We are wading through the thickness of it, trudging up hills and keeping an eye on the trail marker behind us and in front. Every few steps, we are sure we’ve lost it. It’s disconcerting and exciting and scary. We squint through our sunglasses, occasionally lowering them for the exhilaration of the blinding light and blue sky. I’ve only ever felt this way in the snow. But here, it’s nearly 80 degrees and is only past noon.
“Is it up here?” I ask, unsure of the next few steps.
“I think it goes both ways– I followed it twice and didn’t end up in the same place,” a stranger’s voice responded. I hadn’t realized we weren’t alone; but the backpacker, it seemed, had been alone for a while. Here, in the White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, was either a version of Heaven or Hell. And every person here staggered aimlessly, hoping for a way out the moment they walked in, while also looking for a deeper route in. The long, rolling dunes threatened to wash us over with time– time marked only with an occasional Yucca or cacti or snake-belly pattern in the sand. A real Paradise of Purgatory.
It’s a small miracle that anything can survive out here, the dunes like nature’s end credits– but with no end. A wash of information scrolling up and over– a wild hare’s prints as soon brushed off screen as they were seen. Animals manage, thanks to the adaptation of the plants. It’s a sturdy system that takes all kinds– and all kinds are mostly reduced to three kinds. The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers, the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s, and, my favorite, the Topple-Over-And-Start-Again’s. Or, the Yucca.
The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers are mostly the stocky types– scrub brushes and a couple cacti. They grow their roots in deep, refusing the change of the ever shifting sand around them. Even when they’re held to the end of a dune, they hold harder. For this reason, they grow in spite of their surroundings. They know this isn’t their ideal condition, but they’re sure going to withstand it. Desert be damned. And, they do. They are a source of water for some animals, and endure to provide a little more food, too– and they themselves can hoard what they store to last them on the hottest days and the coldest nights. You can find them, bent and reaching, squat and firm, glaring into the whip of sand grains around them.
Then there are the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s– the grasses. These little guys shoot up in clusters, immediately accepting their fate. They grow up fast and straight, moving easily with the winds, indifferent to the moving dunes. Or, maybe not so much indifferent as open. Ready. Unshaken, even as they are being pulled from their roots. These little buggers fly up wild and free, thriving and strong– and then they’re gone. You’d never know they were there. There’s no hole, no loss– just another shoot to replace them quickly pushing up behind. Their ability to keep moving quickly makes them a easily replenished source of food, too.
They couldn’t be more different. They couldn’t be more equally important.
“It’s just, I get so close– soooo eeeeeky close– to believing in the Nothing– to believe there’s nothing after this,” I tell my Someone. We are driving after our show in Crawfordville, FL, where the trees all hang their heads heavy with Spanish moss and kudzu.
“And then what happens?” he asks.
“Then,” I stammer, “then… then I miss the trees.”
“Yeah,” he agrees.
“And then when I get so close to Christian Heaven forever, I can’t do that either,” I say.
“Because then, the trees here aren’t good enough, and I want to love them.”
“Hmmm, tough call.”
“I don’t know how to pick,” I say.
“Maybe you don’t have to.”
The Yucca is easy to spot– its long flower extending up from its jagged, leafy base– like a crow’s nest scouting out the sandy sea, watching the dunes around billow and deflate. The Yucca has a strange little visitor– the Yucca Moth– who comes and whispers in her ears, pulling the pollen, then pollinating her in exchange for a place to lay eggs and rest. The young moths, when they’re born, feed on nothing but the Yucca seeds before they go off in search of their own Yucca plant. It’s a small, but symbiotic world, full of tiny births and rebirths within the plant. Then, when the sands shift and the dunes decide that the time has come, the Yucca plant begins to shake, as well. And with one last look at the world, with a warning movement slow to send the moths out– because this journey is only her own– the Yucca resists none of the inevitable pull, and pushes her long neck forward and dives face first to her grave.
It’s not over.
All those little relationships, all this craning of her neck, all this world within a world is for this: the stalk of her head digs into her grave, and the grave turns into a womb, and her death was only sleep, where out grow another stalk. Another plant. The same plant. Again.
It’s so beautiful, I can hardly stand it.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what happens to us when we die. Maybe I don’t need to decide. But what I am starting to believe– the urgency– is that what happens when we are gone seems to dictate how we live. With the Nothing– or Atheism or Live-Fast-and-Die-Young, the urgency brings an immediate call to love, love, love, now, now, now. But it’s the urgency that twists my tummy. All this pouring out– all this speed– and then… Nothing.
With Heaven– or Christianity, or Hold-on-for-Dear Life– it creates a hope that this is all for something later; but the later looms, and I am disappointed at the spitting sand instead of enjoying the movement of the dune below me. I’ve watched too many friends– I’ve watched too much of myself– sneak slyly by the present with a smug smile that one day– on a better day than this– everything will be made right. By someone else. And these trees? This Yucca plant? All well and good, but the good hasn’t even started.
The story I tell myself about the Later, it’s important. It helps me tell myself how to live now. And while I know it takes all kinds, I’m not sure I can survive these conditions with the speed or strength these two require.
There’s a fourth.
The trees in White Sands, they are connected. Often several trees scattered that you would suspect least– they came from the same single tree. The elevated water table in the park allows for a single tree to become tall and nourished. And then, creating a standard for living for themselves, their roots follow the water through the ground. When they realize how far they’ve strayed, they grow up– really up– out of the ground. New trees are formed. All of them connected to the same root base. The Grow-Togethers.
I’m not sure what this does for my eternal perspective, but I am relieved to know there is a deep, warm embrace of many protecting and making strong the dark, watery underworld.
“I can’t believe it took us so long,” I said to my Someone.
“So long to what?” he said.
“To find each other.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “it was a lot of hassle. But at least we figured it out before too late.”
“Maybe we can do better next time?” I asked.
“If that’s the case, then we probably found each other in record time this time, compared to the last time,” he said, “So I imagine next time will be much sooner, still.”
“Until we are born closer?”
“Until we are born closer.”
My Someone and I aren’t sure that we believe in reincarnation. In fact, we likely don’t. But we might believe in magic. And we definitely believe in love. And somehow, it seems right that we regroup between each life and try to make a better plan this time to find each other. So far, this life, the one we are in, is our best attempt yet. And I’m doing my best to enjoy it at its every moment. I roll over, and tuck my head into the the covers like a Yucca flower in a sand dune.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s start over tomorrow, too, as if we started at the very beginning.”
My Someone rolls over, tucking his Yucca head under our dune blanket, too.