Excerpts From The Text And Photographs of Drylands: The Deserts of North America by Philip Hyde, Part Three
Continued from the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2.”
Drylands: The Deserts of North America with photographs and text by Philip Hyde, developed out of nearly 60 years of exploring and defending western North American wilderness, with special emphasis on the five deserts of the continent. Yolla Bolly Press, which also packaged Mountain Light by Galen Rowell and other foundational landscape photography titles, recently donated its archive to Stanford University, where Drylands and its production can be viewed. Drylands is now out of print, but can be found at various online booksellers including Amazon under Drylands: The Deserts of North America by Philip Hyde.
The previous blog article in this series, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2,” tells the story of the making of the book. The first blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 1,” contained the beginning of the first chapter of the text of Drylands itself. We continue now where that blog post left off…
Passing through vast expanses of land that appear to be nearly bereft of any living thing, I wonder at the sight of a small plant braving the harsh environment. Its difficult circumstances do not evoke sympathy; I wonder that the plant grows in spite of difficulties, that it conserves what little moisture it gets and responds to the slightest moisture by blooming exuberantly.
Still another delight feeds the photographer within: the light. Desert light is crystalline and brilliant, making deep shadows and sparkling highlights. This is at least partly a result of the scarcity of moisture in the air—and, until recently, the scarcity of humans and their activities. When there were fewer people, the light everywhere must have had the clear quality that is still to be seen in some of the more remote quarters of the North American deserts.
As a mountain lover, I especially appreciate a characteristic that our deserts share with most of the country from the Rockies west: the deserts of North America are uncommonly mountainous. The two snowiest mountain chains in the country, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades border the northernmost deserts on the windward sides. Scattered throughout all of the deserts are a large number of lesser mountain ranges that cast their own rain shadows on the adjacent areas. Some of these lesser ranges are high enough and wet enough to support forests on their upper slopes. Rising high above the parched plains and valleys below, they may be snow capped in winter, like the higher ones to the west. The White Mountains, Toiyabe, Snake, Ruby, and other ranges in Nevada, along with the high plateaus of Utah and Arizona and the Sierra Madre in Mexico, create their own microclimates: islands of plenty surrounded by desert.
Nowhere in the world is there as much diversity of desert weather as there is in western North America. In western Oregon, California, and Nevada precipitation occurs mostly in winter, in summer only rarely. In the eastern and southern parts of the Mexican deserts, summer is the rainy season. Where rainfall records are available for desert locations, they show radical irregularity. Downpours may occur at random intervals and locations, sometimes exceeding the year’s average in a few minutes or hours. In some places droughts can last several years, with no rainfall at all. The North American deserts are second to none for intensity of summer heat, but the dryness of the air makes the heat more bearable. Death Valley can be as hot on a summer day as any place on earth, while at higher elevations a sweater may be necessary when the sun sets and the air cools.
The great diversity of the vast desert landscape of North America suggests natural divisions that coincide with most scientific classifications. But the actual boundaries of these divisions are not so easy to draw within those of the larger desert region. In most cases, one desert shades into another, so boundaries must be somewhat arbitrary and indefinite, as are all attempts by humans to circumscribe nature. As I write this I think of Sir Francis Bacon saying: “Nature is a labyrinth in which the very haste you move with may make you lose your way.”
Continued in the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts of North America 4.”
Which is your favorite desert?