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13 Teachings from the Desert

Home. It’s a funny thing. For some, looking for home can be a lifelong endeavor. Home is not always defined as where our ancestors once lived or the place where we are born. In our contemporary world, our roots do not go deep, unless perhaps we are original people of the land.

It all began when I was five. My grandfather sent me a postcard of the peculiar red-earth desert landscape. Not knowing that such a place even existed, unconsciously, a spiritual desert settled inside of me. Grandpa would never know how this landscape would inform my entire life.

As a kid, I awoke each morning to discover my bedcovers in shambles. I often found myself on the floor or upside down in my bed. I didn’t recognize what that intense restlessness was about; I was afraid of goblins living underneath the bed. I would jump from my bedroom doorway to the safety of my mattress in one leap, a barrier from ghouls grabbing my feet and taking me to the underworld.

Still, despite my fears, my father would catch me slipping out the back door into the pitch black of night, a pillow tucked under my arm, symbolic of a suitcase. He would gently ask, for fear of startling me awake, “Where are you going?” I have since asked myself that very same question many times, the significance of those words reverberating throughout my life.

My twenties were fraught with depression, hopelessness and despair. As time moved on, my memory of the red desert slowly faded. I wandered restlessly, suitcase in hand. I deeply felt something was missing from my life. Then finally, one day I discovered the Colorado Plateau: this would be home.

As surely as the death we witness in the fall and winter gives way to the rebirth and new beginnings we see in the spring, hopelessness must give way to hope. Each has its natural time and cycle. Hopelessness is a time of endings, yet it carries within it the promise of something new. The cycles must complete and start all over again or else one gets stuck, the wheel of life stops turning.

Inevitably, I found the landscape I had unconsciously longed for since childhood; when I found it the relentless hopelessness retreated. The wheel of my life, stuck and rusty as it was, cranked up and started turning again. I slept under the black, star-studded western sky on the red earth my grandpa introduced me to. I took long walks, soaked up the sensuous curves of the land and fell in love. The hoodoos rose tenaciously under the moonlight: majestic, lonely and ancient. The wind-blown scape, eroded by cutting rain and flash floods, spoke of the tenuousness of life. No other place in the world has been able to pierce me like this place.

The Hopi call the Colorado Plateau “Waaki,” The Sanctuary. Filmmaker Victor Masayesva says, “The human capacity for compassion and tolerance is celebrated in Waaki— a self-awareness needed in these days when people are becoming more intolerant of difference.” This speaks directly to my heart.

Lying on the desert floor, I bask in the peachy-red sandstone sediment transformed by millions of years of weathering. I roll onto my side and a Snake Bush plant, taking in the rays of the sun, catches my eye. A foot away, a yellow-headed Coreopsis shows off, expressing hope through her flowers bouncing gaily in the wind. Prickly Pear valiantly pokes out of the fallen limestone cap of a hoodoo. Paintbrush and Mormon Tea add color and style. A lizard skitters across the ground.

No one crowds the other. Everyone has room to be him or her self and exist in their diversity. Tolerance is definitely present on this luxurious red blanket. I assume there is an ancient agreement among all these beings: to obey the laws of nature and accept each other as created.

In that moment of reflection, the life of the desert changed me. A doorway opened that connected me to nature’s diversity, beauty and livingness. The desert gave me thirteen teachings about the sacredness of life. Thirteen represents the number of moons in a year, an ancient cycle from birth to death. Life is a holographic matrix, a complex sphere of matter, light and darkness, time and space, essence and form, emptiness and fullness. Desert life teaches all of this and is connected by the threads of a great web weaving in and out of my heart.


1. Life is tenacious. Life is strong-willed; hope drives it.

2. The will for life is powered by spirit and destiny. Not every plant survives. The right conditions make a place a home. Each being is gifted with something to grapple with and be tested by.

3. Weathering is part of life. Even the old hoodoo is beautiful. The young, smooth flat sandstone layers don’t have as much character and as many stories as the old weathered landscape of the Colorado Plateau. The scars and wrinkles make one beautiful. May we walk in beauty, all ways.

4. Water is finite and precious. On the Plateau water comes in small does: eight to sixteen inches a year. The Colorado River carries water to over 40 million people, plants, animals, trees and insects. We must care for these life-giving waters so life may continue and thrive.

5. Hope is magnified in the desert. Give gratitude for each day that life presents itself. Gratitude is an agreement humans made with all other beings on earth, to live in harmony with all of nature. Balance is restored through gratitude.

6. The ocean visits the desert. Wind brings clouds and rain. It takes slowing down to the rhythm of a place to see the gifts and bounty oceans bring to this earth.

7. Do not take life for granted. There is a fine balance between life and death in the desert. Not all of what is born lives long; but some of what is born does under the right conditions. We have a responsibility to not fall asleep, regret or tamper with these conditions.

8. The desert is the father. The lush forest is the mother. Father teaches his children the value of life. Mother gives us a sense of security and nourishment. Despair and depression are impossible when one witnesses a wildly dancing Coreopsis in the midst of ancient dry riverbeds.

9. The desert color of red is sacred. The desert floor and hoodoos are the color of blood: blood is life, a living element called iron, carrying oxygen throughout Mother Earth’s body, transporting the breath of life to the world.

10. Sacrifice is imminent in the desert. We are not in control. Sacrifice is both giving and surrendering something precious for something else to live.

11. The desert is slow, silent and still. It teaches one to be in the present moment. Speed is a response to danger, to hopelessness, to desire, to immediacy. One cannot honor life when fearful.

12. The desert holds the wisdom of the ancestors. The DNA is in the skeletons of the ancient ones and the red earth is the graveyard holding the key to life, a gift from the ancestors.

13. The desert exemplifies of the cycle of life. From hope to hopelessness, spring through winter, birth, conservation, transformation and death are inevitable.

I celebrate the human capacity for compassion and tolerance, here in my home, the Colorado Plateau, and thank the desert every day for these teachings.

Deanna Jenné serves the community as a Mara’akame: initiated healer, spiritual counsel, fire keeper, weather worker and ritual leader. She and her husband are building a village rooted in ancestral shamanic tradition, in Mesa, Colorado. Learn more at

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