Deserts are Home

18 Feb
Twilight in the Desert

Twilight in the desert

“The desert was about the void, the zero point, shrinking yourself and your concerns in the immensity and emptiness of it all. The desert was about a definite psychological need for vastness in the face of human confusion, brain fatigue. Mind-bothered Western man can take drugs, alter his lifestyle, turn off the television, pierce his body or run a marathon, it all amounts to just so much therapy to keep him loping along the same track towards the inevitable finishing post. I saw the desert as a huge right turn, a different path, another way out of what everyone was into, the money, goods and attention conflicts of the current century. The desert cured the malaise, not just the symptoms. Somehow the vastness of the desert signaled the infinite present, nowness, headspace, instant immortality.” – Robert Twigger, Lost Oasis.

Humans see the desert as different things: vast emptiness, desolation,wasteland, sterile, hostile, and sacrificial. Europeans considered the deserts of Africa and the Middle East places of biblical hell, and all the nomadic peoples (and animals) that scratched a living out of them, no better than the sand dunes they traveled. Americans have dumped their radioactive waste (and tested their deadly bombs) in their continental deserts so that their garbage in not is their own backyards. Now, we can stick all our mega-energy production industries in the desert junkyards. After all, who needs the deserts? Does anything really live there other than annoying thorny plants and lizards? No one cares about the deserts anyway.

But a few of us do. People live in the deserts of China, India, Europe, Central and South America. Many lead simple nomadic lives and their ways have not changed much over endless generations. However, their simple lives are often perceived by more technologically developed societies as impoverished, even worthless. Many of these people are involuntarily forced out of their homelands and into urban areas where they find adjustments to modern lifestyles difficult and unhealthy. Others that refuse to leave are denigrated and considered inferior.

Other organisms that we don’t often see, let alone know of, occupy the drylands, including deserts. In fact, many endemic plants and animals live in deserts and are found nowhere else. Because of the unique  biophysical environment in the deserts -the geology, climate, lack of water- all organisms there have adapted to efficiently conserve water and energy, evolved protection against heat and sun, and established intricate food webs. Nevertheless, these desert systems are very sensitive to disruptions, especially by humans and climate change. Many local environs that established over thousands of years can be altered or destroyed in days, and never recover. Deserts are the most sensitive biome on the planet, and alterations can impact other biomes and regions around the globe. But because deserts are devoid of the many resources that provide modern humans with comfortable lifestyles, they are often considered empty, ugly, unimportant, and disposable.

For some of us, deserts have different meanings. Some people find in them curiosities, a source of recreation, night skies full of stars, intense sunrises and sunsets, isolated solitude, and opportunities for contemplation. Most people visit, stop, take photographs,  hike, and then go home. It’s fun to briefly step out of their comfort zone and experience a place more wild. But fewer people call the deserts their Homes. The vastness, harshness and wild are a part of them.

“A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power – a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to man’s will. But why the pleasure? Why seek out this feeling of smallness-delight in it, even? Why leave the comforts of home, join a group of desert devotees and walk for miles with a heavy pack, all to reach a place of rocks and silence where one must shelter from the sun like a fugitive in the scant shadow of giant boulders? Why exhilarate in such an environment, rather than despair? One answer is that not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us. What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment, but it may also arouse awe and respect. It depends on whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent. We begrudge the defiance of a cocky acquaintance even as we honor that of the mist- shrouded mountain. We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble….It seems a matter of motives: we interpret the piranha’s power as being vicious and predatory, and the bull’s as guileless and impersonal.

Even when we are not in the deserts, the behavior of others and our own flaws are prone to leave us feeling small. Humiliation is a perpetual risk in the world. It is not unusual for our will to be defied and our wishes frustrated. Sublime landscapes do no therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather, to touch on the crux of their appeal, they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way. Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will, that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves. ” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.

Some of us choose to live with the risks and, sometimes, discomfort of the desert environment. Like other inhabitants of the desert we are faced with finding our own food, conserving and producing our own energy, catching and storing our own water, and protecting ourselves from the sun, heat, cold, wind, and blowing dust. We respect the plants and other creatures with whom we share this delicate place. We are often struck in awe at the blanket of pulsing stars overhead in the blackness, while the changing colors of the sunrises and sunsets instill within us an almost spiritual rejuvenation.

Yet people and all other life in the desert die on a daily basis. The desert is not merciful. Resources needed to sustain life here are not delivered by turning on a faucet, lapping out of a food bowl, and flicking a switch. Everything here is a trade off, and many mistakes come with a high price. And it is this, perhaps, which instills in us a trust and respect that cannot be earned or offered in most other landscapes. Especially not in modern urban areas. This life also instills the real meaning of community.

“Now I was safe I could reflect on the intense burst of loneliness I’d felt, like the distilled essence of loneliness … Did I want to continue with this game? People who hate the desert – and there are plenty – must intuit this feeling before even visiting the place and, knowing it, leave well alone. But I was glad. It meant the desert, however man tamed it with cars and cool-boxes and GPS machines, still had teeth, was still a wild place where man went at his peril, had to have his wits about him. Man’s instinct is to diminish the desert, reduce its dangers, build a town at the oasis and connect it by phone, rail, air and truck to the next oasis. I wanted to reduce its dangers too, but only so far. In the past you’d be limited by what was available — camels and leaky water skins. Desert dwellers, the tebu, Bedouin and Tuareg, had all learnt to live with this fear. You would be judged irresponsible, by modern standards, if you wanted to recreate that danger, that balance of fear and possibility.” – Robert Twigger, The Lost Oasis

My Home is in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. It is more than just a location, or spot on the planet. It is my Home. It is a part of me, and I a part of it. When the Spanish explored this area in the 1500’s, they called this area El Despoblado, the uninhabited and abandoned land. Over the hundreds of years, this desert became a home to many people. Some tried to tame it, cut most of the trees, and their cattle forever destroyed the once-prevalent grasses. Wolves, cougars, golden eagles and bears were trapped, poisoned and almost exterminated. But some species, like the coyote, are wiley and adaptable. They were able to avoid extirpation and are recovering. Other species are slowly re-inhabiting their territories.

Now,  I hope that the new albeit small group of people choosing to live in the desert do so with a sense of respect for limited resources we all must share, and all the other organisms that live here. For them, the opportunities that we inherit as humans are not options. And it is up to us to help guard the very biome that we and many other desert dwellers call Home. We will defend it.

“This is the lesson written into the stones of the desert and the ice fields of the poles. So grandly is it written there that we may come away from such places not crushed but inspired by what lies beyond us, privileged to be subject to such majestic necessities.” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.

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