The desert: they are not like us

The desert

The desert teaches cause it takes away2

It hadn’t rained much out here this year. Drought had yellowed the fields. Twenty five years before I had travelled to Hopi nation. The colors of the fields in France reminded me of one late September evening when I’d crossed the state of Oklahoma on a Greyhound bus, as the last rays of the sun touched the red dust lands.

Instantly I felt a nagging craving to go back there.

The desert teaches…

A French farmer told me that crops of Cole seed and wheat were already lost. The dried-out fields were like an allegory of the moral crisis, that we’ve been living through these last years.

‘The desert teaches, ‘cause it takes away,’ the Walkabouts sing in a song called They Are Not Like Us. The desert, as a metaphor for our spiritual poverty, makes us fragile and open. We lose all spiritual certainties we have gathered in times of bless and rain in the blink of an eye.

The desert is unrelentingly peeling off layers of the stubborn shell with which we define ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’. The desert boils us down to our essence: because there is neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’. We are snake and bird, predator and prey, Saint George and the dragon, all at the same time.

The lion and the lamb inside us learn to lay down next to each other: in the desert we finally become human.


Meanwhile back in our house on the hill we had new neighbors: a herd of cows, including a bull and calves. “Charolaise,” the owner said proudly. “They make for good beefsteak.” He smiled, but being a vegetarian that wasn’t a recommendation for me. But at least these cows would have had a good life when their final hour comes. The meadow was like a prairie, vastly stretching out on three sides of the hill. They could wander around for hours and hide under trees from the scorching sun. Every morning I greeted them and as Charolaise are very docile and quiet, I even dared to stroke their foreheads and slap them on their backs. There wasn’t much grass for them to eat, but rain was on its way.

That Saturday the heat was oppressive. The red kites, the golden orioles, the Charolaise, the drought-stricken fields, the insects buzzing in the red light of sunset and the glowing finger to the west pointing towards heaven, all were waiting for the thunderstorm that certainly would burst out during the night and shatter the pastoral to pieces…

First Flash Of Eden

At First Flash of Eden

First Flash of Eden
…we race down to the sea…

My wife and I had been in Lorraine a couple of years before, on our way to the south of France. Just two hours, but the memory of the view from a hill overlooking the low plains had ever since been lingering in my mind.

There was a chapel on top of that hill. As I had stood next to the chapel watching the wide open space, the vastness of the landscape had invaded my head. It was as if I was back for a split second in the Garden of Eden.

I had felt oneness and openness: for a moment I believed in everyone.

As we descended the hill, we had spotted a flock of hoopoes in the meadows.

Space Oddity

So when we booked our next vacation in Lorraine, I hoped to find the same spacious feeling in my head again. And some flocks of hoopoes too.

The house we had rented stood on top of a hill overlooking the green rolling countryside and a small dormant volcano nearby. When the sky was clear, we could see the mountain range of the Vosges to the east, some 40 miles away.

To the west was the hill with the chapel on it. In the red, purple sunset its tower glowed like a golden finger pointing towards heaven. As evening fell foxes, hares and a pair of roes used to wander in the meadows on our hill’s slope. No sounds of cars or trains were to be heard. Just once in a while the faint buzz of a plane flying high overhead in the late night starry sky. It felt like paradise and not for all the money in the world I didn’t want to spoil that feeling.


So deliberately I avoided the news. I only bought a local newspaper once in a while. It contained only one page with international news that I neatly avoided. But the local obituaries to deceased people were a pleasure to read.

This way the frightening wars and the even more frightening rumors of wars seemed far away.

Much to our regret we didn’t spot hoopoes, but red kites and golden orioles were abundant. And though it’s common knowledge that one should never try to repeat feelings once felt in the past, after a few days the healing spaciousness of the landscape crept into my head again.

Packaging versus Gift

Packaging versus Gift: This is a story about how the words and the melody of a song, a bird sitting in the middle of the road and the small gesture of a stranger can make a difference.

When I first told it, someone asked me if it was a true story.

I said: Maybe.

However, why bother whether a story is fiction or fact? That is not what real stories are about. There is a deeper layer in these stories where the truth resides. It’s almost like getting a present. If you think the packaging is the actual present, you might miss the real gift inside.

Packaging versus Gift: moreover you actually may find that there is nothing inside the packaging.

packaging versus gift
Holy stories: if you confuse the packaging with the gift, you may find nothing inside

Holy Stories

The same goes even more for the greatest stories that mankind has conceived: the holy stories. As soon as they are considered to describe actual facts, their essence, the true gift inside, is lost. We will get into real trouble. Most of the time it ends in bloodshed. And that’s a pity, because inside the sometimes harsh shell of these stories hides the most beautiful gift to mankind.

As for my story, when asked for, I would swear by everything that’s dear to me that it is truly true and that it was situated in Lorraine in France in the glorious summer of 2014.

The dead cow, the hoopoe sitting in the middle of the road, the gesture of a stranger and how the words and the melodies of Bill Fay’s song mixed in perfectly on a day of death, grace and glory.

After that day nothing was the same anymore.

But that’s not what this story is about…