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LATER THAN YOU THINK -- A REVIEW OF "DESERT TIME," BY DIANA KAPPEL-SMITH

Book Review by Tara Carreon

June 21, 2009

Diana Kappel-Smith is a woman, but in Desert Time, she subtly betrays women, the earth, and her young son, about whom we hear so much in the narrative, by becoming a mouthpiece for right-wing, anti-environmental propaganda.  This agenda is neither hidden nor soft-pedaled -- she idealizes ranchers and hunters in the best tradition of the Reaganite rugged-individualist school of propaganda -- and ventilates the standard Limbaugh-style ridicule of city-slicker environmentalists as a species of naive do-gooders lacking the fortitude or savvy necessary to tackle serious conservation problems.  In her universe, it takes a man with a large-bore rifle in a camo-suit to do the hard work of regenerating the wilderness and saving endangered species.  The business of trapping, anaesthetizing, and shipping breeding stocks to new locations, monitoring herds, and auctioning the right to kill big-horned animals is too big a job for the Teva-wearing Sierra Clubbers who trade favors in the halls of the legislatures.  In Diana's universe, they love the earth best who dominate it with a will, and save it from the misinformed, who would make a religion out of non-consumption.

Whence comes this nostalgia for domination, this veneration for aggressive "management" of the environment?  Diana sells her notions through a personalized narrative that echoes the ruminative style that has been popularized as nature writing over the last few decades.  She projects her spiel through a post-modern persona, conjuring the stereotypical fears of a single woman, a single mother, whose small anxieties, earnestly repeated, add up to a big fear of the world, and a need for protecting males to rein it all in, bring it to heel, and restore the balance between humanity and brutal nature. 

In true post-modern style, she projects insecurity through denial rather than outright admission.  Take this passage where she refers casually to a sexual dalliance, and dithers annoyingly about a man she simultaneously wants to possess and reject:

"I found a nice note card back in Ganado and I'm writing to a man I've wanted for a long time and whom I spent a night with before I left home. I'm pretty sure I spent the night with him because I was just about to leave. I'm fine on my own, see. Even so, it's only natural that when there are these little chinks in my time I find myself thinking of him. And I figure I'd be rude -- not to mention downright transparently insecure -- if I didn't send him some kind of note letting him know that I'm fine on my own, but that I think of him sometimes, even though I'm fine on my own. ... 'I wish you were here. I really wish you were here.'"

Burning words like this, to go essentially nowhere, should be an environmental crime in itself, a prosecutable waste of paper, but in our postmodern age, not knowing how you feel is the new feeling.  A scared woman begins her long day's journey into  night, into a frightening world best-described with violent metaphors.  Come with her if you will, but like watching a David Lynch movie, it won't be easy.

Diana is a fan of the cataclysmic image, the jagged phrase, a practitioner of the sturm-und-drang school of naturalistic evocations.  Her creator works with a hand-axe and blow-torch, smashing things until he achieves just the right effect.  Daytime is an assault on life.  In a "terrible" sky, sunlight cuts "like a fractured mirror."  But night-time is no better -- the stars reveal "the lovely violence of the sky."  The desert heat is "like a power punch," where wind "like a howling broom" brings "violent rain" that tears between mountains "like giant onions shattered by shotgun blasts," spraying "blown spume."  Sometimes creation is like a giant's kitchen where colors "so bright they look false," congeal "like thick sliced bacon" and "badly carved layer cake," produced from an ovenlike landscape that are "burnt," "molten," "like spilled fire," "like charcoal," "grayed over with ash, red-hot."

Who is responsible for prose like this?  Are there no editors left in the publishing houses?  Whatever happened to subtlety, restraint, and artful expression? Is there no Prozac in the house?  The earth is "crazed ...straining ... sagging ... thrusting ... brittle ... fractured ... raw ... riven ... broken ... like teeth bearing down on a bullet ... compound fractures  ... filled with debris ... a tomato knife ... a damaging machine." What is being damaged here is our mind, run through a literary grinder like gangsters who toss their victim into a chipper to render the remains unrecognizable.  There, I had to have my revenge!  And if you are inclined to verbal masochism, I've gathered a rogue's gallery of Diana's sadistic metaphors in a corral at the end of this review, so feel free to knock yourself out.

Enough of all that mother-nature Wiccan bullshit for her.  This woman is a Druid of the old school.  Nature is a dangerous, capricious force that whipped life into being as a side project, just to see if we could survive.  The fit survive, red in tooth and claw, in defiance of nature's lethal intent.  Diana's world-view rests comfortably on a throne of negative earth analogies, angrily declaiming the Illuminati philosophy that the earth and women must be feared, hated, and conquered.  What a deft reversal of expectations.  You picked up a book by a woman naturalist, thinking to hear views sympathetic to nature, and she turns out to be Mata Hari, working for the dominator elite.  Well-educated and armed with scientific knowledge, she performs an autopsy on the planet that reveals the ugly pulse of a killer-creation that would devour our species.  Faced with a gaping hole in the earth, she sees a vagina that would stop anyone in their tracks, like the "fundus of a toilet bowl."  Going about with her "un-11-year-old," wide-eyed and innocent son, who hangs on her every word, she wishes she had a man there, to protect the boy from her free-floating fear.

But don't get me wrong.  The woman's no shrinking violet.  She's competent, independent, comfortable on the road and in the countryside, able to set up camp, organize events, and barge into the top man's office to demand answers to scientific questions.  She hangs out in bars, drinks beer in mixed company, hates french fries, and uses the word "shit" to describe both the products of digestion and a range of other phenomena.  "The Indians left eight hundred years' worth of trash: shit, ash" ... "in whiffs they're here, the human smells: shit, roasting corn" ... "The coyotes shit out the hard indigestible seed" ... "Bechan is a Navajo word meaning big shit, and there is a cave by that name in an obscure canyon in southeastern Utah, and that is what it is full of."  "Shitting is such an intimate live act."  "Shit! The coyote just ran off with my spoon!"

Diana is often angry and easily irritated -- characteristics she nurtures with self-approval.  "Heat gives my temper an edge, my opinions durability, my thirst a passionate expanse."  Psyching herself into traumatic states, Diana destabilizes herself, and the reader.  "I have the old sense of tilt and tunneling, vertigo, in the evidence of stones and time: ... tilt, vertigo."  Facing nature's challenges requires strategy and technique.  "In a new camp the first concerns are stones and dry fuel: the materiel of fire and defense" ... "Raingear, down vests, a change of underwear, and two drawstring bags are all our defense against disaster."  She shares her sense of unease and discomfort in clipped phrases. -- "My mind must be going" ... "I feel nauseated."

Diana's greatest tormentor is her own imagination.  Witness this vivid rendering of an event that didn't happen -- her struggle to survive a snakebite that happened only in her mind:

"Three times that night I will wake up gasping, eyes wide, neck stiff as a girder, with my fists clenched against that punch and jab that could have been into forefinger, wrist, the pad of muscle at the base of the thumb; feeling how my fingers could swell like potatoes and my arm like a gourd; feeling how glad I was I'd taught Coult to drive in case I couldn't, but how many hours would it be, him driving the dirt track in the dark with mother sagged shallow-breathing on the seat beside him to even the first paved road, and along that over the high passes in the dark to the town of Austin, Nevada, with only the one rowdy bar open at that hour, and could he do that? How can I tell?" 

Her philosophy seems to be summed up in this phrase: "Take a measure of freedom, you take terror by the hand every time."  Having taken terror by the hand, we are ready to embrace some tried and true American verities.

Cowboys Are True Americans

Spending a day with Bill McGibbon, the president of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association we learn how (1) cattle are a useful management tool that can be used to improve the condition and biodiversity of the range, (2) that Arizona beef feeds 4.5 million people, (3) that a few pesky environmentalists are sabotaging the cattle rancher's possessions (windmills have their bolts loosened just enough so that when the wind blows they'll self-destruct; cattle guards are pried out of their foundations; cement is poured down wells to give the pump a fatal case of congestive heart failure; fences are systematically wrecked, the wires cut between every other post for miles), (4) that the "thoughtless and ignorant" urban majority are ruining the countryside, (5) that cattle ranching in Arizona is a "fragile system,"  "an endangered species," (6) that cattle are NOT the reason why desert grasslands have been invaded by mesquite, it's just simply getting hotter, and mesquite can withstand deeper drought than grass, (7) that ignorant native peoples like the Tohono O'odham Indians who hated Kino's cattle and ran them out of there, are today cattlemen themselves, but in an irresponsible open- range kind of way that leads to severe overgrazing and extreme abuse of landscape, (8) that white cattle ranchers like Bill McGibbon make use of new "holistic" techniques that move cattle from paddock to paddock (short periods of heavy grazing followed by a time of long untouched growth), a system developed by a Zimbabwean wildlife biologist that mimics the native migrations of wildebeest, and (9) the cattle-industry is under fire from people who won't let the old-timers who just want to live in their ranches and raise cattle "like they've always done," alone.

Hunters Are The True Environmentalists

Spending a day at Lake Mead National Recreation Area with Craig Stevenson of the Nevada Department of Fish and Wildlife "who works all year for the benefit of bighorns," we learn (1) "the difference between reality and dreamland," (management and research) (2) that the department is funded by hunters (taxes on guns, ammo and hunting permits), (3) that hunting bighorn sheep is "an exclusive business" ($800 for an out-of-state bighorn tag, in-state is "cheaper," and two tags auctioned off each year, minimum bid $20,000), (4) that all this money is returned to the sheep in the form of "management and protection," which means baiting the bighorn, trapping them under nets, blindfolding them, hobbling them, holding them upright so they don't aspirate cud and get pneumonia, carrying them in a boat, and putting them in water-developed places where there are not enough bighorns, or none at all, (5) that most of the volunteers for this "management" are members of the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, a group of hunters who've given the transplant program "hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of free labor over the years in spite of the fact that any one individual can only expect to get one bighorn tag in his entire life, and most of the fraternity has already had theirs,"  totally selfless individuals, and (6)  "Ever think you'd see an environmentalist out here doing something for the sheep? Heck, no.  They're busy over at the legislature, where they can keep cool."

Nationalism Is Natural

Whenever she finds it convenient, she parrots the official "American" view of every thing, and promotes the idea of our powerlessness to affect government.  "American troops were moving into Saudi Arabia to stop Iraqi forces from taking that, too, Iraqis having taken Kuwait already. If they took Saudi Arabia, they'd be sitting on half the oil resources of the planet, which was not a good idea." ... "Maybe this is the meaning of war: that what can be trusted in peacetime -- food, warmth, professional pursuit, the people one loves, one's own life -- may be taken away.  And one is powerless to stop it." "When Texas was "annexed" by the United States in 1845, a string of forts sprang up, and the U.S. military -- also a-horseback -- gave the Comanches hell. The border was as unenforceable then as now, leaky as the dickens, and it went smack-dab through fluctuating tribal claims, lending the Indian wars here the aura of a game. During the Civil War the cavalry had other things to do and Mexican bandits attacked the ranches and border towns, and this went on for quite a while, no one in Washington taking West Texas too much to heart; so Texas Rangers and their horses took the heat." Diana tends towards racism with characterizations like "Mexican bandits," "serious wetbacks," and "bigtime smugglers."

The Military Is Pro-Conservationist

Diana alludes to having received sponsorship for her writing from some secret source.  In a sign of who may be her secret sponsors, she reserves her most fulsome adulation for those virile stewards of the wide-open target ranges of the west, the hawks she loves best -- the military men who toss the big male symbols around -- the missiles and artillery that, paradoxically, cause less environmental harm, she says, than the hordes of littering backpackers who devour the scenery they want to save.  No talk of jet fuel in the water-table, no depressing stocks of nerve gas leaking into the soil, no troublesome uranium tailings killing stretches of river in her narrative.  It's all clear skies and the occasional crisp, clean detonation.

In defending White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, she argues that the most pristine desert can be found here and on other military bases, where the guards are like National Park rangers, the Public Affairs Building is something like a school, 100 transplanted Nazi missile experts are scientists, and "it turns out that the public with their cars and dirt bikes and pistols and penchants for picking things up is more of a damaging force to native desert than any amount of exploding ordnance."  Never mind that in 1985, the DOD identified upwards of 20,000 contaminated military sites requiring cleanup at an estimated cost of over $42 billion.  Then, more absurd than absurd, she recounts that Bob Burton, their resident archaeologist, believes that the only way to live there at White Sands Missile Range is by "going lightly on the earth," in the way of the Apache. 

Human Impacts Are Negligible

To Diana, global warming is the product of human egotism.  But not in the way you might think -- that humanity has been egotistically burning carbon night and day for the last hundred years.  No, Diana's humility is of a strangely Pollyannaish sort.  Falling into a reverie of "campfire thoughts ... a quilting bee of fragments falling into place," she finds it egotistical to believe "that we can, through our lifestyle, change climate."  Little old us?  Why, a hydrogen bomb would barely put God's snot out of place -- "our megatonnage amounts to no more than the capacity to tweak the nose hairs of a minor deity...." Resorting to fallacious reasoning, she argues that we'll never save species from extinction until we realize that species can become extinct without human intervention.  Since the planet is currently overrun with people, the fact that the dinosaurs went extinct without our help hardly seems relevant to our present situation.  When this book was published, perhaps her ignorance could blend in with the general climate of denial, but today, these arguments reveal her for what she is -- a propagandist for industrial, anti-environmental forces that needed a female naturalist to launder their views for distribution to the gullible. 

Put simply, Diana's views are unwholesome and deceptive.  Granted that she's a naturalist -- she shows little love for the earth, and drops a hint as to her motivation when she says that the book would not have been made without some people who "appear in disguise."  As I suggested above, her clandestine supporter may have been the military, that is perpetually funding propaganda, and sponsoring the publication of ideas that support its agenda.  In the seventeen years since Desert Time was published, we have become more and more aware of how close the earth is to total destruction.  No thanks to Diana.

Appendix of Nasty Metaphors

Rocks are "monsters," "shapes torn into globules," "corroding hulks," "futile," "like an imperfection at the edge of a jewel," "scarred," "cleaved," "dinted," "shattered," "bunged up," "a kind of carapace," "a tongue of rubble," "wholly out of place," "naked," "sharp as scalpels," "as if someone had scooped truckloads of riverbed and run it through a damaging machine: the turbine blades of a jet engine, say," "like battlements, towers, ruined buttresses," "like ragged tongues," "like old teeth," "like crockery in a mattress trampled by elephants," "peak-like and final."

Caves are "like desert-varnished bone," "like the fundus of a toilet boil," "exactly like the entrance of a vagina ... a hole like that would stop anyone in their tracks."

A meteorite is "armageddon," "punching a hole in the body of terra firma ... like a Shoshone warhead on a cosmic scale ... burying a humid jungly forest in red-hot shrapnel ... and the wound has not healed ... the wound is still open."

A volcano is "pimple-like," "tumor-like," "vomiting a rhyolite disaster," "like a nightmare cartoon Alice in Wonderland who ate the cake or drank from the bottle ... magma shrapnel devouring landscape like shock waves from a bomb."

A river is "like a spill of paint," "like a sheet of fire."

Yuccas are "like imps," "cartoonish," "faceless," like "pineapples and scissorblades," like "maimed figures."

Dying barrel cacti are like "minefields still active after a war has passed on;" their spines "like a burnoose, ""like wicked talons," "like black hypodermics;" their domes "like stolid homonculi ... a fontanel that never heals;" Cholla cacti are "like a landscape filled with dirty mops."

Wild palms have "blades as sharp as canine teeth."

Trees are "bumps of shadow," "broomsticked."

Flowers are "a Technicolor shag rug," or "pale as shredded moonlight."

Shrubs are "silvery snarls of leafless twigs," "thin and tough as tungsten wire," "gap-toothed," "blasted," "crushed," "pale," "rough," "metallic," "harsh," "infested," "hardly new," a "nemesis," "horror," "untidy," "without blessings," "a bundle of slats given a savage twist," "the color and texture of frayed steel wire," "not a thing of grace," "a deception," "bumps," "hovering," "like heaps of twiggy trash or collapsing nests," "like clusters of gray pencils."

Tumbleweeds are "like a dead bird," "like starfish on roadsides," "like wads of barbed wire."

Plants' defenses are "like a scowl or gritted grimace."

A ram looks "like a woman with a grand coiffure," "wearing a pair of golden tires," "like a cast-iron jester's cap."

Deer are "like deer-shaped superballs dropped from the blue."

A lizard "looks like a bogus dinosaur in an old sci-fi flick, one of those black-and-whites now the exclusive territory of serious insomniacs."

A tortoise's horn is "like a medieval lance or battering ram."

Rabbits are "like English badgers who live in cellars of long decayed Roman villas, taking advantage of human ruination."

A great blue heron "squawks like a door hinge;" a cactus wren sings "a raw salty commentary;" a raven's wings are "like heavy breathing;" birds are like "sprinkled pepper," "elegant and sinister," "chanting," "predatory," "opportunistic," "like a dark pointed star," "like a rusty bathtub toy."

Turkey vultures are "a caldron boiling up."

A woman is "like a collapsed sack with a mask for a face.

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