All is simple and clear. There is this looming mound of earth – sand, soil, rocks, bones, insects, reptiles, and vegetation – which, when unified in large quantities, seems to humans deserving of the name mountain. It appears as the result of a giant's hands squeezing the stuff of earth into his fist and then letting go and dusting the remnants off of his palm to sprinkle the top with rounded boulders. Yet I also know that this formation can be explained in scientific terms: a volcano collapsed here millions of years ago. The top simply slid off to become the Tucson Mountains while the rest remained to become the Santa Catalinas. Earth shift and erosion dug out a valley in between the two in which humans decided to nestle, calling it Tucson. Weathering slowly shaved the corners off of the rocks of the Catalina Mountains, giving them their rounded shape I see today. These explanations are held in my mind simultaneously as one, and I do not question them. My hands rest on granite and gneiss and dust from a giant's palm.
And this looming mound of earth, that is so much and yet, relatively, so little at the same time, is not separate from me, not a simple place upon which to rest. It encompasses much of that which is me and I it.
I am seated 6000 feet above sea level. The pressure of hundreds of square feet of space below my feet gives my toes a prickling sensation as they dangle off the cliff edge. I feel the curious urge to do what is most simple – to allow myself to fall, utterly under the control of gravity, into the rich emptiness that hovers before and beneath me. I am surprised by how little fear is evoked by this idea. Instead I am comforted as this thought is equally accompanied by a sureness that I am steadily seated on the rock, even as the wind lifts my hair from the nape of my neck and nudges me steadily towards its destination.
Rippled mountain peaks, appearing quite small from my height, spread before me, like sand dunes blown by a strong but unsteady wind. The scar of a valley sucks the edges into it, jaggedly making its way in a diagonal to my right. A very dull yellow-ish pervades but is dappled by greens, darker in some places, thickest in a particular patch to my lower left. In a few spots, this color has been wiped away to reveal the graying whiteness of stone, a similar color to the winding highway that wraps itself around the mid-section of one of the peaks. Dark blue collects in a few caches. Beyond the last mountain, the flat desert is covered in a foggy sky-blue, and the farthest reach of visible horizon is coated in a light wash of blue that denotes distant mountains and fades up into the white that hovers over the landscape. Several clouds imitate the mountain shapes from their positions high above.
All around me sit car-sized chunks of rock resting comfortably on the shoulders of the supporting stone plate that protrudes from the mountain edge. Smaller rocks balance on top of each other. Some of these stacks rise to more than four times my height, and it is impossible not to believe that the dozens of flattened granite slabs were lovingly, tediously, carefully arrange by some very strong being with a passion for tidiness.
Two black specks rising up the side of a thumb-like formation 350 feet away from where I sit are a pair of rock climbers. Upon reaching the top, one sits, drinking from a metal water bottle, while the other busies himself with gathering supplies before carrying on. Their voices reach my ears as clearly and intimately as if I were there among them, exhilarated after a good climb. They talk of coffee shops and mutual friends and car troubles, and as I close my eyes I am there with them, undeterred by where the rocks drop off, living and breathing as part of the very mountain itself.
The card I chose for my friend had a black and white drawing on the cover: a night scene along the Bosphorus, the straight that connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. On the left was a mosque with two tall, pointy Ottoman-style minarets; in-between them was the outline of a moon. Several dark buildings were drawn along the water’s edge, and in the distance could be seen seven more tiny minarets. The sky was blackness washed in a soft wave of white, like the mist that so often blurred the edges of Istanbul at night.
There is a word in French, ténèbres, which is a noun referring to darkness or obscurity. It is always plural – les ténèbres – accounting for a multiplicity that English does not see. There are layers to darkness, rather than it being a single, unified force.
When I was nineteen years old, I returned to the Grand Canyon eight years after my first visit. This other time, I had been with family and family friends. We had taken pictures at the lookout points, rode a raft down the Colorado River, and read a children’s book about a mule. After the sun had set, we had left the edge of the cavern and gone to dinner.
This second time, returning with one of the family friends I had been with before, a girl of my own age, we arrived just before sunset. We could not stay overnight, so we were glad to catch the view before nightfall. For a while, we stood with the other tourists, taking pictures of the red-orange rock, the spindly fir trees, and the remnants of snow on the edges of the gap.
When we walked to a section with less people around, I decided we should walk off of the path, closer to the edge. There were no fences, but I had noticed a small sign earlier that asked visitors to stay on the path. I figured we could tell anyone who noticed that we hadn’t known it was not allowed.
After slowly making our way down a slight decline, my friend and I edged out onto an extension of rock and sat a few feet from the drop-off, a mile of empty air.
We returned to the path when the sun was nearly all set, giving ourselves enough light to climb back up the slope. As darkness fell – or, really, as darkness seemed to rise up from that deep opening in the earth – we continued following the path along the edge. Once the final red streak of sunset had faded from the horizon, every tourist had either left in their cars or gone into nearby restaurants. We continued walking until it seemed time to turn around, as our fingertips and noses tingled with cold. But before leaving I wanted to look at the canyon one last time. I walked to the wooden railing, six inches from the abrupt drop, and leaned out, steadying myself with my hands on the rail. I looked into the darkness, expecting to see nothing but the purest black, an expanse of unified nothingness. Looking into the Grand Canyon at night must be the very definition of the dark, I thought. However, what I saw was not solid blackness. It was layers, deep and far away, yet perhaps in hand’s reach. I could differentiate thousands of them as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. The canyon at night felt more intimate than during the day. I had the feeling that I, too, was in the ténèbres, just as the rocks were.
Istanbul at night is layered in darknesses, too. Something about these layers – that they are unknown and not fully knowable, distant yet near – draws me in and comforts me in their complexity, makes me lean closer as I did at the canyon and feel as if I am part of something larger as I find myself obscured by them as well.
If you watch the Bosphorus late enough at night, you will notice huge blocks of moving darkness unlike those around them. These are the large freight boats, carrying in the necessities of the city. They are built only for utility, paint peeling off their outsides, and Istanbul lawmakers decided that this side of the city was not one that they wanted to be visible. By safety regulation, these carriers can only enter the waters of the city during certain nighttime hours, sneaking in, as it were, so that the imports and exports exchange occurs while the people dream. They are only visible to those who watch the black nighttime waters long enough to discern what is in them.