Desert Geography


The world is a mix of empty and filled spaces that yearn towards each other. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum and it seems to be a universal mandate that empty spaces must be filled.

Yet, as we all know, the empty spaces remain.

A friend whose life is full writes to say that her life is, in fact, empty. For all that occupies her days and all that she has accomplished, she is empty in that part of her she yearns to fill. Travelling alone recently she discovered only emptiness lying in wait for her.

Another friend was asked to photograph emptiness itself. He fretted over the assignment because, he wondered, how could you capture emptiness in a photograph? Photographs are used to capture people and things, he said, but where is the emptiness and how could I show it?

I was intrigued by the assignment. A shot of the sky would not be empty because it would contain clouds or stars or things we can’t see but know to be out there. Absolute darkness would only serve as a subterfuge. We would ask: Well what would we see if we turned on the light? Photographing emptiness seemed no mean feat to me.

His solution was a clever one: to take a picture of a barren room in which sunlight played on a handful of dust that he lofted into the air. The firm embrace of the walls, the play of the sunlight, the dust he threw demarcated the boundaries of the empty spaces in between. Brilliant.

Likewise, the universe’s very fullness is a rebuke to the emptiness we so often feel. Standing alone amid the raw, stunning fecundity – the endless creation and re-creation that surrounds us – we cannot help but feel left out sometimes. We too abhor a vacuum. We want to be filled up by and connected to that abundant mystery.

These days, more and more people are looking to outer space as the means to explore other worlds come within reach. Some may be intrigued but I won’t be going.

I am far more interested in the conquest of inner space, that mysterious frontier we carry around inside of us. Never mind the silicon revolution, the fabulous new ways of communicating, the advances of biotechnology or space travel, we remain as ignorant as ever of our essential selves.

But the irony is that the journey that we must take is a solo one. Even if the objective is a deeper connection with the universe and with others, no one can join us on the journey in; they can only wish us well. The answers we find may bind us as never before to those around us, but the journey takes place alone.