Depopulating Deserts (Zwinger Passages)

Cary over at Racing the Horizons and I are currently working on formulating an abstract and writing a paper for a Comp Lit graduate conference at UCLA. I’m going to save describing the project for a later time as I just spent three hours transcribing passages from Ann Zwinger’s The Mysterious Lands into a word doc (it’s a library book and I don’t have a scanner, such are my troubles). The passages are beautiful and I hope you enjoy them:


p. 16:

I turn back to rendezvous with Susan and stop dead in my tracks. All the sandy channels look alike, and for the life of me I can’t tell which one that disappears around which hillock is the one that will deliver me back to our meeting place. Not for the first time the implications of being alone in the desert and the potentials for disaster strike me: stumbling onto a rattlesnake, spraining an ankle, confronting an irritable peccary, or getting embarrassingly lost.

And my next thought is, Good. Good. The desert grants me expanded time, time to perceive, to enjoy, to ask questions, to learn. I may get to be here for a while by default, the sensible, responsible housewife freed into a maze of dry channels that feed only into each other. As Ed Abbey says, “the desert, any desert, suggests always the promise of something unforeseeable, unknown but desirable, waiting around the next turn in the canyon wall, over the next ridge or mesa, somewhere within the wrinkled hills.”

p. 34, a companion traveling with Zwinger finds a pipistrelle (a type of bat) with a broken wing bone. The bat is barely breathing, lying comatose:

As I hold this exquisite creature, I grieve at the accident that brought it to this pass at the same time feeling selfishly grateful to have this chance to examine it close up. It beggars my imagination to understand how something so small can be so complex. I think of all the things it can do that I cannot, of what I know that it does not, and of what we share, a common chromosome perhaps, or a retinal cell. Because it cannot fly I know that it will not, cannot, live, that the wing cannot be splinted and healed. Such a small miscalculation to be so fatal.

On this fresh sunshiny morning a chill draft unfurls from the river, reminding me of my own mortality.

p. 58, while standing on the crest of a barchan dune, Zwinger notes the seething surface of the dune; the activity of stilt bugs and wolf spiders:

So much life goes on here, hidden from the world above. I no longer think of sand dunes as empty, barren mounds of dry sand, but as honeycombed with life, burrowed and tunneled and excavated, drilled and dug and tamped, full of scratchers and hoppers and tickly walkers.

p. 61:

San Marcial was one of the last places to get water for humans and stock before facing the Jornada [del Muerto]. Partway down the slope to the river that so ill-treated it, San Marcial is a place of leavings with no one there to whom to say good-bye. Anyone traveling the Jornada dreaded it, its reputation built from truth and rumor, fact and fiction, each worse than the other. The loss of life and property and stock to marauding Indians, plus tempers quickened by apprehension, all intensified the horrors of the journey. Today no amount of sunshine can stanch a foreboding that even I, here in this desert over a century later, feel as I take into account the isolation, when letter deliveries were measured in months, when major events weren’t called up on the evening news, when small mishaps could be fatal, when you couldn’t get in touch with anyone on the instant, when there was plenty of time for rumor and hearsay. I have to think what it was like not to know, and even today this desert teaches you that.

p. 62, citing a letter from Colonel Philip Kearny to his wife, relating his three-day travel of the Jornada:

It surprised me to see so much land that can never be of any use to man or beast. We traveled many days without seeing a spear of grass, and no vegetation excepting a species of the Fremontia [creosote bush], and the mesquite tree, something like our thorn, and which our mules eat, thorn and branches to keep them alive.

p. 78:

When abundant annual plants are available in the desert, most ant groups eat seeds. When only a few annuals are present, they shift to being omnivores. Harvester ants take different seeds as various kinds come in and out of season, and the amount they consume is considerable. Despite their small size, ants by their sheer numbers strongly impact the ecosystem. They effectively compete with and influence seed-eating rodents (who may themselves carry off 75 percent of seed production), as well as limit plant populations by leaving so few seeds to germinate. Some plants, like a species of datura, get around this by producing seeds that attract ants by providing tiny carrying handles, but prevent the ants from utilizing them by arming the seeds with a thick coat that they cannot penetrate. The datura takes advantage of the harvester ants’ predilection for seed carrying to get its seeds scattered far away from the parent plant before rodents have a chance to remove and cache them.

p. 81:

Striding toward the center of the playa is great walking – no cacti to run into, no vines to trip over, no rattlesnakes to watch out for. I leave the pools and puddles behind, cross through the rimming saltbushes, and stride out onto its hard-packed surface. Even though there may be a couple of feet difference between the edges and the middle, the slope is generally about 1 percent, so gradual it wouldn’t roll a marble, kept level by periodic flooding. In two hundred yards I stand, like the pivot point of a compass, in the center of the universe – a place to dance, to hoot and holler, to rearrange mountains, to count the rollicking stars at night. To redesign the world.

For 360 degrees I mark not a tree, not a shrub over three feet high, not a glint of water, only a light-absorbing heat-inhaling landscape that translates heat into wavering light and light into shimmering heat so that one inhales, smells, touches only heat, listens only to heat drying skin and cracking silt. No wonder Bartlett questioned why the United States wanted this country anyway:

As we toiled across these sterile plains, where no tree offered its friendly shade, the sun glowing fiercely, and the wind hot from the parched earth, cracking the lips and burning the eyes, the thought would keep suggesting itself, Is this the land which we have purchased, and are to survey and keep at such a cost? As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, and worthless.

p. 85:

One December morning, botanist Karen Reichhardt and I explore the interfingering of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts in the southeastern corner of Arizona. She is a delightfully companion and, because she lives in Arizona, a very knowledgeable one. For both of us crossing a transition area between two deserts is slow going – there is so much to see: what was, what is becoming, what is, and what yet may be. We keep to the east bank of the San Pedro River, traversing the alternate uphill and down-dale crests and gullies that drain to the river, looking for the signal sign of the Sonoran Desert, a saguaro cactus.

p. 121:

Three concerns haunted me before I came on this bighorn sheep count: that I would be uneasy alone, that time would hang heavy, that I could not endure the heat. Instead I have felt at home, there have not been enough hours in the day, and the heat has become a bearable if not always welcome companion. The words of Joseph Wood Krutch, also writing about the Sonoran Desert, come to mind: “Not to have known – as most men have not – either the mountain or the desert is not to have known one’s self. Not to have known one’s self is to have known no one.”

p. 125:

The day dims and I stretch out to count the stars framed in a triangle of mesquite branches. Content, I realize I have reached, as Sigurd Olsen wrote, “the point where days are governed by daylight and dark, rather than by schedules, where one eats if hungry and sleeps when tired, and becomes completely immersed in the ancient rhythms, then one begins to live.”


p. 149:

My cultural beliefs that fires are one of the evils of nature has required some massive rethinking on my part to discard, in order to accept that fire has always been a natural part of certain of the North American biomes, even a necessary part. The burning of the prairies fertilized and kept the tall grasses vigorous. The Indians who lived near the palm oases – and each oasis had its own group – often fired them to promote new growth. Plant and animal populations are adjusted to fire. Man is not, and has contrived to remove fire as much as possible from the ecosystem, frequently to its detriment.

But before there were careless campers there were, and still are, careless storms with careless lightning. Nature has its own cadence, in which there is little tolerance for houses built in floodplains or flammable chaparral, little consideration for cities built on fault zones, or irrigation works that turn the desert green. Nature acts without calling in a consultant or submitting an environmental impact statement.

p. 182:

Yucca moths fertilize all yuccas, including Joshua trees. A female gathers and packs pollen into a ball under her head. At the next flower she inserts her ovipositor into the flower’s ovary and lays her eggs, then continues to the top of the pistil and brushes the stigma with her head, thereby transferring some of the pollen she carries.  The larvae develop in the seed pod and eat part of the seeds.  Then they bore through the pod and drop to the ground, where they form a cocoon, to emerge the following year. The female moth receives no benefit from this procedure because she feeds neither on nectar nor pollen; she does assure however, by her action, food for the larvae. The relationship between moth and yucca has evolved over time to such a nicety that each species of yucca has its own species of moth.

p. 196:

We camp halfway up the canyon. I position my sleeping bag in order to have an unparalleled vista in the morning. I awake before the sun is over the horizon and face a voluptuous view of the Panamint Mountains, sleeping lavender on the horizon, fronted by a high ridge line of smoke mauve just now taking shape on its surface. Colors shift as I watch, contours form, dissolve, re-form as the light plays on them. I would stop the light metamorphosis, play it back, watch the day emerge again from its chrysalis of dawn. I would stop time to gather up this desert morning, fold it neatly, slip it in my pocket, and carry it away with me. (I did, in words.)

p. 218, remarking the on the Devil’s Hole pupfish and why they are of such an interest to researchers (of course, because of their benefit to human welfare):

What makes the Devil’s Hole pupfish of such interest to researchers is their relatively fast adaptation from cool freshwater fish to fish that can survive in water whose salinity may be up to six times that of sea water, an amazingly rapid evolution that has implications for all living creatures. Because they live in such calcium-laden waters, researchers are looking for the physiological shields they must have to protect their renal system; an overload of calcium salts is one of the main causes of kidney stones and kidney failure in humans.

p. 222, citing a document from Manly (no first name given, maybe mentioned earlier in the text, but I can’t find it) in which, crossing the Mojave desert in 1849, quoted a Kansas “Jayhawker” disenchanted with the area:

[…] this was the Creator’s dumping place, where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil has scraped these together a little. Another said this must be the very place where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, and the pillar had been broken up and spread around the country. He said if a man were to die he would never decay on account of the salt.

p. 225:

A ten-foot-wide rill with a hearty flow braids through the dry ground, the water deep amber. Near the bank, webbing binds an inch-wide spider-hole opening. Salt deposits fringe the edge of the water where the ground is marshmallow soft, so consistently saline is the soil. Small mounds of sand heap around every saltbush, but not one single creosote bush is to be seen. The only green sprigs belong to inkweed and salt grass. The wind worries the grass and waters my eyes and hassles the universe, mischievous, annoying, petulant. A restless time of year, full of questions, among them why anyone would want to convert this beautiful, empty salty desert into anything other than what it is.

p. 230, remarking on the intermediate position between the creosote bush of the Mojave and the big sagebrush of the Great Basin:

Boundaries like this one fascinate me. These visual boundaries augur the invisible ones: where stands the last creosote bush and where grows the first sagebrush? Where does the last saguaro become a mere armless post in the ground and finally give up its footing? Where does the kangaroo rat pause, one well-adapted desert foot poised in the air, nose twitching toward a wetter, lusher existence, and not cross over? Where is the line beyond which the desert cockroach does not tunnel? Where is the barrier that keeps the sidewinder and the fringe-toed lizard at home on hot sands? Where does the desert tortoise blink its slow eyes and turn back to the only home it knows? In trying to define where a desert is not, one learns where it is.

p. 244, remarking on two horned larks:

Two swoop with short wingbeats, white bellies sparkling, one right on the tail of the other. The subspecies of Great Basin horned larks are paler and smaller than populations to the east. The most omnipresent Great Basin birds, they are widespread across the West. Like the Chihuahuan Desert, the Great Basin has no endemic birds; rather it supports an assemblage of birds filtered in from outside its borders in a unique combination.

p. 245, remarking on an encounter with a rattlesnake:

Seeing the rattlesnake becomes an obsession, for where it is sets the limits of my movement. I can easily make a wide circle around. But I have a deeper curiosity than that. We have become connected by chance and need to play out our roles.

After an infinity of intense peering I finally separate out a patch of pattern marking the back of a western rattlesnake, coiled in a depression beneath a very small saltbush. From the curvature I estimate a coil perhaps eight inches across, and a body an inch and a quarter in diameter, a snake perhaps two feet or so long. I cannot see the rattle but the whirring is almost constant, fading and intensifying, in an oddly peaceful way. I feel warned. I do not feel threatened. Although I cannot see it, I know, having just seen one of its ilk out on a road, that its forked tongue darts out of its mouth straight up, then bends down, quivering, before being pulled in again, a motion that I find almost hypnotically fascinating to watch.

I am tempted to go closer, believing that it is so entangled in the bush that it cannot strike. It is not good sense that holds me back but good manners: I am disturbing it enough simply by my presence. My guess is that it was coiled there in the meager shade of the saltbush during the day and was just awakening to think about hunting when it was rudely disturbed by the vibrations of an arrogant and heavy-booted trespasser.

p. 247:

Herman lowers the flaps over Winnemucca and the aeronautical sectional chart on my lap comes to life. The color and the shadings of map and terrain match. As on the chart, there is no bright green on the ground, only a subtle series of tans and burnt siennas. The resemblance between the two – man’s map and nature’s map – is uncanny.

But the map records no harvester-ant mounds, no doughnuts of bare soil. Yet hundreds stud the ground below. I feel a quick tinge of superiority: I know something the map doesn’t know. Nor does the map acknowledge the scorched and blackened patches of hillsides and fields from last week’s lightning fires.

p. 250, cited here because of my interests at the time in biogeography:

Cheatgrass turned up in the American West around 1900 when it was introduced from Eurasia. When native grasses cannot withstand grazing, or where they are burned out, cheatgrass elbows in aggressively. As a winter annual, it sprouts in the fall and sets seed early, drying into a fire hazard by mid-June, a vicious circle since it thrives after a fire to the detriment of other plants, outcompeting them for water. In the last decade it has spread drastically, now covering half a million acres south and west of Winnemucca.

p. 267-68, citing a passage from the journeys of Bennett Clark across the Great Basin:

Taking the general aspect of this desert into view, and the fact that there is an absence of everything desirable and an abundance of everything pernicious here couple with what we saw, we cannot conceive a hill more full of horrors. It realises all that such a mind as Dante’s could imagine.

p. 280-81:

A rock wren chirrups an intermittent commentary. A friendly wind skips by and twines through the rocks. Some of the rock is abrasive, dolomitic, with sharp edges, eaten with circles and dots and disks and shallow solution holes, beset by juniper roots. There are little shallow caves all along, and in them there is often scat, but not a sign of what I expected, a wood rat’s nest. I’ve stowed manuscript in my day pack to work on as I sit in this beneficent solitude, but I am quite content not to do anything except look and be cooled by the wind, dissolved by the rain, and grown over by a juniper of infinite character and wisdom. A jumping spider comes up my sleeve, catapults into my backpack. I don’t have to be anywhere until dark. Not since childhood have I felt a day so unstructured, so unprescribed, and when my conscience stops nagging me to go to work, I give my mind permission to go play, and contemplate it contemplating what mischief it might get into – use clouds as stepping-stones? Play tiddlywinks with the flat shadows?

While my mind is off playing on the wind, I operate in total lethargy, somewhere half past peace and a third beyond lazy. My biggest task is to watch the cloud shadows define the ridges. When the sun is full out they’re all the same color, and difficult to differentiate. Now a cloud shadow falls on one, then another, separating them in depth, showing off the contours.

Here on this ridge Tule Valley stretches in full view, north to south. The valley sags like a hammock, brownish-green, streaked and marbled with chalky patches, with the broad white streak of a salt flat down the middle. Mountains bound the whole east side, one after the other. The mountains have so much sky above them that they are not barricades but adornments: they exist only to create valleys.

p. 288:

Sitting quietly in the darkness, waiting for an owl rejoinder that never comes, I perceive a tiny glow. In the dark I work my way toward it and find a pinkish glowworm, cashew nut-shaped, clustered with three other insects. In the dim light, I cannot tell if they are winged male glowworms mating with her (the female glowworm mates while in the larval stage) or predators feeding upon her – luminescence is not used to attract the opposite sex, and may provide protection against predators. Another glowworm gleams faintly, twenty feet farther up the canyon, a comma of light.

The female never goes through metamorphosis to set out on six spindly beetle legs, never feels the pull of wing on thorax, never hunts her meal under a desert moon, never senses the world through probing antennae. She just remains a pudgy pink glowworm, a cold, curled-up light in a deep desert canyon, eternally luminescent and eternally adolescent.

p. 291, remarking on the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad who burrows under the desert floor, often for nine to ten months:

I walk the edge of the steaming pond, imagining them enduring this crystalline winter. Burrowing enables them to endure a season of both cold and desiccation safely underground. While hibernating, they can store almost a third of their body weight as diluted urine to forestall water loss through their skin to the surrounding soil as the soil dries. Some species may even form impervious cocoons of mud around themselves to reduce desiccation. For nine to ten months they survive without any food, locked away in a Stygian subterranean darkness, metabolic activities reduced to a barely detectable level, mere nuggets of life.

A heavy rain with air temperatures above 52 degrees F. stimulates the magic of the toads’ rapid emergence, a breaking through into fresh air, even though they may continue to return to a damp burrow during the day. The incessant calling of a group of male spadefoots attains an amazing volume of sound that buckles up the night air. Male calling attracts the females – males hold onto the slippery skinned females by their embossed front fingers – and there is an orgy of mating the likes of which hasn’t been seen since ancient Rome.

p. 297:

If there were but one memory I could take away with me – I squint against the sky, thinking, knowing I don’t really have to think because it was the answer that instigated the question – it is the talisman I shall have always: an afternoon with a small black-tailed gnatcatcher who so trusted this outlandish earthbound creature that we napped on a torrid desert afternoon, within a wing’s reach of each other’s dreams.

To the west a single thin cloud poises over the evening mountains, a molten spear illuminated from beneath, a Vasa Murrhina cloud. The only cloud, alone in the sky, it incandesces as I watch, the curve of a bow arcing between two distant points. Then it fades. The ends still glow while the middle darkens to match the mountains beneath. The relationship shifts: the cloud, like a spear thrown from an atlatl, flies to the next mass of mountain, burying its head in the mountain flank.

The sky behind the mountains segues to a pale steely blue, without warmth, bending upward to dusk. Where the sun has departed, the sky bleaches. Dust spirits sleep. The wind abides. Silence streams from the mountains. Black feathers of darkness drift downward.

The desert comes alive.

Bibliographic Resources

Abbey, Edward. Beyond the Wall. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Random House, Inc. 1968.

Bartlett, John Russell. Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1856.  Bartlett traveled the southwestern deserts while surveying the boundary between Mexico and the United States in 1852-53; his intelligent firsthand narrative encompasses a lot of country, much of which is just the same as when he first saw it.

Frémont, John Charles. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44. Washington: Gales & Seaton, Printers, 1845. Although the report is concerned with his whole exploration of the West, Frémont’s view of the Great Basin is a fascinating firsthand account of discovery and the rigors of desert travel.

Goetzsmann, William H. Exploration and Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. A superb book in which are some insights on the role North American deserts have played in the westward movement and how they have affected history.

Hornaday, William T. Camp-Fires on Desert and Lava. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914. An entertaining, macho, historic view of the Pinacate region of the Sonoran Desert, on the border between Arizona and Mexico; included here because it gives an insight into how deserts were view seventy years ago.

Madsen, David, and O’Connell James F., eds. Man and Environment in the Great Basin. Washington D.C.: Society for American Archaeology, Papers No. 2, 1982. How ancient man and deserts interrelated provides some provocative thought for present-day man.

Twain, Mark. Roughing It. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1891.

Footnote Resources (most of which are unclear due to citation)

John T. Hughes, Doniphan’s Expedition; Containing an Account of the Conquest of New Mexico; General Kearney’s Overland Expedition to California; Doniphan’s Campaign Against the Navajos; His General Price at Santa Fé (Cincinnati: U.P. James, 1847): 61, gives a sad account of the loss of men and stock at Valverde while waiting to embark on the Jornada [del Muerto], as do Kearny’s soldiers.

Dwight L. Clarke, ed., Stephen Watt Kearny

Manly, Death Valley in ’49.

Sigurd Olsen, Reflections from the North Country (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

Bennett Clark, “Diary of a Journey from Missouri to California in 1849,” ed. Ralph P. Beiber,  Missouri Historical Review 23(1928).

W.J. Ghent, The Road to Oregon. A chronicle of the Great Emigant Trail (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1929).

About A Geology of Borders

My name is James Goebel and I am a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department at UC Irvine. My interests lie mainly in animal and environmental studies, Indigenous histories and European philosophy (though I am known to wander elsewhere).
This entry was posted in Ecology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Depopulating Deserts (Zwinger Passages)

  1. Lori says:

    Not knowing how many people have loved the desert, I explain myself as a “desert rat”. Born in Tucson, living later in the Antelope Valley deepened my love for desert land. Discovering how devalued it is by wind power companies in particular still came as a shock to me recently when I started reading your writing. Their disregard for the ancient cultures is revolting. I am grateful for your words, illuminating past and present attitudes and realities. I see the delicate, everlasting sense of the desert time and space in your words, even though I live in a green, hilly valley not far from the coast, and I am very grateful. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s