Sunday, February 29, 2004

Late on Saturday afternoon, as the sun was cooler and the minutes seemed to stretch out for longer, I found the solitude I'd been craving to go to the edge of the massive crater that is Mitzpe Ramon. I climbed over the low wall and found what amounted to a natural bench in the small plateau.

What is it about the desert?

First of all, it's the silence. In most of our lives, noise is so constant we don't even realise it. On my lonely perch I could hear only the tiny, infrequent cheep of a distant sparrow. After a few minutes I could hear two or three kids playing somewhere high behind me. But it was as if the silence was always there, and the sounds were just inessential contingencies, flitting across the peace and leaving no trace.

Of course it's also the landscape. There was a ridge about 300 metres below me but beyond that I cannot begin to estimate for how far I could see across the crater valley. I can only say that mountains and more mountains and dips and plains rose and fell and stretched to the horizon.

What do you do in the face of ineffable, ungraspable beauty? I tried to rid my mind of all its obstructing, distracting comments and thoughts. But then I was too busy asking myself if I was being fully present to be fully present.

Still, despite that self-consciousness, through it, I was able to perceive gorgeous details, constantly revealing themselves to me. The geometry of the hill formations; the layers of colour - browns, greys, creams - in the mountainsides; the wavy ribbon of a road, miles away; the way the light was flooding in from my right, gathering in an ever hazier mist across the flattest part of the valley floor. And for a few moments it was so beautiful it hurt. Mixed up in the moment were thoughts of the future, anticipation of the Indian vistas I don't yet know. But these few instants were excruciating almost to the point that I had to cry out.

What could I do?

Nothing. Only get up, turn around, hop over the wall and rejoin the group in the dining room for the late-afternoon meal.

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