Yes, I’m capitalizing on the similarly-titled movie playing now, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but the story I’ll tell is quite the opposite of that one.
Imagine a little boy of barely eight, who I’ll call “David” because that’s his name. The year is 2001. We take a trip out west, from our home in Georgia. Just him and me. The whole family has been to Arizona a few times, all of them during the previous summer, in the weeks leading up to my mother’s passing. I took David’s older brother on one of those trips the previous year. I sensed David well remembered his older brother’s trip, and I knew he quietly relished his own chance, though it would not be like him to say it out loud. As a second child, David was particularly sensitive to what was “the whole family’s,” and what was just his. So a trip alone with him seemed especially important.
There was no question but that another trip to the desert was in order. Still, a change of scene from southern Arizona seemed fitting, so we flew in to Las Cruces. I had it in mind to explore the Arizona/New Mexico border area, about midway up the common line between the states. (I would later set my first novel, Another Like Me, in that area). David was only modestly interested in Las Cruces, however, even the white (and white-hot) sands near Alamagordo. He was game, but what he really wanted, I figured out, was a repeat trip to Tucson.
So off we went. Our first order of business in Tucson was to be the Sonoran Desert Museum there. I promise that whoever runs the museum has not paid for this mention. I remembered it from my early teen-age youth, circa 1970, and had taken the whole family there in 2000. David remembered it well, and he wanted to go again just a year later.
What’s compelling about this place is its authenticity, mostly outside and set in the desert itself in such a way that you feel as if there are no boundaries; as if everything you experience there is a natural and organic piece of the vast Sonoran desert itself. In fact, “museum” doesn’t really fit because it’s not a collection of dusty dead artifacts and imaginative displays. Instead, it is a bit of expansive desert landscape in which desert animals and plants are sequestered where you can find them, in very natural settings. Of course, the javalinas don’t have an unlimited area in which to roam, and the wild cats certainly don’t. The snakes have to stay in their cages, and even the non-venomous snakes are confined to the vast butterfly cage, though otherwise loose, so don’t be alarmed. I don’t know of a place that so perfectly captures the essence of the unique geographical area it is intended to represent. We’ve spent a good bit of time in the desert outside the museum, too, but unless we’re going to take up prospecting two centuries too late, or take on a speculative ranch operation, our best way of experiencing the Sonoran desert in a concentrated way is this museum.
Only a small part of the museum is inside, so we were outside on most of that hot July day in 2001. I was sure David would tire of it after an hour, maybe an hour and a half. I anticipated him dragging me off, but it turned out to be the other way around. It seemed he couldn’t get enough. Finally, after four hours, we headed back. We were long overdue for lunch. I had a special surprise in store. We would eat lunch at Old Tucson, just down the road, an old western town set up mainly for movie shoots, but also for tourist visits like ours, with occasional gun fights, cowboys on horses – the whole thing. David was ready for lunch, but the make-believe western town — not so much. If we were done with the Sonoran Desert Museum, then we might as well repair to the hotel pool, as far as David was concerned. I kind of get it. The two places were a jarring juxtaposition of authentic and fake.
David’s an adult now. He more recently spent some time in Arizona, again, and sent me pictures of scenery from his hikes almost daily. His interest in the desert got me to thinking about what the desert is and what it is not; why it is so attractive in such a deep ineffable way. I often wonder if the land around here, in northwest Georgia, would look like Arizona if permanent climatic change wrought a thinned-out vegetation change of types common in the west. I think even if we replaced hickory with paloverde and sweetgum with manzanita, the topography would still look different. More rounded off and less given to the extremes you find out west.
There’s something about the starkness of the landscape in the west that makes it feel elusive, even when you’re standing in the middle of millions of nearly-uninhabited acres. The land doesn’t support the density of life we have here, and so the land itself has more prominence in the imagination. The abruptness of elevation change draws the eyes far up or far down, and with it a yearning to be one with the mountain, or embraced in the shadowed canyon. And when the land is flat, it is sometimes desperately flat, seen from afar, but surprisingly uneven, when standing in the middle of what seemed a flat plain.
But here’s what you don’t know from just a visual of the desert. You don’t know, until you’re standing in the middle of it, the unearthly stillness that this landscape provides. You hear your footsteps as if they belong to someone else. You feel the heat and the cold and the wind or the stillness unmediated. The atmosphere is dry so that, in contrast to the east, it seems empty. You don’t move through a transparent substance which we call air, as in the east. You seem to move through a nothingness though your feet push off the hard, weighty, meaningful land. You’re conscious of your physical place in the cosmos; of your presence in this livable atmosphere connecting dense earth and limitless space.
Some people don’t like the desert. It’s too empty and quiet and dead, they feel. But for others it’s alive, and not just in the way of the tourist brochure assuring you that the desert “teems with life” sometimes hunkered down to avoid extreme conditions. The desert is alive for what it points to beyond itself and its animal and plant inhabitants. It seems like people go to one extreme or the other, about the desert. Either it’s barren, suggestive of death, or it’s enchanted, with spiritual meaning suggested by the unmediated stillness and heavy alive presence of the earth itself.
So what about Bohemian Rhapsody? It’s all about striving and self; all “alcohol and adagios,” in Christian Wiman’s turn of phrase. “Rhapsody” suggests an ecstatic, building musical performance, and in the rock band “bohemian” context, finding its release in a splash of social interaction, in excess, in inhibitions released, in living outside oneself, all extroversion as if the inside is loosed to be at one with the human world outside, departing the empty husk of self like a cicada in its seventh year. But another context, I would say an opposing context, would be what I’m thinking of as the “Sonoran” kind, in which the rhapsody builds but is contained, living inside oneself, all introversion as if the inside continues to build in significance, preserved and not spilled out; enhanced, at one with something larger even than humanity itself, where we yearn because there is One greater than ourselves for Whom we yearn; where, despite the dryness, deep calls unto deep in the roar of God’s waterfalls.