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

Desert Reading: A List by Gregory McNamee

Author, Editor, and Book Critic


Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. Reprint, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1988.
Ed Abbey's most enduring nonfiction work is this account of his seasons as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. By turns Abbey reflects on the nature of the Colorado Plateau desert, on the condition of our remaining wilderness, and on the future of a civilization that cannot reconcile itself to living in the world. He also recounts adventures with scorpions and snakes, obstinate tourists and entrenched bureaucrats, and, most powerfully of all, with his own mortality; his account of getting stranded in a rock pool down a side branch of the Grand Canyon is at once hilarious and terrifying. By any definition, this is a classic of modern American writing.
David G. Campbell. The Crystal Desert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Antarctica, the most arid continent on Earth, may be uninhabitable, but geologist David Campbell spent three summers there at a Brazilian research station, where only all-night parties and black-bean stews kept him and his coworkers from going batty. From his base on King George Island, Campbell ventured out onto the nearby ocean and, eventually, to the mainland itself. His particular interest is in Antarctica's ancient past, when it formed part of the great landmass of Gondwanaland, which broke up over millions of years to form the present continents. Why, he asks, should only Australia and North America have marsupials like the kangaroo and opossum? (Antarctica once joined those continents, he replies, forming a bridge for faunal migration.) Campbell offers an invigorating line of argument to address such questions, and in The Crystal Desert, for which he received the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, he unravels many antipodal puzzles. His book combines travelog, natural history, oceanography, and the tortured attempts of early explorers "in an alien environment, beyond the edge of the habitable earth."
Bruce Chatwin. The Songlines. New York: Viking, 1986.
"In my childhood," Chatwin recalls in the opening pages of The Songlines, "I never heard the word 'Australia' without calling to mind the fumes of the eucalyptus inhaler and an incessant red country populated by sheep.... I would gaze in wonder at pictures of the koala and kookaburra, the platypus and Tasmanian bush-devil, Old Man Kangaroo and Yellow Dog Dingo, and Sydney Harbour Bridge. But the picture I liked best showed an Aboriginal family on the move." The exotic images remained with Chatwin into adulthood, urging him to seek, almost obsessively, the remote, arid corners of the world - Kashmir, the Sahel, Tierra del Fuego, the Sudan - where his earlier books of travel and fiction were set. His wanderings made him the most authoritative English desert rat since Charles Doughty and T. E. Lawrence, and his gifts as a writer assure his book a permanent place in English literature.
Charles Doughty. Travels in Arabia Deserta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1888. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1979.
The English have an expression to describe one of their own who adapts too closely to another culture: "going native." Inspired by Sir Richard Francis Burton, who undertook an illegal hadj to Mecca, the sickly Doughty quit England and wandered for two years in the Rub'al Khali, the "empty quarter" of what is now Saudi Arabia. His accounts of Bedawin life, depicting both those nomads' generous hospitality and their wastefully fierce infighting, are among the best in the English language. This two-volume work doesn't make for easy reading; Doughty believed that English prose had fallen into disrepair since the glory days of the Renaissance, and he aimed both to restore it and to capture the elliptical quality of Arabic discourse by concocting an orotund style unlike any other writer's: "When the Beduins saw me pensive, to admire the divine architecture of these living jewels [the rabia, a kind of flower], they thought it but childish fondness in the stranger." If you stay with the narrative, however, you'll find ample rewards.
John Wesley Powell. Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 45th Congress 2nd Session H.R. Exec. Doc. 73,1878.
In the mid-1870s John Wesley Powell, who a decade earlier had led the first party of Anglos down the Colorado River, traveled throughout the so-called Great American Desert to observe farming and ranching practices. He returned to Washington convinced that the West should be divided into self-governing irrigation districts that followed natural watersheds, with individual settlers allowed eighty acres. The rest of the land, he argued, should be reserved to the public domain. However, the notion of the quarter section of 160 acres as the basis of agrarian democracy had become sacrosanct, and the congressional panel that had commissioned his report dismissed it. When the panel did so, Powell retorted, "I tell you gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Bernard De Voto, the social critic and conservationist, called Powell's report on the arid lands the most prophetic book "in the range of American experience." The fifty-year battle over the Colorado River Compact and occasional flareups of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" prove De Voto - and Powell - to have been right on the mark.
George Gaylord Simpson. Attending Marvels. New York: Macmillan, 1934. Reprint, New York: Time-Life Books, 1982.
George Gaylord Simpson, late professor of geosciences at The University of Arizona, was famous among his students for an aristocratic irascibility. There's not a trace of haughtiness or ire in the book he considered his best, an account of a season exploring Patagonia. That arid, cold, treeless region of central Argentina is classic desert - a desert is defined, after all, by patterns of rainfall and windflow, not by temperature - and Simpson has a grand time bringing its geomorphology, creatures past and present, and human inhabitants to his audience. Careful readers will want to note how Simpson elevates his field notes into literature: in his pages you can see both origin and evolution at work in the making of a book - a neat trick indeed.

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