wabi-sabi desert

This desert is full of wabi-sabi. A classical Japanese concept that permeates aesthetics, metaphysics, design and spirituality, a definition of wabi-sabi is deliberately and necessarily elusive. It speaks exclusively to the senses and to intuition. It's a perception, a feeling, the opposite of tangible rationality and I’m not going to attempt to neatly put it in a box and define it here. It would cease to be wabi-sabi then. Purists will probably not approve of my observations. In keeping with its spirit, this is my own subjectively imperfect riff on wabi-sabi, an understanding of something universal that is absorbed wordlessly. And this desert is full of it.

The arid, hot climate here ensures that things decay slowly and beautifully. The patina of rusted metal, the bark of a dead Joshua tree or cholla cactus, the shed skin of a snake, all speak of impermanence and the exquisite imperfection of atrophy. When we first moved out here, we were like a couple of pirates who had just found buried treasure when we discovered a box of rusty old cans on our land. They’ve since been used to make all sorts of outdoor ‘sculpture’. Some call it art, some call it junk. Wabi-sabi is distasteful to some and beautiful to others. Imperfection, brokenness and impermanence are not always palatable to our culture of grand and shiny and new. In this desert, not much is thrown away but reused and reincarnated. Doc has a guitar made out of an old bedpan, and it sounds incredible. Built by a desert old-timer who makes guitars out of unwanted, forgotten things, it emanates a deliciously rusty, earthy sound. It hangs on the wall in our house and it makes me happy everytime I look at it.

Whilst out walking in the desert one day, we came across a beautifully rusted old metal bedspring. Doc carried it home on his back and we hung that on the wall too. There’s another one adorning the wall of our guest house, strung through with lights. Our guests seem to love it. Objects that have a story, a past, and the scars to prove it, a broken thing that’s been fixed or saved – that’s how the light gets in.

Expensive antiques and heirlooms are not wabi-sabi, just as much as mass produced, new things aren’t. They create an attachment to the object that is not in the spirit of wabi-sabi, an attachment that denies the essential movement towards the becoming or dissolving of all things.

Bon Nielsen is a European poet and painter who fell in love with the Mojave Desert, where she moved at first sight. As part of her ‘Mohave Bones’ collection, she paints old bones she finds in the desert, their delicate textures of decay still felt and seen.

The whisper of wabi-sabi lies in the subtle harmony between the enjoyment we get from things and from the thrill of the freedom from them.  Our friend Billy has, over the course of more than four decades, created a wonderland at his home from things found, salvaged, rescued and fixed. As he says, nothing he makes is ever perfect, but it is that very imperfection that embraces the essence of wabi-sabi.

Long before I had heard of wabi-sabi as a concept, when it was still a subtle mental abstraction, like a flicker of light in my peripheral vision, it was calling out to me. It wanted me to make my home in it, to remind myself of the heartbreakingly beautiful transience, imperfection and incompleteness of all things. The truth is in the dirt and this desert is full of wabi-sabi.

If you'd like to explore wabi-sabi further, I recommend Leonard Coren's slim volume, 'Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers'.