I am spending two days at a contemplative retreat center in northern Tucson called Desert House of Prayer. It’s a simple place, but comfortable, nestled into the mountain hills called Picture Rocks. From what I can tell it gets its name, not from the colors – which are shades of green and brown. Brown mountain dirt and rocks, varying shades from almost red to light gray, but still really brown. Green from the cacti – prickly pear, ocatillo, saguaro, and Palo Verdi trees. Here and there the monotone landscape is shattered by a burst of color from a flowering cacti – brilliant fuchsia, yellow, orange, red.
I think the name comes from the shape of the mountains. Odd, uneven, jagged, blips of mountains – the rising height of one is broken from the rising height of another – the result of ancient lava spills that burst through the earth and left piles of mountains here and there. Picture Rocks.
Along with the landscape, which is peaceful in spite of its prickliness, is a quietness that surrounds this place. True, there is the distant sound of cars making their way up the mountain not far from here. But mostly the sounds are subtle, like the color of brown and green that wash the land. But also like the color, its gentle monotone shattered now and then by bursts of color, the silence has texture.
In the midst of this incredible silence I hear the textures that weave in and out. The howling wind of yesterday has quieted to a gentle sway, the soft movement of the branches of a palo verdi or the rustle of the curtains in my room. Near by birds chatter, holding some sort of conversation. Far off birds call and sing back and forth. At night the coyotes, breaking an even quieter silence with their talk, an eerie yip and yap across the arroyo.
I can easily spend all day in this silence. I prefer to sit in it – walking on the gravel, the sound of my shoes shifting the stones and crunching the earth – is almost too jarring. But sometimes I walk to a place outside where I can sit. Then amidst the sound of the wind and birds, I add the sound of pencil as I try to capture the silence on paper.