Cynicism and sentiment in the desert

Originally published February 17, 2015 on BeaconReader.com

I couldn’t tell where the feathers came from. There were no trees, no power poles or other perch from which they might have descended; just the bare Mojave Desert sky, uncharacteristically overcast. There were four of them, then six, then a dozen, arcing and twirling lazily toward the ground.

Had a peregrine or a prairie falcon swooped and caught one of the Eurasian collared doves that flock in my neighborhood, knocking a few feathers loose from its inflight prey? Had a hawk’s talon scraped them off a quail’s breast? I glanced at my dog Heart at the other end of the leash, briefly imagining she would nod, mutter “huh,” and confirm the oddness. But she was lost in thoughts of her own, sniffing after side-blotched lizards beneath the desert milkweed.

The feathers were beautiful and plain, a dun-gray color slightly darker than the sky, each of them the length and width of a fingernail. They pirouetted and eddied in the light wind. I craned my neck again to find where they’d come from. I failed again.

Sometimes the small painful pieces of a desert life provide their own creation myths. Sometimes they don’t. Walking a few days beforehand Heart had done a classic olfactory doubletake, doubled back forcefully to sniff at a patch of sticks, a bit of fluff. It was downy rabbit fur, and the sticks were spattered with a bit of gore, and a pile of coyote scat lay nearby.

“Clearly, Holmes,” I explained to Heart, “an unfortunate hare happened upon this sample of coyote dung, sniffed at it, and exploded.” She gave me the merest ear flick.

ravenThe dog is new. I’ve had her for two months. She is energetic and exuberant, and as a result we have spent a lot of time walking. We put in four miles a day or so, sometimes six.

A couple weeks ago, that odd Mojave overcast having reached its full and appropriate flower as a slow, soaking rain, we walked out at 8:30 in the morning. I had my phone to my ear. I talked with a close friend as we walked. A mile from the house Heart froze at roadside, stared off into the creosote. I didn’t see why for a few long minutes, but I was distracted and glad to stand. It took a moment for them to resolve out of the blur of creosote and fog: a pair of coyotes, then three, then four, out doing a few late morning rounds under cover of the sheltering gloom. One of them, a seeming youngster, approached to within 20 yards of Heart in apparent guileless curiosity. A moment of curious sniffing for both young dog and young coyote passed, and then the wild ones loped casually across the road in front of us and into the National Park.

Phone to my ear, I would have missed them if not for Heart, wholly in the present as dogs always are.

It was a good reminder of the value of time spent the way dogs would prefer.  I now spend two hours a day at least outdoors walking with Heart, afoot in the Mojave Desert. I have walked with her first thing in the morning and then after midnight.  The extra time spent away from screens has been instructive. I have felt more hopeful. I have felt invigorated.

Mainly, I have felt less cynical.

If you were to sum up the usual mood of the Internet as a whole in a single word, it’s would be hard to find a more accurate one than “cynical.” That’s a generalization, of course, but I think it’s a fair one. Cynicism is a suit of armor. If a video or a piece of writing threatens to teach you something new and uncomfortable, you can just dismiss it by arguing with the headline. No need to actually click away from Facebook and read the thing.

Modern cynicism defends itself by casting itself as the only intelligent alternative to mawkish sentimentality. But in truth, it’s only the mawkish sentimentality that cynics allow to survive. A video of a kitten giving a mastiff a shoulder massage will go uncriticized. So will a mass and useless catharsis over the political tragedy du jour, drip with sentiment as it may. As long as sentiment is utterly powerless to change anything, cynics like it just fine.

Sentiment with power behind it is a different matter altogether. Develop a passion for a particular place, or a cause, or group of people, and harness that sentiment to protect what you love, and you will be tweaked for caring too much. Caring too much about an issue makes the cynic tired. It makes the cynic defensive against the possibility that his or her life is lacking something essential. Hackles will be raised. Suggestions will be offered that you get a life, that you have too much time on your hands.

Personally, I’m thinking cynics have not enough time on their feet.

Heart and I don’t just notice the lovely things, the wondrous things, as we walk. We see the damage we’ve done to the desert as well as the desert’s attempts to survive. We find plastic grocery bags blown here from twenty miles away and fetched up against the shores of a stand of creosote, wrack on the sea of local commerce. (I disentangle them and fill them with dog shit.) We find broken bourbon bottles and illegally dumped mattresses. We find new tire tracks on the open desert. Some of them, the ones that end a few yards from the road, were left by people clearly just looking ineptly for a place to camp. Others, the ones that crash through the creosote and cholla and hold deep spun-tire ruts along their path, were left by off-roaders. That last is another generalization. There are some off-roaders, myself among them, who see four tires and a bit of clearance as a way to get to wonderful places where we can then get out and walk, or camp, or sit and look around, or drink in solitude and fall asleep under the wheeling stars. You almost never see these people breaking new illegal trails.

But there are others, the ones who find it fit and proper to blaze their new and aimless roads across intact deserts and decry the landowners if they object, who go out expressly to tear shit up. Incurious enough to drive over desert plants they could never name, too lazy to hike any slot canyon that might reasonably be driven, these are the people who lack the courage to face the landscape as it really is without the shelter of their metal and plastic armor. They leave gouges in the desert it will take centuries to heal — if those gouges do not metastasize by eroding into gullies, loosing eons of sequestered dust into our lungs.

Ed Abbey wrote that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He had a fair point. Sentiment devoid of the power that passion brings accomplishes little. It may be, like that quadrant of the Internet devoted to pictures of cats, of momentary value for entertainment and distraction, which few would argue we don’t need.

But sentiment without action, sentiment without passion, bolsters cynicism. It reinforces cynicism. It justifies cynicism. And cynicism is the off-road vehicle of the soul. It selects a goal and bee-lines toward it, heedless of what lives along the path. Cynicism is incurious. It obliterates nuance, breaks the branches of actual living detail as it roars past, then reaches its destination and declares there was nothing worth noting en route.

Yee haw. And yet the cynics miss the drifting of coyotes across their path, the unexplained showers of odd feathers. I could not give those up for anything.

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