Desert Writing

Much of the literature that has emerged from Nevada has portrayed mountain and desert landscapes, and the human relationship with aridity, in vivid and insightful ways.

The earliest literary commentators on Nevada's natural environment included such distinguished authors as Mark Twain and John Muir, although neither of them was especially enamored of the dusty, austere terrain. Based upon his experiences as a budding newspaperman in Virginia City during the early 1860s, Twain recorded his impressions of Nevada in the semi-nonfiction volume Roughing It, published in 1872. He recounted his arrival in Carson City, the capital of Nevada Territory, as follows:

Visibly our new home was a desert, walled in by barren, snow-clad mountains. There was not a tree in sight. There was no vegetation but the endless sagebrush and greasewood. All nature was gray with it. We were plowing through great deeps of powdery alkali dust that rose in thick clouds and floated across the plain like smoke from a burning house. We were coated with it like millers; so were the coach, the mules, the mailbags, the driver—we and the sagebrush and the other scenery were all one monotonous color.

Nearly a century and a half later, there are few places in Nevada, apart from actual playas (dry lake beds) in mid-summer, where one would encounter such a severely desiccated and visually unappealing place—and many would argue that extraordinary desert landscapes, such as the Black Rock Desert north of Gerlach, actually appeal to the sublime aesthetic by exposing humanity to wide open vistas on an utterly inhuman scale.

Even the great nineteenth-century celebrant of wild places, John Muir, highlighted the bleak grayness of Nevada when he wrote about this region in several chapters of his book Steep Trails (published posthumously in 1918.) Looking eastward toward the oceanic expanse of the Great Basin, he remarked: "Mountains are seen beyond, rising in bewildering abundance, range beyond range. But however closely we have been accustomed to associate forests and mountains, these always present a singularly barren aspect, appearing gray and forbidding and shadeless, like heaps of ashes dumped from the blazing sky."

Literary scholar David Teague noted, in The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (1997,) that a new appreciation of desert landscapes began to emerge during the years between 1890 and 1910. It is not surprising, therefore, that readers encounter generally more positive (and more realistic) views of the Nevada landscape in literature after the end of the nineteenth century. Around the middle of the twentieth century, authors began writing in glowing terms about the special light and subtle life-energies of the Great Basin Desert. For instance, in his 1945 novel The City of Trembling Leaves, Walter Van Tilburg Clark describes the efforts of one of his characters to paint the subtleties of the land and air near Pyramid Lake, north of Reno:

The canvas on the easel was nearly covered by voluminous, dark hills, rolling and rising like the slate-covered clouds which shadowed them. A tiny, white pyramid stood at the foot of the hills, bright as a spearhead, caught in a pale light that shot down from a rift in the clouds. The light lay more softly upon the slope behind the pyramid, dimmed upward and was lost.

Rather than declaring the desert light to be simply dingy or dazzling, Clark here and elsewhere depicts the true play of light across the varied terrain of rocks and hardy plants, affected by clouds and wind. The desert landscape similarly becomes a vivid presence in Frank Bergon's 1993 novel The Temptations of St. Ed & Brother S and Steven Nightingale's 1996 novel The Lost Coast. Bergon tells the story of two contemporary monks who attempt to create a spiritual retreat on the edge of the Nevada Test Site in the southern part of the state, a fiercely hot and dry location where spiritual energy and nuclear energy converge. In his novel, Nightingale's band of wanderers makes its way from one small desert town to the next en route to California's "lost coast" along Nevada's "lonely" Highway 50. He characterizes the road as "a long asphalt sentence spoken by the desert" and, like so many desert authors, comments on the brilliance of the high-altitude sunlight.

Nevada poets, too, have often sought to find words for the characteristics of desert light. Kirk Robertson, for instance, contrasts the deep blackness of the Great Basin sky at night with the excessive brightness of Nevada cities in his poem "Driving to Vegas": "out there / on the horizon // all that neon // beckoning you // in from the dark" (Desert Wood .) Another contemporary poet, Gary Short, dramatically reverses the complaints of Twain and Muir, describing "the moon-quiet light of two thousand stars" ("Toward Morning (Panaca, Nevada)") and looking forward to the time, following a rare rainstorm, when "Soon damp earth / and sage / will perfume the air" ("Near Mina", Desert Wood.) Much of the important poetry concerned with desert Nevada has been collected in Shaun T. Griffin's 1991 volume Desert Wood: An Anthology of Nevada Poets.

One of the major writers of the Great Basin landscape at the turn of the twenty-first century is William L. Fox, the author of numerous poetry collections and nonfiction books engaged with the Great Basin Desert and with arid regions throughout the world, including Antarctica and Australia. Many of the poems in his 2002 collection Reading Sand respond to essential features of the Great Basin, ranging from the movement of sand to the presence of well-preserved pictographs at locations where native people have lived or passed through. In "archaeologos," he comments on subtle desert phenomena such as wind and silence: "wind carries / the silence the // wind carries / silence the // the silence / dropped at the // the edge of / the wind when / it stops."

Fox's other important books about the Nevada desert include The Void, the Grid, & the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin (2000), The Black Rock Desert (2002, with photos by Mark Klett), and Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty (2002.) His fascination with how the human mind responds to "isomorphic spaces" (places with confusingly repetitive landscape features) finds nimble expression in narratives of the author's journeys to remote parts of Nevada with artists such as sculptor Michael Heizer and photographer Mark Klett. In The Void, the Grid, & the Sign, for instance, he writes: "Only in the void, a disorienting space we conceive of as being vacant and thus a landscape of open possibilities, can we imagine ourselves to step outside the boundaries of what we know and receive intelligence from some other place, somewhere alien to the egocentric pivot of our bodies." Rather than the environment of harsh limitations characterized by nineteenth-century texts, the Nevada desert has become a place where writers savor the opportunity to know the world as it truly is and test the expansive edges of human consciousness.

From immense spaces to skin-splitting aridity, from the biting scent of sage to the dance of light across seemingly endless "seas" of mountain ranges, the natural environment of Nevada has inspired the literary imagination for the past century and a half, with initial grumblings giving way to gasps of awe.

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