Quick sands

In the White Sands region of New Mexico, every tree and grass blade creates its own hillock of sand, its own significant ripple in the landscape. It is a contest of will: The plants force the sand to go around them, or are smothered. Though such battles are all around me, as I wander the dunes I am moved by the serenity of this supposedly harsh environment, the calm harmony of sand and saltbush, yucca, and sky. Here the struggle for life is straightforward, waged without bitterness or rancor, and full of unexpected victories.

Among the surprises are the cottonwood trees that root deep into the sand for water and stretch taut curved limbs to the sky. Trees in a desert of pure sand? Yet their shapes are graceful and energetic: not haphazard as if hastily sketched but with a quality of being exactingly composed and balanced. They assert form and meaning in the undifferentiated whiteness of the dunes surrounding them.

Contrast is the essence of this land. White Sands National Monument contains 230 square miles of gypsum sand dunes, the largest field of its kind in the world. Adjacent to the monument, ''a wildlife sanctuary where all plants and animals are protected for you to enjoy,'' is the White Sands Missile Range. Some 60 miles to the north is the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was exploded in 1945.

The silence of the dunes is touched only by the wind and by frequent military jets passing overhead, very high, very fast. It is so quiet that I turn around, startled, when a sparrow chirps behind me. The trees do not have enough leaves to rustle.

In the desert, foggy confusion evaporates. Each life form is distinct and focused, not lost in a green amorphous blur. The whiteness of the sand becomes a pure context, setting off each blown ricegrass tracing a circle in the sand, each track of a darkling beetle, each changing wisp of cloud.

It dawns on me that there is sand as far as I can see, rolling frothy pillows of sand - surely the world's largest sandbox, and with mountain ranges for walls. I tell myself go ahead. I scramble up a dune and run down, taking giant cushioned steps, shrieking. I do cartwheels - my glasses fly off.

On top of a dune I pause to sit and catch my breath, as carefree as a child. From here I can see two enormous red-and-white tracking towers to the north. Beyond them, toward Trinity, there are muffled explosions. More jets pass overhead, heard but barely seen.

The dunes are so big, the blue encircling mountains so expansive, that the dark wedges hurrying across the sky at first seem tiny and easy to dismiss. Their vapor trails, however, linger above me, unwelcome graffiti in the blue sky. One drifts before the sun and the slight coolness raises goose bumps on my skin.

I gaze at the crisscrossed sky and continue to shiver even after the sun reappears. A shadow remains. Reluctantly I do what I have resisted doing so far: I imagine the missiles standing at attention a few miles away. Like the cottonwood trees, they too are carefully designed and balanced. But they are filled with an energy antithetical to that of the cottonwoods, an energy of destruction rather than affirmation.

With an unfolding sense of discovery, I peer at the trees growing so resolutely in shifting sands. Although capable of burying life, the white sands also illuminate the vitality of each stem and shrub against a brilliant background. The missiles, however, carry hot white annihilation in which no seedling can survive.

It is not surprising that we human beings came to test our missiles in the clean white desert. The dunes must have seemed a perfect playground for the vehicles of war to romp in, unhindered and unnoticed. We could have clean, controlled, antiseptic explosions, and avoid confronting the destruction of soft green living things.

We came under a delusion that there was nothing here, and instead brought nothingness with us. But the attempt to escape from reminders of life backfires. The tense, determined shapes of these lone trees and plants only underscore the fragile wonder of life, only dramatize the absurd horror of life-obliterating weapons.

A camaraderie springs up as I stare at the cottonwood trees. Keep tapping for springs and raising tiny leaves to the sun, I whisper to them; keep affirming the persistence of greenery and growth in the midst of emptiness. Keep fighting white suffocation against the odds. And I will do the same.

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