Celebrating Absence

If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists.

~Saul Bellow

This is the time of yellow flowers. With the heat of what in hindsight had been a sad and dry summer now (hopefully) over, the desert has come alive with blooming rabbitbrush, groundsel, goldenrod, snakeweed, and wild sunflowers. Although the leaves have not turned yet, for those who live and spend much time in these places, yellow flowers lining the roadways are the telltale harbingers of autumn, along with the crisp air and slight chill in the morning hours.

In recent weeks, several camera clubs whose in-person meetings have been disrupted by the pandemic have approached me to offer virtual presentations for their members. At my proposal, a few of them opted for customized presentations based on member questions. On one such presentation, someone asked for my thoughts about looking at photographic works focusing on subjects I don’t normally photograph myself, such as photographs celebrating people and architecture. I responded that my range of photographic interests extends quite a bit beyond the kind of work I pursue myself, and that I appreciate any artistic work (photographic or other) that shows great creativity and expression, including much that is outside my own genre. I also added that in my own work I (at least indirectly) celebrate the absence of people and their effects. This started a train of thought that is still on my mind now, days later; here, alone in a remote desert canyon.

It had been more than a month since I got to spend any prolonged time in the desert, both because of various commitments and because of the excessive heat and smoky skies in the preceding weeks. Among so many troubling events in the world, many natural places are burning all over The West as I write, some I have known personally and will miss greatly. Here in the high desert, the seasons seemed to have changed overnight a couple of weeks ago. Cold weather and winds cleared the air of smoke and brought about pleasant temperatures. No matter what else is happening in any other part of the world, I am now miles away from any troubling events and any evidence of humanity, with just Millie the dog, the spectacular geology, and the late blooming flowers. It is early autumn in the desert, and in this moment it would be foolish and detached of me to not consider this the most important thing. All else can wait.

I made fresh tracks driving the bumpy two-track road to my campsite, and then again hiking into the canyon. The presence of flood debris and flow patterns indicated that that no person had been here at least since the last time it rained. I don’t remember when that might have been. No matter. I knew I had the place to myself, likely for as long as I wanted to stay.

As soon as I’m done setting up my camp and settle into my chair, I become viscerally aware of the deep silence, as beautiful and as much a source of sensory delight to me as anything I can hear or see. I recall my comment about celebrating absence and realize that a sense of beauty comes not only from the presence of certain beautiful things, but just as much from the absence of certain undesired things: distractions, discordant sounds, irritating sensations, the disharmonious noises and acrid scents of human colonies. Here, everything feels pure and intense: colors, shapes, floral scents, the clarity of the air, and the blissful silence.

Late in the day, I take a slow meandering walk among the nearby hills. The light is now warm as the sun hangs low in the sky, accenting edges and fine details with thin glowing lines the color of molten metal. My mind craves music and I put on my headphones. To the surprise of some purists I often enjoy music even in the wild, not to replace the natural sounds and silences but to accent and augment them for short periods. Of all human creations, music seems to me among the most elevated in its beauty and emotional effects, and I see no reason not to welcome it into my experiences in proper measure. My music player is set to pick tracks at random from a broad and eclectic selection. The electronic brain has suddenly made a decidedly unexpected choice: Romance in E flat major by British composer Gerald Finzi. The difference in style from previous tracks feels jarring for a fraction of a second before I’m overcome with the realization of how perfectly it fits. I give in to the sense of being in a “real-life movie moment”—an expression that bubbled in my mind some years ago under similar circumstances (and that I am almost embarrassed to admit) and that has since felt fitting in times when tangible reality not only matches the intensity of an overly dramatized movie scene but sometimes even exceeds it. I let the feeling carry me, knowing it may soon lead to tears. Who cares?

The scratchy quality of the recording soon reminds me of the sound of an old transistor radio, such as the one that kept me company and helped maintain my sanity on many late night guard shifts as a young soldier in another life. How could I ever have predicted where the fates will take me more than thirty years later? In times like these, one thought looms large over all the beauties and tragedies welling up from memory: transcendent moments such as this are worth all the trials and miseries leading up to them. I’m filled with gratitude tinged with sadness and nostalgia. I knew this was coming. May as well just go with it.

Before long, the sun disappears beyond the edge of the cliffs to the west. It’s as if someone turned down a dimmer switch. Within seconds, the bright light faded into blues and grays, vibrant colors into gentle pastels, accents into faint lines and subtle transitions. I turn off the music to likewise fade back into the welcoming silence. In the far distance a lone raven is cawing. The wind has picked up a bit and my shirt is flapping against my skin. I close my eyes to just enjoy the cooling breeze for a few moments before heading back to camp. I realize, by far not for the first time, how desperately I need times like this: how much my wellbeing depends on being able, often, to settle into the rhythm of the desert. I look forward to a gentle night, to waking up in the morning and to have this be my world in the days ahead. Later I will carry the memory of this time with me like a talisman to sustain me in that other, alien, world of human affairs and global catastrophes until I can return to the quiet solitude of the desert.

I often said that in my work I prefer not to name my emotions or to explain in words whatever meaning I wish to express because for some feelings there are no words. This is such a feeling—not joy, not awe, not happiness or sadness: a mix of pleasant and melancholy emotions, some powerful, some subtle, filling my consciousness to the point of saturation. Some, especially in the sciences, warn against anthropomorphism—assigning human qualities and perceptions to non-human beings and objects. This feeling seems to me the opposite—reverse anthropomorphism. I imagine myself sharing in the experiences of the plants and beings around me, perhaps even the experiences of rocks: their perceptions beyond what my own senses are capable of, their peace and timelessness, their obliviousness to anything beyond the present, their profound lack of interest in the odd preoccupations plaguing human primates.

The first celestial bodies are now visible in the clear sky. It will be several hours before the moon rises, and I’m delighted by the thought of a pleasant night of star gazing ahead, and an even more pronounced absence of sounds, movements, and other distractions.

Time to make dinner.

A Beautiful Absence

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8 thoughts on “Celebrating Absence

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  1. I hope you don’t mind having company. Your writing and photos have a way of bringing me along with you. It’s as if I can feel the morning chill, share the silence and see the stars. Give Millie a pat on the head for me. Thank you Guy.

  2. I do not have deserts nearby to “live with” like you do, Guy; but in Puerto Rico we do have seashores, plenty of water and sand whose intermingling offer ephemeral sand formations that I feel drawn to capture, as I do not know when or if it will repeat; we also have lots of stars exquisite when observed while floating in the rhythmic ocean. My “desert” is the occult in water, glass and metals when striken by a light spark or the dancing water reflections (that is why I don’t like long exposures of water).
    Like yourself, Guy, I tend not to shoot persons, faces, streets, etc. Why reproduce what we see so often? I prefer to discover the extravagance hidden elsewhere in nature.
    Thanks for sharing your feelings and thoughts.

  3. Beautifully said. I know what you mean as I have found overwhelming sensations of awe and wonder in the Eastern Sierras of California. To escape from the rigors of Los Angeles and a busy medical practice to the enormity of the mountains, the rare air, the solitude, was nutrition for my soul. The pictures I made had only one purpose, to remind me of moments when I sensed the rhythm and music of the earth. I had no idea that 25 years later I would need those reminders more than ever as our world descends into chaos. Plans to return to Lone Pine and points north (only about five hours away) are on hold as my friends caution me to avoid California. I have reviewed my images of the Sierras to create new portfolios as reassurance that the music of the mountains will always be there.

  4. “This is such a feeling—not joy, not awe, not happiness or sadness: a mix of pleasant and melancholy emotions, some powerful, some subtle, filling my consciousness to the point of saturation”

    A feeling I have felt on a few occasions without having the knowledge or language to define it, but this article brought the sense of it right back to me.I could understand what you were talking about. Usually found when I’m on my own in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Thanks Guy

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