I was driving through the flatlands of northeast New Mexico the other day. I was on one of those highways that extended undisturbed for miles — where your gaze catches and holds a glimpse of the puddles which evaporate in the heat of your approaching presence. On either side of the highway, fields shone with the dull yellow of hibernation, intermittently and rarely splattered with ancient houses, bustling with life or empty, in shambles or recently renewed. It can be hard tell.
The wind blazed from the north, ever so slightly pressing against my small car, but only noticeable when my imagination obsessed about splashing the distant puddle on the lonesome mailbox with the same expectant joy I would have in the back seat of my mom’s suburban, when, as a child, I urged her fervently in the pouring rain to drive through the puddle congregating in the bustling queue of the storm drain.
Stirred by the wind, I snapped out of my layered imagination. Unbound from the road ahead, I noticed a crow hovering above, striving with intent and might into the wind. Now, I have experienced this type of phenomena before – a bird fighting against the wind. Sometimes, the bird inches forward, sometimes the bird is thrown backward, and he loops back around to fight the same wind from the same plane, but just from a different part of the plane.
But, this was quite different. It was as if the wind stretched out its arm, opened its hand, and placed it firmly on the head of the flapping bird. The wings of the bird swung with such might, trying to knock down the wind, but the only thing which moved was the persistently violent wings. The body floated motionless as the wind laughed at the bird’s attempt for revenge and freedom.
I found myself in this part of New Mexico because I was wrapping up a road trip with a friend from Dallas to Vancouver, British Columbia. We headed out towards San Francisco first, then made our way up the coast to the border, and then cut across the country diagonally back toward Texas. After dropping my friend off for a medical school rotation in Utah, I made the final trek through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico alone.
I go on these types of trips often – alone or with others – really for one reason: to see. The things I hope to see are not really anything at all. I hope, in viewing the enormous height of the red woods or the deepness of the Grand Canyon, I see through them to something that is unseen but nonetheless present. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on this quest to see, even if the object of my desired sight is unknown to me. I just know, or I just believe, it will be seen and it will be beautiful.
Interestingly enough, as I view things that are in their own right beautiful and obviously reflect the creatively gracious strokes of our Creator, I see and feel nothing. Annie Dillard, in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, experiences this same disconnect between seeing and her desire to see:
I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing…
It’s not that this revelatory way of seeing is unattainable; it just can’t be manufactured or forced. In some ways, it is a form of grace transposed on you from the transcendent. Dillard goes on to say,
The secret of seeing is the pearl of great price…although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought…although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.
Clawing and scratching in distinct places for pearls found by other people, I was surprised to excavate it in the desert and in the vision of a grotesque bird trying, and failing, to find its next meal. And, I almost missed it. I almost missed it because of the mirage – a mirage which we all know tantalizes but leaves us parched nonetheless.
So then, what was it that I actually saw in the bird? What unseen thing did I see in the seen?
Peace. The peace of God. Knowing at some point the wind would relent, and the bird, fatigued from his seemingly motionless journey, would lower himself to the ground, below the tearing wind, and enjoy the thing which brings life and sustenance…and peace. All with the knowledge he would go fight the wind again.