No. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature
Director, Arizona Remote Sensing Center, Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona
This is hard. Most of my professional life has revolved around research, mainly in deserts in North America and in other parts of the world. So, a good many of the books I've read have had to do with the nature of the world's dry lands; these, however, have not always constituted literature. In trying to select favorites, four come to mind immediately. These four share relatively little in terms of style or even period, but most are historical and all highlight the ways in which deserts differ from other parts of the world.
In Wind, Sand and Stars (New York: Time Life Books, 1965; originally published in French in 1939 and later translated into English by Lewis Galantière), Antoine de Saint Exupery recounts his experiences as an air mail pilot in South America and North Africa. But, at least for me, the best parts deal with the Sahara, with the stark desert landscape and the isolation that accompanies it. For him and his colleagues, the desert shares more with the sea than it does with the land. Both are obstacles and both - for them - are potentially deadly should their aircraft fail. These, then, are things that should be feared. Overall, I suppose he tries to put man and deserts into a sort of cosmic harmony; despite their differences from those places where most of us live, deserts have a beauty of their own and occupy a special place in the universe. Even though the book describes the events of 70 years ago, it has overtones that resonate with New Age mysticism. (As every generation of children has found during the past half century, however, Saint-Exupéry's writing is irresistible, and a good deal of the feeling of isolation and wonder he finds in deserts also makes its way into The Little Prince.)
Mark Twain's Roughing It (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1872) is autobiographical, at least at its core. To avoid service in the Confederate army during the American Civil War, Twain headed west to join his brother in territorial Nevada. The best parts of the book retell his adventures in the mining camps and environs of Nevada and California as tourist, miner, and newspaperman. His stories are elaborated from some nugget of truth, but tend to take on the sound and rhythm of rollicking tall tales. Beyond its value as entertainment, which is considerable, Roughing It reflects the mixed perceptions of the American public, during a period of unrivaled expansion, of the dry lands of the western United States, a region characterized by unimagined scenic wonders, limitless economic opportunity, and people that are peculiar and often repugnant. It both attracts and repels, and you sense that it is, ultimately, a place that should be both celebrated and feared because it is different.
John Wesley Powell was a self-trained scientist and a contemporary of Twain's. Like Twain, his work in the western United States was devoted to exploration, but of a more formal nature; first to finding routes that might be suitable for the placement of railroads and, subsequently, to cataloging the resources of the region, whether they be minerals, water, forests, or even indigenous peoples. Most of his professional life was devoted to defining more precisely the opportunities that might await settlers anxious to move into the region. However, in a spirit that ran directly counter to the optimism over development of these new lands that prevailed in the period, he published A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1879; reprint, Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1983). In this landmark of land management, he argued that the arid lands of the western United States were fundamentally different from those of the eastern half of the country and must be managed accordingly. Farming could not be conducted successfully in most of the region by relying solely on rainfall; irrigation might ensure crops, but only in limited areas. Other areas were better suited for grazing, and some could tolerate no sustained use other than the harvesting of wood products. His view was revolutionary for the time and immensely unpopular; only recently has it been widely recognized as the foundation for good land management in arid regions.
The bulk of Wallace Stegner's work, both fiction and nonfiction, has its roots in the western United States, especially the deserts. Although he is noted for his writings in conservation in this region, his fiction deals with the plight of people, with the nature of the landscape and the ways in which it shapes the lives of people who seek to make their way there. (One quote attributed to him that I have not been able to track down - it may actually belong to someone else - describes the history of the intermountain western United States better than any other: "The West was never so much settled as it was periodically raided.") It is difficult to select just one from among Stegner's writings, but I like Angle of Repose (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), regardless of the disputes that continue to swirl around it. In particular, he convincingly conveys the isolation and individual struggles, both large and small, of farm families who attempt to wring some sort of life from an environment that doesn't give up anything easily. But in Stegner's work the desert, rather than being something to be feared or subdued, is to be taken on its own terms, however harsh they might be.
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