In the high desert, the myriad threads of summer spun from the most essential of elements – air and fire, water and earth – begin gathering and interweaving throughout the day, morning, noon, mid-afternoon, a complex ancient familiar yet freshly new dance across time. Small white puff flakes gather behind mountains, clouds purely white grow, rise, slowly, then more quickly, suddenly shades of grays and deep blue blacks winds pick up trees sway leaves flail thunderheads able to release some deluge or a dry, dusty, broken promise of rain teasing darkness. The size and scale of such moments are beyond imagining, even as cacophonies of cloud and thunder shake the earth and saturate the sky.
Have you ever seen the whole sky, really, and all at once? No. It is too vast. Only a few hundred miles here or there. Never the whole thing, perhaps from space, but then it is flattened by distance, or perspective. This sky defies perspective. It is palpable, you touch it, smell it, feel the weight of it upon you, in all its luminous enormity.
What elements converge, what heat, what moisture, what earth, what air, what charge, electric, positive, negative, call this into being? Thunder lightning so eternal so many studies yet no single theory exists.
So. We are left with a most true thing we do not understand. It is magic. Why sometimes yes, sometimes no? Why sometimes only wind and heat, or wind and cool? Why sometimes a deluge so swift it takes small unsuspecting children at play, innocent, in the arroyo and surprises them with a journey that often takes them to a far distant shore, beyond this home, beyond life itself.
Only in this place could indigenous generations of sky-watchers birth a word for this: Virga. A word known only here, a word to give name to streams of living rain that fall from clouds in torrential rivers so full of moisture they are visible for a hundred miles.
But they never reach the ground.
Stand simply still eyes scanning any horizon and, spilling forth from darkening gathered stormy formations, you will witness delicate wisping trails of soaking rain descending, deliberate, downward, falling gravity destined for the earth below, yet somehow along the way the high desert air is itself so fiercely thirsty you watch as the air drinks these torrents of water drop by drop until the trail of simply ends, mid-sky, halfway between heaven and earth. The visibly teeming falling liquid simply dissolves, disperses, digested by the sky that created it, before the land can ever taste a single drop.
To see such a thing, oceans of rain drawn by reliable gravity from accumulated saturated summer clouds, that along the way loses its essence, its will, evaporated before it ever touches parched ground in mid-afternoon. Such a thing commands attention, respect, wonder. It demands to be named. So the old ones came to call it virga: that gushing of rain which, as it falls, foot by foot drunk deep and long by thirsty air spirits. No amount of it is sufficient to complete its journey. Nothing survives to baptize the cracked open earth of summer.
Those of us who live here sooner or later wonder about such things, how the elements conspire to grant life or death, drought or rain, yes or no, from this self-same sky.
We scan this sky with eyes tuned by time, and wisdom passed from generations. We read mercurial currents of earth and water, air and fire, day after day, each moment different, which will bless us with cascading torrents of life-giving, life-taking rain? Which will unceremoniously dissolve into failed possibility. At times I cannot help but know that here, there is God. The next day, I wonder how anyone can truly love. Or claim to.
We are taken by what we cannot know. So it is with these afternoons. Although we know they will come, still, we are surprised, every single time. The light, the sound, how loud, how close, how such power arises suddenly from the most pastoral beginning, the bucolic summer morning. We smell the earth and ozone, moisture liberates hidden fragrances of life from below ground, seeds and compost of things once living, now become a rare and piquant aroma of impermanence and resurrection. Even after a thousand times, we are still amazed.
How close was that? We count seconds. “One, one thousand; two, one thousand.” Sometimes, the sound explodes the heart before we the end of one, one thous…” We crackle with a sympathetic electrical charge, an inner voltage, deep, naturally familiar.
In that instant, we know we are made of that same stuff.
But what do we really know? Science tells us the temperature inside a single bolt of lightning can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Five times the temperature of the surface of the sun. A single lightning bolt can contain one billion watts of electricity.
Thunder clouds reach impossible heights, penetrating the troposphere. Rise up 12 miles or more above the earth.
In spite of what science knows about how this all happens, what we feel is – magic. We cannot help but feel with ancient hearts, eyes of wonder, and awe, children that we are.
At the Lightning Research Center, at the University of Florida, where more lightning strikes are recorded than anywhere in US, when asked for their conclusion as to why elements combine as they do to create this meteorological marvel, they respond: “No single theory fully describe why it happens.”
Often it is the most ordinary, miraculous events of our daily lives defy our most sophisticated measurements, our most eloquent explanations, our educated knowings.
Why love? Why illness, why healing? Why grace, birth and death, beauty, color, music, kindness – all moments of mysterious ripenings of life, and time. Why does one portal open, and another simply close? What in us gives birth to the unimaginably astonishing? How do we refuse, hinder, obstruct the emergent miraculous, the ache of the sacred in human events?
No single theory can fully explain it.
So we awake each day, and we watch. We live, we work, we do what we can, we have mercy. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the virga will claim everything, before it can reach us.
So when the air drinks the rain, and the world is full of thunder, and no one knows why, we take refuge in the humble beauty of our own magnificent unknowings.
No one can deny this, our life of most ordinary magic. Everyone can see it. It is real. It is true.
It happens every day. Why? We do not know. Like virga, the answers we so desperately seek never quite find their way to where we are.
So. We find sanctuary simply in what it is. In summer, in the high and ancient desert mountains, we find solace in moments of magic. Moments of sweet unknowing.