Monday, July 22, 2013


The first time I went to Arabia Mountain, this past March on Holy Saturday, I was astonished at the blanket of granite all around me. I had seen bits and pieces of the mountain on public television, but clearly I either hadn’t been paying attention or the camera did not capture the sweep of the place, the energy of it. My friend and I hiked for quite some time across the granite mountainface that day. He loves the mountain and enjoyed telling me stories about it, about how he and some friends just made it off the granite before it discharged electricity in the early moments of a storm. Other stories too. The landscape of the mountain, which is not really a mountain but a monadnock, seemed at once familiar and totally otherworldly to me. In Barry Lopez’s book Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, Bill McKibben describes a monadnock like this:

            Though all land erodes, that erosion is never perfect; where harder rocks resist, an isolated mountain or hill called a monadnock can rise above the reduced plain, an unassimilated remnant of the loftier previous geology. The word comes from the Abenaki Indians, with one possible meaning of “the mountain that stands alone.” ...In the climactic chapter of Moby Dick, Melville describes Ahab as “fairly within the smoky mountain mist, which, thrown off from the whale’s spout, curled around his great, Monadnock hump."

An unassimilated remnant. The words carry a singularity and strength but Arabia is much more than a remnant for me. In the spring, patches of crimson diamorpha catch water and light, and after a few weeks they go brown. They seem to melt into the pocks of granite then, tousles of smallness where little fiery moss-meadows of bright rarity were before. Some of the pocks hold water from rain, and the water shines when the sun hits it in late afternoon, so that the lunar crumplesheet of granite seems almost to lift itself away from the earth around it. Trees, mostly conifers, dot the landscape, and there are islands of little forest all about. The people in charge of the National Heritage Area that includes Arabia built cairns all across its face at points where hikers could find their way back to the road. The cairns aren’t very big, and there is an organic rightness to them that is not invasive. The spirit of Arabia, such as I have encountered it in spring and summer, is one of paradox. It is both generous and fierce, rich and sere. It held me gently that Holy Saturday I first walked across it with my friend Phil, and then it called my lonesome spirit out and tossed it around like a plaything the next time I was there, some weeks later, on my own. I like that the granite of Arabia is akin to the granite of Mount Sinai. Arabia is not a desert, but it carries that same liminal edge that I felt in the desert just outside the Hopi reservation many years ago. It gets hot fast on Arabia. The air can feel charged with electricity even when there’s no storm coming. I feel both solitary and watched by God on Arabia. The two things come together in a dialectic of grace that is much different from the lush greenness of the Appalachian foothills where I live. The energy of Arabia insists on emptiness. It is not empty itself, exactly, but it seems to want me to be. Not long ago, at the start of the summer, I went to Arabia on a Sunday afternoon after having been at a weekend retreat at the Trappist monastery just a few miles down the road. The retreat was entitled “prayer and the image of God.” I’d gone to it last year, too, and I had been excited about it on Friday going in. Parts of the retreat were challenging and profound but other parts were a little disappointing. The final “conference” was to have been presented by one of the monks Sunday morning, but it was cancelled due to the Eucharistic Congress taking place in Atlanta. I was surprised and slightly disappointed, but not hugely so, and I certainly wasn’t angry. As I left the monastery grounds I contemplated stopping at the beautiful Abbey Church to pray with the people there, but I decided against it. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament felt oddly disingenuous and even passive to me, a stark contrast to my usual sense of reverent eagerness. Then, too, I just did not want to be indoors with wooden choir stalls, stained glass, and blue light. I needed to be outside. So I went to Arabia. It was, I think, about the fourth time I had visited. It was a hot day, and as I got out of my car and put on my old blue cap I very briefly reconsidered the visit. But it felt right to be there, so, camera in hand, I walked on. The bright red diamorpha had long since faded into earthy brown. The sky was a relentless blue. The air smelled feral and sharp. I tried to identify that smell but could not. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled it anywhere else. There is something of patchouli, there, almost, and something of citrus, and a bit of evergreen, and something almost of the way asphalt smells after a rain. I have wondered if the place smells that way to anyone else. At any rate, I had been meaning to pray on Arabia, but words wouldn’t come. I wasn’t angry. Just empty. And as I noted the almost palpable fountain of emptiness the mountain was showing me I realized I was deeply, quietly happy. I felt at peace with the world, not in any visionary or supernatural way, but in a very ordinary, modest way that I did not really recognize at first. It felt like the air around me, the air in between pine needles and boulders, the air I was breathing, was charged with the blankness of God. No image. No sound. No taste. No thought. My mind did not try to grab on to much while I walked. I did not try to identify any birdsong or wildflowers. I watched where I stepped and I took a few photographs of noonday sun through clouds. At one point I lay down on the granite on my stomach to take a picture of a puddle, layered and shining. After I took a couple of pictures I put away my camera and rested my head on my forearms, just lying there still in the heat. The air seemed cupped and held, then sent along its way. It was not moving much, but it seemed to be. I had the thought that I was glad I had chosen to be there on the granite rather than indoors with dark wood and stone walls. And I thought about the image of God, or really the absence of an image. I thought about another time I had sat and felt something akin to this empty freedom, this nameless blankness, this love I had to work for to understand as such. It had been in the desert of northern Arizona, near Wupatki, a blowhole in the earth, right beside an ancient Anasazi ruin. I watched the sun set over the San Francisco peaks that summer day and felt included in its color. Being on Arabia that Sunday afternoon was something like that. As if I had asked a question and been totally refused a coherent, rational answer. Instead there was the invisible cup of emptiness all around and within me. The breath of grace. The spirit of something like a desert there, far away from where any desert really is. No image, no teacher, no ritual, no words. Just a silent God who knew I needed far, far less than I had ever believed possible, and who was delivering that deficit both fiercely and ineffably. My retreat was complete. It was time to go home.

©copyright Laura Sorrells 2013
all rights reserved

Source used:
Lopez, Barry., ed. Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006. Print.


  1. what a wondrous, holy place. you wrote a beautiful word picture. love the dragonfly most of all. xo

  2. Thank you. it doesn't go along with this piece specifically, but I just recently added it. I've been taking pictures of dragonflies (and other wildlife) for about four years now. Yes, Arabia is wondrous, sometimes dramatically and sometime quietly. I appreciate your kind words.

  3. Wonderful--I have never heard of this mountain, but it's in North GA? I will have to seek it out the next time I am that way.

  4. Yes. It's in Dekalb County, just outside of Atlanta. Oddly, I grew up about 30 miles away and never visited until this past spring. I think I'm glad it's not that well-known. If you want, sage, drop me a line when you're around these parts and maybe we can meet up for a hike there.

  5. sage, pardon me, but I meant to ask you about Will Campbell----it seems I remember something you might have written about him, but I could be delusional. No one else I know, except for the University of Georgia lit professor who introduced me to Campbell 29 years ago, has ever mentioned him. I read Brother to a Dragonfly several times. Great book.


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Georgia, United States
I live at the edge of the forest in a little town in the north Georgia mountains. I teach sixth grade Language Arts and am writing a memoir of sorts about family, spirituality, and narrative. I am also exploring a possible writing project having to do with contemporary lay contemplative experience and how it might be informed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity. I am a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, and Richard Rohr. I'm a Lay Associate of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I am interested in indigenous cultures, narratives, and spirituality, especially how these can inform my spirituality as a lay contemplative. I write, read, take pictures, play around with creating ephemera from paper and cloth and other organic things. I cook, hike, watch wildlife, and collect random bits of interesting oddness, both tangible and abstract. I am a seer of smallness and a caretaker of ridiculous minutiae. If you want, e-mail me at or