On Tuscon Tucson

Michael Logan should have dug deeper for 'Desert Cities'

Nobody really talks about "The West" anymore, except maybe a few weirdos over at Old Tucson and a handful of dull academics. Those days are gone.

We are an urban culture, and currently we deploy the finest, most expensive technology to wall ourselves off from all that nasty nature stuff outside. The idea of "The West" may have shaped our communities out here in the beginning, but our cleverness has made the concept irrelevant. "The West" may as well be the North, or the South or Back East--quaint terms, all of them, but essentially anachronisms in today's brave new iWorld.

We wake up in our aromatherapy-scented, air-conditioned Stepford home, shower in fossil water dredged up from deep within the bowels of the earth and eat chemically enhanced food hauled in from distant lands. We get in our air-conditioned SUVs made from internationally outsourced parts, open and close the garage without ever leaving the vehicle and speed on over to our air-conditioned cube-farm workplaces. Eight hours later, we do the same in reverse.

Nowadays, "The West" is no more than a Photoshopped poster on the wall or the name of a kind of bacon cheeseburger.

"You may ask yourself," sang David Byrne, "how did I get here?"

Michael Logan's new Desert Cities: The Environmental History of Phoenix and Tucson tries to answer that question as it applies to the two ugly, smog-drenched, sprawl-choked, crime-infested cities that dominate any discussion of Arizona. It's kind of like that old rivalry: UA or ASU? In the end, according to Desert Cities, it turns out they're pretty much the same, but with different-colored uniforms.

I was thrown into an ugly mood right from the beginning when there, on Page 11, I stumbled across "Tucson" spelled as "Tuscon." If you're gonna write a book about Tucson and Phoenix, you'd bloody well better spell Tucson right. (Yeah, we Tucsonans are touchy about this.) Oh, and this was after typos had already derailed me a couple of times. (Hellooo, University of Pittsburgh Press. It's called a "copy editor." Hire one. And if you think I'm bad, a buddy of mine is so anal that if he finds a book that has typos, he won't even finish it!)

So after all this excitement about Tuscon (A Year in the Tuscon Sun? Sorry, bad joke.), we never really get a clear picture of just what the heck an environmental history is or should be. Dr. Logan calls this "THE environmental history" of our two cities. A powerful claim that, well, doesn't seem to hold a lot of water.

If you read Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire or Chuck Bowden's Killing the Hidden Waters and Frog Mountain Blues (with photos by Jack Dykinga), you'll get a terrific idea of what environmental history is really about. It's putting human history and culture into the context of the natural environment, and identifying and describing the feedback loops that impact and change both.

This little book doesn't really do that. It's more like a miniature chronological history, but it is to history what those new mini biographies out there are to biography: short, sweet and they leave out a lot.

Logan previously wrote The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River. What I remember about that book is how the author left out an entire section of the river that crosses an Indian reservation, something that bugged me, because I actually worked for the tribe at the time. That same sort of lackadaisical approach is even more evident here.

Typos aside, Desert Cities ignores a lot of really important history as well as environmental background, glides over the details and in some places is simply wrong or out of date. I suspect the main reason for these problems is the author's heavy reliance on secondary sources. With the vast treasure trove of literature out there about both the history and environment of our beloved Sonoran Desert region and the life of cities, I really expected more.

The book's most egregious omission is its failure to mention the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (www.pima.gov/cmo/sdcp). This cutting-edge, nationally recognized plan is something we should all be damn proud of. My friend Carolyn Campbell should get a medal for her amazing effort to try to prevent Tucson from becoming Phoenix. Sadly, Desert Cities ignores one of the most exciting and hopeful developments in the environmental history of our town and the one thing that significantly differentiates us from that smoggy blob 100 miles up Interstate 10.

Maybe a future edition of the book will dig a little deeper?