It takes maturity and an experience-filled life to recognize the value of something magnificent given us in our youth. In my case it was the Arizona desert. One quickly disappearing under the metropolitan expansion of Phoenix and other cities in the state. They seem to replace the essence of God’s world with superficial commercialism and technological profundities.
My family moved to Phoenix in 1945 when the city was already starting to infringe on the desert. Powered by the American dream of manifest destiny. A sense of omnipotence given our nation through victory in World War II. Phoenix gives southern Arizona a warm and dry climate sought by those desperate to escape the cold and intemperate weather patterns of the Mississippi River and Midwest.
Earlier settlers of the American west decided that Arizona and other locations, especially in California, could be made into healthy and happy Gardens of Eden. Places free from the discomforts of the burgeoning and often uncomfortable regions farther east. Places attuned to the kind of progress nurtured by American expansionism. Made sacrosanct by comparison to the war-torn deprivations of Europe, the Pacific, and other locations ripped apart by human death, misery, disease, and disillusionment with life.
Like other movements based on progress and sense of entitlement (not all of which were misguided in the context of human development) Americans caused environmental and cultural richness to be diminished. Or made extinct in those areas identified as expanding territories. We transported our cultural norms and hubris into regions incompatible with our ambitions and belief systems.
People indigenous to those regions had used insights about the areas. Created lives compatible with their new surroundings. They recognized the importance of living with the land. Not forcing it to accommodate their ambitions for progress. They envisioned it culturally and technologically.
Most Americans did not share that opinion. My historical hero, John Wesley Powell, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley_Powell) was a major exception. He predicted that the western part of the U.S. would suffer greatly if policies used in the development of the east were applied here. He was right.
Americans behaved in ways other increasingly powerful cultures operated. Expanding their power and influence on various parts of the world. Many American leaders of the Nineteenth Century even emulated the values of Roman conquerors. Taking control of surrounding territories and peoples. Assimilating them into their own way of life. Ignoring or minimizing the perspectives of indigenous people who had found ways to live in concert with their environment.
As a teenager growing up in Phoenix in the 1950s I was conflicted by dissonance. A confusion that made me proud of being part of the American dream while realizing something culturally meaningful was missing. At first it was just a curiosity. But later a stimulus for an unsettled kind of searching.
That stimulus was in many ways encouraged by my parents in the guise of helping me become more self-assured as I grew to manhood. Through Scouting and YMCA activities, I was given the opportunity to grow closer to the desert and all its varied manifestations. The canyons and “sky island” mountains jutting up thousands of feet, producing forests and variable weather conditions. The excruciating heat tempered by the cooling breezes coming from the higher elevations. The water deprived regions flooded by the monsoonal rains of late summer.
The organizationally sponsored forays into the desert and its unique but compatible features caused me to be one with God’s universe. Not in a doctrinal way. But in the sense of understanding the value of being compatible with the world into which I was born and to which I was transported in the early years of my life.
Doctrinal religion was also in my life, but only part of it resonated with my soul. With whom I was then. And was becoming. Two Biblical passages emanating from another of the world’s deserts were especially significant to me:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’]”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Those words spoke to me when floating down a wild Colorado River in the summer of 1953. Climbing from the canyon to stand atop and see the wonder of the desert out of which it was cut. They spoke to me when standing on the edge of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Seeing the desert and mountain vistas stretching before me. Scripture came to mind when standing at a point in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott, when I was asked to commit myself to Christian teachings.
As time went on, my life in the blessings and vicissitudes of existence in a growing metropolitan Phoenix caused me to increasingly seek a desert NOT covered with concrete and asphalt. Large buildings and houses. Vehicles of every description and type. Institutions to accommodate the needs of consumers, students, and commercial enterprises.
I was preparing myself for a profession to be pursued anywhere through education. That felt good. But my daily mental and emotional processes needed something more. Something closer to “the hills from whence cometh my help.”
I bought a motorcycle and traversed the service roads alongside the Grand Canal, one of the irrigation excavations originally dug by the Hohokam Indians hundreds of years ago to irrigate their crops. Twentieth Century engineers used that same route for the modern system. Diverting water from mountains to the east into agricultural areas to the west. The canal system and its gravel service roads took my motorcycle and me over busy city streets into the Pima Indian Reservation and to the Granite Reef Diversion Dam. The dam that diverted mountain water from the Verde and Salt Rivers into the canals that traversed the Salt River Valley (known by tourists as the “Valley of the Sun”).
I would return after riding close to the Superstition Mountains, the source of western myth and lore, and again use the canal road to go home.
Today much of that route is covered with homes, businesses, casinos, golf courses, and other inventions of the modern age. Mostly to attract tourists, entertaining attractions, and money.
But never to stimulate reflection and reverence for God’s world. Never to seek the Lord in “Thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” Never to “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Today, in my 85th year, I need the admonitions found in Psalm 121 and Matthew 4: 1-11. My regular residence is in the metropolitan area around Kansas City or near the Flint Hills of East Central Kansas. They were, and still are, good places to live. To pursue a profession. To raise a family. To retire.
But once in a while, I arise in the morning and long to see the desert, as Christ once did. To again feel surrounded by life’s sublimity and enriching diversity. To again be one with God’s universe in a place largely devoid of excesses associated with modernity.
The home of my youth is not that way anymore, so I seek another to take its place. Modernity has found this new place on the desert, but in reasonable proportions. A blending of 21st Century convenience with a diversity of culture, architecture, and the kind of faith underscored and demonstrated by an acceptance of others. A diversity within its landscape and interactions of its people. No evidence of feverish devotion to a singular way of thinking or believing, but rather the kind of respect and caring God would have us assert and offer. Just as Christ taught us to do.
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