Holes in the desert, ranging from the Grand Canyon to burrows for tiny rodents, inspire awe, albeit short-lived. Skunks, on the other hand, inspire a more focused mindfulness.
Standing on the edge of a hole in the ground, I take endless pictures from numerous vantage points, trying vainly to capture the hole’s scale, to communicate its impact. The resulting photos just don’t cut it. The hole is long, extending from the horizon on the left to the horizon on the right. The human eye cannot see it all at a glance, and the camera’s perspective is less panoramic even than the eye. The hole is deep, extending from my feet, more or less, down to a gray pencil lead that they tell me is a raging river. The human brain cannot really take it in: rock, rock and more rock offer no visual point of reference, no sense of scale, and the camera cannot manufacture what God did not. That would take Photoshop®.
Created by the Colorado River’s initial action and by subsequent wind and water erosion, the aptly named Grand Canyon is a must-see for visitors to Arizona. Stepping back from its edge and lowering my camera, I look around at the boring landscape adjacent to this hole-turned-tourist-stop. Flat, sun-baked, treeless, it gives no hint of the marvels now exposed to view, but that lay hidden in ages past. I wonder idly how many other seemingly boring places sit atop fabulous rock formations, grand-canyons-in-waiting just beneath the surface.
Back in Phoenix, I resume my standard circuit, which includes brown-bag lunchtime lectures at a county park and nature centre. This week’s talk is on desert holes—the tiny visible part of extensive subsurface habitat for creatures great and small. Desert hares. Desert tortoises. Burrowing owls. Rodents. Spiders and scorpions and snakes, oh my. My next desert walk is enlivened by thoughts of the networked ecosystem beneath my feet: the populated, networked ecosystem. Oh my, as in OMG. It is at once fascinating and a little unsettling.
Between the canyons that might be down there and the critters that are for sure, I figure I’ll never take a thoughtless step in Arizona again. It doesn’t last, of course: remaining mindful of holes in the ground—both “potential” and “actual-but-unseen”—is too much like work.
Fast forward a few months to our home neighbourhood in the Great White North, where the white stuff has pretty much gone away, but the green bits have yet to arrive. In this curious period between winter and spring, the copse beside our house is in its transitory see-through stage. Horizontally, we have clear sightlines to the path on the far side; vertically, we can see the ground soon to be obscured by burdock and dog-strangling vine. And so it is that we see the skunks that emerge from their underground den, blinking even in this wan sunlight.
Turning thoughtfully away from the window, I believe that I may be able to maintain my mindfulness of this particular hole in the ground.