Drylands: The Deserts of North America 1

April 3rd, 2012 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

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

White Domes, Valley of Fire State Park, Mojave Desert, Nevada, copyright 1970 by Philip Hyde. Cover Photograph of “Drylands: The Deserts of North America.” Color Transparency: 4X5 Baby Deardorff View Camera. Dye Transfer Prints, Cibachrome Prints, and Archival Digital Prints. See PhilipHyde.com for Image Info and pricing. (Click to see large.)

(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.”



  1. pj says:

    200 quality posts, posts that survive the passage of time, is quite an accomplishment David. Congratulations and thanks for doing them.

    These are interesting and profound words from a man who was sensitive and connected to the natural world, and who was obviously receptive enough to be able to make connections with harsh and unfamiliar places . Great reading. That quote by Leopold is classic too…

  2. PJ, I can hardly thank you enough for your comments, support and experienced observations over the last two years. One of Dad’s strengths that helped make his photography was his sensitivity, especially to the natural world. I notice that landscape photographers who tend to have greater sensitivity, seem to make more meaningful images.

  3. Jim says:

    Hello David,

    Congratulations on your milestone, and thank you for again sharing such inspiring insights from not only yourself, but your father and mother as well.

    I grew up in Michigan but in the past 11 years of living in southern California, I have become a borderline Desert Rat. As much as I love exploring the Sierra Nevadas, the San Juans, the Rockies and the Tetons, I’ll never pass up an opportunity to roam Death Valley or the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The land of red rock and sand dunes is still, although perhaps decreasingly so, the best bet to find real solitude.

    Looking forward to the next 200!

  4. Alright, Jim, God willing, I’ll be serving up 200 more, coming your way. I believe I already have a lot of them planned. I guess that’s an exaggeration, but blog posts are scheduled now fairly far out ahead, though I of course retain the right and often use it, to make spontaneous blog posts here and there as inspiration comes, I discover new material or when I see a blog post on another blog that is worth reading too. Jim, I always look forward to your input and wise perspective.

  5. Sharon says:

    Congratulations on the 200th post, David. I look forward to many more. This blog is on my must read list.


  6. Thank you, Sharon. Yours is on mine.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    Ah, the desert…I’ve not been able to love the Mojave quite the way I love the slickrock deserts of the Colorado Plateau, but I do love the arid lands…there’s just something about them!

    Congratulations on 200 posts–Landscape Photography Blogger is definitely a ‘must read!’

  8. Appreciate it, Greg. The Mojave Desert grows on you the more you are there, I guess that may be true of many places.

  9. congrats on 200 quality, thought provoking posts, David!

  10. Congratulations on hitting the big 200, David. That’s a lot of hard writing and although I just joined up in the last 100 or so, I can say that they have all been well-written and insightful…and a couple have been inciteful too.
    I’ve never visited the desert, but am planning on it for next year. But through your father’s images and those of others, I have a great deal of respect for the land and am eager to experience it. And that is a great statement about the land being more visible to appreciate without the heavy foliage I am more used to seeing here in the Northeast.

  11. Hi Steve, your compliments are much appreciated coming from a fine artist like yourself. The desert is a much different experience that takes some getting used to. I hope you can take plenty of time to let the dry air seep into your pours, get dust under your fingernails and breath deeply the warm sage filled winds blowing across your face.

  12. Can I do all that in three hours? Just kidding. I try not to be a tourist. I’ll be there with Greg and another friend, so he’ll set the pace. I know I’ll be in very good company and will be showing the land the respect it deserves.

  13. Are you talking about Greg Russell? If so, you have definitely picked one of the best photo guides possible to introduce you to the desert, with the possible exception of Guy Tal and a few other old timers I know. I am very glad that there are desert landscape photographers in the new generation like Greg and Guy to help carry on a valiant tradition of values and reverence for the natural world, especially in the Southwest and on the Colorado Plateau in particular. Two questions if you will: 1. Without giving too much detail, please, where are you going? 2. Not that I could go, but why didn’t I know about this?

  14. Yep. I know how to pick them.
    I mentioned this to you in an email some time ago. You told me you were much farther from Greg than I thought when I said I could drop by.
    I don’t know for sure where we will go. Greg and I decided to shoot together last year, but I couldn’t do it this summer so it will be ’13. We will meet in the Southwest, possibly Las Vegas, and then Greg will lead the way…unless we decide on locales sooner during our emails. There is so much to see it is better that way. If I started making a list I’d be out there for a very long time.

  15. Steve, thanks for coming back again. I remember that conversation now, but my feeble brain didn’t connect the two together because I thought you said you were going to visit him, as in visit him in the Los Angeles–Riverside area. I guess if you are in New England, visiting Greg Russell could include visiting him anywhere in the Mojave Desert. However, from my perspective, already being out West here in Northern California, I am just about as close to Las Vegas as he is, well not exactly if traveling by car, but L.A. to Vegas or Reno to Vegas are both around 30-40 minute flights. Reno or Sacramento are my closest airports. I’d probably drive though, just to catch the Eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono Lake, perhaps Bodie, the Alabama Hills, Death Valley and other landscape photography hot spots along the way. Hopefully Greg will take you on the road less traveled to some out of the way, back country, backwoods, backwater, or just way back somewhere where you can leave the Internet inspired landscape paparazzi far behind.

  16. Richard Wong says:

    Congrats on the blogging milestone David. That’s a lot for a relatively short amount of time.

    I picked up Drylands used off Amazon a few months ago. It’s a classic book of historical value and one I think your readers should snatch up before they’re all gone!

  17. Thank you, Richard. I am disappointed that I somehow overlooked this comment of yours. Glad you picked up a copy of Drylands and have those good things to say about it. Have you had a chance to read any of the text?

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