The Desert Year
By JOSEPH WOOD KRUTCH
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 1952 Joseph Wood Krutch
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why I Came
Scenery, as such, never meant much to me. A city man to begin with, I never thought "beauty spots" worth the trouble it took to go look at them. This mountain rises ten thousand feet; that waterfall drops fifteen hundred. What, I replied inwardly, is to prevent it? A week later I had nothing in my mind which could not have got there via a picture postcard. A pot on the window sill or a goldfish on the desk meant more.
Then, having lived somewhat unwillingly in a quiet countryside for a year and a half, I made the great and obvious discovery which thousands must have made before me. There is all the difference in the world between looking at something and living with it. In nature, one never really sees a thing for the first time until one has seen it for the fiftieth. It never means much until it has become part of some general configuration, until it has become not a "view" or a "sight" but an integrated world of which one is a part; until one is what the biologist would call part of a biota.
A "tour" is like a cocktail party. One "meets" everybody and knows no one. I doubt that what is ordinarily called "travel" really does broaden the mind any more than a cocktail party cultivates the soul. Perhaps the old-fashioned tourist who used to check off items in his Baedeker lest he forget that he had seen them was not legitimately so much a figure of fun as he was commonly made. At best, more sophisticated travelers usually know only the fact that they have seen something, not anything worth keeping which they got from the sight itself. Chartres is where the lunch was good; Lake Leman where we couldn't get a porter. To have lived in three places, perhaps really to have lived in only one, is better than to have seen a hundred. I am a part, said Ulysses, of all that I have known-not of all that I have visited or "viewed."
In defense of cocktail parties it is commonly said that they are not ends in themselves but only, more or less frankly, occasions on which people offer themselves for inspection by their fellows. Young men and young women attend in order, as they say, "to look 'em over"; older people in order, as they more sedately put it, on the chance of meeting someone whose acquaintance they would like to cultivate. Something of the same sort is the most that can be said in defense of the tour. Of some spot of earth one may feel that one would like it if one could really see or really know it.
Here, one may say, I should like to stay for a month, or a year, or a decade. It could give something to me and I, perhaps, something to it-if only some sort of love and understanding. More rarely-perhaps only once, perhaps two or three times-one experiences something more like love at first sight. The desire to stay, to enter in, is not a whim or a notion but a passion. Verweile doch, du bist so shon! If I do not somehow possess this, ff I never learn what it was that called out, what it was that was being offered, I shall feel all my life that I have missed something intended for me. If I do not, for a time at least, live here I shall not have lived as fully as I had the capacity to live.
A dozen years ago I had such an experience on a trip undertaken without much enthusiasm. I had got off the train at Lamy, New Mexico and started in an automobile across the rolling semidesert toward Albuquerque. Suddenly a new, undreamed of world was revealed. There was something so unexpected in the combination of brilliant sun and high, thin, dry air with a seemingly limitless expanse of sky and earth that my first reaction was delighted amusement. How far the ribbon of road beckoned ahead! How endlessly much there seemed to be of the majestically rolling expanse of bare earth dotted with sagebrush! How monotonously repetitious in the small details, how varied in shifting panorama! Unlike either the Walrus or the Carpenter, I laughed to see such quantities of sand.
Great passions, they say, are not always immediately recognized as such by their predestined victims. The great love which turns out to be only a passing fancy is no doubt commoner than the passing fancy which turns out to be a great love, but one phenomenon is not for that reason any less significant than the other. And when I try to remember my first delighted response to the charms of this great, proud, dry, and open land I think not so much of Juliet recognizing her fate the first time she laid eyes upon him but of a young cat I once introduced to the joys of catnip.
He took only the preoccupied, casual, dutiful sniff which was the routine response to any new object presented to his attention before he started to walk away. Then he did what is called in the slang of the theater "a double take." He stopped dead in his tracks; he turned incredulously back and inhaled a good noseful. Incredulity was swallowed up in delight. Can such things be? Indubitably they can. He flung himself down and he wallowed.
For three successive years following my first experience I returned with the companion of my Connecticut winters to the same general region, pulled irresistibly across the twenty-five hundred miles between my own home and this world which would have been alien had it not almost seemed that I had known and loved it in some previous existence. From all directions we crisscrossed New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah, pushing as far south as the Mexican border, as far west as the Mojave Desert in California. Guides led us into the unfrequented parts of Monument Valley and to unexplored cliff dwellings in a mesa canyon the very existence of which was nowhere officially recorded at the time. We climbed the ten thousand foot peak of Navajo Mountain to look from its summit across the vast unexplored land of rocks which supported, they said, not one inhabitant, white or Indian. Then one day we were lost from early morning to sunset when the tracks we were following in the sand petered out to leave us alone in the desert between Kayenta and the Canyon de Chelly.
To such jaunts the war put an end. For seven years I saw no more of sand and sunshine and towering butte. Meanwhile I lived as happily as one could expect to live in such years. The beautiful world of New England became again my only world. I was not sure that I should ever return to the new one I had discovered. Indeed it receded until I was uncertain whether I had ever seen it at all except in that previous existence some memory of which seemed to linger when, for the first time in this one, I met it face to face. Now and then, on some snowy night when the moon gleamed coldly on the snow, I woke from a dream of sun and sand, and when I looked from my window moon and snow were like the pale ghosts of sand and sun.
At last, for the fifth time, I came again, verifying the fact that remembered things did really exist. But I was still only a traveler or even only the traveler's vulgar brother, the tourist. No matter how often I looked at something I did no more than look. It was only a view or a sight. It threatened to become familiar without being really known and I realized that what I wanted was not to look at but to live with this thing whose fascination I did not understand. And so, a dozen years after I first looked I have come for the sixth time; but on this occasion to live for fifteen months in a world which will, I hope, lose the charm of the strange only to take on the more powerful charm of the familiar.
Certainly I do not know yet what it is that this land, together with the plants and animals who find its strangenesses normal, has been trying to say to me for twelve years, what kinship with me it is that they all so insistently claim. I know that many besides myself have felt its charm, but I know also that not all who visit it do, that there are, indeed, some in whom it inspires at first sight not love but fear, or even hatred. Its appeal is not the appeal of things universally attractive, like smiling fields, bubbling springs, and murmuring brooks. To some it seems merely stricken, and even those of us who love it recognize that its beauty is no easy one. It suggests patience and struggle and endurance. It is courageous and happy, not easy or luxurious. In the brightest colors of its sandstone canyons, even in the brightest colors of its brief spring flowers, there is something austere.
Within the general area which called to me there is the greatest variety possible, once one grants the constant factors, much sun and little rain. The most spectacular part is the high region to the north, where the plateau is at about five thousand feet and mountains, here and there, rise to reach twelve thousand. Across the southernmost and most frequented part of this northern plateau the Grand Canyon cuts its way, and to the northeast of the canyon, in the region given over mostly to the Indian reservations, rock sculpture becomes most fantastic. It is here that the windblown sand has carved the rock-red and yellow and white -into the isolated "monuments" which stand out in the clear air to produce "objects in space" which the nonobjective sculptor can hardly hope to imitate, at least on so grand a scale.
To the south, when one drops off the plateau-and for many miles there is no descent other than that of an almost literal drop-one lands in an extension of Mexico's Sonoran Desert. Curious little heaps of mountain-the remains, I suppose, of what were once ranges-are scattered here and there over the otherwise fiat land. This is the country of cactus and mesquite and creosote bush. Hotter in summer, warmer in winter, than the higher parts, it is the region most properly called desert country. It is also less varied than the other, less tumultuously exciting, and more fit for the kind of human habitation we know. It is capable, as the northern part is not, of being taken possession of by human beings and used to support a moderate population.
Yet something-perhaps something more than the grand common factors of much sun and little rain -links the two regions, makes them part of the same world, enables them to exercise some kindred charm. But what, I ask myself again, is the true nature, the real secret of that charm? I am no simple stoic. Hardship and austerity do not in themselves make an inevitable appeal to me and they are not only, not even principally, what I seek here. Everywhere there is also some kind of gladness.
Perhaps some of this glad charm is physical. To many people at least, dry warmth gives a sense of well-being and is in its own way as stimulating to them as the frosty air of the north is to others, caressing rather than whipping them into joyous activity. Some more of the charm is, I am sure, aesthetic. The way in which both desert and plateau use form and color is as different from the way in which more conventionally picturesque regions use them, as the way of the modern painter is different from that of the academician. But there is also, I am sure, a spiritual element. Nature's way here, her process and her moods, correspond to some mood which I find in myself. Or, ff that sounds too mystical for some tastes, we can, perhaps, compromise on a different formulation. Something in myself can be projected upon the visible forms which nature assumes here. She permits me to suppose that she is expressing something which another much-loved countryside left, for all the richness of the things it did express, unsaid, even unsuggested. To try to find out what that may be is the reason I have come once more to look at, to listen to, and, this time if possible, to be more intimately a part of, something whose meaning I have sensed but not understood.
Now that I am here I still know no better than I knew before what that something is. All I do know is that the reality or the power to produce an illusion is still present. I know also that the first hints of its existence began, as usual, to be unmistakably whispered in that transition zone between the world I was leaving and the world I was coming to.
This time, as always before except on the very first visit, we drove all the way by automobile, watching eagerly in order not to miss the first phenomenon which would announce the beginning of fundamental novelty. But how, when the important thing is a configuration, can one decide when the elements added one to one have established it? Certainly neither Arkansas nor Missouri is part of the Southwest, though the sky seems to expand, once one has crossed the Mississippi at Memphis or at Cairo. State boundaries will not serve to define because they do not quite correspond to geographical realities. In one latitude, southeastern New Mexico is only a somewhat drier Texas; a little farther north, the westernmost parts of Texas are really New Mexico. And yet along either approach there comes a moment when one hesitates no longer and must say with full conviction "We have arrived."
Mr. Bernard DeVoto, downright and specific as usual, maintains that there is a sensible answer to the sentimental question with which poets and luncheon clubs have delighted to fumble, "Where does the West begin?" "The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches. When you reach the line which marks that drop-for convenience, the one-hundredth meridian-you have reached the West." My own less compact definition concerns itself with the individual phenomena, for some of which this drop in rainfall is responsible. But Mr. DeVoto's straight line, which runs near the western border of Oklahoma, at least cuts here and there across the zigzag which I should draw. And it is also worth noting that a leading ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, reaches independently the same conclusion as Mr. DeVoto. At the one-hundredth meridian western species of birds begin to predominate over the eastern.
On one route which I have several times taken, the change in the look of the land takes place suddenly and dramatically. West of Amarillo, but still in Texas and only two or three degrees west of Mr. DeVoto's line, the road dips suddenly to drop from one plateau to another only a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet lower. This drop is barely enough to register on a pocket altimeter, yet it separates two strongly contrasted landscapes. On top there is the plain of Texas, dryish but undramatic. Below, the red, eroded sandstone and the cactus, which one has not seen before declare that this is New Mexico a good many miles before the map makers have recognized the fact.
On the slightly more southern route which I took this time, one must wait a little longer, though that is mostly because one has been moving southwest rather than due west. At almost exactly the same meridian line there is the crest of a hill crowned by a gas station which the poetic proprietor has named High Lonesome; and from that point one looks down on the first real desert. Shortly after we had passed the crest the first lizard scuttled across the roadway and a few minutes later a road-runner, the most comic of desert fowl, raced our car for a few moments.
Half a mile farther down, another bird of the same species strode contentedly along with nine inches of snake hanging out of his mouth, to remind me of a grotesque if not particularly poetic fact about these gawky birds who have renounced most of the traditions of the cuckoo family to which they are said to belong. One frequently sees them with a snake thus dangling, because a snake is usually too long to be swallowed all at once. Accordingly, after doing their best, they go about all day nonchalantly swallowing an inch or two more of reptile from time to time as the lower end digests away. Not infrequently the snake is a rattler, but harmless varieties and even lizards will do as well.
These road-runners are cocky fellows who have managed to make a virtue out of their clownish gait and manners. Nothing else that lives in the desert, not even a spiny cactus or a resinous creosote bush, seems more at home there. I am reminded that I must take him in too, that majesty and sublimity are not the whole story, that wherever there is life there is also unconscious absurdity and, at least on man's level, conscious comedy. It is well, I think, that the road-runner should greet me at the beginning. This is his country and there is probably no one who could better teach me about it.
Excerpted from The Desert Year by JOSEPH WOOD KRUTCH Copyright © 1952 by Joseph Wood Krutch. Excerpted by permission.
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