Excerpts From The Text And Photographs Of Drylands: The Deserts of North America By Philip Hyde, Part One
Celebrating Landscape Photography Blogger’s 200th Blog Post!
On this special occasion Landscape Photography Blogger presents an excerpt from Drylands: The Deserts of North America, with photographs and text by Philip Hyde. Besides Slickrock with Edward Abbey and a few titles in the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series, Drylands is considered Philip Hyde’s magnum opus, or great work. Yolla Bolly Press, which also packaged Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light, recently donated its archive to Stanford University. Help celebrate Landscape Photography Blogger’s 200th Post by reading a page from the great book that is becoming more rare all the time…
Drylands: The Deserts of North America 1
The Five Deserts of North America
…nature is already in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
(See the photograph large: “White Domes, Valley of Fire.”)
Webster’s dictionary defines a desert as “an arid region in which the vegetation is especially adapted to scanty rainfall with long intervals of heat and drought…a more or less barren tract incapable of supporting any considerable population without an artificial water supply…Desert rainfall is usually less than ten inches annually.”
This bare bones definition needs expanding. For one thing, barrenness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Ancients regarded the desert as a place to avoid—literally, to desert. The biblical “waste-howling wilderness” is a description of the Middle Eastern desert, a fearful place for most people. But even then it was for some a place for contemplation, a retreat from the cares of daily life. In our times, the desert is commonly a refuge, though we can be grateful that the deserts of North America were avoided by so many early travelers, and thereby protected. More recently, parts of these great deserts have become increasingly attractive to sun-worshipers. It is an irony that the climate, attractive to so many people, is being gradually altered by air pollution generated by population growth and its attendant requirements for industries and automobiles.
Webster’s definition doesn’t explain the aridity of the desert. High mountain chains intercept moisture-laden storms, keeping rainfall from the land in the lee of the mountains. Wind also contributes to desert dryness. A map plotting the course of trade winds in relation to deserts around the globe would show most arid lands to lie in the path of the trades. Though our deserts are not as directly in the path of the trades as some, strong winds persist over most of them for long periods, particularly in the spring.
The North American deserts are unlike most deserts in that they are not confined to the interior of the continent. They reach to the sea on both coasts of the Baja California peninsula and along the west coast of mainland Mexico as well, creating some unusual meetings of desert and water.
The scarcity of rainfall in the desert has one advantage. The surface of the land in well-watered regions is often obscured by dense vegetation. In the desert, land forms are readily apparent, the often beautiful sculpture of their contours revealed. This may be why geologists are drawn to the desert and sometimes inspired to near-poetic descriptions. A classic example can be found in Clarence Dutton’s monumental Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, first published in 1882. Here is his description of the Vermillion Cliffs in the Painted Desert:
During the midday hours the cliffs seem to wilt and drop as if retracting their grandeur to hide it from the merciless radiance of the sun whose very effulgence flouts them. Even the colors are ruined. The glaring face of the wall, where the light falls full upon it, wears a scorched, overbaked, discharged look; and where the dense black shadows are thrown—for there are no middle shades—the magical haze of the desert shines forth with a weird, metallic glow which has no color in it. But as the sun declines there comes a revival. The half-tones at length appear, bringing into relief the component masses; the amphitheaters recede into suggestive distances; the salients silently advance toward us; the distorted lines range themselves into true perspective; the deformed curves come back to their proper sweep; the angles grow clean and sharp; and the whole cliff arouses from lethargy and erects itself in grandeur and power as if conscious of its own majesty. Back also come the colors, and as the sun is about to sink they glow with an intense vermilion that seems to be an intrinsic luster emanating from the rocks themselves.
The stone landscape of which Clarence Dutton writes might appear austere and unfriendly to the casual traveler suddenly thrust into it. Many people would not recognize it as a part of their familiar world, but something about the place immediately appealed to me. Perhaps it struck some of the same harmonic notes evoked by the clean expanses of granite in the High Sierra Nevada I had learned to love in my youth. The place spoke to me of the same kind of purity that Ralph Waldo Emerson was alluding to when he wrote of the integrity of natural objects.
I am not able to take up full-time residence in the desert; my roots are too deep in the northern Sierra Nevada where I live now. I can, however, happily spend a season there and feel quite at home. It was not always like that. The ease I feel now is the product of many experiences, not all pleasant, but all valued for what they taught. Nor did the ease come without struggle, but as a result of an effort to understand, to penetrate the discomforts, to clear away the debris of prejudice and preconception that can so distort one’s view of a natural environment. It is not necessary to change the country—or to develop it. As Aldo Leopold put it so well: “Development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
As a forest dweller and desert traveler, I am especially aware of the contrasts between an arid landscape and one that is well watered. The creek that flows beneath my window as I write; the groundcover, trees, shrubs, and flowering plants; the seasonal and atmospheric changes I observe here are all expressions of water abundance. In the desert it isn’t just the paucity of water that impresses me. I am delighted to discover water’s surprising, often beautiful presence in hidden places, as for example, the spring in Monument Valley that flows from beneath a high sand dune—or those few, small, spring-fed pools surrounded by the vast, sere, rocky landscape of Death Valley.
I also enjoy the contrast between desert vegetation and that of my home environment. In the southern part of the Baja California peninsula, the array of strange, even unique, plant forms is the result of the plants’ special adaptations to water scarcity…
Continued in the future blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2.”