The Greek word for 'desert' is eremos, from which comes 'hermit,' and that is exactly what I have been for quite a while. The word is appropriate because I have been chained to the word processor and surrounded by piles of research materials working on a book on the desert – or, more accurately, ‘The Desert.’
It is now more than two years since I was approached, while still working in Indonesia, by an independent UK publisher for a book on deserts. I explained that I did not want to do another coffee-table book of glorious photographs of landscapes and strange critters (although they are, in moderation, inevitable), and, thankfully, that was not what they were interested in either. What intrigued me was the idea of ‘The Desert’ in our imagination and reality and the conflicts between the views of the outsiders (us and Western ‘civilization’ in general) and those of the the insiders, the people for whom our planet’s arid lands are home. As an environment that participates intimately and dramatically in the earth system, the desert’s geological and geomorphological processes create the stage and the backdrop against which ecosystems and cultures have evolved, and there is a fair amount of earth science in the book. But there is much more and, as I continued to think this through and research, the scale of the ‘much more’ threatened to become overwhelming. I knew that I had taken on a herculean – albeit fascinating – task, but as the ideas, the characters, and the topics began to explode, the challenge of creating a coherent narrative became exhausting. However, summoning extraordinary self-discipline, resigning myself to an eremitic existence for months, and setting a target of 2,000 words per day, meant that I have now completed and submitted the ‘manuscript’ (total word-count somewhat in excess of that originally envisioned). There’s a lot of editing work still to do (compiling the index looms ominously), but it is now my intention to re-engage with what I believe to be the real world, post more regularly and catch up with the geoblogosphere that the hermit had more or less abandoned for the duration. I understand that the book (whose exact title has yet to be decided) will be published in the autumn of this year, and more details will be forthcoming.
Writing the book has been a roller-coaster ride, at the same time draining and stimulating. I have learned an incredible amount and encountered extraordinary characters, some of whom I had known about, some of whom were new to me. In particular, among the extensive reading that has been involved, I have enjoyed the luminous writing of Mary Austin (1868-1934) on the American southwest, its landscapes and denizens. I became fascinated by her description of the ‘lost borders’ of the desert, a concept that resonates with so many aspects of the nature of the environment. In The Land of Little Rain, her opening words are as follows:
East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.
Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.
And here, as a taster, is the summary of the book from the original proposal:
Arid environments cover a quarter of our planet’s land area and are home to some half a billion people. They are landscapes of extremes and contrasts, constant change, metaphors and myths, landscapes of the mind as well as physical reality. “The desert” as an idea has long captured the Western imagination, but in ways that too often fail to capture the true scope and diversity of the reality or the viewpoint of peoples for whom the desert is home. This book attempts to bridge the gaps, both scientific and cultural, between perception and reality, while celebrating the fascination, the excitement, the contrasts, and the importance of arid lands and their inhabitants. It is intended that the book will be entertaining as well as informative – and surprising.
A book about the desert is, as much as anything, a book about water. Of course, “arid” implies an absence of water, but that absence is rarely absolute. Unlike forests or the ocean, the desert has no borders, but rather transitions over which the relative absence of water changes, imperceptibly but vitally. It is these lost borders, these desert margins, that provide the stage for great changes – human, environmental, ecological, geological – today and throughout the history of the planet and its life. The desert margins are in a constant state of flux; periods in which the hyper-arid desert cores have shrunk have offered corridors where previously there were only barriers, permitting the great journeys of human evolution and migration. The ebb and flow of aridity, the changing availability of water, continues to play a vital role in today’s social, political, and environmental arenas.
The extremes and contrasts of our planet’s deserts are both inorganic and organic, and work on all scales. The geological processes whereby the diversity of the desert landscape is sculpted operate with sudden violence and with indiscernible slowness. Desert life, from the microbial to the mammalian, has adapted to deal with extremes of temperature and aridity, often in extraordinary ways. And it is the scale of the desert, the “infinite presence”, that has captured imaginations and created theologies.
There is an intimate relationship between the desert and our environmental and cultural heritage, but that relationship varies profoundly according to the context. The desert as conceived and viewed from the “concrete deserts” of Chicago or Milan is a very different place to that of the Bedouin or the nomads of the Gobi, and this book attempts to capture and illustrate those contrasts. Western desert stories are about exploration of the exotic and the hostile, and the making of maps, but the stories of peoples for whom the desert is home are about water and their maps are songlines. And yet, despite these differences, the fascination of the desert has long been a source of inspiration in the imaginations of both outsiders and insiders, albeit expressed in different ways. The beauty and romance of the desert may not be exactly that of the Western imagination, but it is nevertheless a powerful concept that has stimulated a wealth of art and literature across cultures and throughout history, from Deuteronomy to The English Patient, from Aboriginal dreaming to Dali.
Arid and infertile though deserts may be, they have, nevertheless, been the birthplaces of critical evolutionary adaptations, civilisations, agricultural and social progress – and ideologies. And difficult though they may be to define, the active roles that changing deserts play in the evolution of our climate and society demonstrate that thinking about arid lands and their future requires a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary approach, through time and space. This book attempts to at least tell the stories that illustrate the basis for such an approach.