The Desert

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


A science that could comprehend and describe the phenomenon of deserts would possess the key to the past and future of our planet.


 Out in the Pinto Basin, far beyond the last trace of California sprawl, an eroded washboard track bumps along the alluvial skirts of a low desert range. Very little vegetation breaks the ochre stretch of the hills, leaving only the igneous outcrops and the occasional arroyo to relieve the eye. Sounds travel for miles there and, in spite of an engine grinding under the floorboard, the creaking moan of loose timbers from the deserted Virgina Dale Mine can capture one's attention long before its spindly derrick reveals itself around a curve of the slope. There it stands, all worked out like other wrecks left behind: the desert's claim to man's squandered dreams. But over the range the road winds to another vista where the hills curve down around the pebbled floor of what was once a vast inland sea. Circling around its edges, the Coxcomb and Eagle mountains offer jagged profiles to the relentless sun and collect long vertical shadows as the afternoon wears on. The eyes of few have watched this drama day after lonely day, and since the Indians left centuries ago, only those of one old miner had learnt it all by heart.

 He was an immigrant who, as a young man, had somehow made his way across the world to end up mucking out in the hard-rock mining operations that had survived the turn of the century in this area. And when the companies folded and the prospectors drifted away, he stayed on to follow his own vein of gold and life. He lived alone all those years and worked six shafts in as many days of the week. Thus he was able to grubstake himself and sit in the evenings watching the shadows curl up the arroyos in the basin and set off the flames lit by the dying sun on the hills. He was a man of contemplation. When he looked at a person he seemed to be looking way beyond them, and yet he knew exactly what was on their mind. Once a young greenhorn dropped by to visit him and enthused about the great romance of life alone in the desert and how he would like to pursue its challenge. Old Carl gazed at him and through him with eyes that measured by the increments of mountain ranges and advised him, in so many words, to put up or shut up. The desert has that effect upon people who are drawn to it and stay in it. It destroys the embroidery work of the mind and leaves behind only the glaring contours of truth perceived at a distance. There is no room for fuzzy thinking in the desert. And the mysteries it reveals in the evening stillness cannot be expressed by mere words.

 If one tries it, one will find that the experience of tramping through desert wastes, trusting only in one's own abilities, has a way of throwing a person back upon who one really is. In a landscape whose very starkness prompts the spirit to exult, one returns to the most deeply buried dreams of childhood. A French Saharan explorer once said that the desert might be the most intensely loved environment on earth. But it is also frightening in its boundlessness and lack of obvious landmarks. In many languages the very word 'desert' is used to mean the opposite of shelter, safety, order or the familiar. It symbolizes instead that which is empty, lost, without bearings and yielding seemingly nothing. Within the great Sahara there are areas as flat as a table, stretching without feature, to the equivalent in size of the state of New York. Called serir, such places support only the life of micro-organisms, and a camp tent pitched at random would be the only visible (if artificial) landmark. Leaving his small party in their tent one morning, one geologist walked out upon the serir with his eyes fastened on the 'desert pavement' looking for tiny forms of life. So intent in his study was he that he had covered some distance before he stopped to look around. To his horror he could see nothing. In all directions miles of flat, featureless terrain stretched with no camp in sight. He had walked more than the five miles which, on the sea or on perfectly flat land, results in the disappearance of such things as ships or tents due to the curvature of the earth. An indescribable sense of loneliness and desolation clutched at his heart. He experienced a loss of a sense of relationship to anything, of measure, of time or place. There was no sound aside from the throbbing of his pulse, and his eyes frantically sought out the faint outline of his own footprints leading back to camp. Though an old desert-hand, having spent years of geological exploration in such places, he panicked and ran wildly along that track until he could see the tent over the horizon, with the Land Rover parked nearby. One wonders what he would have done in his fright if there had been no footprints at all. Standing there, as we say, in the middle of nowhere, he might as well have dropped down out of the sky, possessing no beginning or relationship to things in this world.

 As a symbol, the desert represents desolation, abandonment and contemplation of that which lies beyond the familiar. It is the most propitious place for divine revelation, being, in its starkness, the realm of abstraction, where the non-essential is stripped away. It is the domain of the sun, not in terms of fertility on the physical plane (which involves water), but as pure celestial radiance, blinding in its manifestation and capable of consuming the body for the salvation of the soul. The vegetation, the overwhelming variety of life forms thriving cheek by jowl in other types of environments, endlessly divert the senses and create a structure of compelling reality which directs and moulds the desires and efforts of men. The desert is bereft of such props. In the words of the fabled poet of the desert:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.


 It was in the desert of Sinai that Moses saw God, who, manifesting on the Mount there, gave to him the Commandments by which his people should live. It was also in the desert that the ancestors of Christ's disciples received manna from heaven and Jesus himself advised them to "come ye yourselves apart, into a desert place". The desert was regarded as a place of abstraction, revelation and sacrifice by the tribes of the ancient Middle East, but it was filled with mystery and danger as well. In its desolate places the Jews forgot the teachings of Moses and 'tempted God', and Jesus underwent severe trials of temptation. A tricky place where one can lose one's way and forget, the desert is believed by many to be haunted by djinns and evil spirits of various kinds. To the Egyptians it was the region of the dead ruled over by Osiris, and people of Central Asia believed that the tormented souls of unmarried or barren women wandered there. Keeping company with spirits attracted to the earth, they became evil over time and were much feared by the Yakuts, Buriats and Altaic Tatars who believed they used the deserts of Turan and Gobi as centres from which to set out on their destructive excursions. Awesome and desolate, the spiritual rejuvenation offered by the desert could be matched by unexpected forces of trickery and death.

But a desert stretched and stricken left and right, left and right,
Where the piled mirages thicken under white, hot light;
A skull beneath a sandhill and a viper coiled inside –
And a red wind out of Libya roaring "Run and hide."


 On the edge of the Gobi the remains of gigantic statues lie partially buried in the wind-driven sand. They are said to have been shaped by the Lemurians long before the cycle of floods which left the Central Asian plateau high and dry. Transformed into a sea twelve thousand years ago, at its centre there remained an island of great beauty inhabited by the last remnants of this Third Race. The Chinese records also mention these 'immortal men' who found refuge in the Gobi Desert, where "they still reside invisible to all, and defended from approach by hosts of Spirits". Their dwelling place is Shamballa, which has fascinated so many and lured them into the wilderness in vain. Covered now by the sands of an enormous wasteland, there is little hint of what lies hidden. Nor do we know much about the traces of past greatness concealed in other deserts. Occultism, however, teaches man to be patient and contemplate the nature of the spiritual impulses which utilize matter in ever-shifting cycles. Of the seven continents and races of this manvantara, Sakka and Pushkara will be the last into which will enter portions of desert lands now existing in America, Africa and Central Asia. Thus, drawing upon concealed resources whose effects in the world at present are difficult to trace, the stage for further human evolution will be set. If one considers how the knowledge of the phenomenon of deserts could provide the key to the past and future of our planet in this light, one adds a greater breadth and depth to Uwe George's proposition.

 The distribution of deserts on our globe is also linked with its spherical shape, the inclination of its axis and the rate of its spin at the equator. Most deserts of the world lie within the horse latitudes, or the belts known as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In the Northern hemisphere this is expressed in the Sahara, Arabian, Iranian or Mexican deserts, while in the Southern lie the Kalahari, Patagonian and Great Victoria. The reason for this is largely due to the angle at which the earth spins around the sun, exposing these areas to its rays, each for half of the year. It is the angle of the sun's rays that determines the temperature, which acts as the most powerful agent of desert formation. In addition to this, the turning of the equatorial belt at one thousand miles per hour heats up air masses which rise, causing low atmospheric pressure and rain. The dry air descends on either side of this, creating high pressure areas where the warm air absorbs the moisture of the lower atmosphere, leaving the land dry. Other deserts are encouraged by cold ocean currents moving from the poles towards the equator along the western sides of continents, whilst relief deserts like the Gobi lie beyond high mountain ranges that stop the rain.

 The lack of rain and high temperatures are closely connected. In such an area clouds form rarely and the moisture content in the air is very low (two to five percent), so that the sun's rays strike the ground almost unhindered. In a temperate climate clouds, plants, rivers, lakes and general humidity absorb around forty percent of the sun's rays. In some tropical rain forests as little as one percent of its light reaches the actual floor, while the desert can easily receive as much as ninety-five percent. In the Sahara the exposed igneous rock areas reach a temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit, with rapid cooling at night to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting from the same lack of atmospheric obstruction. Such dramatic temperature changes boldly express the unembellished starkness of the desert as it lies exposed and unprotected beneath the celestial forces acting upon it. Over some areas of the vast four million and more square miles of desert in Africa there may fall as little as two inches of rain in a year. During some years there is no rain at all and then a whole year's rain falls at once, creating flash floods, carving out wadis and arroyos like scars across the baked land. The water races over the desert pavement, soaks the dunes and, in a few hours, disappears without a trace. It is a dramatic action, fast and seemingly unprepared for, like the floods of a revelatory vision – flashing through the mind, filling the cavity of the heart and then evaporating.

 Aided and shaped by the wind, deserts can grow and spread. If a small clearing is created in a forest, the trees there are less resistant to aeolian forces than on its fringes and so others will be toppled. Left unreplanted, the clearing will spread, animals will feed upon the grasses which take the place of trees, and overgrazing can lead to erosion and the increase of windblown dust and sand. Man has come to play an increasingly powerful role in this process over the last few thousand years. With his shift away from the hunting and gathering of wild animals and plants, he began to exert a radical influence upon the globe's fragile ecosystems, joining his impact with the fundamental forces of temperature, rainfall and geological upheaval that cause the formation of deserts. This complicates the picture considerably, especially from a symbolic point of view, for man-made deserts are the result of ignorant mismanagement of resources sustained largely through lack of humility and increasingly materialized motives and goals. It is one thing for human beings to go into a desert seeking that which is capable of being revealed. It is quite another for man to create deserts in which subsequent generations are forced to live. In the longer curve, however, the cause and effect relationship between man and the conditions of the earth is far more generalized; race and national karma operate in a very broad sense where cycles exist within cycles and one man's desert revelation is another man's poverty and despair.

The 'orse 'e knows above a bit, the bullock's
 but a fool,
The elephant's a gentleman, the battery-mule's a
But the commissariat cam-u-el, when all is said 'an
'E's a devil an' a ostrich an' a orphan-child in one.
O the oont, O the oont, O the Gawd-forsaken
The lumpy-'umpy 'ummin-bird a-singin' where
 'e lies,
'E's blocked the whole division from the rear-guard
 to the front,
An' when we get him up again – the beggar goes
 an' dies!


 To the Taureq, the Bedouin or the Berber, the question of whether anyone can love a camel is academic. Without the wondrous beast, they surely would never have been able to navigate the awesome sea of sand and rock that stretches five thousand miles from Mauritania to Arabia. As with the Gobi, there was a time when the Sahara was a sea, then a fertile continent, only to become, after temporary resubmergence, a vast desert. In the course of this fluctuating history it had been part of a vast land stretching from its present eastern boundary across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Thus, it bears within its shifting dunes the imprint of an Atlantean age with all its creative powers and abuses. Now a vast and growing desert, it is well named by the Arabs a 'sea without water' (bahr belà mà), upon which they have traditionally embarked as though upon a voyage to another shore. The great dunes are like frozen waves of the ocean blown into ridges sometimes a thousand feet high. Across these ergs or great dune areas skilful navigators aboard their superbly trained camels have made their way along well-known routes for thousands of years. It would seem impossible to imagine how a route could be established in wind-blown sand, but the surface of the desert changes only very gradually and old maps show the same great ranges and gassis (corridors) for centuries at a time. The natives of the Sahara have never been known for their peaceful ways but they have shown a wise humility before the desert, learning gradually its secrets and coming to feel a great love for its stark and uncompromising ways. Many a European testing its desolation has failed to understand the need for that humility and has come to grief. Kipling's picture of a stalled army division is amusing to imagine, but it hides a history of intrusion and ambition come to naught through ignorance and misplaced dreams.

Far hence he lies,
Near some lone desert town,
And on his grave, with shining eyes,
The Southern stars look down.

 More recent in the making is the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, which is thought to be a mere two thousand or so years old, at least in its present state. Its beginnings are probably much older, traceable to Miocene times, thirty-five million years ago, when the Himalayas thrust themselves up to initiate the monsoon cycle and the sea retreated, leaving behind it the sedimentary deposits of the desert floor. Parts of the region were evidently well wooded and capable of supporting extensive human settlements at the time of Alexander's visit. People in civilizations on the Indus and Saraswati Rivers flourished and scarce would have believed that a thousand years hence their descendants would be nomads eking out a slender living from the arid land. The monsoons would shift to the east, and deforestation for fuel resulting in erosion and salination of the river systems would bring destruction more surely than any invaders from the north or west. Man would add to the workings of Nature to create a vast and ever-growing desert.

 On our globe the desert areas are growing at the rate of forty miles daily, killing directly or indirectly about two hundred people in the same amount of time. Crop-smothering sandstorms, the choking of springs, the loss of trees capable of attracting the rain, all contribute to drought, death and famine. There are some who believe that the terrible famines in Africa are merely a prelude to a world-wide process of desertization that will mark the decades to come. Within the framework of karmic geological effects, man seems to be intent upon creating these deserts far in excess of what Nature would have provided. An overwhelming greed, matched by a loss of an intuitive sense of cyclic balance, seems to be driving the human race in its wasteful attack upon the life forms of this planet. In contrast to this, wise men would husband the rain forests, the savannahs, the timberlands and the valleys with care, taking only what they needed to live a simple, introspective life. They would respect and work with the balance Nature revealed and they would realize that the deserts of our globe represented laya points, not to be created through ignorance, but natural places of withdrawal and rest where the maya of the world is peeled away to reveal a realm of potential beginnings and endings.

 Moses begged Pharoah to let Aaron and him go into the desert in order to "sacrifice unto the Lord our God". They, like others of old, associated the burning drought of the desert with spirituality and asceticism. It was the natural place to make sacrifices. The biblical prophets and the Muslims to come considered their 'desert religion' to be pure and undefiled as compared to the fertility rites which formed the exoteric basis of the religions of agrarian people living in lusher climes. The starkness and cleanliness of the desert represents not only abstraction and revelation but direct exposure to God without the ameliorating buffer of His seasonally aspected manifestations. Thus monotheism (in the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic sense) is born of the desert and casts man down onto a barren soil where he truly experiences himself as separated from his Maker and consumed with longing to meet Him face to face. The extremes of heat and cold, barren sky and barren earth heighten this sense of separation and longing. The sun coming up without warning and the absence of twilight in the evening accentuate an atmosphere of extremes and instantaneousness. The setting itself suggests revelation, even a flash-flood of sudden enlightenment. It also suggests the unyielding, uncompromising spirit of fanaticism, an element often apparent in monotheistic traditions.

And thou did'st shine, thou desert moon upon
All this, and cast a wide and tender light,
Which softened down the hoar austerity
Of rugged desolation, and fill'd up,
As 'twere anew, the gaps of centuries;
Leaving that beautiful which still was so,
And making that which was not, till the place
Became religion, and the heart ran o'er
With silent worship of the great of old –
The dead but sceptered sovereigns, who still rule
Our spirits from their urns.


 Like the Essenes of the Dead Sea or the Sufis who have wandered in barren places unseen except by the all-seeing Eye of Spirit, others from time immemorial have sought the desert in order to commune with God. When John the Baptist was born it was prophesied that he would perform the mercy promised to the fathers, that he would "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways". And so John grew, waxing strong in spirit and remained "in the deserts" until he came forth unto Israel to teach. He, like prophets before him, pursued the time-honoured way of withdrawing into the place of meditation and preparation before coming forth to share the fruits of his spiritual awakening with the world. For prophets the desert was the lay a place of incubation, of inner growth and realization. It was also the place of trial and temptation. If man hoped to confront the god within himself there, he could also expect to confront the devil. The Gospel according to Matthew describes how Jesus was led by the spirit out onto the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and nights the tempter rose up and challenged Jesus to prove himself the Son of God by performing lower magic and to accept the rulership of the whole world in exchange for his worship. Like John before him, Jesus began to teach in the world after his instruction and initiation among the Essenes and his trials in the desert were completed. First the desert, then the Sermon on the Mount.

 The desert holds within its hot sand surviving seeds that burst into bloom with the slightest rain. Like a revelation, this quick flush of vegetation waxes and dries away. Those who know how to cross the desert know where to find its hidden nourishment. Alone, out there beneath the naked elements, they are witness to the flashing bloom, the process of birth, growth and decay, quickened to such a degree that it is possible to grasp the illusory nature of time and see the end in the beginning, the beginning in the end. One who travels thus can sense the dormant progeny of past civilizations buried for a time but alive and exerting a hidden force upon the world. What once was the Holy Isle is now a desert and rightly so. For in the element of earth there is no greater likeness to the sea than the waving sands of the desert, and both bear Manu's seed from one cycle of worldly efflorescence to the next. Among those who spend their lives on the desert, few indeed conquer the fearful abyss of loneliness and come to fathom the antique mystery presented in its vast starkness. When their eyes, like those of old Carl, become permanently focussed upon a timeless condition, they become as initiates in a desert brotherhood, linking them with the wise men and prophets of old.

Old creaking mine
 the work of men
Who hoped to find
 your treasure.
And sun-bleached bones
 the mark of them
Who failed to take
 your measure.
I see within
 your wind-blown face,
 your dried arroyo basin,
The dreams that men
 have dared to dream
And leave their spirit's
 trace in.