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How Do You Do That Hoodoo that You Do-Do?

Bryce Canyon, July 31, 2011

My first experience of the American desert was the Mojave, which conforms much more closely to the idea of the desert that we carry around in our heads from media portrayals: sand, rock, scrubby vegetation, aridity, emptiness. I became entranced by the Mojave when I first travelled through it in 1997, taking the rental car to Death Valley, Twentynine Palms, Palm Springs. Near Twentynine Palms, the Joshua Tree park is filled with that eponymous organism, their spiky trunks with their sprawling limbs and knobby, grapefruit like appendages twisting and turning against the flat sky. After you drive across fields of Joshua Trees, you arrive at the rock formations, aggregations of smooth edged boulders that from a distance resemble piles of pebbles placed carefully by an absorbed child. One or two of these boulders can stand as tall as a house. The sensation of being overawed by these rock formations, physically overwhelmed by their size and their presence, was something new for me.

Blind contour drawings, Bryce Canyon, 2011
In Europe we can conjure up a similar sensation when we visit the mountain areas, such as the Lake District in England, the Massif Central in France, and of course the Alps. But mountains have a distant sort of grandeur, something immeasurable and remote. These desert rocks are small enough to measure yourself in relation to them, and therefore get a real feeling of how much bigger they are than your own self. I have noticed that this feeling only works for me when I am looking up at rocks from below, rather than looking down at them. Even the Grand Canyon was less impressive for that reason. Standing on the rim and looking down, the view was  so spread out and vast that ultimately, without anything relative to measure it against (because there is nothing as deep and big as the grand canyon) it started to look flat, its distances literally unseeable. But looking up at something 70 or 100 feet high makes it much easier to have that sense of scale, of your smallness and nature's largness, which is required for the feeling of awe, or what the eighteenth century aestheticians called the Sublime.

Me drawing in Zion Canyon, August 1, 2011
In addition to awesomeness and sublimity, I was struck by another thought at the midway point of this recent trip. We had just driven for half a day to get to Moab, Utah. After settling into the hotel, we went out to get a snack and read through our guidebooks, before setting off for Arches National Park towards six o' clock, so we could see it in the late evening light. We stopped to look at gigantic slabs of red rock rising out of the plain. We walked around a 55 foot high boulder balanced on a 75 foot hight pedestal. We walked around the back of a large rock and found the narrow passageway that led into a little amphitheatre where you could look at an archway formed by erosion from above and below. As I stared at this rock shape, and felt with my toes the red dirt picked up by my sandles, I suddenly thought: what an odd thing this is, to take so much time and to spend so much effort for the sole purpose of looking at some rocks.

And yet when I turned away to walk back to the car, I felt satisfied, like I'd seen something beautiful and worthwhile. It doesn't take long to work out why that is. I'm affected by the awe-inspiring size, but also the colours, the textures, the variety of shapes, the different masses and volumes -- basically all the things that I appreciate in painting and sculpture, mixed in with the added ingredients of wonder at the unimaginable stretches of geological time that it took for the wind and the water to create (or leave behind) these objects.

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