B y G r e g o r y M c N a m e e
NOT LONG AGO a desert-born dust storm rushed by my window, obscuring the view of the mountains 15 miles to the north, and that of the alligator junipers in my next-door neighbor's yard. Reddish-brown grains of sand formed small dunes in the streets of downtown Tucson, the date-palm tree in my yard bent nearly sideways, and a fury of static energy crackled in the air, warning residents of the city to stay away from telephones, computers and most other artifacts of our time. The sight was impressive, even a little frightening, all the more so because the season of the great dust storms--from late April until, say, late September--had not yet come.
Deserts are noted, of course, for their lack of water, and by definition are areas where the average annual rainfall does not exceed 10 inches--about 25 percent of the planet's surface, by most reckonings. Deserts are also noted, at least in the popular imagination, for their presumed consequent lack of life. The origin of the English word is in the Latin desertus, "abandoned," as in Robinson Crusoe's island home. Most deserts, in truth, are far from desolate. They swarm with life, albeit life that snarls, hisses, howls, bites, stings, or sticks. Still, the writer and ecologist David Quammen frames the question well by suggesting, "A desert is one of those entities, like virginity and sans serif typefaces, of which the definition must begin with negatives." The absence of water, the absence of the discernible four seasons, these things determine.
But the deserts of the world are not lacking in one thing: wind, and lots of it. What makes them deserts in the first place is not so much the lack of water as the fact that ever-thirsty winds pull such scant rain as falls from the clouds back skyward before it can reach or penetrate the ground. You can see this in the eerie "virgo" rain phenomenon, where ghostly trails of falling water evaporate thousands of feet above the earth in the thermal-ridden air. In windy Bagdad, California, not a drop of rain fell on the earth for 767 days, from September 3, 1912, to November 8, 1914; yet the sky was full of clouds in their season, water kept from the earth by the constant flow of desiccating wind. A similar arid river blows across West Texas, so strong, local legend has it, that if it ever stopped all the cows would fall down.
Dust storms are a common enough occurrence in southern Arizona, especially now that a development boom has scraped off vast swaths of ground cover in a mad effort to reshape the lower Sonoran Desert into another Los Angeles. They are common enough in every desert of the world. This one's sudden appearance transfixed me, though, blowing up as it did in a mild season, a time of clement, even sublime weather. This one, I thought at the time, had to be one more harbinger of the El Niño current's ongoing flip-flopping of the normal jet stream, reversing centuries-old patterns of rainfall and climate.
The mythographer and ethnologist Sir James G. Frazer rightly observed in his landmark study The Golden Bough, "Of all natural phenomena, there are, perhaps, none which civilized man feels himself more powerless to influence than the wind." (Let us set aside the adjective "civilized." It has little meaning anyway, especially in these thoroughly uncivilized times.) Of the 5,600,000,000,000,000 or so tons of air in the atmosphere, some large part is always whistling down, it seems, on desert rats, for it is the uneven distribution of solar energy that drives the winds--and solar energy is, of course, distributed in an embarrassment of riches across the face of the drylands.
THE DESERTS OF the world for the most part lie in the zone between the trade and westerly winds. At sea the "oceanic deserts," where rain does not often fall, are called "horse latitudes." Most deserts lie between 15 and 30 degrees from the equator, areas where constant high-pressure systems separate the westerlies and trade winds, which bring so much languid lushness to places like Guatemala and Malaysia. Those deserts that dare extend into the westerlies, like our Sonoran, are blocked by mountains that collect moisture while intensifying the winds, a sort of double whammy.
For half the year, most deserts are graced by caressing, soft winds that are nothing less than rejuvenating. In those breezes lie the promise of new life, reverberating through scents, in the case of my neighborhood, like that of the orange blossom--the orange, that marvelous heat-loving berry, having first been introduced to Europeans in the first century by Greek and Roman travelers to the Thar Desert of India, and reintroduced by Moors into the rich gardens of Andalusia, whence most of the Spanish explorers of New Spain arose. On such days the air hangs in the sky like a loose silk gown, so brilliantly clear, so deep blue, that it seems almost as if you could make out each individual molecule.
But were some master of the Chinese necromantic art of feng shui--the alignment of buildings to their environment--to design a house for a Sonoran Desert dweller in the normally clement month of February, the plans would have to be scrapped in two months' time. Come late April, when the orange blossoms fade into memory, ever-intensifying winds announce the advent of summer and, not far behind it, the monsoon season--for, as the Akimel O'odham, the "watercourse people" of the Sonoran Desert, say, "The rain is blind and must be led by the wind."
If you look into the literature of deserts, as I have been doing lately, you'll find wind as a constant no less than heat and aridity, and that is just as it should be. One of my favorite passages comes from the naturalist W. H. Hudson's fine 1917 memoir Idle Days in Patagonia, describing the dreaded pampero wind that tears across southern Argentina:
"The wind beats incessantly on the exposed roof with a succession of blasts of waves which vary in length and violence, causing all loose parts to vibrate into sound. And the winds are hissing, whimpering, whistling, muttering and murmuring, whining, wailing, howling, shrieking--all the inarticulate sounds uttered by man and beast in states of intense excitement, grief, terror, rage, and what not. And as they sink and swell and are prolonged or shattered into compulsive sobs and moans, and overlap and interweave, acute and shrill and piercing, and deep and low, all together forming a sort of harmony, it seems to express the whole ancient dreadful tragedy of man on earth."
A related wind, the simoun (from the Arabic word for poison), shrieks over the Sahara, whipping up sand and dust into fearful, sharp-grained chevaux de frise. Herodotus, the great Greek traveler and historian whom his younger contemporary Thucydides uncharitably called "the father of lies," doubtless got it right when he reported the story of a Libyan army that marched off two and a half millennia ago into the deep Sahara to find and subdue the lord of these storms. The expedition never returned, "disappearing, in battle array, with drums and cymbals beating, into a red cloud of swirling sand." The Assyrians, it is said, did much the same, sending squads of archers to combat the approaching clouds. And for good reason: a dust storm once buried Ur of the Chaldees, cause enough to seek vengeance.
The simoun has many local equivalents: the Moroccan sirocco, the Libyan ghibli, the Saudi khamsin, the Egyptian zoboa, the Australian "brickfielder," the Mongolian karaburan, the Sudanese haboob, the Mauritanian harmattan, and the Indian loo, which Rudyard Kipling describes in his story "The Man Who Would Be King" as a "red-hot wind from the westward, booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels." The logic of those winds seems to have prompted evolution to make a few alterations in the master plan; recently, biologists have concluded that camels, strange creatures to begin with, evolved so that, standing, they can clear the sand-laden zone of air, which goes up only to about six feet, slightly lower than the average camel's height. Other creatures--the antelope-like saiga of Central Asia and certain kinds of desert hares--have filtering tissues surrounding their respiratory tracts that give them the same adaptive advantage.
CLOSER TO HOME, the Tohono O'odham, "people of the stony barren," tell of water serpents that dwell in the boiling summer clouds that rage across deserts the world over, bringing rain to the dry earth not in nourishing drop but in great black undulating curtains of water, leaving floods and destruction in their wake. It is no sin to kill such serpents, the O'odham explain, but even their best shamans and archers rarely succeed in doing so.
Ignaz Pfefferkorn spent many years of his life trying to purge that shamanism, that ancient way of knowing nature, in his role as a Jesuit priest. Until he was expelled from the Kingdom of New Spain in 1767 along with the rest of his order--the Bourbon King Carlos III having decided to punish the Jesuits for their political intrigues in Europe--he oversaw a succession of missions in what is now northwestern Mexico, observing in his Sonora: A Description of the Province the ancestors of the summer storms, now ironically called "monsoons," that swelter overhead:
"Sonora, through these daily rains, receives a pleasant relief from the heat, and at the same time its products are increased. Hence, these rains would surely be considered as priceless blessings of nature were they not always accompanied by the most horrible thunderstorms, which not infrequently do great damage to men and animals in the villages and in the fields. One cannot listen to the continuous crashing of the thunder without shuddering. At times such thunderstorms bring with them a damaging hail, which destroys all growing things in the field and garden; or there may occur a ruinous cloudburst, in Sonora called culebra de agua, or water snake, which will flood over country and villages, devastating them. Sometimes the thunderstorms are accompanied by violent windstorms and whirlwinds, which lift the sand in a very thick, twisted column almost to the clouds. Nothing these whirlwinds seize can withstand their power....Hence, during these months everyone avoids traveling in the afternoon if possible, because of the constant danger of being caught in such a storm. Therefore, wherever one reaches a shelter around noon, or even a little before, the day's journey is ended."
During one such thunderstorm in Arizona in the summer of 1941, a saltwater clam fell from out of the sky on a young boy, who was knocked out cold by the blow. (He fared better than the playwright Aeschylus, on whose bald head an eagle dropped a tortoise, killing him instantly.) Scarcely a summer storm goes by when a pelican or albatross is not blown from the Pacific or the Gulf of California and dropped down into the heart of the inland desert, there indignantly to await what has become local tradition: a plane ride back to the coast.
Pfefferkorn had it right: It seems that nothing, indeed, can withstand the power of those great storms. Out of them, after all, have come gods to cow humans into obedience: In the wind-lashed Sinai desert Jehovah, recapitulating his origins as a Semitic storm god like his later rival Baal, first appeared before Moses as chain lightning. You will find in Ezekiel mention of "a storm coming out of the north, a vast cloud with flashes of fire and a brilliant light about it; and within was a radiance of brass, glowing in the heart of the flames." Such storms are unique among inorganic phenomena inasmuch as they resist the tendency of all things to slip away into inertia and entropy: instead, they swell, burst, spawn new storms, and eventually wander off elsewhere to cause new trouble. The last one to visit my home behaved less than divinely: it split a chinaberry tree neatly down the middle, tore up a good section of prickly-pear fence, and sent a well-rooted agave spinning off into the street, all within the space of perhaps a minute's time.
DESERT TEMPESTS HAVE brought down whole governments, like that of Ur of the Chaldees, like that of the worthy Jimmy Carter, who never quite recovered from the hostage-rescue debacle of 1979, when 19 Delta Force elite soldiers maneuvered their helicopters into a funnel of whirling dust over the barren saltpans of Iran. These "dust devils"--the term comes to us by some unknown source from the Indian subcontinent--are an astonishment of nature; if you drive from, say, Phoenix to Los Angeles across the sandy lowlands of the Sonoran and Mojavean deserts, you'll count dozens of them on most hot, cloudless days of the year, miniature cyclones dancing to their own music alongside the interstate. When I was about six years old, I walked into one as it carved its sinuous course in the gypsum deposits of White Sands, New Mexico, thinking it would take me off to Oz. I did not retrace Dorothy and Toto's adventures, but Southwestern legend has it that whole flocks of barnyard hens have been swept heavenwards through a passing dust devil's fancy. No one has personally seen this occur, of course, but then no one has seen another phenomenon that passes for fact in many parts out this way: It's so hot most days that chickens lay hard-boiled eggs.
The tallest dust devil ever recorded was spotted in Utah about 30 years ago. It stood about 2,000 feet tall, lasted for seven hours--an unusually long life span for what is in essence a tornado--and traveled across the alkali desert for more than 40 miles. That it came from the comparatively mild desert of Deseret is no surprise, really, for the Great Basin is the source of most of our continental storm systems. Even the fiercest Saharan sandstorm might be preferable to a day's contending with the basin's fierce katabatic winds, which sweep down onto the desert floor from the tall Sierra Nevada and Wasatch mountain fronts, generating howling low-pressure systems like the so-called Washoe winds. Mark Twain wrote of them, "seriously," that they are "by no means a trifling matter." Not so seriously, he described what a Washoe storm hid within its dust clouds:
"Hats, chickens and parasols sailing in the remote heavens; blankets, tin signs, sagebrush, and shingles a shade lower; doormats and buffalo robes lower still; shovels and coal scuttles on the next grade; glass doors, cats and little children on the next; disrupted lumber yards, light buggies and wheelbarrows on the next; and down only thirty or forty feet above ground was a scurrying storm of emigrating roofs and vacant lots."
Far on the remotest fringes of the Great Basin lies the resort town of Palm Springs, California, where I happened to spend a summer night not long ago. Trying to reach my room from the lobby, I was buffeted from one end of a Motel 6 parking lot to another by midnight winds that screamed down through the San Gorgonio Pass--the site, appropriately enough, of a giant windmill field, one of the West's countless monuments to surrealism--and the towering San Jacinto Mountains. As I careened off dumpsters and fire hydrants, I wondered why on earth wealthy celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Steve Allen, Gerald Ford, and Bob Hope should wish to spend their waning days surrounded by such gales. Perhaps it sharpens the edge somehow, rather like those sandblasted Egyptian pyramids are thought to do in certain mystical circles.
Those falling winds, cousins to the maloja of the Swiss Alps, the yama oroshi of Japan, and the reshabar of the southern Caucasus, are most famously known to Americans as the Santa Anas. The mechanism that drives them works like this: on warm days the air rises uphill from valley floors, and then cools as it ascends, creating an upward--downward wind flow. In the case of the Santa Ana winds, high pressure over Utah and Nevada causes air to spill off the Mojave Desert, rushing over the Pacific coastal range and onto the coastal lowlands. The coastal air is robbed of humidity by this thirsty invader and fills with static electricity. As it envelops desert and littoral alike, the Santa Ana creates a weird atmosphere of impending doom. During its season, as Raymond Chandler wrote in his famous short story "Red Wind," "Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."
Anything can, and it usually does. Most heart attacks and strokes among desert dwellers occur when the wind is blowing at force 4 or 5 on the Beaufort scale, or 11 to 21 miles per hour, about the average for a Santa Ana day. And statistics compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department demonstrate that homicide rates, already fantastically high in southern California, double on Santa Ana days. (In the Gobi the winds often blow between 15 and 25 miles an hour for weeks at a time. I wonder why contemporary Mongolians don't massacre each other daily, but I also understand better why the bloodthirsty Golden Horde exploded from out of the high steppes a millennium ago.) In Pfefferkorn's time, Spanish defendants could cite the wind as an extenuating circumstance in homicide trials. The dust devil, it would seem, made them do it.
Old Ibn Khaldun, the great Moroccan historian, must have been working on a public-relations campaign when he wrote, "The Desert People are closer to being good than other settled peoples because they are closer to the First State and are more removed from all the evil habits that have infected the hearts of settlers." One glimpse of the fin-de-siècle Southland in the windy season would have forever scrapped that sentiment.
Matters grow worse with the advent of a desert thunderstorm, a water-laden wind blown up to tremendous proportion, one that bears the energy equivalent of a dozen atomic bombs of the kind that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Rogue" ions from air molecules cause such a storm to discharge electricity; the resultant negative ions promote crankiness, loss of production, and, yes, psychopathic impulses. You need not, of course, live in a desert to experience these moods and their unhappy effects. As we increasingly tamper with microclimates to create dry, germ-free atmospheres in office buildings and shopping centers, the bacteriologist Alfred Krueger warns, our artificial climate-regulated lives will be ever more spent with a positive-ion deficit, a situation that he calls "clearly unnatural and probably unhealthy."
Poison winds, Santa Anas, homicide, despair. The winds of the world's deserts grind down whole mountains over geological time, scrub boulders down to pavement and dust, lay bare the bleak flats of the Bisti badlands of the Navajo Nation, the clean-scoured saltpans of the Taklamakan. Why ever would anyone choose to live among these all-devouring currents?
Perhaps because, eternal optimists, we remember the gentle days, the scent of birthing orange buds and new bunchgrass, days when the calls of birds and coyotes linger in the soft, still air. Even after escaping what turned out to be the hottest summer in recorded Sonoran Desert climatic history for a few weeks in August of 1994, I found myself missing the culebras de agua and howling winds when I should have been thanking my stars for a sojourn in the temperate Ish River country. Call it perverse, but I was glad to descend again into the familiar furnace of the Great American Desert.
The desert winds do not tolerate our inexperience, and they assure us of our many imperfections. They test us and find us wanting. But they keep those of us who chose to live in their thrall guessing, never quite certain of what the next subtle shift of current will bring: a scent from paradise, or a blast from the inferno.
Gregory McNamee is the author, most recently, of Gila: The Life and Death of an American River (Crown, 1994), and, with Art Wolfe, of In the Presence of Wolves (Crown, 1995). He is also the editor of The Sierra Club Desert Reader: A Literary Companion (Sierra Club Books, 1995), from which this article is adapted.
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