Our deepest knowledge of most places in which we have lived and loved—a landscape or the edge of a seascape—may well come to us in waves. Yet, what if our recognition of desert nature comes to us in dowsing splashes, hot flashes, or sharp-edged gashes?
Perhaps our recognition of what a desert is or can be does not simply come to us through some rational process of steadily accumulating knowledge over time. Instead, perhaps we learn what is memorable about deserts through a more imaginative process, one that comes in fits and starts, by solving riddles and reflecting on paradoxes, by abandoning dualisms and junking our prejudices.
Of course, there have been many prejudices—or at least, presumptions—about what a desert is and what it cannot possibly be.
The Comcáac, Pima, Tohono O'odham and Yaqui people who first introduced me to desert living left me with a sense that a desert is an enchanted place. For them and many others, a desert is where hummingbirds, butterflies, bats, coyotes, deer, and flowers shimmer and sing in a resounding chorus from the first light of dawn through the rising of the moon (Evers and Molina 1987; Hill 1992).
And yet, over the arc of Western history, it seems that once a particular place is called a desert, we tend to ignore the enchantment and dwell in the dry facts, postponing the process of deeper, more exuberant or reflective exploration. Sometimes, we fail to see the shimmer or hear the cacophonous chorus at sunrise. In fact, many men and women have stopped thinking about deserts once words like desolate, unproductive, abandoned, degraded, deserted, and empty first cross their lips.
When we dismiss the possibility of enchantment in all that deserts might be and mean, we do so at our own peril, or at the cost of not engaging with multiple wonders as we intensely experience many pleasures and certain pains.
So, I am here with good news: a fresher, nondualistic way of perceiving deserts has recently emerged in the natural sciences and in the arts that echoes and enhances an older way of imagining the desert found in the spiritual traditions of many ancient desert cultures. The shimmer is recognized, and the cacophonous chorus is heard once again.
I suppose that I was first desensitized by categorical dismissals of "low-productivity landscapes" while growing up in the Indiana Dunes, even though my childhood haunts in sandy habitats were not true deserts by any stretch of the imagination. Although I remember conversing with jays and sucking the juices from the sweet stems of wildflowers sprawling over the sandy hummocks, I never remember any adult speaking of this enchanted world.
What I do remember is how our visitors from other parts of the Midwest callously responded to our sand dunes while on short holidays away from their Corn Belt farms. They might gaze up at Mount Tom—the highest dune on our horizon—snap a photo of it with their Brownie cameras, then turn around and walk back to the car.
"You might say it's kind of purdy in its own peculiar way," I can recall—or at least paraphrase—one of our guests saying. "But all that wasted space—how can you grow anything in all that sand?"
"Nothing grows here?" I asked myself that day in the dunes. (I sometimes ask that same question when hearing newcomers react to the Sonoran Desert, too.) Sure, soy or hybrid corn might not last here on their own for long, but prickly pear cacti and whiptail lizards don't count? Grapevines sprawling over sandy hummocks do not matter? Neither do long-jawed orb weavers, Karner's blue butterflies, sundial lupines, or carnivorous sundews?
If a few hundred acres of dunes constitute empty space, then do the great American deserts—the Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mohave, and Sonoran—collectively compose the big empty?
Perhaps the skeptics thought they had the desert pegged or, worse yet, surrounded and captured. And yet, what if neither they (nor we) can ever capture all that a desert might be?
As architectural historian Reyner Banham (1982) once proposed, "In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be 'desert'), absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen."
So what if the desert is not empty, but full? Or what if it is simultaneously empty and full in a way that you have to tilt your head back and forth to see? What if you have to silence yourself not only to hear what the desert speaks, but to stay in conversation with this chimerical changeling?
And that, my friends, is what this book is about: finding fresher ways to tilt our heads and silence our rants to experience a wider panoply of what deserts might be.
The essays collected in this book are from artists, botanists, contemplatives, cultural historians, ecologists, field journalists, former border patrolmen, geographers, indigenous scientists, natural historians, oceanographers, philosophers, photographers, poets, river runners, singer-songwriters, and wanderers of many creeds, cultures and countenances.
In their totality, these provocative and evocative essays reject dualistic ways of explaining the behavior of deserts. We might just need to abandon such false dichotomies about deserts, just as Einstein had to abandon the dualistic notion that light behaves either like particles or like waves to discover the essential paradox of illumination.
The authors featured here have had their senses opened and minds changed by repeated forays into desert places over many decades. Their stories are not so much about coming to firm conclusions regarding the nature of desert life. Instead, they may be about shedding our mistaken notions and "protective skins" as we become more open to knowing desert life in raw and previously unforeseen ways.
To be sure, I have stepped out
into what I assumed to be an apparently monotonous, unproductive patch of arid landscape, only to have my own identity turned inside out by what I saw, heard, and smelled there.
This recently happened to me on the drought-prone coast of the Sonoran Desert between the Colorado River delta and Puerto Libertad, Sonora. It is nested in terrain that can go 36 months without measurable rainfall.
Once I listened, looked around, took a good whiff of the air there, my senses convinced me that I had been wrong headed about the paucity of life in that place.
At first, I saw nothing but squat, wind-beaten, drought-damaged, salt-stained shrubs with lots of barren space between them, as if the lack of water had forced the bushes from living close to one another. None of the creosote, bursage, brittlebush or saltbush was in flower; in fact, they seemed to be rather dormant, if not dead.
The horizon was dull edged and hazy from a recent sandstorm. Nevertheless, the sun beamed down on me with what seemed to be a preternatural force.
I stood there alone (I believed), silent enough to hear my own heart beating and the breeze brushing at my sleeves. I could not immediately figure out the patterns of the place—the relationships among weather, substrate, flora, fauna and human influence.
A dust devil, or chachipira, suddenly swept by me and then disappeared into thin air, leaving bushes rustling and empty beer cans rolling around in eddies.
Then my eyes began to tear up in brightness, and I wiped them clean with a sweep of my shirtsleeve. Instantly, I was looking at this world as if I had come to another planet for the very first time.
The dull gray shrubs I had left for dead were actually in bud, their delicate tissues tenderly green. I began to see the cryptogamic crusts coating and protecting the soil between these bushes.
A tarantula sauntered by me, nonplussed by my presence. What (or who) does she eat in a place like this?
A phainopepla flew over, a sprig of mistletoe in its mouth as it landed to roost in a mesquite tree and unpack its breakfast of berries. He dropped a few partially ingested seeds on my head and shoulders for good measure. I could feel what he had been eating.
A fleet of turkey vultures circled high above me, patiently waiting to see whether I would live or die. Just why are they so attracted to faintly fetid decomposing flesh?
What I had first dismissed as a haze-muddled horizon was one that actually had sharply contrasting features nested within it, as dark lava and pale granites interdigitated like hands folded together. A small black and white mountain range on the northern horizon appeared as though shaped by some goddess who loved sundaes made with Rocky Road ice cream.
The somewhat barren, jet-black lava flows at its summit spilled over the pale granite beneath them. Edging the paths of decomposed granite were antennae-like ocotillos and towering saguaros, as if they were part of a garden of freshly hewn sculpture, recently set out to dry.
Skirting the range on one side was an improbably large platoon of cardón cacti, most of them many armed and forty feet tall or more, with not a single nurse plant—a mesquite or ironwood tree—among them.
How could that be? I wondered, since I know that few cacti or stem succulents germinate and survive their first years out in the open. When and why did all their nurses and godmothers—nodrizas and madrinas—disappear from sight?
Did the former inhabitants of this place have anything to do with the current scarcity of trees? For whom (and for how much) did they harvest them? Whom did they work for? Whom (or what force) did they pray to? Did they pray through song or through silence?
As I scratched my head and wondered how the giant cardón cactus arrived and settled here but nowhere else in view, I began to realize that I was in a landscape filled with unanswered questions and improbable paradoxes.
Of course, there were probably myriad kinds of microbes cohabiting with plant roots deep beneath my feet, but just what do they do when the sand around them dries down? There were feathery clusters of seeds flying over my head, destined for some secret landing strip nearby, but how long can they wait before they germinate?
Most perplexing to me was how some peculiar mix of soils and microbes allowed so many giant cacti to grow in high densities, in just one spot among thousands within my view. What could I learn from this sudden abundance plopped down amid such seemingly austere poverty? Is this shallow "sea" of squat, salt-tolerant shrubs filled with cryptic companions? Is it not a squalor of poverty at all?
I was beginning to get a sense that I was not at all alone in some big empty. In fact, there was a dynamic coexistence of many lifeforms before me, with the particular mix found in any habitat patch due to the way different growth forms are favored or discouraged in different years by sun, sand, salt, volcanic substrates, drought, downpours, heat and catastrophic freezes (Burgess 1995).
As my old friend Tony Burgess has reminded me over the years, "those lifeforms are in dynamic disequilibrium with one another because no single strategy for desert living is successful under all conditions."
I conceded that I had long been "wrong headed" when it comes to discerning what a desert comprises.
Such "belated" realizations now spilled over me like massive waves, tidal waves that surged up before I knew it and knocked me over.
Have your assumptions ever been sent tumbling "ass over tea kettle" in such a manner? Have you felt a new wave of realization surging up all around you, one that plasters you flat against the sand or the rocks?
When that happens, we must simply get up, brush ourselves off, and for a moment at least, recognize that we have somehow been humbled and changed in our relationship to the world. The world that may soon be known as Planet Desert.
Often when we dry off—and we dry out—we forget. Fortunately, another wave splashes down on us, and another. Soon the rhythm of the desert has taken over our sense of time and space.
Then and only then do we have a chance to sense fully what a desert is and is not, and what it can be in and of our own lives. That is why I had to nod in agreement when I first read what Egyptian American scientist Farouk El-Baz (1998) so clearly states: "Desert landscapes are the least understood among terrain types of the earth."
When I initially thought this assertion over, I rebelled a bit. Deserts may be something more than the least understood of all terrains. Deserts may also be the landscapes on this planet perceived, understood, and celebrated (or cursed) in the widest range of ways. How we regard deserts will vary greatly with our perceptions and professions, as well as our palpable life experiences.
Most Western-trained ecologists
will use a language to describe deserts that is different from that used by an indigenous shaman on a vision quest; a contemplative from the Eastern Orthodox or Muslim faith; a landscape artist whose work lies outside galleries; or a poet who writes her poems on paper pressed from the fiber of desert wildflowers.
I recently recalled how I gained insight into this chimerical quality of deserts while talking to desert ecologist Tony Burgess. Tony is not only an old friend but a talented plant geographer and nature guide who I had accompanied on part of an excursion across all four North American deserts. That excursion was one he coordinated nearly 40 years before our recent conversation.
Tony and I were among the only American-born participants on the excursion, which included distinguished desert scientists from the former Soviet Union, China, India and Egypt. In ways most enlightening, but sometimes amusing or frustrating, each of our fellow travelers brought along a different mindset of what a desert might be, and how life within each landscape was structured.
At each field stop along our pilgrimage route—from the eastern edges of the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas through the Sonoran, Mohave, and Great Basin Deserts—Tony would enlighten the foreign visitors on the species of plants and animals present at the site, as well as on its soils, climate and environmental history.
The scientists were all delighted to see "in the flesh" many of the desert organisms they had read about over their illustrious careers. They recognized some species related to ones they knew back home. They were conversant with the landscape ecology of other deserts around the world. And so, the information flow was not just in one direction, from American ecologists to foreign visitors. They too had their own ideas about what we were seeing, hearing, smelling and touching.
At one of our many roadside stops in the Chihuahuan Desert, Nina Nichaeva, from the Institute of Deserts in Russia, noted that we were witnessing a well-balanced desert phytocenose, where all the plants were sharing available resources and working "for the common good."
"Well, wait just a minute," said a Texas range ecologist whom Tony had invited to join us out at the site. "How does that explain that mesquite tree over there that looks like it is being killed by the prickly pear cactus around it that are competing with it for moisture?"
"Excuse me, please," the elegant elderly Chinese forester with us replied. "Look again." This desert forestry expert was also a master at combining various aromatic herbs into medicinal plant composites offered for use at Chinese people's pharmacies. "Both are still growing for now, and I believe that is because of the curative properties of the many herbs growing beneath their canopies. These appear to be potent herbs: ambrosia, artemesia, berberis, datura, solanum, and such. Perhaps they are the glue that keeps this desert vegetation cohesive and healthy."
"My grandfather back in India would say that each has its own spiritual power," said the cinematographer, who was documenting the work of natural resource scientists through the lens of agricultural communications.
Our companion from Egypt, a petroleum chemist, was somewhat befuddled by all the Latin names of the plants and animals that Tony had been imparting to the group. He finally spoke up: "Do you mean to tell me that way out here in the desert, all of these plants have names of their own? All I wish to know is this: which of these plants can produce enough hydrocarbons to make biofuels after we run out of all of our fossil fuels in the desert?"
After that multivocal conversation, I could never again assume that the desert I was seeing was not a chimera, a sandcastle of many rooms, towers, and balconies standing high and dry above the desert floor.