One of the great appeals to me of the Southwest is the ability to see, appreciate and think about each individual element of the natural surroundings as I encounter it. Water and nutrients are scarce, so plants are typically at a distance from each other (some even have natural poisons to prevent other plants from establishing themselves within the reach of their roots). Hence, it is very easy to see each tree (or flower, or shrub) as it stands proud of other distractions. And without a thick covering of vegetation, rocks and other aspects of the terrain can also command attention.
I once designed and built quite a large stained glass window of a Japanese garden when making stained glass was what I was doing for a living. Before going to work on the design, I spent the better part of a week in the library learning about the aesthetics of Japanese gardens. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but recall that there were a limited number of stone shapes, miniature stone pagodas, plants, and sand and stone patterns, each of which had its own symbolism. Thus, for one wise in the ways of Japanese gardens, deeper meanings could be appreciated when meditating in such a place beyond the mere visual appeal of the garden, which in itself is considerable. Happily, anyone can appreciate the exquisite beauty of each element of a Japanese garden, as well as the serenity and appeal of the whole, even if they are ignorant of the symbolic meanings that lie behind the design.
I find the comparison to a Japanese garden to be inescapable wherever I travel in the Southwest. The landscape is a kaleidoscope of settings of similar charm and beauty not only in the broad sweep, but also in the finest details. I am camping as I write this at about 7000 feet, in one of the juniper/pinyon pine “pygmy forests” that are common at that altitude. Each tree stands at a respectful distance from its neighbors, and gnarled, twisted trunks lie on the ground amid outcroppings of volcanic rock, pocked and contorted from erosion, and displaying a perfect camouflage pattern of gray and gray-green lichen patches. Occasionally, the rocks are electrified with splashes of orange-red fire dot lichens. Some species of lichens can live for 4,000 years — how old are these?
My campsite is on one of the innumerable sloping lifts, both small and enormous, that comprise the Basin and Range. This small example terminates in a sheer rock face a half a mile away that is gradually breaking away in great chunks that form a boulder garden below. The top of the lift is deeply split by fissures for a hundred yards from its edge, and weirdly eroded everywhere, where the weaker elements of the volcanic flow have been dissolved by rain.
On this irregular platform of rock, not only are water and nutrients almost non-existent, but the winds of winter impact with full, unbroken force as well. In the shallowest depressions and fissures of the sloping rock grow tiny ferns and flowers; in those that are slightly larger, pinyon pines grow to a height of only five or six feet, but each has a trunk ten inches thick or more at the base. Farther back, where there is some soil, an ancient juniper is a tangle of bleached-white, dead trunks, but still bears a single vividly alive branch, covered with green-blue, berry-like cones, connected to the roots by a narrow remaining band of living bark.
Nighthawks, working overtime, curvet overhead in sharp, jaggy flights as they hunt insects. They are the terns of arid places. Nighthawks make a frequent call that is something between a squeak and a beep! (The Audubon guide, trying its best, describes it as peet! We have no alphabet or pronunciation guide for animal sounds). Small flocks of pinyon jays play tag, flying from pine top to pine top, keeping in constant touch with their own indescribable call. Higher up, ravens fly and vultures spiral in the warm updrafts spawned by the dark, volcanic rock.
Places like there are a photographer’s paradise, as are millions of acres of desert, crag, canyon and alpine meadow throughout the Southwest.
To me, the deeper meaning of these natural Japanese gardens is, of course, that they are precious, and cry out to be preserved. If I were a writer of inspirational literature, there would be metaphors aplenty to be found in the determined struggle of these ancient trees and lichens in the face of the mighty forces of nature, and against all odds. But just being able to appreciate what is naturally here — and to know the importance of such scenes surviving for the enjoyment of my children and grandchildren — is message enough for me.