If I made notes now and wrote a book upon returning home and to civilization, it would be done largely by the sweat of the forehead. By writing large parts of it here, on the trail, much goes down without effort, my pencil needing speed just to maintain the flow. The pointed lead moves almost as though some Ouija of the silent sands were commanding it. Concepts come, stirring up from the earth, coursing from the skies, flying in with the wings of birds. I am merely the screen — the web — which snares them, condensing them in script.
It is night. Only a few glowing embers remain of the evening campfire. Rosalio and Pablo are both asleep. I was asleep too, but something wakened me. Drowsily I looked upward, then — unbelieving — rubbed my eyes. The whole sky was a carnival of dancing lights.
Not enough has been written about Arizona nights. In his book, Midnight on the Desert, the English author Priestley observes that “Arizona is geology by day and astronomy by night.”
It is understandable that Priestley wrote his most philosophical book under a nocturnal spell in Arizona. As I looked overhead the skies blazed and burned. It was a fiery, glistening, wild heaven. The whole earth — and I an attached part of it — was bathing in the starlight, and something inside me seemed to be expanding like opening petals — a cereus which blooms only at night.
I could not sleep. Whole new worlds swarmed around me. The hard desert where I lay seemed magnetized with strength. The air was gently warm and I threw back the covers, opening my bed to the breezes blowing up from the Salt River far below. By now, Jupiter was a spotlight, streaming its blaze earthward. I got out my notebook and in the brightness of the stars — stars which I had really not seen for years — I began writing the secrets of the night about me.
During the first part of the trek, Jupiter became a new and silent friend. Glowing like one of the coals of our smouldering campfire, each night it would wheel into the sky from the southeast at 10:00 P.M., followed closely by Scorpio, then the Milky Way.
The Milky Way. When I had seen it first, toward the very beginning of our journey, I had mistaken it for a long soft cloud. The next night I purposely wakened after midnight. By the light of the stars alone, the tiny face of my wristwatch was clearly visible. But no watch was needed. The Big Dipper, brilliant timepiece of the sky, pivoted overhead about the Pole Star. Never was I more than ten minutes off in my judgment of the time as I read its star-studded dial. The sky was hot with points of light. They didn’t twinkle, for the night was clear and a breeze had swept away all trace of haze and dust. They burned steady and bright.
There was a cloud in the east. But the cloud kept its shape. It was self-luminous. The delicate stems of an ocotillo near our camp swayed against the brilliance of this cloudlike formation. Only slowly did I begin to realize that it was not a cloud, but a galaxy of distant mysteries.
Stars I can understand. I lie awake in awe beneath them. But the Milky Way is almost too much; it is more than I can even hope to grasp or comprehend. A star is a definite point of light; the Milky Way is a hazy symbol of inscrutability. Thought expands to the infinite in its very contemplation.
I spoke of Jupiter as a silent friend. Being a planet, it may indeed be silent. But the stars which surround it are not. Lying on my back on a moonless night under Arizona skies, I had a sensation of music from the sky. I analyzed it thus.
After having separated each sound of the night which I knew — and classified it as best I could into bird call, or wind, or breath of trees — there was still a constant undertone of singing vibration, low but distinct, which filled the air.
Perhaps it was an accumulation of tiny unnamed noises — the breath of a million insects, the disintegration of a million rocks, the tag ends of a million pulses from the other side of the earth. But, that undertone of constant singing was there. Absolute stillness in the world, I discovered, did not exist. That singing of the night —for such it was — which I heard along the sheep trail, in my mind easily became associated with the stars, which were a luminous reality at midnight, much greater to the eye and the consciousness than insects or rocks or the far side of an unseen earth. (I have since learned that definite sound vibrations can be picked up from the stars by delicate instruments.)
During these desert nights — although it was equally true by day — came also my first comprehension of the values inherent in solitude. To be torn for a time from all contacts with civilization can in itself be a civilizing experience. Here on the sheep trail is one of the most abundant of ingredients — yet one of the hardest to capture in normal life — simplicity.
No newspapers, no headlines, no telephones or radio, no noise of traffic. Until one escapes these things completely it is hard to know their debilitating effect on original thought.
Some of humanity’s greatest spiritual discoveries have been made by tenders of sheep or dwellers in wilderness. Most great seekers after truth have sought solitude. It is scarcely an accident that some of the greatest religious concepts were born, in solitude, under open skies. Moses was at one time a herder of sheep; he gave us the Ten Commandments. Amos also was a herder of sheep; from him came the first concepts of a God of justice. Mohammed tended sheep and camels in the region around Mecca. Buddha, in his search for truth, lived as a hermit. David, giver of the psalms, was once a shepherd, and so was Elijah. Jesus went into the wilderness and for forty days was tempted, being offered all the kingdoms of the earth to test his purposes. Those forty wilderness days — and nights — were the womb for concepts which today are heralded as tenets of the Christian faith. No one with his powers and relations to God could spend forty days with the solitude and stars of the desert without receiving such a glow of new life as would change the world.
The symbol for the planet Jupiter, given it by desert dwellers before the pyramids were built, is Rx. That symbol is today a sign of healing. Stars and solitude are among the healing treasures to be discovered along the sheep trail in Arizona.