5. Dana Nature Reserve: into the silence
I never fully realised that silence admits of degree. But it does. You can even get to the heart of absolute silence: you find that in a place called Dana.
I wanted to go to Dana because it was supposed to be beautiful and a complete escape from the inconveniences of urban life. Amman, the capital of Jordan, was full of these inconveniences. So, I travelled down the Dead Sea Highway and then up from the town of Fifa to Dana. The road from Fifa to Dana is one of the best drives in the whole world. White phosphate coastland gives way to weird geologies that loom out of the earth like a thousand Gormenghasts. It’s easy to see why earlier peoples thought that spirits lived in the earth itself.
I arrived in Dana at herding time. The shepherds were moving their lop-eared sheep along the road; life was in slow-motion. But once the sheep had cleared away life came to a standstill; I could hear the silence, a silence that was thick, heavy and intense. Dana isn’t the place for people unused to their own company. It might even be possible to induce madness in Dana. The silence was so massive I felt as if I was in the biggest Benedictine monastery on God’s earth – except that this was a monastery without walls: It extended over the whole of the Dana Nature Reserve. The silence crawled into my head and showed me what life was like beyond the grave.
I slept that night in the best room in the whole of Jordan. Things were going well. The silence suited me.
The next day, I set off for the nature reserve proper. Things were still going well when I arrived and crossed the invisible boundary into the conservation zone.
I don’t know why but a man then presented himself. He announced that he was the Centre Manager of the Nature Reserve and he was going to tell me all about the reserve. I was then given quite a technical lecture on the unique geology of Dana. I was told that it, the geology, began with the type of land that went all the way to Iran and ended, at the lowest points of the valley, with granite. I can’t remember what went in between the Irano-land and the granite. Then the manager moved on to what must have been a speciality of his: the medicinal properties of the plants in the Dana Nature Reserve. After a while I wondered if he was ever-so-slightly obsessive. He relished the chance to tell me about two plants in particular:
One was to be used for both the induction and then release of fever. I couldn’t quite follow the set of instructions he detailed concerning how hot I was to get and how much I was to drink or not drink and how super-feverish I was to get in order to overcome the fever.
The other plant was a kind of cure-all for abdominal complaints. Quite frankly, I didn’t really want to hear about what might befall my abdomen. But like it or not I was given the lecture and then the manager insisted that at the end of my explorations of the reserve I was to come to his office and pick up a bag containing the plants that would sort out my abdomen.
Sometimes politeness is a real drag. I just wanted to find a nature trail and enjoy the peace, quiet and serenity of it all. The manager was making that difficult.
Finally, the manager began to indicate where I might walk. He pointed to some trees and told me that between the two ‘there’ I would find a path that led to a spring where the birds came for a drink. He reckoned that I would like to see the birds drinking. In fact, all the trees looked the same – but by then I didn’t want to hear the manager anymore. It was hot. So I just said: ‘Yes. O.K. Thank you.’
I set off.
Of course, I never found the path that led to the spring. I wandered around for a couple of hours and began to get lost somewhere between the Irano-land and the granite. BUT out of the blue I did find a Tristram’s Grackle. And then I saw another. Quite unexpectedly, I had seen not one but two Tristram’s Grackles.
The Grackle looked like it had been created on the same morning that God created neon light: thus, with the Grackle in one hand and the neon light in the other God had stuck the light to the black wing of the Grackle; forever after the Grackle had the smartest and brightest of orange lights that would flash along the wings of a bird. Even though I still don’t know who Tristram is (or was) or why the bird is called a Grackle I had, at least, discovered one answer to the question about what God did during his tea break. On and off I had been thinking about this question ever since someone had asked, ‘What was God doing before he created the earth and everything in it?’ Grackles are supposed to make quite a racket. So, the key question is: Did the two birds make a sound? No, they did not; Not even a whisper. They had entered the vast open-air Benedictine monastery that is Dana and taken a vow of silence.
[Date: October 2011]