Dust in the Water

Photographer Lucian Niemeyer captures the contradictory beauty of wetlands in the desert

When I moved from the swamp of Florida to the desert Southwest, I thought I'd be spared nature's humid embrace and instead suffer through a life dust and dry heat. Yes, I can pick the grit from my teeth with a toothpick, but it still beats the sticky sensation of being banished to a subtropical bathhouse where I used to have to take three showers a day just to feel like a human being. OK, I suffered through some serious nosebleeds when I first arrived here, but what hasn't killed me has strengthened my appreciation for the hot, harsh climate.

Now photographer Lucian Niemeyer's new book, Desert Wetlands, has introduced me to the other end of this region's environmental spectrum, a revelation that makes me think back to my days spent in the Sunshine State. Like the marshes of Florida, the wetlands of the Southwest are delicate, valuable and beautiful. Sure, they're not teeming with alligators and bass, but that doesn't mean they lack rich and abundant wildlife.

As Niemeyer points out in his preface, although the term "desert wetlands" might seem like an oxymoron, it's the presence of water--not its absence--that makes the desert possible. And in places like Arizona, water is a valuable commodity that makes spots like, say, Patagonia Lake State Park so necessary to our ecosystem. Indeed, the loss of a single wetland area causes a ripple effect throughout the environment.

There are no ripples in Niemeyer's photography. These are placid, verdant images of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas that massage the heart, even as the mind ponders how and when to visit these places. Some of my favorite shots include Montezuma Well, where "ancient puebloans" once lived among dry rock formations and waterscaped cottonwoods, and the epic overflow of the Colorado River on the Arizona side of Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.

Desert Wetlands isn't just about visual splendor, though. There's some fascinating text courtesy of Thomas Lowe Fleischner, who teaches in the Environmental Studies Program at Prescott College, and whose near-death experiences in canyon country are a little startling. There are the couple of occasions when, instead of packing a ton of H2O like any sane person, he relied on a topographic map for his next drink. His description of finally reaching "a rusty, sawed-in-half barrel" (covered in scum and intended for cows), then plunging his head into it, is troubling. And then there was the time he and some friends penetrated a remote area of the Sonoran Desert, just a few miles from the Mexican border. A light rain descended, but a light rain is a major event in a place like the Sonoran. Soon, Fleischner and his crew almost found themselves trapped by water, Robinson Crusoe-style: "Our whole geography had altered as we were forced to consider our escape route--what was island and what was mainland?"

Remind me never to go camping with this guy, OK?

Seriously, despite Fleischner's brushes with danger, he does a superb job interjecting interesting narratives and useful information (in the form of sidebars) on the subject of desert wetlands. For example, his bit on "pan-evaporation," in which ecologists "place a broad pan of water out in the elements and measure how much water evaporates in the desert sun," is fascinating. (According to Fleischner, this approach reveals that Tucson's climate evaporates "eight times more water than it actually receives as rain." That's some heat.)

But ultimately this is Niemeyer's show, and his work thrills the senses, from the white-faced ibis on Pond Loop in New Mexico's Basque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, to the great egret perched like a white flower amidst the sweeping, green expanse at Arizona's Arivaca Lake. This is the kind of book that inspires me to plan an outing and escape the urban desert, where the blacktop only makes me hotter, sweatier and, yes, more aggravated. Sometimes, we all just need a dip in an oasis, and Niemeyer's Desert Wetlands will at least get your feet wet.

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