by Bradley Nordell
I’m driving west down Tao’s highway 64, chasing the setting sun over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There’s an intricate brushstroke of a vermillion sunset covering the sky like the color of blood dripping from the firmament, bestowing the true nature of these mountains. I listen as the beating heart of the desert sings to me. It sings to all of Evolution’s heroic survivors.
Intermeshed with the crimson sky is a vibrant electric violet that outlines rock spires of the horizon, reminding me of dark mallow flowers — the color of empires. The hue of worlds lost and found in the echoes of antiquity catching up with the present.
The air has that nostalgic crispness from recent rainfall. You can smell the heat basking from the roads and dirt — a transient aroma of nature’s old fireplace. The dry land has soaked up every drop, a thirst that only a few could understand. For the desert is a parched land. A brutal land. A quiet land. An area of many islands interconnected within the dirt, sage, and mountains. A land enchanted by hidden truths and silent introspective wisdom.
A place where gods and mortals have parted ways.
The cumulonimbus clouds cover the sky in wispy dusk with an assortment of varying silhouettes. If you look close enough and with a keen eye, you can see a thousand stories hidden within these geometric patterns. It’s hypnotic. I’ve always thought of clouds as nature’s purest canvas. At least for now, it is.
I glimpse a few roaming crows flying overhead like bats at dawn. The wind is blowing in my hair as the car races along at a comfortable sixty miles per hour.
This is freedom. This is the taste of revitalization. For it isn’t until I arrived here did I realize that I too — like this land — was thirsty for life.
There are no buildings, sirens, police cruisers, fast food joints, or sporting arenas anywhere in sight. There seems to be little pollution, other than the diesel trucks that pass by like dinosaurs along the highway. Here, scattered adobe buildings sit upon these lands. They stand unperturbed, holding within their beautiful smooth forms, families, dreams, memories, and hope. For even in the desert, life is always growing and thriving.
This is how it should be. Just one’s thoughts and the sea of sage extending into the invisible horizon. Does that horizon ever end? And what lies beyond it? What mysteries wait for me?
Questions come and go like particle anti-particle annihilations.
Where are we going as a species? Where did we go wrong? When did we take the path of separateness and division instead of interconnected unity? Why do we need all these stimuli? What happened that we felt the need to disconnect ourselves from nature?
So many questions, yet so few answers. And so much damn noise that fills my life, as it does all our lives. I admit that I allow that noise to block out these existential thoughts of dread and absurdity. But in truth, it’s the silence and the feelings of grief I’m running from. That I have always been running from, and now my legs are tired. My soul is worn to the bone. I’ve been fleeing the grief from those I’ve lost and yet to accept, and the sorrow for what is to come.
How long have I been running away from death and loss? Am I forever broken? I just feel so damn tired. I feel as if I’m a worn-down chisel. I’m still learning to live with that. I’m still learning to heal from a shattered soul. Dying is easy, they say, it’s living that kills ya.
I don’t fear my end. Instead, I fear the end of the others. I fear utter loneliness. I’m sure this is a fear we all share. And perhaps why we keep the noise so high in our lives. To drown out these voices of doubt. But I still wonder why we desire so much control. Why do we long to control nature with chemicals, plastic, walls, and pavements? What are we honestly trying to drown out within us?
We long for meaning. But everywhere we look, materialism engulfs us. I don’t think life was meant to be this muddled, this wasteful, and destructive. And honestly, this empty. However, humans created it anyway. I created it — for I’m not separate but a part of human reality. We create this world with our actions, our inactions, our ideas, our choices, and our lack of boundaries. We chose this path and not the other way around.
In my opinion, there is no more significant destructive philosophical concept than fatalism. Each of our lives is not determined by some external force but chosen by each of us. Remember, within those deterministic laws lies nonlinear systems. Here, chaos adds to the uncertainty to long-term prediction — giving rise to emergent laws, unpredictability, and hence, the novelty of every complex form. Every moment is unique in the cosmos of chance and interaction.
We are not destined by some story written in the cosmos or before our time, but instead, we are authors of our story. I believe this way of existence gives us an essential purpose, responsibility, and drive to create a better world.
Fatalism just damns us all with mental and moral laziness.
It’s funny how much we convince ourselves of absolutes when none of that is real. When most are just stories that we tell ourselves. We choose to hold unto illusion, believing they are permanent and real. We are stuck on the wheel samsara. This suffering has poisoned everything.
It seems we fear what we don’t understand. In our fear, we try to control it, harness it, remold it to suit our puerile ways. Now, that doesn’t mean we are stuck this way, no — that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just mean to a state where we are at and what we can learn to change in the temporal slices to come. We can change, yes — the beauty of neuroplasticity — but we must choose to do so. It takes hard work to evolve our worldview. The only way to do that is to learn and accept what is.
Without acceptance, we cannot move forward. Without learning, we cannot apply new ideas to our future actions. Without compassion, we cannot create a world of love. Without these things, we will repeat the past until there is no stage left for us to dance upon — Shakespeare’s true nightmare.
Humanity has always been in an existential conundrum. We’ve always grappled with what to do with each Promethean Fire. And what I mean by that are those ideas and technological advances that have changed the world, including the birth of our neocortex, which allowed us our hierarchy of thought. From there came the Bronze age, the period of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, to the computer age and beyond.
But with each new scientific or technological revolution, we create more degrees of freedom of choice. This, ironically, cripples us. Too many options develop a kind of paralysis of action. Too many external changes leave us stuck in the past. As technological innovation moves exponentially, our worldviews of mindsets do not. This creates a divide, a confusion, an internal conflict, and suffering. Hence, we try to control our world in hopes of controlling our importance among the stars.
We use chemicals to control what we don’t like: insects, weeds, mold, you name it. We believe this will give us safety, but instead, we poison the very well we drink from (literally in some cases).
We aim to control and harvest energy from fossil fuels, and when evidence shows us, the density of greenhouse gases has now led to altering the climate at a rate too fast for ecosystems to adapt. Like Frankenstein, we can’t face our monster, our obstinate creation. It has now escaped from our reach, and instead, we are chasing after it, hoping to contain it.
Humanity is lost because we don’t take the time to think, to feel, to accept the truths of life, and face our demons head-on — like climate change, systemic racism and sexism, war and violence, the military-industrial complex, and class division due to corporate ruling. But most importantly, we don’t take the time to listen to ourselves, to hear our voices beg for help. We suffer within, and hence we project our suffering into the world. And through that, we’ve formed our human civilization to become so damn busy. What time is left for contemplation?
We need to evolve our worldviews along with our technology. We need moments to take to the desert or the forest or the seas and figure out who we are among the scattered cosmos of stars.
We just need quiet to hear that which speaks within. The voice of our hearts to show us the way for the path of tomorrow.
You are going to die; that’s inevitable. There is no escaping this fact of life. You can either fight and live your life in fear or accept it and let go of that fear and live life to its fullest. This has been something I’ve struggled with for a long time. But I know, I’m guaranteed only one life — this life — so why waste it being afraid? Why spend worrying about what was (past), what-may-be (future), and focus our energy on what is (the present). All of us want to live in the best possible world for ourselves, our children, family, friends. Why choose to exist in a state of constant incoherent meaningless sound and choices?
Why not find yourself, your calling, your bliss in life and chase after it?
If only for an hour a day, if only for a millisecond. And if we are guaranteed only one life, why not love, and inspire and try to help as much as you can? For if our world prospers, you prosper. Do you want to be able to achieve your dreams? To do so, you must create it. You must create as much compassion, love, and kindness as you can. It’s the only way. We’ve tried all the other paths, and it only leads to hurt, to wars, to suffering. Let’s learn from our mistakes and choose another destination.
For the way we have set up a society, we can’t all take to the desert or beaches or mountains or whenever you love most. I know this. It’s another harsh reality to live. And like the heroine’s journey, when we travel to the unknown and leave the realms of “civilization,” we must return.
Return is a crucial part of every journey. We may leave the place of peace or danger or the residence of our muse/boon/bounty, but what we take with us and share with the world (the insight, the art, the knowledge) is what truly matters. The act creates us. Yes, people need to seek the desert to go upon their journey to understand, but you must return. The return changes the world.
Part II: Fractal Loss and Gains
The roads of life are long and never straight. They will curve and twist and sometimes loop back on themselves. They are coastlines, path of particles or the march of ants across a savanna.
The journey of growth and the pursuit to find your bliss, however, is always worth the suffering. Struggle and suffering are just the seeds of opportunity waiting to show you the way. For there’s not a single person on this planet who has not suffered. There no mustard seeds void of despair. And in that way, each of us has the opportunity for love and compassion.
I think about these ideas as my Honda roars down this highway. I also think about you. But let’s be honest, I’m always thinking about you. And you know me, a man always trying to obtain the impossible. A man who feels sorry for the villain when the hero is beating up on him and vice versa. I’m always rooting for the underdog even though they are meant to lose. I can’t help it. I feel with every piece of sorrow and hurt.
As the clocks slip into the bed of reflection, only me and the highway are left to ponder. And like all highways in America, they are like veins connecting us all to a clandestine truth, a heart that beats as one. America is the land of highways. These highways are doorways that open to truths hidden by every city, every town; even the ones we call ghosts towns- have a story to tell. If you want to understand America, travel down these highways, and understand the hands that built them all.
I look off into the mountains and think about these Guardians protecting us, watching us from above. These beautiful creatures that exist on a timescale we can’t even comprehend. Mountains were formed in the beginning of our planet. The result of tectonic plates crashing together as one – fault lines spewing upwards like trees of rock and granite into the sky. Creatures formed from energy and forces beyond our comprehension. Formed from movement and dynamics of all things. They are one of the oldest creatures to take part in the great geological record of this planet. They are our oldest ancestors.
Every cause has an effect. Some we face now and others surface latter. A person life is an individual causal structure, not separate from the universes causal net, but a part of it- a node within it. But there is not just one cause to every effect or one effect from every cause. It’s a branching tree of causal structures. A tree that is impermanent and forever in flux. Changing through each node interacting with each other. It’s a forest of relationships, vibrating with energy and matter like a grand cosmic symphony. Is there anything more beautiful than that?
Eventually you lose all sight of the beginning or end of those connections and just exist as a forest of all reality. Just the interconnected middle. This is good. This creates the diversity and complexity of existence. This throws out the absolutes, the permanents, the tyrannical laws of being. It gives us freedom, in a way. Freedom to choose or not choose. Freedom to create a better tomorrow and learn from yesterday. Without this, there would no hope.
When we look back at our lives, we create a coherent story filled with reason purpose, good vs. evil, right and wrongs and what ifs of existence. But immersed within the story, incoherent moments flash by, barely giving us time to register everything. The story comes latter. It always does. And through it all, mistakes happen. Through it all we search for that single moment when it felt as if our history jumped into a different trajectory; the point when it diverged into a different timeline. In truth, there was no single moment or cause but a conglomeration of them- highly intricate network of them. We are not island, but a web. Humanity seems to have chosen to put their head in the sands and ignore all the warning signs. This could cost us everything. For instead of weaving a stronger web, we have begun to sever the ends piece by piece.
We need new guardians, like mountains, who can see farther and understand not only the complexities of nature but the nonlinearities of time. We need to make decisions that take into consideration periods beyond the scale of years. We need to have greater forethought as a species. Because running on the fumes of hindsight will destroy us; it already is, to be honest.
If we don’t act now, all these roads will lead to “dead ends” and ghosts’ town. If we don’t act now, these resources (food, water, shelter, climate) will all be gone, and the human species will just be another echo in Evolution’s mausoleum of the extinct.
Part III: Ancient History Anew
The wind warbles. The ravens pensively watch from phone tower. The car rattles onward like a diamond back upon the red rocks of the desert.
I feel comforted by nature. I’ve always been that way. Although I’m a scientist and a writer, I’ve found that both concepts and words fail to capture its true essence. Maybe we will never truly grasp it. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. And we should always try. There is an ontological reality, a thing of isness, and our models and that isness should match. This is how we find truth. This is how we end conflict. The scientists, writers and poets will always try. We do so not to truly grasp because we know we will always paint a perfect image with words but to understand-both the external world and the world within us. To observe the world is just to see within, a mirror of introspection. For how to you see and write about the worlds tells you more about yourself than the world. For me, writing has been a way to understand the world and myself. I think best with words on a blank page. I see the answers to life’s riddles by creating worlds in my mind.
The cars slow now as I come upon the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. I pull over to the side and get out. My feet crunch along the gravel and dirt as I walk along the edge of the road toward the bridge. This is one of my favorite sites. I love it because it gives me the perspective I need in life. With my recent divorce, as of a year ago, my loneliness has only gotten worse. They say lonely people died faster. Well, if that’s true I’m going to love two lives in the span of half of one, that should make up for it, right? Maybe, like all greater writers, I too use words as a means of escape, as portal to the land or what ifs and could be’s. Truth is, I feel like a stranger in a strange land (to quote Heinlein). I feel sad. And I work hard to be creative, to fuel my insatiable and endless curiosity for life and nature and the cosmos. And I write because I must. I write to change tomorrow and learn from yesterday. I write because all being is a story. The narratives drive the world. I write for hope. I want to leave breadcrumbs to the future generation, so that one day human created life doesn’t have to be this way. We are the authors of the future. Don’t ever forget that.
These thoughts travel through my conscious minds like pebbles thrown into a lake; waves propagating in a sinusoidal motion throughout the lake. The beauty of nature is it can be modeled through mathematics, which sings in odes and songs to all. They come and go, and I let free with ink and a pen and paper. I give them to you now because I don’t want to carry their immense weight anymore. I’ve now reached the viewing area if the gorge. It is breathtaking. I ponder its history and geological record. I am but a grain of sand staying out into the vast wonder of nature where a single breath is but a gift.
The Rio Grande was formed more than a million years ago. The river currently stretches on for more than 1,800 miles from Mexico to Colorado. The formation of the gorge was a result of pressure, time, and volcanic activity. A crack or rift was formed between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and ranges to the west. Volcanic activity filled the crack with lava, which a river was eventually carved by water draining from the San Juan mountains in Colorado. Slowly over time in chipped away piece by piece, like a cosmic sculpture, until what was left the Rio Grande. That water flowed from Colorado, through New Mexico to Texas, eventually ending into the Gulf.
All life is interconnected by water. All lands are etched from the great mighty hammers of two hydrogen and one oxygen molecule. The great architect of life needs only pressure, force, and time. Humans have been around (specifically the neocortex) for 20,000 years, but civilization only reigning for half of that or less. And I stand here looking down at a million-year journey. A journey that flows water that has been here far longer than we have and will hopefully after we are gone; that is if we don’t destroy all of it first.
This bridge teaches us that nature is far greater and stronger than anything we can create. It also both much wiser than any theory we can muster from our confused minds, and far grander than our farthest excursion. We are at our infancy; apes in the dark painting in cave walls. And we have an exceptionally long way to go. If this can be carved by water through millions of years, the. We can figure out our many faults and hopefully soon. Staring at the Rio Grande gives me hope. A hope I need; a hope I gave up on long ago.
As I leave, tires thudding upon gravestone of ancient relics, and continue onward down the highway towards the Earthship community, I think again of you. They say every writer has a muse, someone who they are writing too. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, then these words are for You- they’ve always been and will always be for You- my love. Years ago, we drove this same highway together. Your sun-kissed cheeks smiling. That wild blonde hair of yours whipped in the wind. I can still feel your hand pressed on the back my neck, rubbing my hair ever so gently. Your eyes, those sunflower blue eyes, mixed with the sky of the desert. You were my life partner. And now, a memory that will eventually fade away in time. Because only two years early was that passenger seat filled with you. Now it is empty; filled only with regret and loss. A place taken by a ghost, a mirage of what was. And I wonder do you still look at the sun, the same blue sky and think of me? I hope you’re doing well. As you know, I’ve always been a man of the prose and never great at putting away my poker face. And in truth, I’m sad every day but do my best to not let it show. Grief and loss are like that.
This desert is filled with memories and ghosts. Ghosts of all indigenous people who lived one with the land before us to the ghosts of my own mind. These ghosts that I project into its canvas. The ghosts that I’ve carried with me and filled those temporal slices with. I can see them all now… my sister, my childhood friend, my uncles, my aunt, my grandmother, and great-grandparents. All within these fields, like fleeting dreams. Like hope lost and regrets carried. I carry wherever I go. Haunted be death but never afraid of it. I’ve carried around hundreds of years of family’s tragedy and pain my whole life. It’s a heavy burden that I don’t know how to let go of it. So, I write. I write to understand. I write to create and uncreate. I write to play out all the what if games in my mind. I write to empower myself. I write to find meaning and purpose in this life, even if its fleeting and distant.
Memories are funny things. Untrustworthy things. Yet they define us, they weave together our stories and world in a coherent fabric of being. Our identity, the sense of self or as Sartre put it, Being-in-the-world is formed from memories. The history of our life, our family’s history, is memories you contain or has been passed on. In a way, they like magical incantation that brings back what was or what you thought it was. That’s the tricky thing about memories. We never remember the full story, just the information we gathered and reformatted in our brains, so it made coherent sense. The self is just a story. A story that we build chapter by chapter until the epilogue finally greet us.
Modern neurology tells us that there is no single localized area in the brain where a memory resides. It’s not a physical thing exactly but information embedded in neural structures (kind of like a hologram) and patterns shared throughout the various cortices of the brain. It seems that a single memory as just another strange face upon the pond forming the great tapestry of “you”. How beautiful is that?
This ignites the thoughts between the mind and the material world. The mind takes in information in the form of photons, sound waves, chemicals, electronic signals, and transforms them into 1’s and 0’s inside your neurons and through a beautiful symphony, creates a story. That story is then projected back out into the world. A symbiotic relationship of the physical and mental. The ‘what is’ and ‘what we think is’. A convoluted beautiful and chaotic mess called reality. And with everything comes life, love, laughter, insights, experiences of beauty and wonder, and of course death. Reality is not dualistic but a wheel of connected definitions. You can’t have light with dark, happiness without sorrow, or life without death. Loss without gain. They’re stages of a single indivisible process. And this brings me to grief, to loss, to growth.
Grief is a paradoxical thing. A nonlinear thing. The stages are somewhat of a lie. They exist, but they occur in quantized unpredictable jumps, like a bouncing ball, a slowly converging healing process that may take a whole lifetime to get there. In my experience, grief makes you transparent. The world is still there with all people and concepts and things. But you’re not. Just like the ones you lost, you too are becoming a ghost, unable to move on and stuck in yesterday. There is nothing lonelier than being the last people in yesterday. And as I drive down this highway, playing the old record of these ghosts in my mind, I hope only that eventually I will begin to feel more solid and opaque again.
Grief is a part of life, and everyone will have to face it eventually. There is no healing from it either. You don’t heal. The loss of a loved one leaves an eternal wound. Why? Because they are a part of those neural patterns and when they go, so does a part of you. The first that you can do is to forget. Not forget them, but with time forget to think about those sad moments that bring you pain and hurt and remember only the good moments. It’s a story we tell ourselves. Because we are all stories in the end, right? It isn’t real, but a story can help us cope. And that’s the next part: reclaim the story. And that’s the goal of the grieving process, form a healthy story that you can cherish the person without breaking down in a target parking lot because you saw their face somewhere among the crowd. My one advice though is don’t confuse healing with forgetting. They are not the same thing, though they make seem like it. Forgetting is okay. That will always be correlated with time. But better than forgetting or healing is reclaiming your story and to create the next phase of you. Healing is empowerment. And no one else will do it for you. A drink, a drug, a new material possession, even kids will not give that to you. You have to empower yourself. You have to reclaim your new narrative and story.
Although I don’t believe one ever truly heals from a loss, which doesn’t mean a new person can’t emerge from it. The grieving process is really about growth. Because a new person does emerge. Everyone you interact with and love, is a part of you – I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. Every interaction becomes a pattern in our neural network. And when that piece leaves and is no longer helping to form that neural pattern, it changes you. You will be different, and that’s okay. The stages will emerge anywhere at any time. And even when you think you’re not stricken by grief from a loss, it is there waiting, and in a way controlling your behaviors. In truth, I want to see my wife again. Hold her, kiss her, and spend a few more infinities with her. But that is all gone. Though she’s only 1200 miles away, I still see her here among ghosts. It’s like she left yesterday. Oh, how I want to see them all again. Another hour talking with each of them. I want to tell them how much I miss them. But I can’t, and that’s the truth of loss. What’s done is done. The desert teaches you this. There are no do overs, just learning from every choice and moving ahead down this highway to new possibilities.
Life is loss, but it also gains – comfort, new friends, family, learning, love, and every piece of the beauty of existence. It seems those who have loss in their life, learned the hard way, how to keep this perspective with them wherever they go. In a way, I blessed early in life, to have gained this wisdom. Hard wisdom is wisdom that sticks around. It leaves deep scars that never heal, but those scars are like monuments within, guiding your history- your eternal truth.
BIO: Bradley Nordell’s writings are published in Scribe, Assemblage, Sci-Fi Shorts: Anthology Vol.1, The Embrace of Dawn, Reservoir Road Literary Review, The Close eye Open, and Allegory Ridge. He’s a physicist, amateur photographer, birder, editor at Consilience, co-host of the ‘Science! With Friends’ podcast and a TEDx speaker. He was born and raised in Omaha, NE, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.