The Mystical Appeal of California's Deserts May Be What We Need Right Now

Helendale, California
Helendale, California
Tanja M. Laden

With all of its traffic, smog, weed and actors, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Southern California is basically one big, barren swath of land. Here, the seasons are defined by the Santa Anas and El Niños; measured by mega-Dopplers, mercury and the Richter Scale. Between the fires and the mudslides, we don't think too much about how the water gets to our pipes, as long as it gets here. But what happens when we really stop to notice and appreciate the desert for the transcendence it can provide?

As Los Angeles has evolved into the entertainment-industry mecca that it is today, the true nature of the soil beneath has slowly receded from our consciousness, all while the glittering city continues to absorb outlying communities into its urban sprawl. Yet no matter how much our city expands, there still seems to be a never-ending stream of campers, day trippers, solace seekers, artists and hermits that flows out into the uninhabited lands of the Mojave, Great Basin and Colorado deserts. In order to understand why, we discussed the desert's mystic appeal with Dr. Catherine Svehla, who's leading a talk in Twentynine Palms on Saturday called "The Imaginal Desert."

With an extensive background studying mythology and depth psychology, Svehla is particularly interested in the imagination of matter and the human construction of reality. In particular, she wants people to understand how the desert has the capacity to stimulate the imagination while offering unique experiences. "A range of qualities defines the desert — heat, aridity, rockiness, for example — but the sum of these characteristics is an experience of vast space, relative barrenness or austerity, what I call 'the big empty,'" she says. "Human beings are always in dialogue with the place and space they occupy. This dialogue is an act of imagination that involves sensory information, personal history and cultural conditioning and constructs, collective fantasies and values that I call 'myths.' The desert or 'the big empty' is a catalyst for ideas about possibility, freedom and the mysteries of existence, mysteries like the eternal and numinous or divine. Myths cluster around these ideas, like myths of the frontier or myths of revelation. We have experiences through these myths."

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Outlier
Bill Dahl Photography

Svehla is specifically interested in traditional stories and legends that link the desert to divinity, as well as the idea of the imagination as a collective force. With "The Imaginal Desert," she unites the two. "I use the term 'imaginal desert' instead of 'imagined desert' to convey this automatic, impersonal quality of the imagination. I’m talking about images that are commonly evoked or provoked in a person by the desert, not fantasies or other creative products that an individual chooses to create out of his or her interaction with the desert. If we don’t have the desert, then we won’t have these experiences. This is my fear."

While she admits that she's not an expert in the mythological traditions of desert populations around the world, Svehla does say that the Judeo-Christian understanding of the desert has informed the way Californians view classical mythological narratives related to the Southwest. The more profound and salient traditions, however, have been preserved by Native Americans, many of whom believe the desert is a manifestation of Mother Earth.

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House in Palm Springs
Tanja M. Laden

With her lecture, Svehla hopes people will embrace seemingly magical phenomena such as synchronicity, chance encounters, creative stimulation and the zenlike feeling of transformation that results from quietly connecting to raw land. She's also determined to make sure we'll always have the desert, specifically for these purposes.

"We need to find a way to bring the imaginal into debates about the value of the desert and efforts to preserve it," she says. "How do we communicate the value of the 'big empty' as essential to the human experience of possibility, self, creativity, freedom and the numinous, so that people understand the true cost of chipping away at the vastness?"

"The Imaginal Desert" takes place Saturday, Nov. 11, as part of the Second Friday Old Schoolhouse Lecture Series at the Old Schoolhouse Museum in Twentynine Palms, sponsored by the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park and the Twentynine Palms Historical Society.


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