A Damaged Landscape

William deBuys forecasts the death of one of his longtime loves—the American Southwest

William deBuys' 2007 book The Walk begins: "A species of hope resides in the possibility of seeing one thing, one phenomenon or essence, so clearly and fully that the light of its understanding illuminates the rest of life." This is the fundamental idea behind his latest book, A Great Aridness.

With the subtitle Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, there's initially a sense of fear and loathing that—uh oh—here's another addition to that mind-numbing new genre of books ranting about climate change.

Fortunately for us, this thoughtful, sophisticated book is a completely different animal.

Before I go any further, I want to say something to any climate-change deniers out there: Please, for the sake of the rest of us (not to mention the planet), pull your heads out of your ponderous asses. There is no doubt that climate change is happening. It is directly tied to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, an earthshaking development in human history that led directly to a massive increase in the combustion of fossil fuels and thus their combustion products. It is supported by an irrefutable body of scientific facts. Not believing in climate change is like not believing in gravity, or not believing that the Earth is round.

End of lecture.

DeBuys is a much kinder and gentler person than I am, and his book reflects a deep and passionate concern for where he lives—the greater American Southwest—and what has been happening to his home place these past several years. He writes of dramatic changes that are happening all around us. If you're not seeing them, you're not paying attention.

I went into this book with certain expectations, which turned out to be completely wrong. It is put out there as a book about climate change and how the American Southwest is on the front lines of that change. At a deeper level and between the lines, it is also a personal love story about a man and the region where he has chosen to take his stand, and how the places he has known intimately for decades are changing and going away. DeBuys' longtime love is dying, and he is hurting in the face of this reality. I feel his pain.

A talented, skilled writer, deBuys deftly deploys his considerable historical and journalistic tools to bring back the story. He has come to see and understand the phenomenon of the Southwest's tragic and violent environmental history so clearly and fully that he perfectly illuminates how we are affecting the future of all life on the planet, including our own.

Various chapters describe how, as things change and the place slowly dies, the earth-rapers are looking to squeeze out every last drop of water and every crackling megawatt of electricity before the whole thing dries up and blows away. Other species and the natural world as a whole are simply collateral damage. You have to wonder: Are we inherently evil? Or just thoughtless?

Arizona is a major character in this book, and it seems a lot of bad stuff is in store for us.

From the beginning, A Great Aridness causes you to stop, close the book and ponder what you have just read. It opens with a crime: the murder of trader Charley Hubbell at the Cedar Springs trading post on the Navajo Reservation in 1919. A pair of Navajo trackers followed the murderers for 80 miles across rock and sand, through washes and canyons, before running them into the ground. At this point, you're asking: What the hell?

But then you discover deBuys is cleverly using this story as a metaphor for the study of climate change. The two trackers sort through a complex universe of data and clues and false leads in order to tease out the trail of the murderers. This is exactly the process climate scientists use to extract the facts from the noise that is weather and climate and history. Climate-change deniers are black-and-white thinkers in a world filled with shades of gray. The gift of deBuys' writing is that even people who hurt their heads when they think should be able to understand the issues after reading this book.

This strange, lovely, troubling and sometimes infuriating book defies any attempt to categorize it. Wandering around the history map of the American Southwest, deBuys brilliantly narrates the stories of this gorgeous, damaged landscape he knows and loves.

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