Center of the Universe 

This Sonoran Desert tome could have used an editor, but it's still a must-have

Writer Joan Didion calls her hefty nonfiction anthology We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. I thought of this recently while wrestling with another big, new book, Dry Borders: Great Natural Reserves of the Sonoran Desert.

The book is edited by Richard Felger--botanist and founding director of the Drylands Institute--and Bill Broyles--retired high school English and gym teacher, UA Southwest Center research associate, writer, explorer, desert rat and all-around polymath. It's pretty safe to say that if anyone knows the stories of our Sonoran Desert, it's these two.

I recently learned that Felger, author of a pile of books and articles about our region and who has long proclaimed the Sonoran Desert to be the "Center of the Universe," is fleeing our fair city for another state. This is not a good sign. Was it something we said? Have we perhaps lost our title to another place that hasn't been invaded, hacked up, paved, developed and sold off to the highest bidder?

On one hand, Dry Borders is a series of elegant, sometimes haunting love letters to the Sonoran Desert. On the other, it's kind of an obituary, a tombstone for the slow death of one of the world's most unique and wondrous places as it faces overdevelopment, the criminal depletion of its water resources and the scourge of invasive species that are changing the face of the desert, probably forever. The book is a record of what was, and what we are losing rapidly.

If all this seems a little confusing, well, it is. Dry Borders is a little schizophrenic in that it can't make up its mind what it is. Is it natural history? Human history? A technical scientific volume? A list of species? A gazetteer? Well, it's all this, crammed together in a monstrous 800-page tome. It's a huge compendium of knowledge and facts and information and stories and narrative, and it simply tries to do too much. It really needs an editor.

Don't get me wrong--this is a vital, important book. If you're already a desert fiend, it's a must-have, and if you don't know diddley about the desert, you need to pick it up, because maybe you'll learn something important (especially if you are new here). The authors of each chapter are some of the most brilliant, respected and admired scientists and writers in our region. But there were a few low-grade irritants in the book that periodically drove me batty.

One of these was the discovery, to my horror, that I'm actually in the book a couple of times (in a photo and an acknowledgement--my editor insists I mention this in the interest of full disclosure). No one ever actually talked to me about this book or anything in it. There is also a little revisionist history regarding the creation of Sonoran Desert National Monument and the history of the revival and death of the idea for a Sonoran Desert national or international park. Some of the maps and figures are a little clunky and inadequate, especially for folks who don't already know the geography of the Center of the Universe. There are other small errors, omissions, organizational glitches and so on. But these are niggling, inconsequential problems not worth worrying about.

The book really sings when some of the scientists step out of character and talk about what they do and how and why they do it. There are many historic and modern photos, and some fascinating history you won't find elsewhere. Felger's chapter on being a botanist at the center of the universe is worth the price of admission alone. There really is no other book like this.

Ezequiel Ezcurra puts it best in his magical introduction:

"In this unique desert, a day is reached when resting under the immense mantle of stars we realize that our imagination flies there as in no other place on Earth. We think of the hundreds of kilometers of solitude that surround us, and we realize with surprise that feeling so small does not produce anguish in our hearts. On the contrary, it makes us feel valuable; it gives a meaning to our connection with this great wilderness. The scale of our own smallness makes us feel part of a greater nature. When this apparent contradiction finds its nest in our emotions, we know the desert has taken hold of our hearts and of our minds. The Gran Desierto is inside us, forever. There is no way back."

Long live the Sonoran Desert. Hopefully, Dry Borders will open the eyes of a new generation to the beauty and wonder of the Center of the Universe.

More by Jon Shumaker

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