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7 april 2019

People who have never visited Texas often imagine it to be a desert. Tumbleweeds, cactus, bleached cattle skulls. Technically, only a slice of southwest Texas is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches far into New and Old Mexico. It is also the only true desert I've ever been to.

As Roslynn Haynes notes, deserts are defined by aridity. If it never rains much – less than 10 inches a year on average – it's a desert. Here in Dallas/Fort Worth, the driest years see twice that much precipitation. El Paso, in the Chihuahan Desert, gets 8 or 9 inches a year. In parts of the Atacama desert in South America, it hasn't rained for 400 years and for all we know, it may not have rained for 400,000. Now that's a desert.

For Americans, a livable environment consists of woods, lawns, and cornfields. Large parts of the U.S. don't support woods, lawns, or cornfields, but are far from being true deserts. Still, we tend to think of relatively well-watered prairie and scrubland as being habitats fit only for bad men and rattlesnakes. Conversely, actual deserts often teem with life, despite arid conditions. Humans form part of that ecosystem, traditionally, and have developed marvelous adaptations to the desert.

Haynes categorizes the world's deserts and leads the reader on a systematic tour. We associate deserts with heat, and most are pretty hot. Though even the hottest deserts are also dry, clear climates where temperatures can plunge at night. The hot, dry, sand-duney deserts of stereotype are vast (Arabia, the Sahara, Australia), but many a smaller desert features cold winters (the Gobi, the Great Basin) and a few of the most extreme are, counter-intuitively, near seacoasts (the Atacama, Africa's Namib desert). These latter deserts are among the world's driest, because local conditions keep them in a "rain shadow," and the only moisture available for centuries at a time may come in the form of fog. Finally, Antarctica is a desert, the world's largest and driest. Antarctica shares with the Sahara extreme tracklessness, visual monotony, fierce windstorms, and, Haynes notes, a fractal landscape that defies the calculation of distances and can be powerfully disorienting.

Haynes' Desert ranges far beyond the geographical. She addresses biological and cultural adaptations, Western contact with the cultures and landforms of the desert, local desert art and art produced about the desert by outsiders (including literature and film), and ends with a brief chapter on economics and exploitation. The apparent monotony of the desert surface is deceiving. Many deserts conceal great mineral wealth, and attract more and more mining operations. And (another paradox) many of the most lifeless deserts sit atop enormous aquifers of fresh water. It seems tempting to tap that water and turn the desert green, but of course since it never rains, that's a foolish move. Irrigated deserts quickly turn unsustainably saline.

Haynes takes the curious position of arguing for conservation of wastelands. Drilling for minerals or water may indeed ravage desert ecosystems as we know them, but on the other hand, what does one lose by making the desert more of a desert? The trouble goes back to that initial problem of defining "desert." We call anything a desert if it doesn't immediately offer all our usual comforts. (And so we speak of "food deserts," "cultural deserts" and "digital deserts." So true deserts seem especially worthless to us, even while they are home to a host of other creatures. We have a special obligation of stewardship when it comes to places where we would never want to live.

Haynes cites Shelley's "Ozymandias" and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (which portrays Antarctica). She doesn't do much with popular song. I guess, relatively speaking, there aren't that many songs about deserts. "It felt good to be out of the rain," sang America, but after a few days in the desert fun, that relief turned to hallucination. Guy Wood and Aaron Schroeder wrote a novelty song most memorably recorded by Frank Sinatra, in which a man prefers the "French Foreign Legion" to an intermittent relationship:

First you love me, yes; then you love me, no
I don't know where I stand
Do we march together down the isle
Or do I march that desert sand
Similarly upbeat is the now literally creepy "Sheik of Araby," a durable pop standard from the 1920s through the '60s. There isn't much sand in the song, but there's a nomad's tent and an invocation of the desert atmosphere: "The stars that shine above / Will light our way to love."

Country and western music, though, abounds with desert imagery. "Cool Water," recently revived by the Coen Brothers for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an old desert standby. "Keep a movin' Dan / Don't you listen to him Dan / He's a devil not a man / And he spreads the burning sand with water." Classics like "El Paso" and "The Streets of Laredo" don't invoke the desert directly, but could hardly be set anywhere else. Certain music just seems to lend itself to drives across the desert, as the Dixie Chicks knew in "West Texas Wind":

It's a long thin line, it sure is a hot and dusty day
And Colorado's more than eight hundred miles away
I called to tell you that I'd be home sometime tonight
If the roads are clear and the weather is right.
And the last time I drove through the Chihuahan Desert, I happened to be playing Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet." The song is about a desert of the mind, but it's quite a thing to listen to in the real thing, a hundred miles from any town:
Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal.
Like Dylan, Robert Frost knew that deserts were as empty as we make them. His are full of trees, animals, and precipitation, only apparently and temporarily empty.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Haynes, Roslynn D. Desert. London: Reaktion, 2013.