" 'I can't help laughing,' says the girl when they ask her, 'Aren't you lonely out there with just desert around you?' She then sings about her desert companions: hawks, lizards and coyotes, hot sand, rocky trails, deep canyons, and birds nesting in the cactus, who 'sing out over a thousand thorns because they're where they want to be.'
"The girl is where she wants to be, too, with her 'strong brown people' who 'have to see mountains and have to see deserts every day . . . or they don't feel right.' (I don't feel right either.) Where else would Desert People want to be? Their land is 'no place for anyone who wants soft hills and meadows and everything green, green, green.'
"If you're a desert person as I am, you'll love the lyrical prose-poems of Byrd Baylor, who has teamed for decades with illustrator Peter Parnall to create an evocative series of children's books I often use for meditation. For Baylor, the spirit, not material things, is necessary for personal development. 'Once you made that decision,' she wrote from her home in Arivaca, Arizona. 'Your whole life opens up and you begin to know what matters and what doesn't.'
"Parnall lives on a farm in verdant Maine yet has an exquisite feel for the arid desert. His illustrations are simple line drawings, usually with big vibrant splashes of gold, yellow, and red which mirror the light of the desert. Only occasionally does he use green and blue and purple.
Slow Songs to Squash
"In The Desert Is Theirs, Baylor describes how desert people learn to be patient because 'the desert has its own kind of time (that doesn't need clocks),' 'Rain is a blessing counted drop by drop.' Desert plants don't have to waste moisture on 'floppy green leaves.' Some can wait three years to bloom. The saguaro cactus can last a whole year after one summer storm. 'Squash tastes best if you've sung it slow songs while it's growing.' Most importantly, as this volume concludes, 'every desert thing knows when the time comes to celebrate.'
" 'What's worth a celebration?' asks the girl who voices Baylor's desert values. She answers for us all: something worth remembering the rest of our lives, that makes us feel like we're standing on top of a mountain, makes our hearts pound, and our breath catch like we're breathing some new kind of air.
"If we're sensitive enough to the sacred all around us, the number of our celebrations multiplies. One year the little girl gave herself 108 celebrations! – 'besides the ones that they close school for.' These included the days she saw a triple rainbow, seven dust devils 'dancing in time to their own windy music,' and stars falling from the night sky when she felt her own heart shoot out of her. She celebrated the days when the clouds appeared a rare green and she looked into the eyes of a coyote and knew 'I never will feel quite the same again.'
"She reminds us that some of the best celebrations are 'sudden surprises,' so we need to pay attention and spend more time outside, 'looking around.' 'What if I'd been in the house? Or what if I hadn't looked up when I did? What if I'd missed it?' What a tragedy!
"The girl has the true contemplative spirit natural to a child and essential for every adult: 'Unless you become like little children . . .' (Matthew 18:3). She does not arbitrarily celebrate New Year's on January 1 but in the spring when her favorite cactus blooms because 'it always makes me think I ought to bloom myself.' On that day she visits all the places she likes to 'check how everything is doing.' And like our Creator on the Seventh Day, she spends this new day 'admiring things.' . . .
The Way to Start a Day
"In The Way to Start a Day, Baylor enriches her usual southwestern focus by showing how people all over the world celebrate the sunrise. They 'go outside and face the east and greet the sun with some kind of blessing or chant or song that you make yourself and keep for early morning.' Peruvians with chants and Aztecs with flutes, Congolese with drums and Chinese with bells, East Indians bathing in the Ganges with marigolds – peoples everywhere and throughout history understand: 'A morning needs to be sung to. A new day needs to be honored.' These people know they need to make offerings: gold or flowers, fire, feathers, sacred smoke blown to the four directions, or simple good thoughts.
"When the sun rises, 'all the power of life is in the sky.' So we need to welcome the sun, 'make it happy,' 'make a good day for it' and 'a good world for it to live in.' If the sky turns a color sky never was before, we must simply watch it. 'That's a part of the magic. That's the way to start a day.'
"And that's the way to live our lives: in stillness and contemplation, deeply grateful, aware of the sacredness of all things and our kinship with all life."