by Marc Toso   Here I am, out here once more, a caricature desert sage, pretending to find clarity in sandstone desolation. I struggle being on this edge of barrenness, selfishly seeking purpose. Something to clutch, to hold tightly, something to push away the ghosts of existential purpose. That sense of utter senselessness. What is it all? Mingling of atoms and molecules into brief consciousness, thrashing and yelling between the doors of birth and death. Clutching to a blue pebble, surrounded by such space, barely a shiver of humanity echoing outward, moving in an elliptical orbit, circling around that and then spiraling around the bigger thing until the me-ness is washed out in inestimable light-years. A speck of sand forgotten among endless grains. A particulate in infinite shapelessness. There must be more than that.My van is clanging down another stretch of wash-board, kicking up a pale tail of microscopic dust. Sweaty skin and camera gear are covered in atomized earth. Reverberating struts. Clanging windows. Rattling skull bones. Stapes, hammer and anvil banging away in my head. Earplugs shoved in deep, radio on full volume. Podcasts, rock and roll, folk, a cacophony of words and notes sputter from the speaker. Sonic meaning spewing out the window into the desiccated nowhere. Dark pavement and sizzling air. Hours of noise, heat, hot sun and gasoline.

I’m driving across Utah’s great western desert, a somewhat forgotten cousin to the state’s southern red rock cathedrals. Into the endless topography of eastern Nevada with its yellow brown lines and oh so much bigness. Here highways pierce the straight and curl around juniper decorated mountains. High alpine snowcaps drop into thirsty plains. Endless basins cloister streams from the sea. The breeze is a howl and prehistoric lakes, abandoned by water, reflect salty whiteness. Here you walk for hours without going anywhere.

Then the vehicle ceases. The place pours into open windows. Winds diminish to breezes. The final dust overtakes the van, clings to my skin and settles like fine snow on seats and gear. With a turn of the key the engine shutters quiet, sonic waves dissolve into the atmosphere, absorbed into old earth. Outside space opens up and I enter the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree horizon emanating from some central indistinct place.

Dry wind carries off thoughts and memories. Remembrances swirl into the blue dome above. Here me-ness shimmers a bit brighter, unencumbered by imposed filters. Expectations are only whispers in the skull. Doubts murmur on veiled fringes. Noon’s pale light shines on the desert, bleaching colors dim and thinning shadows. Eyes squint and journey to pallid mountains layered near the horizon’s edge. One of the few places to be still alone. A vain circle spins on the cell-phone. Technology is desperate for connection.

Twenty feet or so up a hill across broken and blackened stone the land drops away into a vast almost perfect circle. Hundreds of feet deep and half a mile wide, the volcanic crater’s stratified layers count terrestrial eons as tree-rings remember rainfall. A scar on the earth, a remembrance of geologic passion, energy born deep, melting rock via tectonic friction. Volcanos and molten fluids churn the blood of our planet, a glimpse into our geologic core below the fragile flora and animal surface.

Twenty-five thousand years ago pressure escaped from this scar, and consumed the desert. Magma flowed, covering sage and rock. Millennia passed and the lava cooled, solidifying into to stone waves and gargoyles. Water seeped into fissures and ice fractured its density. Seeds and soil found homes in cracks. Slow unrelenting hydrostatic strength of photosynthesis shattered and consumed the frozen lava’s mineral life.

Gazing upwards, struggling to see through the sky, my eyes squint to see the space beyond our atmosphere. Twenty-five thousand years ago, solar furnaces in our galaxy’s dense core were smashing hydrogen atoms into helium, spewing energy and photons outward into space and time. These massless speed-of-light particles journeyed and curved through gravitational entanglements. After twenty-five millennia on earth and a photon’s instant, these particles are now painting this inert lava and earth with timeless nocturnal light.

I am here hoping to find a single photograph. It exists in my mind, it just needs to be found, a memory of a Pleistocene earth in ancient light, a snapshot of brevity and eternity. I want to remember the dim radiance of time over the dark and original layers of our planet. I think there is meaning and purpose in this juxtaposition. Lessons and important stories. These are stories I lack the talent to tell, but stories I hope to share. Stories of who we are and where we are, a meek attempt to help remember the tales of our home and origin.

Two days of sitting, watching, waiting as the sun travels across its arena then circles the underside of our earth. The challenge of nothingness. Alone, sitting and watching the daily cycles of day and night. Wind, sun and thoughts are the sole companions. Time is difficult, seconds stretch into long thin moments between big spaces. Protracted moments repeatedly echo within themselves, reverberating instances. I have no idea how long a second, an hour or a moment actually is.

I wander the crater’s edge. Stumbling over rocks and feeling small under the dome of the sky. Simultaneously excited for night and foolish in my endeavors. Big spaces and blank time breed purpose and doubt. Winds slowly quiet emotions to faded colors of hills and stone. Three times I circumnavigated the crater hoping in vain to find a different angle on the circle. One sightseer stopped. We shared a glance but no words. He took an iPhone photo and left. A rattlesnake and yipping of coyotes were the only other visitors. The sun’s journey pulled shadows long and thin until our star hid behind the horizon and the shade of the earth covered me.

The first night clouds and rain concealed the stars and kept me imprisoned within the van. Winds whistled through windows and I escaped into books. Lost myself in words and imagination of others. Waiting out doubts and holding onto patience. I slept little and laid awake, eyes open to the dark, counting breaths, begging for hints of dawn.

The second day the wind quieted and pale blue sky stretched overhead. Waiting in wind and light I watched our star rise in the east and journey across the south. At dawn shadows awoke long and strained westward. I again circumnavigated the crater three times. The shadows retracted within themselves until dusk stretched the dark lines to the eastern horizon and earth’s shade once again overtook them.

Gradually the sun dipped, a fiery liquid on the horizon, spilling crimson over the earth’s edge, bleeding behind the skyline. Beams angle upward through atmospheric dust, shadows of nothing form parallel lines in heaven. Blues deepen and in the east an undefined red band appeared over a dark curve. The Belt of Venus, the final pink sunlight piercing the sky’s densest ether. A pink sash separating the heavens from the land. The blue of earth’s shadow rises and hides the pink light until dawn. Points of starlight appear. Familiar constellations materialize so slowly change is imperceptible. Darkness envelops and the iris expands seeking light. Finally, true night arrives untainted by the sun. Waiting continues.

Midnight passes. Around 2am Jupiter crests the horizon as our planet spins towards our galaxy’s center. With silent majesty, spiraling arms arc into the sky. Almost infinite points of light and color. A commonplace view across millennia cultures, the possible origin our mythology and science. The night sky, the first abstract thought.

Crossing the crater’s rim, I walk for 10 minutes. Feet remember the path and well adapted eyes see the shadow-less ground. Light from the galaxy illuminates the earth but casts no shade. Impressions of dark stone and a nebulous path guide me. Coyotes howl on hilltops. I hope my rattlesnake friend has other plans.

Glimpses of peripheral vision give hints of the photograph. Jupiter calmly arcing upward, resting upon the breast of the Dark Horse Nebula, a hazy figment of dust and gas formed into the impression of a horse over eons. The galaxy’s arch rises up and bathes the crater in red, orange and blue starlight. Dark adapted eyes catch fleeting glimpses of this blending. The Earth’s green and brown pigments mingle with old light.

Slowly and calmly I operate the camera. Its aperture is wider than my pupils, it sees more than I can. The activity quiets me, soothing my thoughts and heartbeat. The repetitive click of the shutter reminds me of time’s passing. These moments bring about that elusive feeling of purpose, of meaning. I come here under the auspice of night photography but I’m really here for the transient possession of a moment, a memory.

This moment, the inexplicable and exceptional mingling of atoms and molecules into thoughts, senses and awareness. It is the universe granted the chance to briefly experience itself through transitory windows between births and deaths. An opportunity to be driven by wonder and desire to understand. On a hanging blue pebble, surrounded by such space, atoms and molecules of humanity create and express, feel and die. They echo outward but only we hear it, we are the universe hearing itself. We’re traveling in an elliptical orbit, circling around that and then spiraling around that bigger thing. This rare us-ness flickers throughout inestimable light-years. A single blue stone on an endless beach. An exquisitely unique particulate in infinite shapelessness.  About the Author:Marc Toso is a published photographer, author and molecular biologist located in Salt Lake City Utah. He is known for photographing and writing about the night sky.  His work can be found in The Sun Magazine, Patagonia and The Gulch Magazine. Much of his work has gone in defending public lands and in support of The Bears Ears National Monument. He is currently working on a book of photography and essays on how night photography intersects science, culture and religion. More work can be found at www.ancientskys.com”