Desert and Forest

I was struck by a recent statement about the desert:

You can't love the desert if you're not fascinated by death and discomfort...

This was in a review called "A Taste for Ultimates," by Sam Sacks, identified as a "fiction columnist," in The Wall Street Journal [May 25-26, 2019, C10]. Sacks reviews four books, A Desert Harvest, by Bruce Berger [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], Seasons, by Ellen Meloy [Torrey House], The Oasis This Time, by Rebecca Lawton [Torrey House], Mesquite, by Gary Paul Nabhan [Chelsea Green], and Acid West, by Joshua Wheeler [MCA/FSG]. These are all books about the American West, with its deserts, wildlife, aquifers, trees, etc.

I do love the beauty of deserts, but I am not fascinated by death and discomfort. I've seen a lot of the deserts mentioned in these books, in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas -- also some of the desert around the Nile in Egypt, and the Syrian and Jordanian deserts. I not sure there is actually more death in the desert than elsewhere. That is because all living things will die, and the things that die in the desert tend to be adapted for life there, generally do just fine, and only come to die after the natural course of their lives, just like anywhere else. Since deserts can sustain less life than forests, perhaps there is actually less death there, because there is less life to begin with -- although we also have the phenomenon that dead animals may be conspicuous on the open, dry land; and they can mummify in the heat and dry air. One tends to think of the most immediate discomfort of the desert as a function of heat; but then deserts in the winter can be quite cold, if not snowed upon. I have no liking for the discomfort of a hot day, whether in a desert or during a heat wave in Los Angeles, central Texas, or New Jersey. Heat in the humid climates is worse.

I was also thinking about this because of a recent story from Hawai'i. A local woman, 35 years old, had gone hiking in the Makawao Forest Reserve on Maui and went missing. They didn't find her for 17 days. I have no difficulty believing that someone can get lost in a forest, but it struck me that someone could walk, not only entirely across the island of Maui, but entirely around it, in 17 days. It turned out that she had gotten disoriented, and had not taken along a compass (or cellphone). After hiking in, she either took a nap, or was meditating (I've seen both), for a while, and then went down the wrong path back to her car. She must not have been familiar with the location. This is a problem even when there are paths, if they are not well marked. She wandered off the actual path onto what may have been an animal trail, and fell into a ravine, which sprained her knee and ankle (originally reported as breaking her leg). This may have been why she could not have walked across the island in 17 days. Without a compass, a disoriented person can easily walk in circles, especially where things look the same in all directions, as in a forest.

On any hike, an inherent problem is that the path back often does not look just like the path forward. It helps, as one goes along, to look back occasionally, to keep in mind what things are going to look like on the way back. It can be hard to keep this in mind, and I have often been surprised that a path one has just traversed does not look the same going back. This will not be a problem if the path is evident and well marked, but one can come to an unobvious fork going back that was completely unnoticed going forward. This can be trouble.

And that is one thing I like about deserts. They are open. You can see where you are. There are vistas, and mountains in the distance in the American West. This is a function of the lack of undergrowth. Things grow thin on the ground. You can see past, and over, them. Indeed, people can get lost in the desert too. There have been several stories like that on The Weather Channel. People get disoriented and head in the wrong direction or walk in circles. Again, if there are trails, they must not be well marked, or the people wander off them -- if they are disoriented, don't have a compass, or do not pay attention to landmarks. In one story, a couple had walked in circles until they noticed a microwave tower on a nearby peak. They headed for that and encountered a maintenance crew, who rescued them. However, if they had already been walking in circles, it had not previously occurred to them to walk towards a landmark. They don't seem to have otherwise been prepared, with no compass; and the microwave tower probably meant cellphone service, for which they also seem to have been unprepared.

In the forest, the option of landmarks might not be available. The trees can block any view. You just see trees. And it gets dark. My only hike like that in Hawai'i was up to Mānoa Falls at the head of the Mānoa Valley in Honolulu. I think it was hard to wander off this trail, since there was a stream on one side and a rising hill on the other. The trail was also obvious from the many muddy places within it, which conspicuously sets it off from the surrounding foliage. A more ambitious hike was up the Pu'u Lanipō (or Mau'umae) Trail, which starts at the top of the Wilhelmina Rise ridge. Although the trail was not always obvious, it was along an often narrow ridge top, which made landmarks visible and made it hard to wander away -- unless you fall off. The last stretch up to the peak was so steep I had to do it on hands as well as feet. At 2,621 feet, Lanipō gave a view of much of the island of O'ahu. There are higher peaks on O'ahu, not that far from Lanipō, but they are in the Forest Preserve to protect the watershed, where Honolulu gets its water, and are (officially) closed to hikers. My own water on the hike I carried in a glass jar -- no convenient plastic bottles back then (such as now litter the landscape), and I had not gotten around to buying a canteen, as I did later.

The only other mountain hike like that I think I've ever done was up the La Luz Trail above Albuquerque, eight miles up to Sandia Crest at 10,678 feet. Fortunately, Albuquerque is already more than a mile high, and the trail starts at some elevation from that, so, while demanding, it could be worse. And you just take the Tram down. I had to hike back down from Lanipō. This trail is well marked, well traveled, and itself up canyons and along ridges than make wandering off difficult.

But this is already to wander a bit from my topic, which is not actually about trails, but about the appeal of deserts. And where the appeal of trails is often to go places that have views (like Pu'u Lanipō), there are plenty of places in deserts that have views without the need for any hiking. Driving west out of Shiprock, New Mexico, you see the actual Shiprock, which rises to 7,178 feet. I have also seen it from the air, just once, on a flight between Los Angeles and Newark, NJ. Indeed, it is conspicuous from many miles around. In a forest, you must hope for a break in the trees to see anything; and there will never be anything to see in an area without mountains, like the Yucatan, or Florida. Becoming hopelessly lost in such places sounds like real "death and discomfort." With bugs.

I had an aunt and uncle who owned five acres of land out in the desert near Tularosa, New Mexico. It was not that far from the town, but down some dirt roads you had to know about. The view was great right from the bower they built near the trailer they lived in (upgraded to a double-wide mobile home). The Sacramento Mountains were to the east, the San Andres Mountains to the west, and the Tularosa Basin in between. It could be hot in the summer, but it would cool off in the evenings, since the air couldn't hold the heat. Because it was dry. Once I had just driven in from Austin, and I sat with a glass of ice tea on the wooden arm of a chair. In Austin, within seconds the glass and the arm would be covered in water. But outside Tularosa, after many minutes, both were dry to the touch. Is the joy at not being dreched in sweat, and not having water all over the furniture, part of being "fascinated by death and discomfort"? I hardly think so.

But one thing did remind me of death. Out at White Sands National Monument in the cool evening, the San Andres Mountains were silhouetted black against the western sky. This did remind me of the mountains of "Pain" in the land of the dead in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books. But a lot of mountains might look like that against the sunset, and this particular evocation never overwhelmed the beauty of the place. What is worse is that, getting older, many of the people I have associated with the area of Alamogordo, from 1962 to 1989, are no more. I don't know if I want to go back. So it is not the desert, it is mortality that is the problem, as in LeGuin's own stories.

It is neither desert nor forest, but Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World [1948] was my aunt's favorite picture. Seeing a grassy rolling plain here, it was like where she, and my mother, grew up in Nebraska. Of course, Wyeth's painting is actually in Maine, where we would tend to think of woods and mountains rather than plains. The meaning of the painting is also ambiguous. The young woman, lying on the grass, might represent a longing for the farmhouse in the distance -- it could be a dream where she remembers her childhood home. Perhaps this is what it meant to my aunt. However, this was a real woman, Anna Christina Olson (1893-1968), personally known to Andrew Wyeth; she is lying on the grass because her legs are actually paralyzed. She was known to literally crawl around the farmland. This was thus her "world." Yet her portrayal may represent a longing after all, perhaps that she might jump up and run to the farmhouse.

My aunt kept this painting on the wall above her sewing machine -- where she made dolls to sell at craft fairs, such as one on the Plaza in Santa Fe, where I once met her and my uncle. Out of the window, next to the painting, of course, the desert rolled away north. Now I see the original painting with some regularity at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they move it around occasionally. It now represents several layers of longing for me, from the loss of my aunt, the nostalgia for the beauty of New Mexico, and the youth that relentlessly now escapes from me. The American Great Plains were originally called a "desert," but the miles of grass actually meant that crops could be grown, the domesticated grasses grown for their seeds, which become flour and bread. Not as majestic without the mountains, but then in the West the moutains may cut off the rains and make for the dry climate of the real deserts. A more exciting landscape aesthetically, with various colors and vistas; but with a lot less life. So each has its own appeal, as does the "green and pleasant land" where I'm living now, very far from any desert. With bugs.

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