As landscapes that once seemed comparatively well-watered become more arid, it’s time to listen to desert dwellers: the Indigenous people and others who settled in deserts for generations and who view aridity, not moisture, as “normal.”
For more than two centuries, those voices and perspectives have been ignored.
But now we need the insight of the people who have long confronted desert conditions directly and found them ordinary. For them, aridity is not the temporary affliction of drought or an environmental “problem” to be solved with engineering. They remind us that the natural world is not entirely under our command, and that we can learn how to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The main currents of American thinking about deserts originated in the writings of people who grew up in well-watered places they assumed were normal. When 19th-century explorers, opportunity-seekers and overland travelers encountered deserts, they were (to use a phrase that probably should have better standing in historical analysis) freaked out.
To these disoriented newcomers, wastelands were the poor pickings that were left when the cropland, timberland and mineral land had already been identified and claimed. Driven by a sense that the best places were the wet places, these newcomers saw deserts in terms of what they lacked — rain, ground cover, trees and, of course, “civilization.” And if they talked to desert dwellers, it was often to demand directions to the nearest spring or streams to relieve the thirst of these bewildered outsiders.
In the mid-19th century, explorers and overland emigrants who had confronted arid land held one uniform and settled opinion: Deserts were dreadful places where the shortage of water threatened their very survival. Without the benefit of social media, the explorer John C. Frémont still achieved major standing as an influencer, and his reports, widely read in the 1840s, locked into place the adjectives that Americans would use for deserts for decades: “forbidding,” “inhospitable,” “desolate,” “bleak,” “sterile,” “dreary,” “savage,” “barren,” “dismal,” “repulsive” and “revolting.” In his infrequent attempts to communicate with the people for whom these places were home, Frémont set another lasting precedent. On one occasion, in the desert of what is now Nevada, he tried to get the help of the local Indian people. “I tried unsuccessfully to prevail on some of them to guide us,” he said, “but they only looked at each other and laughed.”
In the era between the writing of reports by mid-19th-century desert haters and the writing of essays and memoirs by mid-20th-century desert lovers, the conditions of desert living were transformed almost beyond comprehension. Federally sponsored dams and reservoirs supported farms in areas where agriculture had seemed simply impossible. Governments in towns and cities built major civic enterprises in diversion and treatment, with a network of pipes supplying homes with abundant water for household use and landscaping.
With the completion of the Owens Valley aqueduct in 1913, supplying water to Los Angeles, and the completion of the Hetch Hetchy dam in 1923, supplying water to San Francisco, famous episodes in California history have claimed center stage in Western memory. Similar enterprises were supporting implausible population growth in other arid and semiarid locales, from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, from Albuquerque to Denver.
With the installation of an infrastructure delivering water to new arrivals in towns, cities and suburbs, the reasons to talk to long-term desert dwellers dwindled. Planners of local history festivals might invite old-timers to tell stories, but the settings for those stories seemed remote, even if they were located right at the edge of town.
A century after Frémont and his counterparts, a new set of influencers were crafting a very different portrayal of deserts, turning their unfamiliarity and strangeness into allure and charm.
At odds in their own society, these self-styled outcasts saw deserts as places of restorative solitude and an honest confrontation of humans with a planet that did not always treat their well-being as a priority. The preeminent figure in executing this shift, the writer Joseph Wood Krutch, found a source of hope in the Arizona desert, where the plucky flora and fauna gave him the antidote to the sophisticated cynicism and disillusionment of the New York intellectual scene in the 1920s.
Krutch’s literary gifts remain evident in his celebrated books, “The Desert Year” (1951) and “The Voice of the Desert” (1955). Within a few years, Krutch’s campaign for the appreciation of dry places recruited the next generation of desert devotees thanks to the writings of the still-lionized Edward Abbey, whose construction of a self-portrait as an irreverent, tough and defiant rebel made him an effective teammate for the refined and genteel Krutch.
Writers of this persuasion tried to teach newcomers what desert dwellers already knew: Without water or shelter, a person can die of heat exposure or dehydration within hours. But sitting in improbable comfort and reading a book did not compromise the insulated status of the people with faucets, light switches, thermostats and refrigerators ready for action.
When Americans of the 21st century imagine the future, deserts seem to volunteer as the stark habitat for a civilization in tatters, with water scarcity pitting humans against one another in primal struggles for survival. In a half-examined dynamic between past and future, these visions echo the central assumption of the 19th-century explorers and travelers who unleashed a flood of words to cast deserts as the antithesis of civilization.
And yet, today, North America’s desert residents reflect every variety of identity, ethnicity and race. They are Indigenous, descendants of Spanish colonials, recently arrived Mexican immigrants and the great-grandchildren of 19th-century White settlers. Some, too, are the heirs — or perpetrators — of the artist colonies, off-gridders and spiritual seekers.
Desert dwellers are not just another segment of rural America. The countryside of the Midwest, Northeast or the South seems crowded in comparison. The desert dwellers of the West live in the lowest-population-density regions in the contiguous United States.
These people make their homes in places that others starkly describe as the “middle of nowhere,” “no man’s land” or “wastelands.” The Manhattan Project, for instance, chose a place in the desert of southern New Mexico to detonate the first atomic weapon. The “Trinity Site,” as it was called, fulfilled the main criteria that military intelligence wanted: “security and complete isolation.”
But decades later, oral-history interviews with ranchers who had been evicted to make way for the bomb reveal an entirely different perspective on that part of the Chihuahuan Desert. For those desert dwellers, the desert was not just an isolated “site,” but rather a home. In fact, they didn’t even use the word “desert.” Instead, they referred to the landscape with great precision — everything had a name. There was Salinas Peak, Peña Blanca, the Malpais lava formation and scores of other place names. This was a vocabulary born of a long-standing intimate relationship with the remote drylands.
Pay attention to the long-running stories and perspectives of desert dwellers, and deserts get recast — not as an awful destiny to dread, but as the habitat for realism, resilience, ingenuity and a careful assessment of the difference between our meaningful needs and our self-indulgent whims.
We live in a desert nation, a reality that desert dwellers have always noticed, even as they themselves have remained unnoticed by the insulated desert residents.
That inattention needs to change.