ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

Editor's note:
Literatures both written and beyond words

by Katherine Waser


In Arid Lands Newsletter No. 35, the first issue of ALN that explored the topic "The deserts in literature," the focus was on excerpts from European and, to a lesser extent, American writers. As Peter Wild pointed out in his article for that issue, the writers excerpted therein "tended to be educated and well-off, romantics in search of exotic excitements." In other words, the desert was not home to them, nor did they need to make their living from it; and this inevitably colored their view. European settlers in the drylands of North America, on the other hand, found living on the land a difficult struggle in a harsh and foreign environment; even if they had seen the deserts as romantic, very few of them had time for writing literary accounts. So, it was only later that they, too, began to see and write about the deserts as romantic or exotic locations or even, sometimes, as home.

But what, in the meantime, of those peoples who had lived in the deserts since time immemorial?--the Australian Aborigines, the Africans, the Arabs, the Native Americans of the Southwest and, later on, the Mexicans whose mestizo culture gave them much deeper roots in the Southwestern deserts than those of the Anglo settlers who came so much later? How might they have written about their desert homelands? That is the question that this issue of ALN set out to try to answer.

Of course, in trying to answer such a question one immediately runs into problems. First is the fact that the question itself is culturally bound, presupposing that there will be such a thing as "desert literature" or "nature literature" in other cultures paralleling that which is found in Western literature. It also presupposes that such literature will be in written form. Deeper examination of these assumptions quickly reveals that they are, like most assumptions, flawed and narrow. Yet this does not necessarily render the question unanswerable; indeed, perhaps it is the question itself that needs to be changed.

First, let's broaden the definition of "literature" as it is approached in this issue. As N. Scott Momaday points out in his essay, "One of the definitions--perhaps the most basic of all--of the word "write" is this: 'to draw or form by scoring or incising on a surface.'" In other words, the boundaries between art and writing are much more porous than we in the West generally tend to think. All writing began as images, as symbols: as art. While Momaday in this case is writing specifically about his own work as an artist and author, his words have broader application as well. And so, perhaps we must look not just to writing to see how the deserts are portrayed in many of the literatures of the world.

But what of cultures which are grounded in oral, rather than in written, tradition? In many such cultures, written language was essentially an alien construct that arrived only with various groups of colonizing outsiders. Those who were colonized were then forced to learn these written languages, whether they wished to or not. Partly as a consequence of this, the modern literatures of many such peoples are focused far more on the struggle to regain their rightful place and status in their societies, than on any description of the surrounding landscape.

Furthermore, even if one looks to written accounts of traditional oral legends and tales of such peoples, it may not be easy to determine from such writings how these people regarded their surroundings. In cultures with strong oral traditions, the story told may not provide much detail or description of the landscape. What would be the point? The people being told the story are all familiar with their surroundings; they do not need such descriptions. Not only that, the words themselves may be only a small fraction of such tales and legends, which also may include ritual songs, dance, music, clothing, and decoration of self and surroundings; out of context, the mere words that recount the tales may seem meagre, thin, incomprehensible to outsiders.

An example in point is that of the Australian Aborigines. To better understand their attitudes towards and knowledge of the landscapes they inhabit, it is more fruitful to turn to their own informal accounts and words than to try to glean images from their recorded traditional stories or their contemporary literature. This is what author Richard Kimber has done, based on his more than 30 years of associating, traveling, and working with the Aboriginal peoples around Alice Springs, Australia. The resulting article paints a truer picture of indigenous Australians' view their homelands than reading such dry records ever could.

Indigenous African cultures are also strongly rooted in an oral tradition. As Christine Loflin points out in her article, "the desert is an essential feature of indigenous African writing from arid countries, and yet it is often not directly described in such writing." Such descriptions as can be found tend to be short and more oriented towards revealing how life is lived within this landscape than towards describing the landscape itself. Interestingly, Loflin points out that to better understand Africans' relationship with their desert homelands, it is often more fruitful to examine indigenous architecture or to watch African films than to read African words. Again, the porous boundary between literature and art reveals itself...

But there are other desert cultures that do have a longstanding tradition of written literature; Arabic cultures are among these. Christine Dykgraaf writes about desert images in the Qur'an; Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward about desert images in Arab poetry. In both of these articles we see strong evidence of use of the desert as a metaphorical symbol in a way that is not much commented upon by either Kimber or Loflin. Interestingly, in the Qur'an, metaphorical images of the desert often symbolize ignorance, stubbornness, or the torments of hell; and yet, when the desert is written about as a real place, it is lauded as part of Allah's creation, beautiful because created by Him. In terms of Arab poetry, Hayward's article shows a split between city poets and the Bedouin tribes. The city poets use the desert as a metaphor for fear, loss, exile, and ruin. Yet to the Bedouins, it is clearly a welcoming land, full of life and beauty. Here, the distancing from the desert seems to come with the physical distancing that results living in the city: a human construct which may be within the desert and yet apart from it.

Still--jumping back to North America--the short story by Patricia Preciado Martin, a native Tucsonan of Mexican heritage, shows that city dwellers may also feel deep connections with the surrounding landscape, even after "progress" has altered their city to the point where the actual manifestations of those connections are irrevocably altered. This story, both sad and hopeful, speaks strongly of the sense of and love of place of the Mexican American residents of Tucson, and their deep roots in the Sonoran Desert.

In another selection pertaining to the Sonoran Desert, Tohono O'odham author Ofelia Zepeda speaks of something about which all desert dwellers can surely agree: the precious gift of rain. Her short essay, including three of her poems, conveys all of the delight and pleasure that the Tohono O'odham feel when the summer monsoon storms cross their land, and how they remember those summer rains even in the rains of winter. This essay speaks beautifully of the sense of place that the O'odham possess for their homelands.

Finally, Southwestern photographer/author Adriel Heisey writes movingly about the desert intaglios or geoglyphs of western Arizona, southeastern California, and northwestern Sonora. These mysterious figures are striking reminders "that our own impulse to mark the world with our purposes is ancient, powerful, and enduring." And with this, Heisey brings us back full circle: are these figures art? Or, as human symbols enduringly etched upon the face of the planet itself, are they writing and hence, a form of literature? Perhaps they are both, speaking to us across the ages of a vanished desert people's deep-held sense of place.

And Heisey brings us back full circle in another way too: for if, indeed, these mysterious geoglyphs are a form of literature, conveying a profound sense of place, then so too are modern, human-made tracks, whether on the moon or on the deserts and other lands of this Earth. And if this is true, then, like all authors, we hold the responsibility of ensuring that our words, whether written on a page or incised directly on the face of the earth, are well-crafted, both acting to preserve and worthy of being themselves preserved. We are all the authors of our human actions; we are all responsible for those actions. Let us all work to ensure that, in the words of N. Scott Momaday, "It is appropriate; it is good."

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