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easter in the desert

There are three layered colors of sandstone in Devil’s Garden. Escalante, the name for the top layer, is a delicate yellowish-white. We ran around on this layer, my boys footsteps bounding across gaps high above the red sand below. Cannonville, the center, a softer and darker rock, as it is in the shadow of the light-reflecting white rock it shoulders. Gunsight bears the weight of the other colors, it is a red and tan, bleeding into the earth below. This “garden” is merely quartzite grains cemented by calcium and iron, and then eroded grain by grain to reveal their color. How different are the colors of the microscopic grains?

 Color is a founding principle of Easter. The celebration on the vernal equinox rejoices in the rebirth of color across nature’s landscapes. The Pagan goddess Oestre, for whom many believe the holiday Easter gained its name from, rescued a bird whose wings were frozen and rigid with snow. Feeling like her late arrival caused the bird to be flightless, Oestre pitied the bird, and kept him as a pet. She turned him into a white hare, blessed him with foot-speed to flee from hunters, and remembering his prior life as a bird, she granted him the ability to lay colored eggs one day of each year. When she was angered with him, she cast him into the sky as the constellation Lepus, where he now remains. One day each year, when festivities are given to celebrate Oestre each spring, he is allowed to visit the earth and give colored eggs to children.

The story changed, but the color remains. The snow rabbit now represents triumph over lust when cast at the Virgin Mary’s feet. His foot-speed is not to avoid hunters but to avoid temptation. The eggs, the gifts of spring color, remain in Christian tradition, but without a parallel metaphor drawn.

My children don’t need an excuse to like candy. I suppose most modern children don’t. We sat outside of the first canyon on a cliff beside a cairn, eating Reese’s eggs and staring across the sky. We sat on red dirt though our clothes were dusted with the pale grit of the escalante layer we just climbed above. We weren't encompassed with just patches of color, like sitting amongst eggs on a lawn. There are streaks-- the blue of the sky, the white of clouds, the streaks of sand and rock across mesas, the juniper trees. Like at Devils garden, like the designs on Easter eggs, the streaks of color are meticulously layered across the landscape in patterns.

“Mom how is cryptobiotic soil alive? It does not have a heart or lungs or anything…”

“Is that juniper tree right there less alive than you or I? It also lacks a lung or heart…”

And we sit in silence, contemplating. How does a nine year old understand what living is? Are we more alive with our organs? Or does a tree that can survive violent storms, droughts, wildlife, erosion, and still manage to produce endless blue berries possess a wisdom from longevity that goes beyond human understanding?

 There is an ancient belief that we take on the characteristics of what we eat. It is natural that during a celebration of fertility, spring, and the goddess Oestre, food would be shaped into eggs and hares to honor the fertility goddess and bring vitality and fertility to those that partook. Perhaps this belief morphed into the prayers before each meal, honoring the life taken to eat and “blessing” it so that those eating could take on the positive pieces of what is being eaten.

We neither bless nor honor our chocolate peanut butter eggs. I think about how I should like to take on the characteristics of the desert. Fierce. Alive. Full of color.

We don’t honor the ancient traditions, though it is beautiful that a Pagan tradition morphed into a holiday meaningful for the religion that turned the word “Pagan” into a derogatory term. The two collided into an acceptance of what has become one of the most bizarre celebrations, a holiday whose roots are unsure, unknown. The juniper does not need to see its roots to continue to grow.

We eat candy and hike. We explore. I try to teach them to un-stifle the innate desire to discover, I try to teach them to appreciate, to notice the glimpses in color and the changes of the tone in clouds. In the end, I hope to teach them that the most incredible part of the desert is the beauty that remains after surviving harsh and lonely times. I hope they learn that a celebration of color and life isn’t a renewal found only in Pagan or Christian tradition, that they too, are layered with the colors of experience, and that at a microscopic level, they, too, are perhaps not so different than all other life. That I can teach myself that there is both beauty and color in a broken landscape.

Today we will visit the Anasazi ruins; we will hike to walls of rock art. In discovering those that lived across such a vast and violent landscape, we can find a sense of self and life in our own landscapes of color. Whilst meticulously painting another layer of experience across me, I wish you a Happy Easter.


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