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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Puma and Petroglyphs:  What one notices is the size of the paws and the strength of the forearms, and the length and fluency of the round tail.  The maker of the petroglyph in the Painted Desert of Arizona noticed these things, too.  When the puma leaps the tail lashes for balance, but it's always an accurate indicator of mood, curling and licking the air even when the animal is asleep.

an introduction

Presently you will meet a carver of kachina dolls, a family of Navajo women, and an uncle who will offer you mutton stew. There will be a missionary whose mission is clear, a cattleman whose future is not clear, a trapper and tracker who can read language on the ground, and a couple of bearded men hiding from the sun in a desert saloon, some Indian children who like oranges, and a prospector who found what he was looking for, and some scientists who have fallen in love with a bird and with each other. There will be other people, too, some of whom have vanished, and some animals that have vanished, and some stones that you will have to turn over and over in your hands in order to understand what they mean.

You will meet a piece of a river, strange trees, coyotes, bees, birds, bighorn sheep, and more cacti than you may care to think about. You will meet a tortoise that is passionate and methodical. You will go to a place where wars have been fought and where they are being prevented, or exacerbated, depending on your point of view. You will meet a man who is crazy about snakes. You will meet other men who are crazy about the past. You will meet the author's eleven-year-old son, Coulter, who asks very good questions.

This book is an attempt to write landscapes with people in them, and animals and plants, too. The landscapes of the American Southwest are so immense that one can hope for no more than a scraped acquaintance anywhere. One can come away with a few sketches, verbal and visual, as I've done here. In a very real sense this whole book is an introduction. It is an introduction to particulars. It does not attempt generalities.

In any case, this book was written backward. It had no outline in the usual sense. Outlines are often made by going to libraries and taking notes on other people's books, and in the beginning I did not do that. The outline was this: a rim that contains a large part of the deserts of North America. The outline was a map that was pasted together and slid for safekeeping behind a bookcase at home. I've made a copy of it to put in here, because I think that you may need it, too.

I spent a week crawling around on this map before I bought a ticket to Albuquerque. Afterward I spent more time on it, until it was tattered and smudged and much bescribbled, until it was largely contained between my ears. As the seasons passed I bought tickets to Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, though I spent little time in cities; within hours of arrival I'd left town. Over a year and a half I marked the track of my travels on the map with a green felt pen whenever I came home, until the scrawls traced a journey of more than twenty-five thousand miles. This was the sum total of mileage on Rent-A-Wrecks and their equivalents and didn't take into account the mileages on foot, horseback, river rafts, or other people's pickups.

Every time I came home, after having scribed the latest green lines, pack and duffels still in my hallway, I'd sit cross-legged on the map with my hand over my mouth and look at the gaps.

I'm looking at them now: the spaces that are never empty or twice the same. I collected stories with plenty of white space around them. Space, and time.

***

Time is strangely transparent in the desert in a way that is never true where there are trees and numbers of people. What I mean by this is that huge passages of time are visible in the present.

Anglo culture -- meaning the influence of white northern Europeans -- is a veneer of only a century and a half. This is so thin in places that it isn't very important.

Much of that country was a Spanish colony since 1540, when Francisco de Coronado's first expedition rode (and walked) through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Spaniards controlled the place or maintained the illusion of control, on paper anyway -- until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. They named mountains, towns, rivers; they left their people, religion, and food; much of the rural Southwest is more closely related to the culture of Mexico than to that of either coast.

Then there are Native American people that were there when the Europeans first came. Most of these are still around. They are coherent peoples with their own languages, beliefs, territories, and troubles, and to understand them one has to make a spiritual crossing as profound as the voyages of Columbus.

Behind these (behind is a relative term; I mean before these in time though as nakedly there as anything else) is the evidence of native people who built towns and cities in the Southwest almost a millennium ago, people who had trade routes as far as Central America. There is hardly a canyon unmarked by their work. In their time, most of these deserts were more thickly settled than they are now.

Then there are places where one can find the tools and encampments of the first human beings to discover this continent, more than ten thousand years in the past.

There are also places where one can find all that is left of uncountable thousands of enormous animals that lived in the time of the glaciers.  These places look like stables where animals sheltered from the midday sun just a month ago, though the creatures have been gone for thousands of years. The dry climate has preserved these things as though they were in amber.

Behind all these is a planet stripped so naked that you have no choice but to see the stories of the land itself. This is written in stone, and the books it is written in are mountains, but you are never far from mountains.

And everywhere but thinly spread, as if to make each individual that much more important, is desert wildlife.

Among other things I am a naturalist, which means that I tend to approach plants, animals, and rocks in the same way that I approach people. I like to know their names and where they live and what they do. I like to find out what is important to them. I like to discover their relationships to the land and to each other.

It was in this egalitarian spirit that this book was made. I asked: what is in that country? Why?

In here you will find a few odd answers, set down by an outsider, an interloper with a notebook. It's a personal collection, a kind of map, an armful of wide-eyed stories, an introduction, a love affair. It is finished, but incomplete. My hope is that you will add to it yourself, slipping your own notes, photographs, portraits, sketches between the pages, shocking people with your own peculiar tales, amusing them with absurd notions, tilting them toward magnificence.

Partial, elusive, fragmentary answers. It is the nature of life that it cannot be grasped. It can, however, be experienced.

DKS
Connecticut, 1992

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