Deserts (a letter to Georgia O'Keeffe)

Deserts (a letter to Georgia O'Keeffe)

Dear Georgia,

I could see those monumental white dunes from the fish bar in Nida, where I used to treat myself to strong beer and fatty, freshly smoked mackerels. I didn’t do anything about visiting them for weeks. Sometimes it feels good to linger around and prolong the pleasure. You know, like just dreaming about something without moving a limb. The soothing sweetness of waiting, when you choose to wait, of anticipation.

Well, this time it took two months. It was only when I needed some footage of a desert scene for my film that I started investigating how I could get closer to the dunes. As soon as I approached the area, I found out there was a fence. It separated the protected dunes from the ones you were able to walk on freely. I knew I had to make it to the other side. The other side is always better. In this case, it was where the sand was not tamed by lichen yet, where it still had its own life, exposed only to rain and wind. Drifting. The drifting dunes of Nida, the largest ones in Europe.

A few days later, I was waiting, curious to see who would come pick me up, and drive me to the protected, mysterious zone. On the phone I talked to a woman.
It was happening, it was happening now, I thought, when I heard the sound of engine and tyres crackling on the gravel and pines. You know, there’s something comforting about the sound of tyres embracing the asphalt.

It was her and another guy from the Kuršių nerija National Park.
It didn’t take long before we passed the “crossing forbidden” sign and drove into the strictly protected area. This was where I sometimes went running and felt a rush of adrenaline because I was worried that I might meet someone. I asked questions about the native animals and, “do you come here everyday?” “Nooo, not at all.” I was curious about the car I saw deep in the forest the other day.

We stopped once we got deeper into the forest. The woman walked with me towards the dunes. She told me take your time and do whatever you like, but don’t go too far and laid down on the sand. Her thin, lean body submerged into landscape.

I wrote in my diary at the very beginning: for sand, sand remembers nothing.

You know, the whole time being in Nida, I was haunted by an image of entire villages that were buried deep under the sand. Wikipedia says: The old residents considered trees to be sacred, and did not touch them. Later people began to cut trees with no pity. When the forests were destroyed, nothing prevented the sand from moving in the wind, so it slid along the peninsula towards the Curonian Lagoon. Huge dunes have buried many fishermen villages in their way. Scientists consider that there are as many as fourteen villages buried under the sand in the Curonian Spit. It seemed to me like a different kind of archeology. How do you dig into sand which keeps trickling back, mercilessly filling every hole, like in an hourglass? What about the layers? How deep are they? Is everything just as the people left it, like in the town of Pompeii, can you find cups, full of sand, or would it all be rotted by now? Does the seabed affect moisture down there?

I was stepping onto the thin crust that had formed on the surface after yesterday’s rain. I started to walk with a slight discomfort that I’m destroying this fragile land. But you know, I was also very seduced by it and that was stronger. Laying my feet on the hot surface, I felt the sensation of the sand crust, a brief moment of resistance was followed by my feet breaking it. The shell of sand was breaking under my weight. My weight and the weight of my tripod and camera was becoming a part of the landscape, just for a little while, until it was swept away again.

I’m sure you know that very well, sand remembers nothing. Sand only has short-term memory. In Nida, it only held the shape of rain and wind, birds’ feet, fox paws and sturdy rabbit’s shit.

I sat, cross legged, in front of my camera and imagined my childhood dream of being an archeologist in Egypt, walking around wearing elegant Talented Mr. Ripley-style clothes and a straw hat, my bare shoulders covered in a thin layer of fine ancient dust as I’m brushing off a recently discovered vase. But not just that. Being in this “sample” of a desert, I was also thinking of you and your Ghost Ranch, imagining you collecting bones and rocks, leaning to the ground and your long black skirt flapping against you legs.

The sand swallowed up all sound, soaking it into myriads of grains and the only sound I could hear were the birds’ wings flapping against the sky and my silk shirt flapping against my bared skin. The distant sound of waves gently beating against the shore in the lagoon nearby. Everything against everything, it was hard to imagine nearly 90, 000 Russian soldiers walking on the sand in Kaliningrad, on the other side of the invisible border.
Here, in the land of the drifting sand, borders seemed even more absurd, for sand doesn’t give a damn, it gets everywhere, swallows everything. The Lithuanian sand. That used to be the Russian sand. And Prussian sand. And a very long time ago, a no man’s land.

The guard stood up, looking my direction.

You know, sitting on those dunes, I felt like I was never closer to time. Back home I remembered what I read about the conception of time in Islam, the experience of time rendered through the very particular landscape of Middle East. When desert is the only environment you know, desert stripped of any scale, you have nothing to relate to. And so you aim your thoughts inwards. In the dry, barren landscape, the interior of mind becomes a lush jungle. Reflecting on yourself in the never changing landscape is a unique journey. That’s why all sages and monks, gravitate towards the desert experience.

Is this why you chose to live in New Mexico?

And you know, I was thinking that maybe, unlike Eskimo people with their endless vocabulary on snow, the desert people don’t have it the same with sand, but with TIME. 100 words for time. The most common term is zamán, time, as well as qidam which stands for eternity. Dahr means time from beginning of the world until its end in contrast to zamán, a long time, or asr that is a span of time. Hína time period. Dawámcontinuance. Muddathe space of duration in contrast to waqt, a moment in time. Awán is for period or season, yawm is time of day or night and sáfa means a while or an hour. Abal is duration without an end and azal duration without a beginning, and qidam would be eternity without beginning, to be differentiated from sarmad, which is unbroken continuity. And then kulúd, the everlasting existence.

It was only a week later when I was back home, thousand of kilometers away from the dunes, when Moyra Davey came to my mind. “Burn the diaries” is a book I often revisit, and I knew there was something I needed to reread. Something about the desert. I reached into my library and happened to open the book at exactly the right page.

Soaking up the words, I read:

“I instantly think: sun, heat, desert, bleaching white light. ...I hesitated before coming here, daunted by the remoteness, but ultimately made up my mind to travel because I wanted to see the landscape and knew it might unlock something in me.”

georgiaof.jpg


"Deserts" is a part of my ongoing art project titled "FIRES VENICE TEQUILA SUNSETS", a series of short essays, videos and photographs, inspired by Susan Sontag's published diaries.

Click on the link below to read more:

Odd facts: What did Susan Sontag like?