Who are you, my Lord, and who am I? The words famously uttered by St. Francis of Assisi filtered across my mind when I am hiking in the desert a short drive from my and my husband’s apartment in El Paso. Maybe I thought of them because I saw what I imagined the caves of Assisi looking like in the rock walls of the Franklin Mountains, or maybe I thought of them because in the desert we have our share of contemplatives, mystics, pilgrims and hermits living alongside exiles and immigrants.
I first visited El Paso when I was fourteen—riding along with my friend and her parents who had appointments at a clinic directly across the Mexican border in Juarez that was popular among Mennonites from Seminole, Texas, and northern Mexico. As we passed Carlsbad Caverns and continued west toward El Paso, the great expanse of sky closed in around us like a snow globe and I watched as a path began to cut through two mountain ranges and two countries. I didn’t know it then but four years later I would return to El Paso for college and would live there for eleven years drawn back somehow by the desert landscape and people.
The plains dotted with pump jacks, oil field flares and cotton fields grew smaller in my rearview mirror when I left Seminole and the mountains once again began to rise before me jagged. To many, deserts are menacing and ugly. A look at a map of the western United States reveals names like “Hells Canyon,” “Devil’s Tower,” and “Death Valley.” Settlers from the east viewed the desert like the Israelites in the book of Exodus—as a place of punishment and wandering. Even now, the desert is somewhere to pass through quickly rather than a destination—the Interstates ferrying travelers to greener and softer locations in either direction like San Diego and San Antonio.
Upon my arrival, I looked cautiously at the spiky plants and the wildlife scurrying into nearest crevice; however, as I spent more time in the desert I began to understand the nature of its beauty and its healing qualities. I learned that the desert is about exposure. The desert is the Earth at its most basic elements and when I entered the desert I was forced to confront myself at my most basic state of being.
I came to believe that because the desert is the Earth stripped of all pretenses it lends itself to questions rather than absolute statements. As an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist teenager living in Seminole, which still prohibited the sale of alcohol, my known world was a carefully cultivated garden of absolutes doctrines and clearly defined forbidden fruits. I entered the desert afraid of the slippery slopes I had been warned about like drinking, dancing, gays and liberal college professors and I tried to convince myself that I believed the absolutes absolutely, but after years of facing myself exposed in the arid landscape, I, like St. Francis, left with a question. Who are you, my Lord (are you there?) and who am I?
Rhubarb 36: Earth and Gardens is now in production and will be launched and mailed in October.