’s because I prefer the art of Mother Nature over that which our residential artists produce.

I try to come up with a formula that will guarantee this level of happiness all of the time. It must be the delirium making me do this. But then I give up and conclude that no such formula can exist. We are at the mercy of happiness. We’re always seeking it, but we can never guarantee what kind we’ll find. Finding this kind of happiness can be as elusive as spotting that old burro. You never know which turn in the trail will bring you face-to-face with the braying bastard.

8:10 am. I give up philosophizing. People can exhaust themselves trying to know all about life. Life is too big to understand completely. I decide to just try to absorb the sights, sounds, smell and feel of this old desert.

I call this the "Alien Skull". Another fine sculpture by Ma Nature.

I call this the “Alien Skull”. Another fine sculpture by Ma Nature.

8:22 am. Where is that turnoff? I know the trail turns up canyon somewhere around here. My last time on this journey was many moons ago. I think I remember that I have to go past an old desert plum tree, before the trail curves upslope.

Did you know that you can prune a plum tree, but you can’t plumb a prune tree?

8:51 am. Ah finally, the fork in the trail I’ve been looking for. Now I can eat my breakfast.

It looks like a duck, but it doesn't walk like a duck. So it's not a duck. But I still call this "Duck Rock". This sculpture is not for sale, as Mother Nature is a not-for-profit artist.

It looks like a duck, but it doesn’t walk like a duck. So it’s not a duck. But I still call this “Duck Rock”. This sculpture is not for sale, as Mother Nature is a not-for-profit artist.

9:17 am. Plop, plop, plop. I limp my tired feet across the dusty ground. This is my contribution to the world. My footprints. They contribute to the maintenance of the trail by making it easier for those who follow me, to find their way. I hope they appreciate all my hard efforts.

10:18 am. I spot my car way off in the distance. Sure wish I could teleport over there. But no, I must keep footslogging. I haven’t looked left or right for the past hour, nor thought about much of anything. This is dangerous. Wild Indians could have attacked me. But I’m too fucking tired to look anywhere except straight down at the trail. Except for occasional, wistful glances into the distance for my beloved automobile.

10:37 am. My god, why did it take so long to reach my car?! It seemed like it was only five minutes away, 15 minutes ago. But now I’m here. At last my journey is complete. Burro Loop has once again been conquered by this intrepid old man.

Where is that pesky burro?

Where is that pesky burro?

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