A career-spanning collection of Bruce Berger’s beautiful, subtle, and spiky essays on the American desert
Occupying a space between traditional nature writing, memoir, journalism, and prose poetry, Bruce Berger’s essays are beautiful, subtle, and haunting meditations on the landscape and culture of the American Southwest. Combining new, unpublished essays with selections from his acclaimed trilogy of “desert books”The Telling Distance, There Was a River, and Almost an IslandA Desert Harvest is a career-spanning selection of the best work by this unique and undervalued voice.
Wasteland architecture, mountaintop astronomy, Bach in the wilderness, the mind of the wood rat, the canals of Phoenix, and the numerous eccentric personalities who call the desert their home all come to life in these fascinating portraits of America’s seemingly desolate terrains.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 2.00(d)|
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— UNLIKE COLD — IS ONE of those pleasures most keenly relished on the threshold of pain. It is oddly comforting to feel noon pouring down, to bake from beneath over bedrock, to find your marrow vaguely radiating. The best midsummer lunch is to gorge on enchiladas blazing with chiles, return to the car you have left in the sun with the windows rolled up, lock yourself in to steep in your own tears and sweat, then step out to find the heat wave has turned delicious. It is invigorating to walk over simmering gravel, feeling your soles come alive as they toughen, and baths are most relaxing when they resemble the first stages of missionary stew. Perhaps it is a desire to return to the womb, where we began for nine months at 98.6, that makes the warmth of alcohol so seductive, and one can comprehend — if not envy — the uncomforted who go through life sucking the eighty-proof tit.
To test my heat tolerance I once went into the desert when daytime temperatures were easing off around 107 degrees, to see what might transpire. I expected an escort of insects, lizards, snakes, scorpions and chuckawallas, all the cold-blooded predators warmed like me for action, but the cactus stood in stunned silence. The afternoon lay like a ruin through which I seemed the only moving thing. My eyes ran with salt, my thirst became pathological, and I fled homeward to chug two beers nonstop before I could explain myself. But did I dream of cool mountains, as I did in childhood? No. It is as an adult, exiled to cool mountains, that I dream of the desert.CHAPTER 2
The Mysterious Brotherhood
IT WAS A CUSTOM in medieval times for saints and scholars to keep a human skull around to remind them of their mortality. That practice seems morbid as we plunge, youth-obsessed, into the twenty-first century, and the great bonescapes of Georgia O'Keeffe, their elegant folds of calcium and sky, remind us less of death than the deep cleanliness beneath the flesh. To see finality as a kind of radiance, one can turn to the desert not just for the melodramatic bones — which, despite cartoons, are few and far between — but for the quieter revelations of the vegetable world. Those unlikely green lives, each stranded in its claim to water, shed their skins to reveal still deeper miracles.
Cactus are among our most treasured species, yet only cholla has attained posthumous notoriety. The cuddly-looking shrubs — actually great fountains of barbed grenades, which, in certain varieties, nearly leap out for affection — strew in death the sections of their hollow stems, lattices of holes strung together by a woody fiber like asbestos. The delicacy of the recurrent patterns, the modulations of their holes, their rich patina make them sought after, and they grace the kinds of coffee tables where manhattans are served, find their way into flower arrangements, are positioned as a foil for foliage. They have been strung into lamps, hung up as hat racks, woven into macramé, tricked out as toy covered wagons. They have been stood on end and hollowed with ovals for the insertion of Heidi vignettes in isinglass, seashells and mother-of-pearl. They have in fact been conscripted for so many forms of kitsch, schlock and inventive bad taste that they seem some Sonoran revenge on deer antlers, abalone shells and Japanese fishing balls.
But it would be too bad to let their abuse obscure one of the desert's most moving cycles. Even as the cholla grows it drops its extremities, and if the pieces are not dispersed by wind, water, the flanks of animals or your pierced skin, they mass themselves under the plant like a field of charcoal. As the plant ages, the trunk turns black, the needles become brittle, and the skin begins to peel. The cholla may simply crumble, strewing bits of its stem among the decayed pieces, or tip intact into a small jungle gym. But if it remains on its feet, stripped to its fretted skeleton, it leaves a shape refined as sculpture, lord of its clearing, elegant by day and a spidery presence beneath the moon.
The prickly pear, less noble than the cholla, simply runs out of strength and lays its pads on the ground. If it is noticed at all, it seems a vaguely repellent gray heap. Trodden upon, it answers crisply to the shoe, a sensuous crunch like a bite of water chestnut or the slow dismemberment of a champagne cork. The serenity of its depths can call up visions of snakes napping in the cool, scorpions at rest, tarantulas digesting their friends. Menacingly pale, it is most comfortably crossed after making a fair noise, in a state of high alertness. "Here we go round the prickly pear," said T. S. Eliot, and one can see why.
But reach down and examine a pad. The skin, turned sulfurous brown, peels off like cracked cardboard to reveal a mesh of fibrous sheets, each stamped with a similar pattern like a netting of veins and arteries, laminated sheet onto sheet. Each layer is a faint variation on the last as the holes rework their shapes throughout the pad. Fat green health hides the complexity of the prickly pear, and its disclosure is one of death's small rewards.
The smaller the cactus, the denser its spines, until one reaches the pincushion, one to three inches high, a white thimble usually nestled beneath some larger plant. The pincushion reverses the process by dying inside out, the flesh collapsing to leave a standing cup of barbed lace. Seldom recognized, the spent pincushion is a strange jewel, a crucible of woven stars each sprouting a hook like a talon, delicate as a doll's negligee.
Death on the desert: its forms are extravagant as the species themselves — the barrel's great mashed thumb, the organ pipe's burnt candelabra, the staghorn still more like antlers when stripped of its flesh. But for sheer pageantry the saguaro remains supreme. Largest of the cactus except for its Mexican cousin, the cardón, the saguaro reveals itself by painful degrees, breathtakingly. "What will become of ... the huge and delicate saguaro?" asks Richard Shelton in his moving poem "Requiem for Sonora," but delicacy would not seem a prime characteristic of this stout colossus, one of whose arms, even as I watch in a suburban backyard, has been severed for months, is dangling by a thread and is blooming furiously. The saguaro can be killed, is being killed by destruction of habitat, but the individual, capable of storing up to ten tons of water, taking fifteen years to grow the first foot, surviving a half century before it blooms and attaining a height of sixty feet, seems resilient to an inspiring degree.
We know when an animal like ourselves dies: it is the moment when the heart stops beating. But when does a plant die? When it turns brown? When it falls? When the shape is finally obliterated? The saguaro begins to die even as it grows. King of its habitat, it is home to entire species of woodpeckers and flickers, which riddle it with holes for many other varieties of birds. The injured pulp secretes a thick shell, a petrified leather that offers a comfortable cave for the nesting bird while protecting the cactus, a hole that actually survives the plant in a collectible object called a desert boot. Branches routinely meet with calamity, suffer injury or fall off, to shrivel like crocodiles in the sun, yet the plant grows on, oblivious. The more grotesque its deformities, the more humanly it seems to express itself. By maturity the plant is pocked, gouged, may be missing or trailing branches or is gored to its bare ribs as if it were being eaten by darkness. Remorselessly it thrives. By the time it is actually ready to die, at the age of one hundred fifty or two hundred years, the saguaro may seem the butt of assaults past imagining.
At last letting go, the energy-collecting green skin turns sallow: the plant's least attractive phase. After preliminary jaundice the outer skin deepens, hardens, begins to crinkle and finally attains a kind of rich parchment. It extrudes a shiny black substance sticky to the eye, glassy as obsidian to the touch, as if it were being caramelized. Peeling skin reveals the inner pulp turning black, a burnt coral brittle to probing fingers. When tapped the skin now gives a report like a primitive drum, and could almost be played like a xylophone. Itself in sepia, the entire saguaro appears to be burning from inside.
At last the flesh is fallen, the skin strewn like old vellum, and the saguaro stands revealed: a white idea. If the specimen has many branches, or the ribs extend too far, the extremities will shear off, leaving stumps in a variety of crosses and elemental shapes. Occasionally a cactus boot, former home of some flicker or owl, will catch in the ribs, a hole become substance, revealed as if in a structural model. Though skin at the bottom may hold the freed ribs like poles in an umbrella stand, an immense rattle when shaken, at last the saguaro will fall. It is now only a confusion of hard skin, spines and crumpled flesh, with perhaps a stray boot, though even now the flung ribs may parody its shape in split bamboo.
Object of beauty, toy, curiosity, decoration, cheap firewood, musical instrument, home for scorpions, motive for metaphor — even a dead cactus has its uses. But a taste for the desert is a taste for ultimates, and death is the backdrop against which all we know comes to brilliance.
Cactus tells us nothing of what's ahead, any more than the death of a close friend: all they reveal is process, but process which retains, even in human terms, immeasurable beauty. Their odd green lives, if nothing else, bring to consciousness our complicity in a mystery that becomes, even as we reject it, our own:
Saguaros brave putrefaction like tough meat. Chollas strew black fruit while a skinful of char Peels into moonlight bleaching on its feet. The ocotillo collapses into a star. A mesh of fiber loosened by your nail Separates into bones of the prickly pear. Or lay your hands on a lung. Resemblances fail. Death is a common bond we never share.CHAPTER 3
Comfort That Does Not Comprehend
PEOPLE GROWING OLDER are said to return to the moods and culture of their origins, if not its actual place. I can't imagine returning to the moods of suburban Chicago, an origin I never even revisit. I feel that I sank my first earthly roots when I arrived at the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix, at the age of eight. My family revisited it frequently during my childhood, and fate collaborated in my adult return. A number of years after my father died of the asthma that sent us to Arizona in the first place, my mother married a Chicagoan with a house outside Phoenix — to which they moved. I began visiting my mother and Frank over Christmas holidays. Then, when Frank acquired larger quarters — large enough for radically different people to live compatible lives — I started joining him and my mother for entire winters, lingering into spring. In my thirties I had managed to reproduce my season of discovery at the age of eight: I was living in the Sonoran Desert, five miles from where I first saw it.
The area was unusual for Phoenix, with the city's tradition of bulldozing the desert and replacing cactus with plants from back East, or California, or Australia, without questioning whether they look right, guzzle water or spread allergies. This particular neighborhood's pioneers zoned for five-acre parcels, with a premium on keeping the desert intact. In practice, they didn't let the cactus get too close to their living quarters, and in the case of Frank's purchase, the desert in front was fended off by a wall of oleanders surrounding a parking area, so that from my bedroom I looked out on gravel, then impenetrable leaves, then the gray slag of Mummy Mountain. In back, the requisite pool was blockaded by citrus, cassia, fig, laurel and loquat, punctuated by two date palms. The landscaper had effectively partitioned the property, with the desert on the outside and man in the middle. Such arrangements gave humanity a desert setting rather than a desert life, but most plant and bird species, rabbits and the inventive coyote withstood the holders of title insurance.
Because this new place was, in its minor way, a spread, it had live-in maintenance in the form of José, an aging Mexican whom Frank had employed since he first owned property in Arizona. A slow-moving man who stood with a hose to non-native plants, José clipped when shagginess got flagrant and nursed his diabetes in a folding chair in the sun. I came and went, taking it upon myself, uninvited, to defend the property's desert, which needed only to be left alone. A guest of the interior, I found myself passing through the oleander curtain like a defector, rooting for what didn't need my help.
Winters that blurred without incident were rudely interrupted: Frank died after being assaulted by a stranger. Shortly thereafter, José entered the V.A. hospital with terminal diabetes: bonded for nearly a quarter of a century, he and Frank had almost departed together. The spread, bought by Frank alone, would ultimately go to his heirs but was my mother's to occupy while she survived. In the room vacated by José she installed a Vietnam veteran whose chief interests in life were studying electronics, reading the Bible and pulling weeds. One day, in a panic, I stopped him from tidying the exterior desert because he thought that native plants, being small, numerous and anonymous, were weeds. After three years of tending plants in return for a room, the veteran got his electronics degree and left. That was the end of live-ins. From this point on, the property was managed by a gardening crew that showed up one morning a week. My mother inhabited the spread alone until I appeared at Christmastime and realized that the cactus outside the oleanders needed a more active defense.
* * *
THE DESERT, OF COURSE, has a natural attrition rate that it was my privilege to watch. The oldest saguaro on the property, baroque in its profusion of arms, had an eye-level window where the pulp had rotted away from the ribs, showing how they hold the cactus up like rebar. Inflicting my cactus lecture on occasional visitors, I could demonstrate how saguaros branched, how woodpeckers gouged holes that cauterized into homey caves for other species — too frequently, now, invader starling — then lead the poor guest (mind the cholla!) to the demonstration cutaway model. "And this is how saguaros are built ..." The inset was only a few inches in each direction, a bit of desert intaglio, vaguely lyre-shaped, with ribs for strings.
Having seen saguaros survive all manner of accidents and assaults, I saw no threat in the little hole, but the first thing Inoticed on returning to Phoenix one December was that the whole candelabra was tilting from that spot. Immediately I knew the cactus was doomed. With every rain the pulp takes in as much water as possible, its ribs expanding like bellows. At the first downpour, this one would draw water to its many limbs above the weak point and come crashing down. Judging by the height, it would hit part of the driveway, flattening anything beneath. But the chance of finding anything to flatten was infinitesimal, and in any case, what a memorable obituary. Out of curiosity I even gave it a little push, carefully, through the needles, just above the lyre. I was about as effective as the time I tried the same thing on the Tower of Pisa.
Too quickly I became used to the new shape and didn't even think about the saguaro on a night of pummeling wind and rain, the first winter storm. The next morning I bundled up to retrieve the paper — Arizona was impeaching the hilarious Governor Mecham and I lived for each installment. Halfway out the drive I stopped in my tracks: several tons of highly structured pulp lay at my feet. The rest of the cactus dipped through a small arroyo and rose toward the drive. Here and there, little breaks in the skin showed fresher green. The tip extended two feet over the asphalt. Slightly below it, like a snapped neck, lay a major fracture. I had estimated the saguaro's age to be close to two hundred years, and there was comfort in knowing that — unlike most of Phoenix's recently fallen saguaros — this one had died a quite natural death. The part of me that gave it a push was also sorry not to have watched it go.
Upright, it appeared serene; prostrate, it seemed to writhe. The woodpecker holes facing the sky had filled with water and had become, unexpectedly, miniature potholes. I dipped my finger; the water was icy. I had never walked a fresh saguaro and tried this one: the smooth trunk was a pliant log while the needled branches crackled like a stubble field. Doomed as this saguaro may have been, one of its limbs had put forth a new branch no bigger than a tennis ball. A tight formation, it had landed with its arms side by side like basking crocodiles.
The tip in the drive would have to be dealt with. I tried kicking the cactus aside, but it was firmly attached. I returned with a saw, expecting minor resistance, but the ribs and pulp gave way like pound pound cake and the tip proved light enough to shove with my foot into the arroyo. As far as I was concerned, that was full cleanup. Most particularly I didn't want that year's gardening crew, looking for inventive chores once they had watered the loquat and trimmed the cassia, to suggest removing the corpus at an hourly rate. It was not practical to explain the weird urge to watch cactus pulp decay, but even professional gardeners understood that the tough woodpecker holes, once freed from the cactus, became "cactus boots." Suitable lacquered cactus boots were sold in Scottsdale souvenir shops. When the gardeners paid their weekly call, I told them to ignore the dead saguaro. "I want to save the boots."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Desert Harvest"
Copyright © 2019 Colum McCann.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Piano Has Been Thinking, by Colum McCann,
THE MYSTERIOUS BROTHERHOOD,
COMFORT THAT DOES NOT COMPREHEND,
FERNANDO AND MARISELA,
CURSE OF THE ADORERS,
HOW TO LOOK AT A DESERT SUNSET,
THE SEARCH FOR MATA HARI,
THE METAPHYSICAL TENT,
SALT ON THEIR TALES,
WILDERNESS AND THE BURIED SELF,
SLICKROCK AND THE BACH CHACONNE,
SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENTALISM, AND MUSIC,
ARROWS OF TIME,
Also By Bruce Berger,
A Note About the Author,