Aug 21 2011

Desert Portrait

Melissa Crytzer Fry

The longer I live in the desert, the more convinced I am that Mother Nature is an artist – the raindrops her brushstrokes, the wind her muse, the sun her sculptor.

At no time is her artistry more apparent than summer monsoon season.

Take, for instance, her transformation of the powdery blanket of dirt draped across the desert floor. Once unsettled molecules aching for moisture, the free-floating dust particles transform into something altogether different with a single raindrop.

The tiny hairline cracks in this dirt remind me of canvas and cracked oil paint. Click to enlarge.

With the deluge of rain, the earth softens, often unable to absorb the onslaught of liquid. Then the sun wrestles its way through the clouds again, baking the dirt with a heat so intense that the earth twists, writhes and curls under pressure. And just as suddenly, the rains come, the process starts again … a blank canvas once again awaits the hands of a great artist.

The artwork of these puddles is distinctively different at various stages of drying and deposition – a series of different artistic interpretations of the desert’s harshness, its potential lushness. Mother Nature’s artistry at work.

I loved the geometric pattern and curling edges of this part of our driveway so much that I didn’t want to drive over it! Click to enlarge.

I know what others see: dried, cracked, brown dirt. But I see so much more. I see earth transformed into the malleable clay of a pot maker. I see the hardened veneer of cement. I see tiny fissures radiating like lifesaving arteries and veins. I see shaved flakes of milk chocolate (perhaps more a reflection of my sweet tooth than Mother Nature’s intended portrait).

This earth, smooth as dried clay (or a good cement pour), reflects the early morning sunlight along the San Pedro River. Click to enlarge.

I think “chocolate shavings sprinkled over lava cake” when I look at this. Perhaps part of my love affair with chocolate? Do you see it? Click to enlarge.

For Writers: When do your ideas solidify? What makes them break down, pull away and splinter like the dried desert earth? Do you find you experience periods of deep saturation where you just can’t keep up? Or are you plagued with painful dry spells? How do you cope?


34 Responses to “Desert Portrait”

  • avatar Denise Says:

    I’ve enjoyed looking at your photography as always 🙂 We spent almost 3 years in 29 Palms, CA, and some of your photos remind me very much of this… and I miss it!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you so much for the compliment, Denise. Oh, I bet you DO miss California. You know I’m from PA, too, right? NW – close to Ohio border. I miss that terrain sometimes, too.

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  • avatar Julia Says:

    I love the photos of the cracked earth — absolutely beautiful! As for my painful dry spells: yes, riddled with drought. I try different techniques (like blogging more) to combat it, and sometimes I just hunker down and wait for the monsoons! (and p.s. yes, it definitely looks like chocolate cake with sprinkles!!)

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    Melissa Reply:

    Glad I’m not the only one who saw “chocolate” when I looked down. I love your techniques for dealing with ‘drought.’ And I must say that you do a darn good job on that blog, my friend.

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  • avatar Liz @ Creative Liberty Says:

    I love your photos and your metaphor-making with writers in mind. 🙂

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    Love love LOVE the photos, Melissa! Especially the first one: my favorite. I never looked at the dirt and the mud from that perspective, but your images bring out such a natural artistry. When do my ideas solidify? Randomly. And always at the most inopportune times, it seems. I do go through dry spells. In fact, I feel like I’m going through one right now, with my WIP. However, I notice if I just give life a bit more time, and step away from my computer for a bit (along with the obsession of marketing myself as a writer), the muse returns. Of course, my boyfriend helps. He always assists my natural creativity thrive when I need it the most!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly and loved your post about walking away from the computer for a week. That separation really DOES lend itself to creativity, doesn’t it?

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  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    This post has gotten me thinking about my grandparents in west Texas. And about chocolate. 🙂

    I have the desire to come visit you and walk across those chocolate shavings to feel them crinkle under my tennis shoes. I used to love the crunch when I would walk across my grandparents’ pasture.

    Thanks for stirring the memories, Melissa!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Girl – come on out to the desert! We’ll walk across those chocolate shavings and talk writing, writing, writing! You’re so right about the crunch, too. I’m so happy this post brought back some memories of times with your grandparents.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Beautiful photos, Melissa. I think you could enlarge one of these and frame it for a wall. Abstract and fascinating. Soothing too.
    Once in a while I experience a ‘dry spell’ in my writing. Experience has taught me it’s usually associated with being too tired or having too much stress or not enough free time to daydream. It always passes. And then I get great bursts of inspiration in its wake. So I don’t panic, although it is uncomfortable when it happens.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I HAVE thought about enlarging one of those photos, Cynthia. Great minds think alike!

    And I have to agree that too much stress, not enough sleep, no daydreaming opportunities, etc. are surefire ways to kill progress on a WIP. I’m experiencing quite a bit of that right now. But the good news, as you say, is that it always passes. You’re a wise woman.

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  • avatar Annette Gendler Says:

    I visited Death Valley a few weeks ago – your pictures reminded me again why I love that place so much. There definitely is something inspiring to the desert. It gives you space to think.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I love the way you put it – and maybe that’s why the desert inspires me so much — the wide open spaces, and unencumbered ability to think! Thanks for stopping by.

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  • avatar Abi Burlingham Says:

    Your photos are gorgeous, especially the close-ups (1st and 3rd) which are so tactile. My ideas don’t really solidify until I am writing the work in progress. Sometimes an idea will strike me that takes me in a different direction,or I will see something that sparks off an idea that will work within the WIP. I find it’s like painting, building up layers. Perhaps also, another nature metaphor like your own, it’s a bit like all the little veins on a leaf that you can follow to see where they will take you. I try not to panic in the dry spells (although that can be hard) and to just wait for the ideas to come.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you so much, Abi! I agree that writing is much like painting, the way the layers build upon one another to create a final “masterpiece.” I LOVE your metaphor of the veins in leaves and how following them leads to a new journey. I think the ideas DO come when you take the pressure off yourself.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Melissa, you should write for the Discovery Channel. Reading your words is like listening to Sigourney Weaver’s voice in Planet Earth. Seriously, you should think about it. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh, Jolina, I would love nothing more than to write for Discovery, but have no idea how I’d even begin to make an “in”! Thanks for the huge compliment.

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  • avatar Sara Says:

    I’ve always loved that dry, cracked dirt. I like breaking it and seeing the new patterns that form.

    I don’t know that my ideas ever truly solidify. I’m a perfectionist so things are never “done” or “right” to me. This is never to my benefit, and that type of dirt is good example why. All cracked like that it looks perfect, solid, and unchangeable. But it isn’t at all. It’s fragile and vulnerable. When rain falls it transitions beautifully into something unrecognizable from it’s prior glory, but maybe it will become even more interesting.

    Perfectionism is pointless because it’s impossible, one of those human things that nature laughs at.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Well, Sara, I suffer from the perfectionism syndrome, too. Though I think, as I get older, I am able to let go a bit (so there is hope for you, youngster!). But then when I analyze my writing, I can clearly see the perfectionistic tendencies creeping in – i.e. I am not one who can write a sloppy first draft then go on to revise. I fix as I go. Fine-tune sentences over and over until I feel they’re good enough for me to move on. If I don’t do it that way, I can’t continue. I know I’m not the only writer like this (do the same thing with EVERYTHING I write – mag articles, collateral pieces, WIP).

    Such great insight, though, that letting go means even greater things – more beautiful things – could be ahead due to the transformation!

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    Those photos are awesome. I agree with Jolina! As for the question … I’ve experienced both. With my first novel, the ideas came fast and furious. With my second (unrelated) novel, it’s taken longer.

    The more I read these posts, the more I think they’d make a great writer’s manual, with the photos and questions afterward. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Mahesh. You and Jolina have made my week. If only I could figure out HOW to write for the Discovery Channel! ANd the idea of a writer’s manual… I’ve thought about that, too, but wasn’t sure it would be something anyone would be interested in reading.

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    Mahesh Raj Mohan Reply:

    You’re welcome, 🙂 And I would be interested in such a book. I think it would appeal to folks who never thought about writing, and it would serve as an inspiration for those of us who’ve been doing it for awhile, etc.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Can’t tell you how much I appreciate the vote of confidence. Yepper Doodles! 🙂

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    Mahesh Raj Mohan Reply:

    YEPPER DOODLES!!!!

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    You are incredibly talented. These photos are wonderful.

    Happy Monday, Melissa!

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    Melissa Reply:

    And you are incredibly kind and inspirational. Your comment on Twitter yesterday buoyed me like you wouldn’t believe; generous people like you keep the dream alive for me, Beth. I hope your current novel writing is flowing. Can’t wait!

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    I have to ask you: Do you see the images in nature and then think of how it relates to writing? Or vice versa? … To answer your question, I tend to go full force into idea mode and then I sometimes can hit a dry spot with the writing. I think carving out a few times a week where I don’t blog or read blogs, and only work on my WIPs would serve me well and get me through that hurdle.

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    Melissa Reply:

    It works both ways for me, Leah. Sometimes I see an image and think, “I have to photograph that for my blog,” and THEN the metaphor comes to me. Other times (and this is mostly while I’m running through the desert in the mornings), I see something and a metaphor immediately comes to mind. THEN I take the photo. I think all of that running time, when my mind is freed to roam, is what helps me draw the parallels.
    I’m with you. A few days per week of no media and focused WIP time wold be fabulous.

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  • avatar Sharon Bially Says:

    Yes, mother nature’s an artist — just like life is art! What a lovely reflection on those things we all too often miss. I don’t have an answer to your thought-provoking question about writerly dry spells, but now have a new way to think about them and will be doing so. Thank you!

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    How I miss the desert!! Your blog is a sweet torture. I agree with the prevailing thought of stepping away when in a creativity drought. It seems my WIP does well for a month or so, then I got nuthin. So I figure it’s my duty as the writer to drink lots of coffee, hit the gym, and lets my MCs have a rest. Problem: They’re currently in a coma. Ack! Getting out the paddles…

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m sorry to torture you so, Lori. Sounds like you’re in need of a desert fix … soon. For me, I’m suffering creatively right now because I’m not out among nature as much this time of the year. When I encountered mama with baby javelina a few weeks ago (the overgrowth is SO high, it’s easy to stumble upon wild critters and scare them/ put them on the defensive) during my jog, I decided I needed to stay indoors for awhile – until visibility gets better outdoors. Plus, the bugs are HORRIBLE during a wet monsoon (as you likely recall). Blow flies are chasing me the entire 3 miles, gnats in my mouth. Ick! So, my characters are right there in that sleepy coma with yours, unfortunately.

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    These pictures are some of my favorites of yours so far! (And that’s saying a lot, because I love them all!) I just think it’s amazing how powerful water is. It can create entire canyons over millions of years and crack the earth just to solidify it again. Thanks so much for sharing.

    As for your question…that is the greatest mystery, isn’t it? I honestly don’t know when my ideas form or even solidify. I think the spark can come at any time, and then it’s our job to nurture it. Sometimes I do that by researching, others by simply going for a walk, and others by writing. One thing I know for sure is that it’s not enough for me to just think about ideas. Something about the process of putting them into words changes them and helps them grow. So I guess that’s when they truly solidify.

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    Melissa Reply:

    So happy you enjoyed these photos. I LOVE the designs that nature creates! Water is, indeed, the great equalizer, isn’t she? When I was in college, it was a toss up for me regarding major: geology or English… and I think part of that geologic fascination has to do with what you mention – the great sculpting action of water, its influence on the Earth, on life …

    I love your analysis and metaphor for writing – that the ACTION of putting those words down is what helps them grow (much like the transformational action of water); that sitting still isn’t fruitful. Couldn’t agree more!

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    All of that dried mud makes me want to run over it. (Think kids and bubble wrap!). I think as we write, revise, write, and revise our writing becomes more solid. Like we are building the foundation with the early stuff, then what is built on top, what you see, is the good stuff.

    Great pics. 🙂

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