Today’s post deals with the sounds and physical sensations of the desert. What never ceases to amaze me is the amount of students who dread writing an essay about the desert. It’s true that they must be given extra background detail because they see the desert as featureless and barren of life in their ‘mind’s eye’, the imagination. What must truly terrify them, however, is the thought that they might have to switch to a narrative style known as ‘interior monologue’. This is also known as ‘stream-of-thought’ or ‘stream-of-consciousness’. James Joyce made the style famous in ‘Ulysses’, although as a literary technique it has been used for thousands of years. Essentially, it means putting your thoughts as they happen down on a page.
What might ultimately make the students recoil from the desert essay is the thought that they might have to put their fears, hopes and dreams all in the one passage of writing. Attempting the desert essay is like attempting a self-exorcism!
In the absence of landscape, flora and fauna, or so the students perceive, the mind has to draw in on itself like a tightened bowstring. There is no other option than to talk about your family, friends and fears as you totter along under the burning sun. It is possible to do a full essay using nothing but the five senses of: colour, noises, sense of touch, sense of taste and smell. It takes a considerable time to build up a word bank for this, however.
That is why I hope to save students and teachers out there some time with this post. I hope you enjoy it and get some benefits from it.
LEVEL 1: BASIC SENTENCES
1. The desert was barren-brown. COLOUR
2. Little creatures were sneaking through the desert. SOUND
3. The desert was empty of life. INACTION
4. The desert is Old Nick’s oven. METAPHORS
- Lizards skittered across the golden sand. ANIMALS
- Soap trees stared silently at the sun. PLANTS
- Crows called out in their horrible voices. BIRDS
8. Everything smelled burned and blasted. SMELL
9. We were sweat sodden by the heat. SENSATION
10. The food tasted joyless. TASTE
LEVEL 2: A BASIC PARAGRAPH
The desert was singed-brown. Scrawling sounds filled the air at night time. The land was flat and barren. The nomad’s called it Satan’s solarium. Even the desert lions were more ferocious than is usual. Only the odd brittle bush broke up the emptiness of the desert. A screaming hawk flew overhead. Like us, it was being basted and blazed by the sun. Our tongues were swollen from the lack of water. Our food had a spiritless taste to it.
LEVEL 3: CREATIVE PARAGRAPHS
The fuscous-brown desert was killing me. I had seen neither man nor beast for three days and my water was gone. It was the most desolate and lonesome environment I had ever been in. I felt like a castaway on a sea of sand. The scratching sounds outside the light of the campfire last night were the only signs of life. Lucifer’s grill itself could not have scorched away all the evidence of nature as this place had. I thought I saw the paw prints of a desert fox once, the wraith of the desert. Maybe it was just my insanity seeing at the cloven hoofs of the devil in the sand.
The monotony of this parched wilderness was difficult to explain. It was a crucible of death, a bone-dry basin of vastness and death. The immensity of it burned into your brain, your only visual relief being a spiny cactus or jumping cholla bush. As far as the eye could see, everything was being roasted and sautéed with the same intensity. Just then, I thought I saw a humming bird flitting into a cactus, but it was probably another hallucination. My dehydrated liver was shutting down. The listless taste of my last biscuit was a distant memory as I limped and trudged towards my death
LEVELS 4 AND 5: USING THE SENSES
The desert hates me. I’ve been here three days without water, food or fire. I’m getting steadily weaker and I fear the worst. Getting separated from your caravan is just about the worst thing you can do out here in the devil’s garden. Deaths hungry maw seeks me everywhere. There’s no respite from it. The heat might be addling my brain but I think the desert suffers from schizophrenia. By day, the heat is like standing in front of a fiery dragon and by night, the cold is like being suspended in a cryogenics chamber. It’s full and spiteful wrath bears down upon you constantly. It’s a bi-polar paradox of heat and cold. There is no respite and no mercy.
The cancerous sun, the cankerous heat and the cantankerous cold are heart-haunting. Everything in this God-forsaken place is either wicked and warped or blasted and burned. Who ever heard of an environment with such devilish names living in it? The flora has chain fruit and ironwood listed in its catalogue of heartless plants. The fauna has vultures circling over you by day and vampire bats dive-bombing you at night. There is no siren call of the sea here. There is just a vast, mournful pan of emptiness where anything sentient resents anything else that’s alive. Satan’s sauna is what I call it. Every sun-scoured scrap of fauna has barbs, hooks or thorns. They want to rip and rend you, snag and splinter you. Every sun-seared excuse for an animal has poison, paw or claw. They’re not as discriminating. They just want to eat you. The prince of darkness himself could not conjure up such a malignant sorcery, a blasphemous buffet, of grotesque life.
SENSATIONS- It’s the sensations that let you know you’re dying. Your skin feels like it’s been stabbed by a million sun-spears and scraped by sandpaper. Your tongue is cloven to the roof of your mouth. It’s like there’s a dry, leathery in-sole wagging away at the back of your throat. Your throat itself has the sensation that a reticulated python is trying to squeeze the life out of it. Even your eyes feel like they’ve melted into the back of your mind, making everything seem mirage-like. Sand is your enemy. It burns your feet raw, it stings the eyes and it acts as a surrogate for pain because nothing else fills up your daily thoughts like it. Every step feels like a marathon, every second a day. At any moment you expect Armageddon to descend and sweep you away. You stumble and totter, as shriveled and contorted as the plant life around you. A nebula of wavy radiation surrounds you until you start believing that its one big field of it you’re going through. At night, the mercury screams in agony as it plummets to its nadir. It’s as cold as a ghoul’s soul. Your body trembles feverishly and your teeth rattle as numbness spreads. Eventually, an overwhelming desire to give up and go to sleep forever overtakes you. Your will to live is steadily sapped away. I’m not quite at that point yet.
SOUNDS- I’ve heard it said that the desert is crypt-quiet, motionless and soundless. It’s true to a large degree but only because your mind feels like it’s taken a fistful of tranquillizers, dumbing the brain. Like any madness, there are moments of clarity. You have to really concentrate to become aware of the desert noises. Listen carefully and it’s a veritable monkey’s cage of maddening sounds. Every animal here is screeching or shambling, screaming or shuffling. Those who fall victim to the deserts cruel ways get eviscerated by a fat fang or scavenging beak. Scorpions scuttle and snakes hiss and slither while they go about their grisly business of desert survival. When night descends, the sonar-ping of marauding vampire bats lacerates the air. Deadly eyes glitter and shut as the night mammals take over. Their eerie howls and harrowing grunts fill up the loneliness you feel in your soul. Then you sense they may be stalking you. Hatred of them and their ill-begotten ilk takes over. Any sound of sniffing nostril, any shuddering bush becomes a threat to your existence. You begin to slink and skulk just like those around you. The constant paranoia is enough to unhinge the most obdurate of minds.
SIGHTS- Natures laws have been overthrown in the desert. It’s an orgy of wanton violence between its denizens, all of whom have been disfigured and crippled by their attempts to live there. The gene pool of life has been corrupted beyond repair. You will only ever get to see five colours in the desert. The dominant one is the sand which pollutes the earth with an unending plain of wasteland-brown. Occasionally, reluctantly, it offers up a contorted, viper-green cactus, spiny of skin and bitter to the eye. Look up and you will see a burning, sulfur-yellow sun, resentful of life and soaking the land with its spite. The night brings with it a cloak of despair-black. In your final indignity, the stars appear, beautiful and scattered. Their shining brilliance is mockery-silver. They are a condescending reminder that for you there is no hope, no succour to be found in this melting pot of insanity. You are alone, abandoned and doomed. You are battling against nature itself and you’re aware that no one has ever won that particular bout. Tomorrow at dawn a colourless heat haze will blur out the background and your vision will become myopic again. Your mind will draw in on itself like bowstrings and if you had to describe the haze you would say that it’s a wobbly, shimmering mirror of your own death.
SMELLS- There is one main smell in the desert. It is the smell of your own death and it follows you everywhere. It’s ungodly and it’s as virulent as the heat itself. Cloying and sticky, the multitudinous seas incarnadine could not wash it away. It wafts and wallows, billows and blows all around you, your only ever-present companion besides hopelessness. There are more smells to be detected in this a la carte menu of death. Fear pervades from every pore and its smell is nearly as fetid and pungent. Mingled in amongst them is the noxious swirl of body odour. It is rancid and rank and makes you want to vomit with disgust. Around you, the scanty scrub-bushes smell flamed and fried. An unhealthy fume of burning sand, as stuffy as old car exhausts, rises up like a fog and oscillates just below your nose. It never seems to go away, so much so that you think that the gaseous emanations are part of the landscape. The smells seem as if they are chained inside your nostrils. Every breath you take is a living agony. It’s like drowning in a stew-pot of smoky cordite and melting asphalt. You feel like you can’t go on and your brain swells up until it feels as grilled and griddled as the air around you.
TASTES- There is nothing ambrosial or appetizing about the tastes of the desert. Defeat is the last taste on your palate. The only thing lavish or extravagant is the manner of your death. There’s nothing mouth-watering as there’s no water to be drank. There’s nothing opulent or tantalizing to be had. There’s nothing at all for you to do except to bow down to the blasphemous desire of the desert to kill you. I’m tired now. I’m sick of the stumbling and the staggering, the tottering and the trembling. I’m sick of the cracked lips and the kidney-skewering pain of dehydration. Most of all, I’m sick of life. The sand is burning my head now for I have fallen for the last time. My large, Berber-brown eyes can feel the tears. I’ve had enough of survival in Satan’s solarium. Seventeen years as a camel in this inferno of fire and fumes was just too much to ask of me.