It’s chilly, gloomy, and rainy outside today; winter, it seems, has arrived in southern California. Sitting here in my office, the heater is warming me up, and I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. The third and final movement ends on a happy and light note, but unlike some of Mozart’s other work, Concerto No. 20 is aggressive, in places even agitated and ominous; well-suited for the weather today. As I listen, I think of our recent trip to the Escalante area of southern Utah. How fitting I would be drawn to this particular piece today, as my imagination wanders back to the sandstone I love so much.
Just like a good friend, the redrock wilderness always welcomes me; my feet find purchase immediately, and it is as if we haven’t skipped a beat since being apart. I am constantly amazed at the plant life that–like my feet–finds refuge in this habitat of stone. These organisms eek out a living, nurtured by the harsh landscape, growing slowly but surely through the years.
Hiking up the Calf Creek drainage with my family, I think of a word that’s not often used in the desert: “lush.” Harbored between the gaunt canyon walls is an ecosystem that supports thriving plant and animal life. It is easy to see why you can look high up on the rock walls and see ancient Native American granaries, dwellings and rock art–they were drawn here for the same reasons as we are. Sustenance. Life. Safety. While I am not growing food or defending myself from marauders, all of these qualities are here for me. They are undeniable. As the morning progresses, cold night air moves out of the canyon, meeting the warm air that is radiating off of the sun-warmed rocks; the lingering scent of autumn hangs in the air, and it is difficult to imagine a place on earth where I would rather be. Just like Mozart’s welcoming melodies, it is easy to feel that way here: embraced, peaceful, calm.
In the same way that Concerto No. 20 turns turbulent, so can the desert. Here in the Escalante, temperatures can drop below zero in the winter and can soar to well over 100 degrees in the summer. While plants and animals find a way to survive, it is not without compromise; life here is harsh. A summer’s worth of water can arrive in one storm, destroying everything in its path as it crashes through the tight corridors of a slot canyon. I have never seen the desert her in all of her fury, and am not sure I would want to. However, it is just that fury that has helped shape this landscape into what it is.
Under a wine-dark sky I walk through the light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whisky — the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante.
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
I am now sitting here listening to the rain hit the window of my office; Mozart’s Concerto is over. After 227 years his music lives on, and is still evocative; it will be until we as a species cannot hear–or feel–any longer. So will the Escalante, which is not exactly a piano concerto, but is–without question–a work of art.