The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.
Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had even arrived. My concept of desert landscapes owed more to illustrated stories of Moses wandering the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust, than it did to any actually existing desert. My imagined deserts were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.
America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But what surprised me most were the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.
The same can be said for deserts around the world. They too are alive. Earlier this year I drove through a portion of the Arabian Desert on my way from Dubai, where I currently live, to Muscat, the capital of Oman. The landscape between these cities is marked by shifting dunes and dark-rocked mountains that cut through the sand, yet even here the earth shows signs of life. My two young sons, looking in confusion from the backseat, didn’t believe me when I told them we were in the desert. They couldn’t see it any better than I could when I first encountered it back in 2002.
It seems to me that this condition of being unable to recognize the desert for what it is is a symptom of ecological know-nothingness . I have lived my life content in ecological ignorance, and while I’ve learned to see the desert through the flora, I cannot name a single one of those plants, let alone explain their relationship to each other and the land from which they grow. They are a blur, an impression.
We are approaching the end of a year that has seen record high temperatures around the world, the earth’s biodiversity is in collapse, the United States has elected a man to high office who believes climate change is a hoax, and I can’t identify the tree outside my window.
An acquaintance of mine suggested that rather than make a New Year’s resolution, we would be better served by committing to a “theme” for the year, the idea being that a theme offers a more nuanced, expansive way to affect change than a resolution. A theme. Something around which to organize our thoughts and actions. I like this idea, so I choose for myself the theme of “ecology.”
I want to think of ecology broadly, as encompassing what Félix Guattari calls the “three ecologies”: natural ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology. He shows how these ecological registers come to bear on each other; when one of them falls out of balance, the others follow. In other words, the three ecologies are integral parts of a larger ecosystem, which speaks to my earlier point about ecological know-nothingness. Being blind to the desert is to be blind to much more, including ourselves.
Throughout his ecological writing, Gary Snyder stresses the importance of developing an intimacy with our surroundings, including learning the names of the plants that grow around us. This means looking closely and accounting for what’s there, noting the details and the subtle variations that occur over space and time. This means staying put and watching where we step.
Knowing our neighbors’ names may be the beginning of basic civility, but it’s also — at a deeper level — the beginning of responsible coexistence, which is necessarily bound up in some degree of self-knowledge. To watch where we step is to look at our own feet. I am writing this from my balcony in Dubai, approximately one kilometer from the Persian Gulf. It is December 27, 2016. The weather is mild. I am looking at a tree. It’s a mature date palm, its fronds erect and in excellent health.
There is too much at stake at this critical juncture to continue in ecological ignorance. This is true for the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. But it’s also true for human sociability, for the stability of our communities, for our bodies and our minds. If there is any hope of avoiding the worst of our accelerating ecological crisis, it very well may depend upon our learning to see clearly what surrounds us every day.