Having been kindly asked to supply my personal list of the
best books on "The Desert," it seems almost churlish of me to
observe that most such recognizable books are not included in
that intimate, bizarre, unsystematic collection that constitutes
"my favorite books": The Book of Common Prayer (1928 version),
Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland,
the poetry of Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos, Durrell's Bitter Lemons
and The Alexandria Quartet, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of
Solitude, Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace, Camus' lyrical essays,
Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language. There is the sense of
the sacred about such a collection that, no matter how eccentric
my taste, does not easily admit expansion. The classic Southwest
desert books just aren't the things I turn to when I really need
to turn to something. Maybe my list is a list of books that
should be read in the desert. But in the spirit of the
assignment, there have been telling words written about my
desert, and some of them may just find their way into my
innermost heart. In the following texts the Sonoran Desert is not
viewed as a reality abstracted from human involvement. Books of
that sort - "nature writing" - are best appreciated by others.
- William T. Hornaday. Camp-Fires on Desert and Lava. New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908. Reprint, Tucson: The University of
Arizona Press, 1983.
- The classic Hornaday is a great evocation of a real
goddamned expedition, quite unlike the pantywaist excursions
nowadays indulged in, all freeze-dried, lightweight, and
sensitive to the land. This is manly stuff, natural history the
way it used to be done: with a wagon train of provisions,
stalking and killing the great desert beasts of the Papagueria,
all for science.
- John C. Van Dyke. The Open Spaces: Incidents of Nights and Days
Under the Blue Sky. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922.
Reprint, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.
- For my money, The Open Spaces is a much better book than
that hoary classic The Desert; and I don't care if Peter Wild has
demonstrated pretty conclusively that Van Dyke never quite lived
the narratives he so famously wrote. Here's Van Dyke on sleeping
out in the desert, and even if he never really did it, he's got
it just right, 'cause I have: "It is the purest air in the world
. . . Ah! how you sleep! And how unconcernedly you breathe in the
oxygen of the blue - nature's great restorer! Even the warm air
that blows immediately after dusk has some of this life-giving
power. You feel it streaming over your face and through your hair
and it has the soothing effect of fairy fingers - or perhaps some
loved woman's hands that once had the power to bring you sleep."
- W.J. McGee. "Desert Thirst as Disease." Interstate Medical
Journal 13 (1906). Reprint, Journal of the Southwest 30, 2
- A clinical discussion of the effects of six-and-a-half days
without water on a man lost in the Cabeza Prieta, the story of
Pablo Valencia's August odyssey to the very rim of desert death
is a testament to endurance, humanity, and the absolute power of
the desert. McGee's careful, tender, descriptive language is
deeply affecting; in its modest way, it is great literature. This
paper, rediscovered years ago by Bunny Fontana, has acquired a
sort of cult status among desert rats. It is so graphic and so
powerful that it is read aloud at Southern Arizona Rescue
Association meetings. You've been warned.
- David Yetman. Where the Desert Meets the Sea: A Trader in the
Land of the Seri Indians. Tucson: Pepper Publishing, 1988;
distributed by University of New Mexico Press.
- A wonderful account, based on several decades of experience,
of Sonora's Seri Indians. Yetman slams pickups and Land Rovers
between Phoenix and Desemboque, Tucson and Punta Chueca,
traversing the backcountry heart of the Sonoran Desert. His
insights into the land and the people are so beautiful and
modestly given that without your knowing it a charm is so tightly
woven that David and his Seri friends become a part of your own
experience. Yetman is fearless and inclusive: you learn about
everything from Seri sex to surviving the painful ordeal of a
stingray bite. What is instilled is a love and respect for a very
special place and the entirely good-humored way it is best
- Charles Bowden. Blue Desert. Tucson: The University of Arizona
- Here is one piece by Chuck, but really you can substitute
anything from his oeuvre: Desierto, Red Line, Killing the Hidden
Waters, Mezcal, Frog Mountain Blues. Bowden's work is an
unfolding chronicle of life in the Sonoran Desert Southwest. It
contains some of the best contemporary writing on the region:
hard, fluent, sometimes heroic, rarely, if ever, off the mark.
From Blue Desert: "Here the land always makes promises of aching
beauty and the people always fail the land." Bowden relentlessly
portrays that connection, and he does so with surpassing
compassion. One who, it seems, doesn't fail the land is Julian
Hayden, the legendary subject of "Going to the Black Rock"
(Journal of the Southwest 29, 3 [Autumn 1987]), a man utterly
worthy of the Pinacate and Bowden's stern admiration. A fitting
exception to the rule.
- Gary Paul Nabhan. Gathering the Desert. Tucson: The University of
Arizona Press, 1985.
- Gary Nabhan has written a bunch of great books. But this is
my favorite: the ethnobotany of the Sonoran Desert from the Pimas
to the Warihios. Gathering the Desert reads like a novel, and
with Paul Mirocha's illustrations feels like an art book. The
work is first rank science and stunning literature, and it is a
pleasure to be on the road with Nabhan.
- Gary Paul Nabhan (ed.). Counting Sheep: Twenty Ways of Seeing
Desert Bighorn. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1993.
- The latest in the Southwest Center Series, Counting Sheep
considers what happens when, over time, a series of established
nature writers are dumped off individually to spend a few
isolated, blistering days in a sheep blind in the Cabeza Prieta,
ostensibly to count desert bighorns. The book, Nabhan's
brainchild, is a gem - and about as far from Joseph Wood Krutch as
you can get.
- Bernard L. Fontana. Of Earth and Little Rain: The Papago Indians.
Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1981. Reprint, Tucson: The University
of Arizona Press, 1989.
- Bernard L. Fontana is a name found on more fine books and
essays about the Southwest, its deserts, and its peoples than any
other that comes to mind. Bunny, who lives on acreage about six
feet from the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'Odham
Reservation, here crafts the best and most unpretentious
introduction to the O'Odham and their desert available. Just read
the first chapter and you will be given an indelible sense of
what living in this place can mean.
Finally, a book that doesn't quite fit into the desert genre
but is so magisterial a work on this region it cannot be ignored
is Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria
Alta, by James S. Griffith (Tucson: The University of Arizona
Press, 1992). Jim's reading of the constructed, indigenous
Pimeria Alta is peerless.