This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment for ENG340 American Nature (Fall 2021) course with professor Olga Nikolova.
But already another perception, deeper in the blood, leads me to say, “The sun lives in the earth.” – N. Scott Momaday
L’arbre fait voir son temps. – Paul Valery
When I think of my own existence, and the existence of everything and everyone around me, I immediately think of home. I have a home, as do you, and most probably all the living creatures around us, not necessarily the same in shape, size or appearance, but still some kind of sanctuary. For as long as I can remember, it has been a comfort to know that everyone and everything has a home, a place of love, safety and care. This is what I had been taught in childhood. And goosebumps ran down my spine, while cold seized my fingers, when I imagined that something or someone might not have a home. It must be devastating to feel that no one might be there to love and protect you. And even if home can sometimes be a sad, dangerous and loveless place, I believe that it is important to have it – not only for human beings, animals or plants, but for everything that our boundless Universe contains, including those things that we, human beings, cannot physically perceive but whose existence we feel.
When I was little, I used to be a very diligent child, eager for as much knowledge as I could possibly obtain. I was also very curious. So when my parents told me that all things had a home, I had to put it to the test. I was careful not to omit a single thing or creature that inhabited our house and garden. My memory brings back vivid fragments of reality: the dust bravely covering the shelves of my father’s room, the buzzing flies that never suspected what my mother would do to them if she found them, the plates and cups threatening to fall over me every time I passed by, the fragrant pale pink roses and tall ever-green trees in our garden that seemed to converse with each other when no one was watching, my cat and my dog, too lazy to listen to me, but always ready to fight with each other. They all had a home. My neighbors had a home, the stars, the clouds, the Sun – all of them had a home, I could confirm. After this initial exploration, I never questioned the idea again…until one day my father suggested that time also lived somewhere. Where?
On that day he took our whole family on a trip to two beautiful, naturally well-preserved places near Ashgabat, my home city. It was 2013. I was fourteen then. One of the places was the Karakum desert, the other the lower Nohur village. The first destination’s name literally translates as “black sand,” while the second one’s relates the village to the prophet Noah. Local legend has it that the prophet Noah landed his arch there after the Great Flood mentioned in the Bible. The village is divided into two – lower and upper Nohur, and while it is possible, although not without considerable effort and appropriate transportation, to reach the lower part and see how life flows there, it is extremely difficult to reach upper Nohur due to its almost inaccessible geographical location.
The Karakum desert was our first destination. We left our house early in the morning, before 7AM. Since it wasstill the end of May, the temperature would get too hot by 1-2 PM and reach its maximum around 4PM. “Too hot” for our climate falls anywhere between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius. Since most Turkmens are used to even more extreme temperature than this during summertime (when temperature can rise to 50 degrees Celsius), my family and I appreciated the mild weather that morning.
I always sat in the back of the car and loved looking out of the window. We passed through the outskirts of Ashgabat. This is where the city gradually cedes to nature. The lifeless blocks of monotonous marble-white buildings were replaced by a view of the massive Köpetdag mountains in the distance, stretching all along the way, and looking like sleeping guardians of black stone. Once the buildings end, the mountains fill the view, and the further you go, the more glorious they rise. In the springtime, when sunlight generously pours all over the mountains during the day, they resemble a desert whose distant edge has been lifted up, as if by a hand, and one can see the wavy dunes –the bright slopes of the mountain – checkered with dark shadows. Then come the foothills, shining with beauty in the springtime, when the vast fields beneath fill with flaming poppies – thousands of them turning it all into a gigantic scarlet canvas. This juxtaposition of the fragility of flowers and the stern outline of the mountains heaving above them always amazed me – nature seemed to place them together as if to show that delicacy and strength complete each other. The scenery was breathtaking, and even more so, when after observing the mountain foothills, I looked at the very top of Köpetdag where brown met blue and solidity melted into air. Observing clear blue-of-the-blue sky that spread beyond the top of the mountain made me feel as if I could stand on that top and touch the sky. What an eternal freedom that would be!
We reached the Karakum desert, and, naturally, we stopped very soon. One can get lost in the desert easily. Not my father, no, he would not get lost, the rest of us – my mom and my siblings, we could. It was the very edge of the desert, but what I saw would remain in my mind forever. The never-ending yellow horizon, with spots of white and gray, consisted of nothing but sand. Here and there in the distance, one could faintly discern “the camel thorn” plant or alhagi. There were no people around, except us, and no animals, at least none visible to us, no buildings – nothing at all. It felt like being not on Earth, but on another planet, both alluring and dangerous. The strong wind forced me to squint my eyes. It seemed to be whispering something I could not comprehend.
I looked all around and rushing to one of the low dunes grasped a handful of sand. I opened my palm and let it flow. As the sand slid between my fingers, I wondered how the tiny particles could possibly accumulate this way into an ocean of sand. I imagined the hundreds of thousands of people who had lived before me and who most probably had the same thought when they saw the desert and touched it. While we strolled over some dunes, my father told us stories of the people who inhabited the desert long ago, before they moved into cities, and the stories seemed to me old and familiar although I had never heard them before. My father described people travelling through the desert’s cold night, finding their way by the stars, or hiding from danger in the sameness of the sand. These people had managed to survive the cruelty of the desert.
On our way to our second destination, the village of Nohur, for the first time in my life I thought about the connection of nature and time. Surely, it was the effect of the silent desert – the place had wisdom, it seemed to know much more than I, my parents or anyone else did. What was time in the desert? How old was it? I learned another unusual thing: deserts travelled. My father told us that the desert was a travelling creature, it moved, although imperceptibly. The process, my father explained, was very slow, one that can be noticed only by traces left with the passage of time.
We arrived at some location that resembled a big yard with green metal gates for an entrance. The yard stood on a little hill and was surrounded by a fence. Around us were the Köpetdag mountains. Their corrugated lower parts encircled the village. I had never been that close to the mountains and my astonishment was intense. For the first time I felt how small and insignificant I was compared to nature and its objects. I felt as a poppy on the foothills then – fragile and small with mountains heaving high above me. Something inside urged me to pay proper respect to the mountain and its authentic majesty, and I felt like bowing before it. I wondered if the villagers of Nohur ever felt the same urge. The air was cold and fresh. It reached every cell in my body, making me more and more energized. A river ran somewhere in the distance, and we heard its smooth hum. The place seemed so beautiful and peaceful that I wanted to stay there.
After looking around for some time, we entered the big yard. Before my eyes could grasp the size and shape of what I was seeing, I heard my siblings and mom gasp. It was a sound of immense wonder. I finally realized that I was looking at a tree – the most gigantic tree I had ever seen in my life until then, and ever since. My father told us it was “çynar bagy”, a sycamore or a plane tree. It took me a while to trace all the big and small branches of that sycamore. It was so tall that one had to keep one’s head up and move it left and right to see it in its entirety. I could not make out where the tree ended because its thick branches covered the whole yard’s space, dipping it into massive shade. Its trunk was as wide as four or five adults in a line. Randomly glimpsing at my father’s face, I found him shining with admiration and some sort of pride. I think that he felt blessed to be seeing that tree, and showing it to us, his family. He said that it was the oldest inhabitant of the village and it would remain so, if the evil hands of those who might want to cut it kept away from it. His words were confirmed by the guardians of the tree, the villagers, who said that the sycamore was more than two thousand years old.
The most exciting part of the exploration of the sycamore tree was still ahead. Its trunk had an opening and an alcove a person, and not even one person but a couple, could enter. My sister, my mother and I decided to go in. When we approached the opening, I found that the tree’s trunk had a very gentle combination of colors: pale green with some stripes of darker green, a mixture of white and gray, and some faint stripes of yellow and brown run all over the length of the trunk. It was beautiful and made me wonder if it was a female tree. I followed the trunk from the bottom to the top with my eyes. Its bark was very smooth at the bottom and more and more layered in the upper parts. Those upper parts of the bark displayed the age of the tree, I think. The tree was very tall, and although I could see its crown from the ground, I was not able to distinguish its height. We entered the alcove in the trunk. I could not believe that I was inside a tree. It was dark and humid, and a little hole above us on the right side stretched into one of the long branches. An inexplicable sense of belonging to something sacred filled me. I could not understand it then, but something made me feel that I was part of something absolutely great and ancient. My mother and sister had already left the place, while I stood there, enjoying that intimidating but pleasant feeling. It was my father’s words that brought me back to the moment. He said, “What, daughter? You cannot leave this unusual tree? You know, daughter, it is a real miracle of nature – just imagine how many people, stories, disasters it has witnessed! What we people know, even taken all altogether, is a drop in the ocean compared to what this tree knows.” I left the trunk. Once more my family and I enjoyed the view of the tree, then we left the yard. Since it was already afternoon, we decided to leave the village and visit its other parts some other time. The weather was getting hot and we wanted to reach home before the heat rose.
All the way home I thought of my father’s words. He was right, the tree knew much more than all the people on this planet did. And how many more such trees there were in the world! And so did the desert… The more I thought of everything around me, the more I realized that the trees, the rocks, the desert, the river were wiser than us, human beings. It was thrilling to see that people, with all their intellectual achievements, with their reason and technological progress, still could not comprehend the world in the way nature did. Nature always knows more, and there is one astonishing reason for that – time. Time lives within nature, and allows it to know more and be always a step ahead of human beings. What are the seventy or eighty years of a (modern) human being’s life compared to the two thousand years of the tree’s life? While for two thousand years the tree has witnessed the change of whole epochs, we people often barely manage to witness how our own life flies by, struggling to notice the changes that occur through a single day. The difference is astounding, isn’t it? What then is there to be said about the older inhabitants of our planet, such as the Namib desert, whose age is estimated to be fifty-five million years? Those are fifty-five million years of witnessing life beyond what a human being can even imagine.
Until my father took us on that trip, I had never doubted what my parents had said about home. But my father’s words about that sycamore tree made time part of the picture. If everything had a home, did time too? I was surprised at my own question. How could we even think of that if time was something we could only feel? — that was what I thought then. I could not solve the riddle and my mind kept turning back to it. No matter how I tried, I could not grasp our everyday notion of time. I simply could not understand how people put something so intractable and mysterious into something measurable. Since my mind still struggled to understand time as the number of hours in a day, number of days in a week, or months in a year, I preferred to think of where time lived. And I found an answer for myself – time lives in nature, as well as inside us. Think of everything natural around us – everything has an age, everything is the home of time. Some things like oceans and deserts are very old, others like mountains are younger, and yet others like trees and plants still younger. They are all time’s dwelling. Thus whenever we look at anything around us, we can tell that there is a certain amount of time as if locked within, and it is truly wonderful that for different objects that time is different. Although I think that many people perceive time as something outside of ourselves, somewhere in space, time is actually something that dwells inside us and in nature. “I have time,” we usually say. No, time has us.
I firmly believe that if it were not for my father, I would never have thought about this. My father was a man who could speak with nature, when others could not even hear that nature was talking. Most of his life he spent being close to nature, only losing some of the connection after moving into the city. In the city, though, he still tried to surround himself with it. Our house, for example, stood out from the rest of the neighborhood. It was the only one that had a garden full of roses, lilies, poppies and ever-green trees. A hedge of thick green bushes surrounded the yard, and only we had a trellis over it, covered with climbing vines for natural shade. My father was my and my family’s guide into nature. He took us to wherever he could so that we would learn to respect, appreciate and protect the beauty and power of nature. He passed away a short time ago, and though it is a bitter loss for me and my family, I find solace in the thought that he has a home now, a very different one, but still a home. I believe that he has joined the eternal flow of time, and though he has become part of what people call the past, he is still part of something living, ongoing and meaningful. I know that now he is part of what nature knows and his soul resides where time lives… and beyond. He will live on forever in everything that witnessed him, just as we will live in everything that witnessed us once we are gone.