Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from Mars!

L’s family has an unlikely tradition of going to the desert on Christmas Eve. I think the rationale is something like this: “If you can’t have a winter wonderland, might as well seek out scenery that’s equally exotic.” Last year, we went to Joshua Tree. This year, we drove north into the Mojave Desert to see the Trona Pinnacles.

This is a surreal sight to come upon in the middle of a huge dry lake bed – some five hundred calcium carbonate stalagmites rising out of the earth. The pinnacles were formed 10,000 to 100,000 years ago, when they were at the bottom of Searles Lake – a link in a chain of lakes stretching from Mono Lake to Death Valley. The Trona Pinnacles were designated as a national natural landmark in 1968, and have since been featured, appropriately enough, in several science fiction movies – including “Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier” (where Kirk talks to God) and Tim Burton’s remake of “Planet of the Apes.” Of course, neither the films nor these photos can do justice to the grandeur of this site.

A few months ago, I read a book called “The Desert,” by an art historian named John C. Van Dyke. In 1898, Van Dyke wandered alone into the unsettled Colorado Desert, accompanied only by his faithful dog. When he returned, he had written a beautiful book about the strange appeal of the forbidding landscape he encountered. I can think of no better words to accompany these photos.

"How often have we wondered why the sailor loves the sea, why the Bedouin loves the sand! What is there but a strip of sky and another strip of sand or water? But there is a simplicity about large masses – simplicity in breadth, space and distance – that is inviting and ennobling… The waste places of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts forsaken of men and given over to loneliness, have a particular attraction of their own. The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love. You think that very strange perhaps? Well, the beauty of the ugly was sometimes a paradox, but to-day people admit its truth; and the grandeur of the desolate is just as paradoxical, yet the desert gives it proof."

“What is it that draws us to the boundless and the fathomless? Why should the lovely things of earth – the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills – appear trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with the sea or the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky? Is it that the one is the tale of things known and the other merely a hint, a suggestion of the unknown? Or have immensity, space, magnitude a peculiar beauty of their own? Is it not true that bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape? And is it not the sublime that we fell in immensity and mystery? If so, perhaps we have a partial explanation of our love for sky and sea and desert waste. They are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty.”

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