greg dahlen

Alumnus, academy of achievement

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What is it about the desert?

It seems to me the desert is rather a special place. For example, I often think about the fact that most of the world's great religions, vastly influential systems, were born in the desert, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and I don't think it's an accident. I remember too when I was eighteen I was invited to apply to Deep Springs College, possibly the most unique college in the world (you can read about it on the web at http://www.deepsprings.edu/home), and it is also in the desert. I wonder what it is about the desert that has this influence?

  • Jun 24 2013: I have had no direct experience with living in desert, but I can use my imagination.

    You cannot take the desert for granted. Where resources are scarce, you are forced to deal with nature on its own terms, every day; you become constantly aware of the desert and your interrelationship with the desert. The desert makes us aware that life is precious and beautiful and diverse. It also reminds us that nature can get along very well without humans.

    How that leads to religion is beyond my imagination.
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      Jun 24 2013: Could mirages (I don't know the science of this, but I know it has something to do with the way light behaves in the desert) offer the connection by facilitating the visions often important in religions?
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        Jun 24 2013: Have you heard of any mirages besides the well-known one where you look at the horizon and seem to see waves of water coming at you? That is the only one I know about.

        I'm wondering if all that solitude is a two-edged sword, that it could let you think without distraction, but also let you start hallucinating, going crazy.
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          Jun 24 2013: I hope others with more desert experience will know.
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    Jun 24 2013: Good thoughts !!!
    Abrahamic religions originated from desert. Buddhism , Hinduism , Jainism from India which is full of forests !!! Points to ponder really .
    Until I saw a desert I knew it to be lifeless boring place. Later when I spent 2 years in a oil rich country full of deserts , I saw its beauty !!! Realized deserts also have colors. Starry desert night under the endless sky just wonderful .....that might have influenced thought processes of people since ancient time .
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      Jun 24 2013: Salim, can you put into words why seeing those stars is nice? My uncle said the same thing.
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        Jun 25 2013: Hi Greg, thanks for your interest.
        Alas !!! I don't have that creative / artistic ability to express my true feelings in writing as I felt ...even then I am trying

        Any new experience we get we possibly try to compare or associate it with our earlier experience. In my country where I was born and brought up , watching a clear sky is a rare or almost impossible thing as it's in a zone where always there are some cloud in the sky. Being highly populated and lots of vegetation around it's really difficult to find an open huge open space. In terms of sound , getting a soundless also a challenge.

        So once I went desert .....I felt emptiness around me... no tree...no building...no car ...ts just empty place miles after miles ......I felt I am in ocean with no water but only sands and sand....

        Quietness is astounding.....even I couldn't hear the sound of air as there was nothing standing high to block the way of air ....(even then there were sound of air , as those were hitting one or other small scanty cactuses in the ground or sand dunes....so if one wants one can get dissolve in it and be part of it....

        Looking up in to the sky.....!!! It's crystal clear.....all stars are visible. I haven't seen so many stars in one look in my life......It's so clear and clean seems you can connect with stars easily.....now Challenge comes whether one want to be dissolve into quiet emptiness of majestic desert ? Or connect with starry beautiful sky and connect with stars.....that's why it's nice

        That's my naive explanation....
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          Jul 4 2013: I would say that stars represent warmth since they are the suns of other galaxies, and of course, to us, warmth means life.

          My mother pointed out that all those stars are beautiful, that they glitter and sparkle.

          My friend Scott Slovic, who is a professor of ecological literature at the university of Idaho, agreed with you, that seeing all those stars gives you a feeling of primal connection to the universe.

          Probably it all reminds you how big and grand the universe is, because we know each of those stars is a big sun.
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      Jun 24 2013: Yes, I see your point about noise, but can't you make the opposite point, that more noise would stimulate a person and lead to great things?

      Well, ZX, above I added a link to the college website, http://www.deepsprings.edu/home. Have you looked at it? What were your impressions?
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          Jun 24 2013: Yes, I see your point, ZX, the lack of distractions would be great, of course one can make the opposite point, that having a lot of stimulation around you is stimulating. Love to see where the greatest inventions come from, are you in a position to research this?

          Deep Springs is really different. It has only 26 students, all men. All the men are on full scholarship, they all work on the college's ranch to provide their own food, and then go to class. They have a huge hand in how the college is governed. They are invited to apply by scoring in the top 1% on the SAT, which is a standardized national test we take here at the end of high school that tells what our academic skills are (it's used by colleges and universities as a criterion for admission.) (The SAT is a long test, taking about four or five hours to take.)

          I scored in the top 1% and was thus invited to apply to Deep Springs. The application form was very unusual, it was about 15 essay questions (most colleges and universities are only one.) I wrote the application (60 pages long) and was invited to visit so I drove there and stayed for a couple of days. At the end of the two days I was interviewed by a committee mostly consisting of present students there (students have a huge hands in determining who is accepted.) I actually was rejected, which made me a little sad, but looking back, I'm much happier with my first two years of university, at Stanford, however, there were certain factors at Stanford that made my experience there unique, in general I think Deep Springs would be better for the first two years.
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    Jul 23 2013: It is a beautiful thing, the desert. It reminds me of the book by a French author "The little prince". Such a good book set in a desert.

    “What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...”
    ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
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      Jul 23 2013: But does it work in reverse, Son, is what makes a well beautiful that somewhere it hides a desert? To me it doesn't seem so.
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        Jul 23 2013: Well I don't get why you want to reverse it but nevermind, it can be "what makes a well beautiful is that it is hidden somewhere in the desert."
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          Jul 23 2013: It seemed Son like you were saying the desert itself isn't beautiful, only the well that it hides. And I was thinking that we could see some beauty in the desert itself, but you're right, water is essential to any place, we know that the plants and animals in the desert are very good at making do on very little water.

          How did you end up in Switzerland, are there any deserts there, or does the desert interest you?
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        Jul 24 2013: Oh I think you have misunderstood. I was just saying that your conversation reminds me of my favourite book, and that quote is a link.

        For me desert is captivating in its vastness, in its changing shape and forms and the great dunes of sand. And also the tranquillity at night, only the sand and the sky full of stars. The quote from "The little prince" is just uses a metaphor to imply that the desert is beautiful because of something invisible to the eyes, but you can feel it with your heart.

        The desert itself is beautiful indeed. http://www.brettwestonarchive.com/images/dune-0

        Here in Switzerland there is no desert. Only mountains, grass and lake (: but they have their own beauty too.
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      Jun 24 2013: Thank you, Lamar, hadn't thought about the heat/thirst/vision connection. What caused the change from the fertile valleys?
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    Jun 24 2013: Space