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The meaning of the word "desert" has done quite a tumble over the years. When the bewildered mariners in The Tempest washed up on the shores of a "desert" island, they meant only that they faced a wild and uninhabited—a deserted—place. No necessary comment was implied about a lack of rainfall. In that time, the Pilgrims applied the term just as readily to the "howling wilderness" before them in the seemingly endless forest of Massachusetts, as did Alonso, Sebastian, and others in the shipwrecked and soon-to-be-enchanted band stepping ashore on the balmy island of Bermuda, the supposed locale of Shakespeare's romance.
For most of us today, however, the mention of the word immediately flashes a scene of sand dunes and bleak mountains on our mental screens, with perhaps a cluster of palm trees and camels nosing over a bare slope in the distance. Yet the image is not as static or one dimensional as it at first seems. As with many concepts in a culture, the picture implies many and sometimes contradictory features beyond our first mental glimpse of it.
The pioneers in the Gold Rush of '49 were troubled by no such complexities. In their haste to become rich in California, they all but universally cursed the deserts stretching before their paths as hated barriers to be crossed. And with good reason. Slogging for weeks through the sands, hallucinating from thirst and heat, ambushed by Indians, many of them died out there in that strange, cruel place, whence the naming of Death Valley. For decades those stumbling westward following in their tracks echoed the same bilious opinion. Why had God created such a hellish landscape of useless sandy sweeps and lava cones? For decades flagging travelers damned the noxious wasteland. It was "God's Mistake" and the "Devil's Domain."
Slowly, however, even as the grousing continued, God began to reveal His Divine Wisdom. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army bludgeoned the upstart Indians and shunted them off to reservations, while about the same time railroads began crossing the great stretches. Both events took the bitter edge off travel. Some tuberculars, offered little hope by their doctors, found that the desert's dry air brought them brightly back from the verge of death. And trying to scratch a living out there, they found that they could grow oranges, nectarines, and a whole panoply of fruits formerly known only in Sinbad tales. But most of all, gold and silver. In the closing decades of the last century, precious metals started pouring out of the once-despised hills, making some men rich and promising riches to others by the thousands.
It's hard to despise a land that holds out the chance of wealth and well-being at every hand. With that, utilitarianism schooled romance. Why, the desert now seemed even a beautiful place, a place in overcrowded, quickly urbanizing America where the soul might be healed while the lungs were restored and the wallet fattened.
The desert had become the Promised Land.
Somewhat ironically, the more we tamed deserts, the more we looked upon them as desiderata, as repositories of yearnings fulfilled. Here the ironies begin swirling and compounding themselves. Old ideas about exploitation became mixed with new ideas about beauty, spirituality, and notions of regaining our pioneer heritage. Today, backpackers from Los Angeles and Chicago trudge over the lava mountains, hailing their beauty where travelers once died. Great earth-chewing machines level the cactus flats for vast agricultural enterprises, and each year the ticky-tacky of suburbs spreads out ever more relentlessly across the desert. All this while many of the same people benefiting from the region's exploitation (and that means just about all of us) lobby with near religious zeal for the desert's preservation. We shoot rockets over the desert and bury nuclear wastes under its sands. In this water-poor region, we retire in droves to posh communities with well-watered golf courses and myriads of kidney-shaped, aquamarine swimming pools. Then we carve national parks out of the nearby landscape, places officially preserved but overrun by the new, burgeoning population. Today the desert that you see sliding under the wing of your airliner is a heady place of escape for city-pent families and Charles Manson types alike. We build ashrams on it, the better to lead the simple life close to nature, while, nearby, naturalists frantically study its intricate, if fast-fading, ecological web. Equally frantic, but in a far happier mode, real estate developers lay out yet another complex of desert condominiums and begin to count their profits. As the great, desert ranges go through their evening colors and we whisk along at four hundred miles per hour, how those swimming pools flash in the setting sun!
That is, over the last hundred years or so, we have embraced a huge set of contradictions. Our culture has turned the desert, as if it were a limitless, exotic putty, into just about anything people want it to be. In this we keep swinging between the wide poles of fantasy and reality. One of the great urges in humans is to soar beyond the mundane. Eyeing their readers, writers who focus on desert nature want a landscape infused with God, scientific fascinations, romantic mysteries, or some other emotional propellant. The aesthetic issue, however, is not transcendence in whatever guise it appears but the writer's ability to avoid cliché and create a convincing, moving art. The process is the subject of this book.
A few words of comment are in order. On occasion I have used John C. Van Dyke's The Desert as a reference point, as a point of comparison for other writers. Not only was its author a rascally and erudite talent, but from his desert book come many of the complex issues that continue to exult, and also frustrate, writers taking their own runs at the subject since 1901. On the other hand, I have not tried to cram in every possible desert writer. Rather, intending this study for scholar and general reader alike, I have kept the focus on a few desert authors who reveal the process at work. The motive here is not to irk aficionados of this particular writer or that but rather to present a large and comprehensible framework providing the context for many other desert writers. Most of the books discussed are nonfiction; the idea being that by very definition novels eliminate themselves from my goal. After all, if reality is to be found anywhere, it should be in nonfiction. That it frequently is not is its own comment on the sometimes delicious waywardness of the human psyche and entirely germane to the point of this book.
Lastly, although desert writers have loved heaping the coals of moral failure on civilization, attitudes toward deserts have changed, as alluded to above, largely due to a whole complex of interrelated phenomena, many of them economic and demographic. Did writers with their talent and enthusiasm for a new land set the trends, thus leading the nation, or did they merely reflect what already was bubbling in the culture? If I had to guess, I'd say likely more of the latter than the former. Yet in any case, a great deal of interaction was going on among the currents and countercurrents; and, especially in those days when the written word was a prime shaper of public opinion, many of such books discussed below were large influences on people's feelings about the arid sweeps. At century's turn, John C. Van Dyke's poetic descriptions of sandstorms whirling up off the deserts in great, Rubenesque billows of gold couldn't help but soften the negative prejudices and excite the positive imagination of his large reading audience. Telling on this score, Van Dyke's book went through edition after edition during his life, and it remains in print today.
None other than Edward Abbey cautions that "you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets" (Desert Solitaire xii). Despite the warning, writers have not stopped trying. The resulting number of books about deserts is daunting; together, they would fill a good-sized library. The volumes selected for the bibliography below will provide entrées for readers eager to pursue their individual interests. In the meantime, because I think a grasp of the overall picture is important, let me recommend three books, each excellent in its particular field. Already mentioned in a note, Peggy Larson's The Deserts of the Southwest offers a clear and well-illustrated introduction to the natural history underlying artistic responses to deserts. Franklin Walker's A Literary History of Southern California is a thorough study of its subject, although unfortunately the book is a bit cluttered for the nonspecialist, and in any case it ends about the time of World War I. While W. Storrs Lee gives but moderate attention to literature, otherwise the sine qua non, hands down, to understanding the dynamics in the changes from negative to positive attitudes toward deserts is his The Great California Deserts.