By Melissa Carroll
There are places where the ground cracks opens like a book, where earth’s long history is written in the rocks. Stretches of land in northeast Arizona are filled with the pages of the past: here sandstone sweeps into shadowy rills and the mesas carve their cut jaws against the sky.
I’ve traveled alone to Petrified Forest National Park from my home in Florida. This is a big deal for a woman who gets anxiety while eating alone at a restaurant. But for years I’ve yearned to reconnect with nature, and to immerse myself in the wild earth that I am a part of, but where I have not spent much time. I want to be the kind of girl who can through-hike, who can start a fire, who knows which berries are edible. I am not this kind of girl. I was raised in a New Jersey suburb, where nature is tamed into manicured lawns and sprayed with pesticides. Now, living in Florida, going outdoors for me mostly involves a beach towel and — let’s be honest — a frozen cocktail.
So here I am, hiking the desert in my pink tennis shoes, looking for something. Myself, maybe.
At first glance this place should not be called a forest: there are very few trees to speak of, save for the junipers and Mexican cliffroses that grip the mountain ledges. But along the trail, signatures of a lost landscape are left: broken kaleidoscopes are encased in ancient bark.
As I walk along the trail, unassuming split logs have crystallized over the millennia into an explosion of swirling colors. There used to be many more, but over the centuries travelers and tourists have stolen these glimmering fragments. Now, it’s illegal to pilfer the petrified wood. There is even a legend that the ancient casts are cursed, and they bring bad luck to anyone who steals them from their home in the desert.
The petrified wood is a reminder that 220 million years ago, in the Triassic era, a wild river surged through the now hard-packed earth. The once-verdant forest, smelling of rich wet soil, has been preserved as quartz. The passage of time is carved like technicolor poems in these stones.
I open my senses and look out: the vast panorama is stretched against rugged plateaus. I open my ears to listen: quiet. So quiet the lack of sound takes up space in the dry heat. Occasionally the wind makes the smoke trees toss their silvered leaves. Desert sands are lifted up and thrown back down. In the distance a threatening sandstorm swirls into the sky.
Then, a realization: I’m alone.
Really alone. Thousands of miles from a soul I know, in quite literally the middle of nowhere. The aloneness washes over me.
I am staying in a small pueblo on the park grounds. I have no television, no phone, no internet—which means no Facebook, no Instagram, no YouTube, no email, no online horoscopes, nothing to distract me. I have to be here, right now, in the moment. In nature. By myself. It is much harder than I thought.
Humans collectively spend 39,757 years of time on Facebook every single day. Years. I can’t help but think of all that collective potential being washed down the drain of a Facebook newsfeed in one day.
This radical relationship with technology has changed our relationships with our environment, ourselves, and even our relationship with time.
The present moment has always felt slippery, at least to me. My mind so often ping-pongs from the past to the future, rarely resting in the now.
When my phone chimes with an email or status update, the present becomes even more slippery. Time and space suddenly become condensed to the dimensions of my screen, with a narrowed perspective literally and figuratively.
I’m not alone in this, either. Everyone I know seems less able to handle the mildly unpleasant space of waiting, or simply being alone and not having anything to fulfill our fractured attention spans.
And yet when I stroll along a forest path or a high desert plateau, I am invited to pause and be absorbed in the present. Often when I have granted myself the time, my concept of time itself becomes more spacious. An afternoon will spread out before me like a blanket on the grass.
Perhaps this is also why meditation has become more and more popular in the west over the last decade: we have created an addiction to not being present, and deep down we know we just need to sit still and breathe.
In the desert, I draw in a breath and the dusty air rushes into my lungs. I wipe sweat from my forehead, take a sip of water, and know it will be good for me to confront my astonishing need for distraction. I pride myself on not owning a TV, but in the evenings I’m twitching like an addict for some electric glow. I’ll even take reruns of Two and a Half-Men at this point: just to have another voice in the room would be comforting. This need surprises me. Though when I think about it, I’m not entirely alone. There are my books: I’ve brought along Lao Tzu, Rachel Carson, and Dinty W. Moore. And there are the snakes and the rabbits and coyotes. The desert itself is a personality, filled with voices — I just have to learn how to listen.
So I look for a good spot to meditate. The trail slopes down to ancient floodplains, where the ground is now bone dry. When I look at this long-gone river I am looking into the past. When my fingertips graze the smooth blue and neon pink spirals in the petrified wood, I’m touching a Triassic tree. It’s the same as when I gaze up at night, seeing old light catapult across space.
The closest star beyond our sun is over four light years away.
When we look at our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, we see it as it was two million years ago.
The Triassic era was 200 million years ago.
My logical brain tries to wrap itself around such numbers, around deep time and massive expanses, but all I’m left with is the rugged air filling my lungs and the word we give to such moments when we feel terribly small: awe.
Geologists read the stories buried in the earth, astronomers read the sky for its secrets, and all I can do is stand in the center, dumbfounded.
I am in awe. The word becomes my mantra. It anchors me to the present moment.
220 million seasons have passed over this land. The sky is an indifferent roof, stark and blue. And here we are, trying to make meaning out of it.
Geologists use a 24-hour model to depict the history of time on earth:
At midnight, a planet became newly minted.
Meteors smashed the freshly cooked globe, until eventually the atoms settled into rock at 3 a.m., or 4 billion years ago. All was quiet for a few short millenia.
At around 4:15 a.m., life woke up. The precise shaft of sunlight struck through the sea, and single cells chowed down on chemistry until mid-morning.
Just before 11 a.m., photosynthesis gasped for the very first time. This was 2.6 billion years ago.
Meanwhile, plate tectonics buckled like a wrinkled tablecloth on the earth’s surface. Continents bowed under glaciers, a magnificent and shifting landscape.
Life finally got busy at 8:30 p.m., seaweeds and jellyfish feeling the black sea basin.
Land plants sprouted at 9:52 p.m., and dinosaurs cracked their eggs an hour later, 240 million years ago.
Mammals arrived at 11:39 p.m., and humans showed up in the last few nanoseconds. This clock brings us right up to the present era. Wedged into those nanoseconds all our stories were written, all the wars waged, all the love made, all the guillotines fell, all the water jugs filled, religions born and crumbled, all propellers whorled and engines sparked, all new life carried in the globes of mother’s bellies, all the hellos and goodbyes and I-love-yous ever spoken.
In my brief breaths on this planet — a nanosecond relative to the prehistoric mesa — I keep returning to awe. The desert is always changing.
The same is true for all of earth, for the entire cosmos. The high mesas are slowly, imperceptibly, descending back into the seas. It is the nature of nature to change. We just don’t stop long enough to notice.
The desert is marked by erosion, but not marred by it. Here, erosion is also creation. The rain gullies down soft red slopes. The rifting landscape is beauty in motion. Just because the mesas are moving — ever so slowly —doesn’t mean disaster; it simply means the ground is taking new shape.
Melissa Carroll is a writer and yoga instructor based out of Tampa Bay. She is the editor of the essay collection Going OM: Real-Life Stories on and off the Yoga Mat, which was nominated for the IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Her poetry chapbook The Karma Machine received the Peter Meinke Prize from Yellow Jacket Press, and her next poetry collection, The Pretty Machine, is forthcoming from ELJ Press. Her writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, Mantra + Yoga Magazine, on MindBodyGreen.com, xoJane, and elsewhere. Melissa is launching an e-course on Mindful Writing & Yoga in January 2017. Read more at www.MelissaCarrollYoga.com.