” They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way. Thirsty, their souls fainted in them.”—Psalms
It is difficult to form a correct idea of a desert, without having seen one. It is a vast plain of sands and stones, interspersed with mountains of various sizes and heights, without roads or shelters. They sometimes have springs of water, which burst forth, and create verdant spots.
The most remarkable of deserts is the Sahara. This is a vast plain, but little elevated above the level of the ocean, and covered with sand and gravel, with a mixture of sea shells, and appears like the basin of an evaporated sea.
Amid the desert there are springs of water, which burst forth and create verdant spots, called Oases. There are thirty-two of these which contain fountains, and Date and Palm trees; twenty of them are inhabited. They serve as stopping places for the caravans, and often contain villages.
Were it not for these no human being could cross this waste of burning sand. So violent, sometimes, is the burning wind that the scorching heat dries up the water of these springs, and then frequently, the most disastrous consequences follow.
In 1805, a caravan, consisting of 2,000 persons and 1,800 camels, not finding water at the usual resting place, died of thirst, both men and animals. Storms of wind are more terrible on this desert than on the ocean. Vast surges and clouds of red sand are raised and rolled forward, burying every thing in its way, and it is said that whole tribes have thus been swallowed up.
The situation of such is dreadful, and admits of no resource. Many perish victims of the most horrible thirst. It is then that the value of a cup of water is really felt.
In such a case there is no distinction. If the master has not, the servant will not give it to him; for very few are the instances where a man will voluntarily lose his life to save that of another. What a situation for a man, though a rich one, perhaps the owner of all the caravan! He is dying for a cup of water—no one gives it to him; he offers all he possesses—no one hears him; they are all dying, though by walking a few hours further, they might be saved.
In short, to be thirsty in a desert, without water, exposed to the burning sun, without shelter, is the most terrible situation that a man can be placed in, and one of the greatest sufferings that a human being can sustain; the tongue and lips swell; a hollow sound is heard in the ears, which brings on deafness, and the brain appears to grow thick and inflamed.
If, unfortunately, any one falls sick on the road, he must either endure the fatigue of traveling on a camel, (which is troublesome even to healthy people,) or he must be left behind on the sand, without any assistance, and remain so till a slow death come to relieve him. No one remains with him, not even his old and faithful servant; no one will stay and die with him; all pity his fate, but no one will be his companion.
Plato, Ann. “Description of a desert.” 1841. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Dec 2006. 11 Mar 2014 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/plato/description_of_a_desert/>.
Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies.
If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.
"Patrick Madden is an essayist of verve, passion, wit, and dependable moral compass. Quotidiana drew me in powerfully, from page to page and from pleasure to pleasure." —Ian Frazier
There is a class of alienators more formidable than that which I have touched upon: I mean our borrowers of books--those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.
If there is a wish for immortality, and no evidence, why not say just that? If there are conflicting evidences, why not state them? If there is not ground for a candid thinker to make up his mind, yea or nay,--why not suspend the judgment?
This post-office service recalled some mighty orchestra, where a thousand instruments, all disregarding each other, and so far in danger of discord, yet all obedient as slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader, terminate in a perfection of harmony like that of heart, veins, and arteries, in a healthy animal organization.
It is not to be imagined that we only are brought into the world in a defective and indigent condition, and in such a state as cannot subsist without external aid.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.