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

Desert Reading: A List by Joseph Wilder

Director, The Southwest Center at The University of Arizona,
and Editor, Journal of the Southwest


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 (Summer 1988).
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 appreciated.
Charles Bowden. Blue Desert. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1986
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.

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