the mood of the desert

Some days past, I visited a dear friend who lives in a beautiful, small village, in the desert. We have a number of deserts here in Israel, but the most famous, and that which I love the most, is the Negev in the southern part of the country.

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an oasis in the desert

One could get the impression, from watching films, and looking at the photography of deserts, that a desert is devoid of life… sand dunes as far as the eye can see. There are some deserts like that, and I have visited a few. But even in the most barren deserts, there are signs of life to a patient and observant visitor. Most deserts have quite a bit of life in them. They are just on a different level of activity, and so, when first observed, especially if coming from a lush place, where water is plentiful, and there is greenery all around, or from the mountains, where trees grow in thick forests, the desert seems barren by comparison.

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a park in the desert

Spending time in the desert inspires a different state of mind. There are more wide open spaces. There’s more quiet. There’s more modesty. In the jungle you see bright startling colors, and hear fascinating, mysterious sounds, as all species compete for a little living space. In the desert it is just the opposite. Everything is low key. Living creatures are often camouflaged, and can’t be seen unless you’re familiar with them, or very close to them. And since your attention is not being appealed to, constantly, there is a tendency to let thoughts linger. One reaches unexpected depths. In fact, the experience of spending a length of time in the desert is something like a long trip on the seas. Those vast distances… looking out at the horizon so far away… is similar in both places.

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a desert village

As a photographer, though, I’ve had my share of disappointments when traveling in the desert. Aside from the storms that can be as upsetting as a storm on the sea, there are also many conditions that can affect visibility. How many times, I’ve been in a beautiful spot, and been fascinated by the nature around me… but then, as I try to compose a picture to represent my experience, I find the visibility too low to satisfy me. Haze and dust are common. The scenery is sharpest and most attractive immediately after a rain. But rain is a rare occurance. A very close friend of mine worked on me for years, teaching me to appreciate a foggy or hazy day. And I’ve improved. I can sometimes see the beauty of haze… and making out the lines of scenery, obscured for the most part, by a dust storm. But the truth is, that I am most excited and enthusiastic on those crystal clear days… when you can see all the way to China.

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the hotel in the village

The difference between an internal scene and the external reality is much greater in the desert too. The sunlight is so intensive, that I we’re often sun-blinded when looking through a window at the scenery outdoors, and many people like subdued light when living in the desert. The shade, and proper ventilation can keep the air very pleasant inside. And this makes the movement from inside to out or from outside in all the more dramatic.

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looking out at the bright day

I haven’t yet learned to appreciate air conditioning. But luckily enough, I do like heat. Especially when it is dry heat. In the dry heat of the desert you don’t sweat all that much… and I feel a certain purity, spending time in such conditions. The pictures included in this post, were taken when the visibility wasn’t all that good, and trees seen in a distance have a slightly blurred look to them. I will soon post some desert pictures taken in better conditions. But I have to mention that because of the scarcity, water and greenery are specially appreciated in this environment. And there is water there too. There are underground pools of water, and springs… known to the local residents, both animal and human. You can go through distances of harsh landscape… rocks and dirt with little signs of vegetation, and then come across an oasis and be overcome by the rich conditions.

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playing a small clay flute

And I will never forget the wonder of observing colored shimmerings on what would seem like barren dirt hills. Later I found that there were tiny flowers that were able to stay alive on those harsh hills, and when seen from a certain distance, they lent their colors to the scenery.

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a celebration

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47 responses to “the mood of the desert

  1. Lovely pictures Shimon and a really interesting post. Thank you for giving me a taste of what life is like in the Negev. Living on such a crowded little island, I think I could really enjoy getting into that ‘different state of mind’ that you describe here.

  2. Wonderful images despite the challenging light. What an amazing place, this village and hotel. So different from the big city, that desert state of mind looks peaceful yet vibrant.

    • Thank you very much, Smallfox. I think you would find it very interesting to photograph here. It is certainly very different from the city, and it takes a while to get the feel of it… but there is a lot there.

  3. Deserts… always being so impressive for me. There is something that I don’t know but always calling me to the deserts… Maybe St. Exupéry has a part of this with his desert stories, in my mind. But I love deserts… Even I haven’t been (yet)… I watched some documentaries about them and also I read too. On the other hand deserts are being so inspirational and impressive in philosophical thoughts too… In my stories not physical but spiritually I used deserts… And another thing with deserts in my mind there is some great musicians too, like Sting…
    I enjoyed so much reading your desert dear Shimon, I didn’t know how beautiful Negev desert and I really wished to be there too… The village seems amazing and so beautiful with the park… Fascinated me the window with books… and yes, as always your photographs are great. In the first one these trees standing so beautifully and also the man who plays clay flute what a beautiful characteristic portrait… They all fascinated me. Thank you so much for taking me into the beauties of deserts… Blessing and happiness. Love, nia

    • I don’t know the music of Sting. But there are some very interesting musicians in the desert. The mood, and the passage of time is very different there… and you’re right, it has been chosen as a place for deep thought by philosophers and thinkers. Thank you very much for your kind words.

  4. So interesting your thoughts on deserts. I’ve never seen one so that is on my bucket list. I love the portrait!

  5. Your post makes me remember my own desert experience in Egypt … being not used to the heat it was a bit difficult for me, but I do remember the beauty of the desert and its people as well … and then there was the man that wanted to buy me in exchange for 30 camels …

    • Yes, cat, some people find it hard because of the heat… though that does not bother me. Sounds like you had a very interesting trip! And the offer of 30 camels for your hand. You must be an exceptional beauty. That’s a very high price. Though I think you did well to return to civilization. Still, it is always well worth a visit. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Desert life is fascinating, I’ve only been to a desert once and all too briefly in Morocco a few years back and remember well that dry heat, the quiet, and the horizon you so well describe. I slept like a baby when I was there – the peace and darkness was uterly enveloping. Beautifully illustrated (as ever) with your photos as well!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Claire. Since you’ve been in the desert, you know that the feeling there is hard to describe. It is so different from the environment we take for granted in the country or the city. I too, love the peace there.

  7. i’ve never set foot in a desert, but i have family who are moving to arizona in june. i plan to visit either over the summer or wait until fall/winter. or both. i keep hearing about its beauty and color, although we tend to think of only shades of brown and tan. from the pictures, i see so many purples and oranges too. likely a photo blog post will follow.

    • I’m sure you’ll find a trip out there fascinating. Even though I’ve gone out to the desert more times than I can count, I am always finding something new… and you can find very interesting characters that live out in the desert. Who knows, maybe material for your writing. Thanks for your comment, Rich.

  8. I live in Texas. There are many different ecosystems here, and there are several types of desert. I don’t do well in the heat, personally. So, I do what I can to reframe my own mindset about my discomfort. I do what I can to find the middle ground and the beauty of our harshest local season.

    Reading your meditation on deserts is reminding me of what I do love about summer and desert ecosystems and heat. And your photographs, Shimon! So subtle. So beautiful. There’s so much to see and consider and enjoy here. Thank you.

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Courtenay. I remember visiting Texas many years ago, and I was impressed by its size, and the many different variations of nature, including a beautiful seashore… so many different places to travel, not to speak of the modern cities. And I do remember, that even back then, many folks had very effective air conditioning. I suppose there are others who don’t care much for the heat. But I do enjoy it. Thanks for your comment.

  9. fascinating post Shimon; what an experience to see how others live in such different conditions. It’s so interesting to see the word ‘oasis’ used in its true sense too – what a great picture. I am so intrigued by your post – will visit it again to take another read. I like this kind of landscape. I traveled to Dubai though had the desert ‘tourist’ experience, which was fun but not authentic. I do like the photo: “looking out on a bright day” – it shows how others keep their books! Thank you for sharing. I’ll be back.

    • Yes, Marina, most of my friends are book lovers, so there are usually books around… though I suppose with the passage of time, there will be less books and ever more computers. I’m sure you would find much to photograph on a desert visit… though it is true, that traveling with a busload of tourists might be a distraction. But there are places you could go with hubby, and really enjoy the spirit of the place. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Your photographs so aptly illustrate your thoughtful text – as usual. Thank you, Shimon, for giving me a picture of life in the desert. It has reminded me of some things that I too often take for granted.

    • There is so much, that we all take for granted, Ruth. And one of the ways I find to renew my lease on life, is to travel to a place a little different… It helps me get a new perspective, and appreciate all of the world a bit more. Thank you very much for your comment.

  11. I was in Arches National Park, and had noticed markings in the sand here and there. It was only when I sat very still that I noticed a beetle shuffling its way through the sand–leaving tracks those tiny tracks. It is a fascinating place to be.

    • Oh, I envy you. That seems like such a fascinating place… such extra ordinary shapes. But it’s definitely true, that the more we study a place… and place, the more we discover. Watching my cat, I get regular instructions on how to be truly attentive. I just wish she wouldn’t stab me with her fingernails, to make sure I’m paying attention.

  12. As usual, wonderful photos and wisdom. In life, we all should go to a desert in order to remove the clutter from life so we can better understand our daily oasis.

    • Thank you, Frank, and yes I agree with you… it can be a parable on life itself… and there is that possibility… to push the clutter away. Unfortunately, it grows so slowly, that sometimes we’re not aware of how much clutter there is till we’re suffocating. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

    • Thank you, machisan. I’ve had a look at your blog, and I’m impressed by your beautiful photography of food. And since I’m also fond of Chinese food, it’s fun to salivate over your pictures.

  13. Your observation about the huge difference in light between the interior and the exterior when a person is in the desert reminds me of something I used to experience when I was a child, not in the desert but in the suburban town where I grew up on Long Island. On some weekends I’d go to see a matinee at the local movie theater, and when it came time to leave after a few hours in the relative darkness, the light outside was so blinding I’d have to close my eyes for a bit to adjust to the brightness.

    • Yes, it’s a similar feeling, Steve. And your comment brings back some very pleasant memories. I didn’t see many movies as a child, but on my first visit to New York, I discovered a street… I think it was close to times square, where you could see 3 movies for 25 cents! I was so fascinated by the possibility, that I actually sat through three movies on more than one occasion. And leaving the theater… it was a struggle returning to reality. Thank you for your comment.

      • I remember those three-for-the-price of one movie theaters on 42nd Street, though that was a rarity. Most movie houses in the 1940s and 1950s showed two films at a time, a main feature and another that was considered of lesser interest or quality. And yes, the price for a matinee double feature was 25¢.

  14. Dear Shimon, your vivid observations captured the feel of the desert so well, I felt like I was almost there myself seeing the long stretches of sand, haze and dust. I especially loved what you wrote about how the desert inspires a different state of mind – a thought which lingers on. A soothing and calming thought indeed. I’m so glad I’m connected to your blog as it has opened up a new vista of photography, culture, life and values that enrich my world immeasurably. Thank you so much. Warmest greetings from Finland, Sharon

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. I have traveled in Europe, in my youth, and enjoyed many beautiful places, and the rich culture there… but never got as far north as Finland, and I’m sorry I didn’t. That is one of the wonders of the internet, that we get to see and hear so much of the world without having to trek so far from home. Thank you very much for coming by, and for giving me an opportunity to see a bit of your country through your own blogging.

  15. Shimon, your photos are so wonderfully expressive. You refer to them as being taken in less-than-optimal conditions, but my eyes didn’t notice. My eyes were too busy absorbing all the bits of beauty that you so generously captured with your lens. I especially loved the park, and the books under the window, and the hotel with the brilliant light streaming in, as well as the flute portrait. But the photo that really gripped my notice was the last photo, of celebration, for several reasons.

    One, because of it being a celebration. You could have called this photo a gathering, or even a meeting, but you chose to use the word celebration. Two, because of the interesting contrasts of shadow and light. How the wooden beams and white walls are the canvas for the juxtaposition of light and shadows. Three, because the photo offers a glimpse into a spiritual celebration that is very different from what I might be familiar with as far as spiritual celebrations go, and yet, obviously if it is a spiritual celebration, then surely there must be some commonalities as well.

    The most powerful reason this last photo gripped my notice is that it reminded me that there was a time that I might have looked at such a photo and felt a sort of alienation, or even an unnamed fear, because the photo held images of something which was unfamiliar to me. There was a time that such a photo might have made me slightly uncomfortable, or even may have unknowingly caused me to form biased ideas based on lack of knowledge. Today, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have met someone within the blogging world that has invited me into their world, I can rest my eyes on such a photo and take my time in absorbing the beauty.

    Such a gift is priceless. Thank you.

    • Your words sound like poetry to my ears, N. And since I’ve gotten to know you a little, through your own writing, I am especially happy for you, that you are eager to learn, and to push aside prejudices… and to enjoy an ever wider realm of awareness. You’ve recently mentioned your desire to write a novel, and I believe you really have what it takes. And forgive me for saying this, because I usually avoid giving unasked for advice, but it is my hope that soon you’ll be able to leave some of the traumas behind, and go to work on the material you have encountered after struggling your way to freedom, and making your own choices in this world. I know that you have so much to share. Thank you very much for your comment.

      • I don’t know if you ever had the opportunity to visit New Mexico when you were in the United States, but I spent some of my childhood there (during my teen years). Because my family moved often, there never has really been a place that was “home” for us, but for me, I’ve always been drawn back to the deserts of New Mexico. For a very long time, I would go back to visit at least three or four times a year. Specifically, I would visit the area in Alamogordo where the dry and hot desert sands met the base of the mountains. I found some particular pleasure in the unforgiving heat of the day, which turned to an almost unbearable cold at night. Something about those extremes suited me.

        In my earlier years, I was more adventurous, and would sometimes simply pick an unknown road and drive until there was no road and I was following dusty tracks in the sand. More than once I had to shovel my way out of getting stuck in the sand. It seemed I couldn’t get far enough away from civilization, but of course, always wanted the security of knowing it was available to me just around the mountain, or just two or three hours down the next road. Your post had me thinking of those days when I would flee to the desert, so that I could breathe. You are right about it being a different mindset.

        Thank you for your kind words about my writing. I wanted to say something about your unsolicited advice, but my words are tripping over themselves. Perhaps it can best be said by simply sharing this one thought: I am always open to any advice, solicited or otherwise. I can tell that I have moved past some point of crisis because of how my writing is evolving as of late. I have long ago realized that usually if I am writing about very dark subjects, it is because I am in a particularly dangerous state of mind. I am grateful to be in a different place now, and yet I still carry the echoes of those stories that have never been spoken. I am undecided as to whether they ever need to be voiced.

        In any case, my writing, and specifically the book I have begun piecing together, is reflective of the different chapters in the journey, but clearly leans in the direction of focusing on how to harness our own individual ability to survive, and use that energy to lend a hand to others that are struggling. I become stronger with each act of kindness that I do for another, and I end up gaining far more than what I give away. It is a lesson in humility, and one I am willing to learn.

        I see the book as simply another act of giving something away. It is my opportunity to share some of my own journey, but hopefully, do it in a way that conveys that each of us has the opportunity to become stronger, if only we are willing to share kindness with one another. I believe I am more likely to be able to reach that destination by shifting my focus away from my past, and focusing more on my present, while working towards improving my future.

        The biggest unanswered question I have right now is one that will take some time to answer. I still am unclear on how my relationship with god will fit into the overall telling of the story. For now, I’m simply putting one foot in front of the other, and trusting that the answer will find me.

        One of the reasons I have resisted writing a book before was because I never expected to be around to finish it. Now I’ve changed my internal compass and have quit asking that question at all, and have simply embraced the idea of writing for the sake of using what I already have at my disposal. To have something and let it go to waste is a blasphemy. I am an imperfect human being, but I can always try to do better. This is my way of trying. To do better.

        • I actually did spend some time in New Mexico, but it was in the north, forest country… and I never got to know the desert areas there. But I am familiar with deserts, and know what you’re talking about. I’m not saying that the dark places in our past don’t need to be voiced, and shared with the public. Sometimes, it can be a deliverance for the writer, and often it is very helpful for others… especially those who are still wrestling with the nightmares. But I think that sometimes we have a certain objective that we carry with us in our heart… and even when we’ve broadened our experience, and our relationship to life and all its wonders, we still feel a sort of obligation to what we once set out to do. This can be a heavy piece of baggage that we take everywhere with us, sweating and struggling to take the baggage along… and it’s not necessary anymore. I liked what you say about focusing more on your present, and working towards improving the future. Putting one foot in front of the other, is a good way to go. I do believe that you have something valuable to contribute. And I hope you find the right way for you.

  16. It was actually the Judean desert which impressed me the most. I can’t explain why, but I felt so near to the divine spirit in that place. Of course, we weren’t allowed to stay for any significant period of time, but one’s being is vaulted vertically and the skies drew me upward into a place I’d never been before nor since. Wonderful piece, this, Shimon.

    • Yes, Lance, the Judean desert is really a very unique world. I’ve had some wonderful experiences there. I am so glad that you had the opportunity to visit there. Thank you.

  17. I’ve been thinking about this post for several days trying to understand what it is about your photographs and thoughts that made me understand the desert in ways that I never thought before. I read an article in which Osama bin Laden’s brother talked about having visited him in the desert. He talked mostly about how harsh the conditions were. He was forced to sleep on the sand without a blanket. It was very cold at night and hot in the daytime. That’s the concept most people have of life in a desert.

    You present a very different view of life there. Your photographs clearly support your concept of it. I came away from this essay and its illustrations with a new appreciation for deserts. I could almost feel the peace and the absence of that assault on the senses that we feel in the overwhelmingly crowded cities and towns where most of us live. The atmosphere itself seems different. The light is different. I wondered if your masterful photography didn’t unduly influence that feeling. However, the way in which you described the ambiance of the environment there was consistent with your words.

    Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting essay. You have changed my concept of yet another aspect of the human picture.

    • I remember, telling a friend of mine, that I was going camping with my children in the forest… not far from here, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. My friend, a typical city type, was astounded. “What about the wild animals,” he asked. I think we all have a bit of fear about environments that we don’t know well. When I was young, I loved hiking and exploring… both in the mountain forests, and in the desert, and learned to enjoy such adventures. By reading of others’ adventures, I also learned what to take with me… and also to be careful not to take too much. Usually, when people try things they’re not prepared for, they’re more likely to have a negative experience. It is always good to have a little tent with you in the desert, if just because the sun gets rather intense during the day. And it does get cold at night. A blanket helps. I would suggest reading John Muir rather than tales of Bin Laden. There is a man who taught us a lot about loving nature. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you, George, for your comment.

  18. Beautiful post, Shimon! Israel is still on my must-see places and how I would love to explore your country and the dessert and its oasis. I’m sure that in the seeming barrenness of the dessert, there are still so much to see and even photograph. Even the different times of the day and the position of the sun and the stillness and darkness of the night when only the stars and the moon are out there to provide light — these must all be wonderful things to experience. 😉

    • Thank you very much Malou. Yes, there really is a lot of beauty, and a lot of interest in the desert. When I was young, I traveled quite a bit, around the world… but I suppose I learned what I had to, during those years… and realized that wherever you happen to be, there are endless avenues for learning and seeing new things, and there is no end to that. So now, I spend most of my time, not so far from home… but keep on learning and exploring. I enjoy reading of your recent vacation, and looking at your pictures. You too, have the taste for adventure. Thank you for your comment.

  19. I enjoyed the glimpse of your world. So beautiful!

  20. Lovely photos and thoughts about the desert. Like you, I enjoy the heat; I was born and raised in west Texas in the desert. The dry heat during the day and the cool nights made summer a delight. The beauty of the desert is subtle and takes time and patience to see, but it’s there.

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