Imagination created the world.
The metal stakes were not strong enough to pierce the red earth, so we placed rocks at each corner to keep the tent from flying away. The rocks were my kids’ idea. After innumerable camping trips, their hands were finally big enough and dexterous enough to thread the fiberglass poles through the right loops, the ones that magically loft limp polyester into three-dimensions. Their lengthened attention span enabled them to mastermind the situation, to pinch-hit, to recognize the inchoate utility lurking in a pile of rocks.
Once we were settled in this spot, beneath a low tree near the shadow of a boulder, the sky started to change. We filed out to the open edge of the campsite, unfolded our canvas chairs and lined them up, wordlessly, arm to arm, like seats in a theater. We watched as the earth and clouds flushed with a fever hot enough to melt stone. The sky blazed above hundreds of needles that stood like teeth dotting the arc of a wide open mouth. In a final gesture, before sinking to the other side of the planet, the sun lit a match to the distant rocks – exploding them in a bonfire of petrified flames. Ochre shifted to orange, orange bled into red, red leapt into streamers of the hottest pink, all wavering on the surface of slowly deepening blue. This inferno of land and sky collapsed our chest, burst our breath, hushed the articulate – stilled speech.
In this place our usual reference points – our houses, our machines, our things – all of them shrink in the vastness. This stone silently sweeps away our common comforts and invites us into a world that is stark yet strangely familiar. This is the Colorado plateau, the Western frontier, a world of mesas, pinnacles, buttes, and canyons whose bold outlines are etched in the world’s imagination.
My husband’s grandfather Francesco, a station master in a small town in northern Italy, spent his life watching trains but was himself afraid to travel. He lived his whole life within the fifty-mile radius of home. Though stationary in his limbs, he was a world traveler in his mind. When others were napping, he spent his afternoons studying maps of the American Southwest. The foreign landscape was lodged so firmly in his mind that when he read Tex Wiler comics to his grandsons or watched John Wayne films with them, he could embellish the details of the plot with the topography that was etched onto his mental map. Nonno Francesco’s imagination accompanied us on this journey, and even though my children and I did not know him, we could feel ourselves seeing the world through his now multiplied and curious eyes.
What is it that makes us idealize the distant and the strange? This landscape is in our backyard, yet we are so busy looking for someplace more exotic we easily miss the miracle right in front of us. That is why we took a road trip here, to experience the dreamscape that beats in the heart of America. We took time to wander in this seemingly impenetrable place whose every meander, every hairpin turn, whose every filigree of hard lace was carved with the enormous patience of the Colorado River and its tributaries.
In some places, like the Grand Escalante Staircase, the earth heaved up the plateau while the river split it open. Water sculpted right through the immensity of time. The layers of stone hold two billion years of laminated landscapes. No other place on earth reveals the strata of living color that can be found here. Early geologists named the cliffs with fancy – vermillion, chocolate, white, gray and pink are all accurate monickers. Descending the Staircase reverses the flow of time to a place when Tyrannosaurus bones folded into the earth’s crust like butter into batter. Below the dinosaurs live creatures who once flourished in a saline sea. And deeper still sleeps the mantle, the stoic upholder of these remnants and ruins.
In this primal narrative, the characters develop according to their chemistry and partnership with water and wind. Shale is temperamental and cracks like a big sheet of glass. Limestone, though tender, holds mollusks and shells tight in its grip. Salt deposits melt like marshmallows between layers of harder stone. Mesas are dissected by tributaries that carve turrets and columns. Pinnacles continuously fall and constantly form, like the red and white banded spires of the Needles in the Canyonlands, where we are camped. It is midsummer. The heat has emptied the place of people. To stay here, you need to bring your own drinking water. If you run out, the nearest town is sixty miles east.
This is not hard-core camping. We are more like self-declared nomads who drive a Honda Odyssey – our nearly carnival-sized tent sleeps five. Tricked out wall to wall with inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags, the interior rivals a caravanserai minus the Turkish rugs. Yet even this moderate approach makes us aware of how each thing we carry takes up space, demands something from us in return for its use, must be lugged and drug from the austere economy of our traveling capsule. The cubic volume of things demands that they develop multiple personalities and a clear reason for being. The tent itself becomes the metaphoric ideal to which our collection of stuff must aspire: It is indispensable, permeable, and able to shape shift according to our whims – shelter one minute, tote bag the next.
This (relative) lack of convenience is the modus operandi in the didactics of camping. Washing a dish with water you have boiled on a fire made with wood you have cut, carried or collected in the wind that made it nearly impossible to light the match does impart a new appreciation for the chain of causality. We, like most parents, want our kids to learn that “things don’t just grow on trees.” Many things do, in fact, grow on trees – but you tend not to notice them until they are released from their plastic packaging. I feel like that is what we are doing here: liberating ourselves from the sea of plastic film that is daily life in the civilized world. A fallen branch becomes a walking stick, a suspended bough casts the shadow on which your very survival depends. While the nagging flies only seem to be a nuisance, the exemplary industry of this hill of ants, by contrast, demonstrates the value of pulling, at the very least, your own weight.
This place is unyielding – it is hard as a rock. Trees are low and scarce, water nil. It has been kept wild by its failure to avail an obvious use. If silver or plutonium or topsoil pocketed its loins, this land would have been stitched by road and rail into the hungry web of commerce. If it hadn’t complicated itself with buttes and spires and vast tracts that disappear beneath your feet, it might have been selected as a place to test drive bombs, a place to rehearse war. Because few have demanded what it can supply, this landscape is a subversive hymn to all that is useless, sings in praise to all that is empty.
Though from a distance this place appears clean of the human stain, when you change scales, when you zoom in by entering into it, you find rocks scratched and scrawled with glyphs of lizards, suns, coiled serpents, and shamans carrying codes known only to those who fear the power of their secrets. Slippery Kokopelli shape shifts – raven, antelope, hare, the Hermes of the Far West – like us, he has not one self, but many. He is at once messenger, creator, magician and fool. Even this vast place, which seems so immune to human intervention, we indefatigably scale down. We cannot help but make it our own.
Take this restlessly shifting light for instance – the air is still clean enough to hold color as close as an outstretched arm – allowing you to experience the plurality of time through captured light. Light exhumes starched skeletons below, while it floats above in clouds that reflect the kaleidoscopic passage towards night. This color, commanding every atom of our attention, is not even real. We create it. Light is not something we can approach directly. We can only see in reflection the portion that yields itself to the visible spectrum. Whenever light touches these rocks, the rocks absorb some of the light and reflect back the rest – these are the wavelengths that our eyes transform into color. Color is the way we humanize light. We make this lonely land our own by noticing it. These stones and this sky can only shine crimson and rose because we are here to bear witness.
Seeing is itself creative, and what we consider to be an act of seeing is more an act of witnessing. Bearing witness implies an intentionality that calls upon not only our sense of sight but all of our senses working in concert with our mind. This bearing witness brings something new, something absolutely unique, not only to our personal universe of experience but to that which we bear witness to. In this way, this landscape quite literally enters into our bodies. The color, electricity, chemistry, and magnetism situated in a place mingle with ours, and in turn, we mingle with that place.
This means we are all born artists. We do not passively receive an objective physical representation of the world. Instead, each of us tints the world in our own unique way. The Bengali poet Tagore knew this. He suggested that we search the exterior world for a harmony that mirrors the harmony we find in ourselves, and when we fail to find this relationship with our surroundings “. . . there we are aliens and perpetually homesick.”
The harmony of this place mirrors a rhythm that exists inside each of us. The color that we experience is the fruit of an intricate collaboration between matter, light, and our sentient bodies. The stones are thrust blocks for light, providing a surface from which light can leap – our eyes can only catch light waves on the rebound. The wind howls through these canyons like sound rushing through the chamber in your ear. Sound, like color, relies on the interdependence between solid and void, hollow and shell – listening seals the two together in seamless awareness. All day long, we effortlessly transform pure energy into the song of birds and wind, into velvet reds and distant blues. The simple act of attention, of witness, is cooperation with creation, an unspoken pact of interdependence and belonging.
Not far from the Canyonlands is Monument Valley, where our Navajo guide led us beyond the tourist roads to show us a private world of silky sand dunes, humble hogans, and citadels of stone. To get there, you rumble along what is more a widened path than a proper road. Since the dirt is orange everywhere, the only feature that differentiates it from the surrounding terrain is the absence of sage bushes along its stripe. The surface is rutted and gouged from the heavy downpours that carry the soil away from the road to the nearest stream. The Jeep is fitted with a framework of steel, and you grab onto it as you tack and jibe your way about the rocks that poke out at multiple angles along the route.
Our first stop was a massive hollowed out dome with an oculus at its crown, a freestyle antecedent to the Pantheon in Rome. The Navajo named this place “Eye in the Sun.” Another place was a chamber scooped out by the wind that could easily contain at least five skyscrapers. An oblong opening pierced the lobe of its sidewall. Their name for this place is “Ear in the Wind.” To name is to frame perception. These names scale gargantuan stone to a dimension we can relate to. Their names identify them as distinct members of a larger body – a body like our own.
This land, shorn of excess, is spare in figure and lush in hue. The rocks are red because, like our blood, they are full of iron. When it rains, the stones weep in rust. Color is not only visual – color is sensuous. Blind people can feel colors on their skin. Synesthetic people and newborns can hear and taste color. Surrounded on all sides by red, we feel it too, even if we don’t notice it at first. The most dynamic color of the spectrum, red seduces life, arouses passion, kindles desire.
Desire intensifies. Scientists tell us that desire changes our perception of the world: Our wanting makes the wanted appear closer than it really is. One study measured the perceived distance to an ice-cold glass of water from those who were thirsty and from those who were quenched. The researchers found that from the perspective of the thirsty person, the glass of water appeared to be much nearer than it actually was. Desire draws the desired towards us in a movement towards eros, the life-giving force that forever insists on exceeding itself.
A true force of nature, desire arcs towards fulfillment, but cannot, by its very essence, be filled. Our problem is that we mistake possessive desire with a deeper longing in which we are rooted. We were born out of and into desire. Eons of sexual longings shaped our noses, our lips, colored our skin, rounded our hips – endowed us with quirks and wit and charm. Desire, like a growing tree or a flowing river, is never static. It is a sensuous way of knowing that seeks expression through creating form. “Human existence is the space of desire,” writes the architect and historian Alberto Pérez-Goméz. The purpose of both art and architecture, he says, is not merely the fulfillment of pleasure but also its delay, to use Marcel Duchamp’s famous word, revealing human experience as the bittersweet, ceaseless, open-ended space of desire.
Spend time here, and you will find that this lean land unclothes a desire that is buried beneath the passing thirsts of daily life – a strata of longing unquenched by the goods of the world. The canyon, a vast hoop of red with an open center, is a space that shatters the economy of things because it cannot be consumed – only experienced. This land holds the Maze, the wildest, remotest, and most inaccessible part of the United States, the legendary hiding place for outcasts and outlaws. Here is a gap left in the world that cannot be mapped or groomed or made comfortable. Such a rare place holds our imagination captive because it lies beyond our reach.
Imagination, like desire, thrives on suggestion – the lightly clad promise of what could be, but is not yet, there. Both desire and imagination feed on ambiguity. The word ambiguity tellingly derives from not a single root but a combination of several: It comes from the open-ended verb “to wander” and the purposeful “to lead.”
The multiple meanings of ambiguity are tightly bound to the dynamics of desire and imagining. Imagination is inherently free and prefers to wander, desire is willful and tends to lead. Desire is the muscle and imagination its wing. Ambiguity is a quality that distinguishes the world’s great art – and experiencing the sublime in art shares an aesthetic correspondence with experiencing the natural beauty of this landscape. Both offer something, indeed, the essential thing, that is left for the mind to do.
Artists have long exploited ambiguity’s generative potential, the mark of their mastery is to know precisely what is best left in veils. Their job is to deepen shadows, not to scald with harsh light. The work of art must provide only enough to the senses to draw the imagination along the right path. This is why the sketches and unfinished fragments of the great masters often affect more than their finished works. Because art is always reciprocal, always performance art, there must be something left for the beholder, the one who bears witness, to do.
Imagination’s underpinning, the unconscious mind, functions in a similar way. This is perhaps why psychologists commonly use puzzle pictures as oracles to probe their patients’ unconscious. Initially, the pictures appear to be an assortment of blotches, lines, and dots devoid of inherent meaning, but when contemplated, they assume form and order. In little more than an instant, we begin to recognize faces and shapes where formerly there were none. Yet it is not the lines, blotches, and dots that have changed – it is we who have changed. Our consciousness has distinguished and ordered random elements into meaningful patterns. True to the innate creativity of the human mind, we have derived order from chaos, sense from nonsense. What is empty – we have filled.
Imagination, as Baudelaire said, “created the world.” When everything is given, made easy to consume and swiftly delivered for the gratification of pleasure, the space of desire vanishes. With too much stuff choking our foreground, our powers of imagination have no room to roam. Without ample oxygen, the imagination suffocates, disintegrates, flees. This is why “empty,” “barren,” “desolate” places, like the American Southwest, are soul food. The landscape here is a sketch in outline, a theater of possibility where a stone could be a swaying hip or a sleeping dragon – each an invitation to complete the image, to collude in the direction of the storyline.
On a trip to Tuscany, where we went to visit relatives, I was in a cafe when I overheard a young American boast to her new acquaintance that she was in the business of “selling experiences.” I don’t think she meant to be oxymoronic. Isn’t experience one of our few certainties – hard-won, inimitable – the only substance we can take with us to our grave? The reduction of even experience to just another commodity, something that can be packaged into a trip, ironed of its messy wrinkles, cleansed of buzzing flies and marching ants, seems to me the symptom of a deeper loss. Imagination, the very capacity with which we make meaning –
thrives in the blanks, swells when pulled between opposites and thrills in the face of the unknown. Constant consumption ends in imagination’s atrophy.
We can now visit the Arctic, the Kalahari, and the Amazon with equal ease. The elemental fury of the blizzard, the withering heat of the desert, the mosquito-choked fog of the jungle are neutralized in a homeostatic bubble. Technology has chiseled the edge off human experience. We live in a world that has one temperature. When we feel pain, we take a pill. When we are bored, we check our messages. Emptiness is swallowed beneath the cargo of comfort and convenience. We have barricaded ourselves from the poetry of natural forces – and as a consequence – feel cut off, homesick and trapped in the culturally perpetuated and endlessly vicious cycle of acquisition and disposal.
We naturally thirst for the new, for whatever lies just beyond where we are right now. Imagination and its sister, desire, are both tangled in the universe’s grand appetite for more and more life. Matter is necessary, but not sufficient – for us, matter without consciousness does not even exist. Color and sound depend on the space between the notes, the furrows between the waves, the blend of something with nothing, all held together with attention. Each thread of attention fastens us ever tighter, commits us ever more dearly to the never-ending project of creating the world.
The sun’s blades gradually galvanize, piercing the lofted clouds – their perfectly smooth bottoms look as if they were sliced off with a knife. The sky is violet. We look out a hundred miles in every direction and see no one. As the sun climbs higher, the earth below us soaks up lavender and rose like a sponge. The stones flash their melted rainbow in all directions. The goosenecks of the San Juan are deep ruts carved by the river, but I am not convinced they are the necks of geese. They seem more like the silhouettes of swans looped back and forth like rings on an immense bracelet. The sinews of the cliffs grab more light now – they blush hot pink – then turn to solid gold.
Last night we scaled Mokee Dugway, whose hairpin turns are the vertical preamble to the interlaced swans we witness from the edge of this plateau. This morning we are sipping our coffee here, completely unhinged from the reality of the home we left behind. We have visited here as nomads and guests. We wandered through what should be heavy but levitates like a dream. In this land, nothing is what it appears to be. Hard stone is vulnerable, has a split personality, morphs in the light. This stone that is always evolving retains its soul despite the raging river of the constant: desire, demands, fears. So open, so lacking in artifice, this place promises that somehow, when fear and doubt threaten to spill over – the rim of the world will widen – strong enough to hold us.