In Praise of Empty Space - an excerpt
"What am I seeing?" says my friend, peering out the car window. She is a native of Philadelphia, and this is the first time she and her husband have visited the U.S. Southwest.
We are driving up a two-lane road that zigzags through the layered sandstones of Zion National Park at midnight. At the top, I pull onto a wide spot along the road and invite my friends to step out--into the dome of a billion-starred sky.
"Wow," she says. "I've never seen this before."
"I know," I say. "There's so much cloud cover on the coasts, and city lights drown out a lot even when it's clear."
"No," her husband says gazing upward. "I think she means where could we go to see it? Lancaster County? Bethlehem? I've seen pictures like this, but I thought they were, you know, artistic reconstructions."
"Welcome to your universe," I smile in the dark.
"To your universe," my friend says, as though infinite space does not contain those who have forgotten it.
To my universe. The moment throws me back years earlier when I drove with another friend through one of the wide spaces between high peaks that Colorado calls "parks." She was French, from Paris, but had lived in Colorado for a few years. I could tell she was angry at something. These things happened with her, and you eventually heard what they were, so I did not bother to ask.
She made a sharp humph of disgust, looking across the dry landscape striped with patches of snow. She crossed her arms, looked straight ahead at the road, and frowned.
"It's all just. . .just. . .". She glanced out at the wide vista again. "Just too big!"
I drove on, tongue stopped in my mouth. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Long, wheat-colored fields, scattered homesteads, threads of twisting streams lined with sturdy wildflowers. Grey and jagged mountains on each side lifting up to blue sky.
"I guess it's what you're used to," I said finally, thinking, She's French, and from Paris. But in truth, both moments shocked me.
What is it about spaces open to infinity that my city friends miss? I know I am not alone in loving them. Willa Cather's Archbishop was from France, and he felt as I do.
Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those light-hearted mornings . . . on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert. . . . Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Cities are full--full of beauty, learning, and charm, but also full of prisons for the spirit. Striving and noise, mirrors and walls. Full, like London when Joseph Conrad's clipper Narcissus returned from the ocean to, "the undying murmur of folly, regret, and hope exhaled by the crowds of the anxious earth." Outside all this, on bright edges or the open sea, is empty.
This is emptiness as Chinese Daoists speak of it. Empty like windows that let us see through a wall. Empty like a field, fallow and ready to be sown. I was raised in full-to-overflowing 20th century North America, and I go into places empty like this whenever I can.
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One recent Fall, a painter colleague and I were invited to spend two weeks as artists-in-residence at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado, Arizona. Hubbell land spreads out from the edge of the 17-million-acre Navajo reservation. As we drove toward it, I barely noticed space and time emptying out, it seemed so easy and welcome to me.
In wide country, the human element thins. True, there are fences: miles of them, worn pine and juniper posts leaning into strings of loose wire. And there are roads, narrowing to two lanes and deserted, mostly. Asphalt webs lie upon acres of scrub pasture and rocky desert, threaded around mesa and wash. A rutted sand or dirt track branches off every mile or three miles or five, toward a knot of buildings or a long, red butte. Two shapely horses lope along the edge of the road, heads high, going our way. We slow the car. They veer lightly into the brush, over a small bank, tossing their manes.
"They look like two-year-olds," says the artist. "Very healthy."
As space stretches, time slows. We see a pretty girl with a backpack on the other side, walking far. Three miles from the last structure, ten before the next crossroad. Nothing visible in any direction but fields empty of crops in September. She is not hitching, just walking. Trusting, perhaps, that someone will offer a ride.
We arrive at the trading post in late afternoon. Carrying suitcases through the door of the guest house, I hear a strange song from a nearby electric pole. Three times, low and liquid and sweet.
"Did you hear that?" I ask and step back outside. A raven looks down from the pole. She flicks her wings when I appear.
"Rwork!" she calls--the familiar raven tune--and flies away.
Did I hear sunset music from a raven? Do they often sing like this in spaces empty of strangers?
The next day I wake to sunlight rising through a tall elm. Small birds flit around the canopy in ones and twos, chasing, shifting back and forth among the high leaves. The low sun turns their spread wings to fans of light, bright striped ice glinting in elm-speckled sky.
"The earth is no wanton to give up all her best to every comer," wrote Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain, "but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy for each." These welcome intimacies in a land of little rain lighten my heart. Would my city friends feel the same way?
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