Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true than you can hear.Shunryu Suzuki
I write this from the Arizona Desert this week, my laptop balanced on my lap, fingers crossed that the signal from my phone will be strong enough to keep me writing, that the solar charger will keep the device powered. It all seems rather precarious.
I never like to work too hard when I am here, so I will tell you a story about stillness, about a lizard. They are very good at being still. I thought I might learn a lesson from a lizard on a rock at the edge of the La Verkin River, where I camped several years ago. Zion Canyon in southern Utah is a popular hiking destination with a network of crowded trails, but I had reserved a campsite in Kolob Canyon, so as soon as the day hikers had returned to their vehicles, I had the stillness of the canyon to myself, having reserved a campsite. The campsites are all located about a half mile from one another. It was quiet in the way that only canyon country knows.
After a short day hike to Kolob Arch, I returned to my campsite to enjoy some of that precious solitude I seek whenever I hike. Canyon country is quiet in the way that makes the breath seem loud and raucous. The canyon walls absorb the sound. I retreat into a world of stillness, and there is no place else on earth I want to be.
I had climbed onto a rock on the river bank, having finished filtering my water for an evening in camp. It took longer than usual, for the river water was murky brown. I set the large water bottle aside and noticed a lizard sunning itself not far from where I sat on the rock.
Lizards and their reptilian cousins have always fascinated me. There were few of them in western Washington where I grew up. My brother would find garter snakes in the flower beds and put them into flower pots on the porch, surprising my mother when she watered them. She would let out a scream that delighted us both. The power of such a wisp of an animal to cause a large mammal to utter such a cry of alarm was a mystery to me, a mystery I really liked, and I was glad for my brother’s snake hunting skill. When we really wanted to have a good time, we would place a small plastic snake on her Thanksgiving dinner plate once a year on that holiday. Even a plastic snake produced the same fear response. Let the reader know there were no cell phones or other such devices to entertain children in those days. We found other methods, and they were quite effective.
So it was many years past my garter snake days that I sat on the rock by the La Verkin River, quietly studying the small gray animal with the yellow stripe around its neck. Since the lizard was perfectly still, I decided to inch myself closer. Little by little and inch by inch, I lowered my head and pulled myself closer until I was eye to eye with the small animal. We sat that way, the lizard and I, conscious only of the others’ presence, a moment of complete awareness and surrender. I felt like I knew what it was like to be a lizard, to live in an ancient world, to wait patiently for prey to appear in perfect stillness.
There has to be a surprise ending to this story of course. It came when the lizard suddenly puffed up its neck and turned bright turquoise. Nothing could possibly have been more startling to me at that moment. As if someone had just pushed the “eject” button in the cockpit of a fighter jet, I went flying off the rock, landing with a thud and a little scream. I confess, much to my chagrin, that it was rather like the scream my mother would emit at such moments. I could not have been more surprised if the lizard had suddenly stood up and played the banjo.
When I recovered some degree of peace I looked back at the rock to see that the lizard had fled. It had accomplished its mission, to scare away the large predator. Natural selection got it right with this one. All it took was a burst of turquoise to send me flying.
The stillness of the desert is present with me where I now sit. I still have a signal and battery power, so it is time to turn off the electronics and muse over the large black stink bug that is walking along by my feet, leaving tiny tracks in the red sand. The desert has its ancient mysteries. Perhaps the insect will stand on its back legs and play the banjo. Perhaps the bug and this moment of stillness will suddenly explode in a flash of turquoise. Be ready. The world is full of surprises.