Deserts are not wastelands

13 Sep

I continue to read and hear how desert lands are considered wastelands: places devoid of life, landscapes to be avoided, plundered, exploited, and serve as repositories for our garbage. “Not in my backyard! Put it in the desert!”

Our misconceptions of deserts influence our perceptions, value judgements and policy. The most influential component of this is our language: words. The word ‘desert’ often conveys perceptions of ‘dead’, ‘nothingness’,  ‘wasteland’, ‘the void’. Thus, deserts have been the scapegoat throughout human civilization. We have the ‘Garden of Eden’ on one hand, and the ‘Nothing-but-sand Desert’ on the other. Consequently, whenever we encounter a landscape that we are unused to, or uncomfortable in, we call it a ‘desert’.

Case in point: Any landscape devoid of trees or agriculture was considered and named a ‘desert’. When early explorers began traveling west of the Mississippi River and onto the vast grasslands, this area was referred to as The Great American Desert. This region was depicted and labeled as such on early maps of the North American continent. We now know it as the Great Plains. Now much of that Great American Desert is covered by industrial agriculture and hotspots of urban cities with satellite suburbs.

We now have a myriad of definitions of what a ‘desert’ is; be it defined by geology, geography, climatology, hydrology, ecology……  And our own sense of identity. Regardless, the old conception of ‘deserted desert’ remains. Especially places that have been ‘ruined’, or drastically changed from its former landscape, especially one endeared to the human senses. In other words, one that has become a ‘wasteland’.

We desert dwellers, and many ecologists, take issue with that.

For those who think a desert is a wasteland, I challenge you to spend time in the desert. Not a day, a day in the desert offers such a rush of solitude and harsness that the body and mind often buck away. Spend a week, or better yet a month. Be safe, of course, but be curious. Poke about in a wash. Find a rattlesnake and watch it from afar. Sit on a peak on a hot light and watch lightning from a storm over 100 miles away. Drink water from a spring that has not seen sunlight since the Ice Age (it’s best to filter it if you aren’t sure, but that won’t take away its spirit). Sleep outside and wake up at 3 AM to see so many stars it appears the light has dark spots in it between the lights rather than the other way around.

(excerpted from blog post, ‘Destroying a Place Does Not Create a Desert‘, by Chris Clarke. Read in entirety on his blog, Slow Water Movement)

I can’t agree more. In future blog posts, definitions and perceptions of deserts will appear here on this blog site.


Chisos agave hiding in a desert oasis.

One Response to “Deserts are not wastelands”

  1. Debbie Dickie September 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Ahh, Elzi, your words make me long for the desert! Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. The weather here is turning to fall, my favorite time of the year, but it never lasts long enough. Before you know it we’ll be back in Terlingua. Take care, girl!

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