Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Editor's Note: The Bones of Planet Earth

by John M. Bancroft


It's in the world's dry places that the bones of the planet show themselves.

The mile-deep gorge of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in the American Southwest, with its stunning exposure of particolored geological strata that extended our understanding of Earth's formative stages backward into the Paleozoic Era, is a good example of such an angular landscape. But competing with this image of "The Desert" for supremacy in the popular imagination is the ever shifting sandscape of the Arabian Desert of the Middle East, its dunes and pebbled plains dotted here and there with oases teeming with life. Both images are based in fact, but there is more variety to the arid lands, from barren salt pans to verdant (but rapidly diminishing) streamside habitats, than is represented in these two extremes.

The definition of deserts, as every reader of The Arid Lands Newsletter knows, can be broad, encompassing deserts biological, metaphorical, or climatological, the last named being the kind most of us spend our working lives poking, prodding, coaxing, or studying and our free hours admiring, disparaging, exploring, or escaping. But even within this class of deserts (those defined by low rainfall and high evaporation) there is considerable variation. The Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, for example, supports a more obvious flora and fauna than does the Sahara of northern Africa. (Antarctica is a desert, too, although its frozen vastness may not fit the popular image.)

Still, the idea of vast, relatively unpeopled tracts of sunstruck sand and rock has fired our imaginations for a thousand years and raised a thousand questions: What do the deserts look like? What kinds of plants and animals (if any) live there? How do its human residents feed and clothe and defend themselves? And why would members of our lightly armored species attempt to settle in such inhospitable territory anyway?

Fortunately for the sedentary among us, hardier examples of our kind always have been willing to venture out in the hope of bringing back not only glory and riches but also definitive answers to our questions. . .or at least a little of the flavor of lands that must seem to the denizens of well watered latitudes incomprehensibly exotic.

These literate travelers -- these naturalists, poets, missionaries, and adventurers -- and the tales they lived to tell form the focus of this issue. For some of us their accounts will seem those of interlopers, of tourists from cultures shaped by easy rain and abundant greenery who came and saw and wrote about our parched homelands (and in some cases misunderstood what they saw). For others they will offer comfortable visits with old friends, scribbling wanderers whose acquaintance we made years ago as we toasted our soles by a cozy fire on another rainy night in Chicago or Tokyo or Paris. And for some they will constitute revelations.

Whatever your perspective, I wish you good reading and bon voyage .

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