Love it or hate it: The desert

by David Holub

Love it

Of all the landscapes and ecosystems, the desert has a holiness about it, an uncompromising harshness, an endearing desolation that draws me to it, like an old man, wise and short on words.

I love the desert because it requires effort. Plop anyone in the rainy, ferny forests of the Pacific Northwest, or the dogwoods and cypress in the sleepy South or the fertile grasslands of the Midwest and people could survive almost against their will. But not the desert.

In the desert, the sky is magnificently bigger, as is the unforgiving sun. Daytime can be unspeakably hot and night, unbearably cold. The desert palette is discreet and still. The plants are spiny and jagged, the animals thick-skinned and superbly adapted. The desert is no place for the fickle.

Once, spending time in Big Bend National Park in West Texas, we braved 105-degree temperatures on the desert floor and longed for our campsite in the Chisos Mountains, where it would be a balmy 96 degrees. Brochures instructed anyone venturing into the backcountry to register with the park service. Because people wander out and never come back.

Many people go to the desert for renewal, to find order and balance. Maybe it’s because in the desert you can see for miles and the ground is assuredly solid.

The desert has the power to swallow us whole. But it offers us the chance to repent, and in its knowing, humbling harshness, a place to be forgiven.

— David Holub

Hate it

Before moving from New York to Colorado, I hadn’t seen much of the U.S. Southwestern landscape. Now, I’m more familiar with Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – and while the desert is striking and otherworldly, I can’t say I love it. I certainly don’t find it beautiful.

Granted, I probably feel that way because it’s not what I’m used to. I grew up with cheerful flower beds, tall fields of grass and woods with damp mossy tree trunks. You know, trees – those things that bloom and produce oxygen and provide gentle shelter from an unrelenting sun. As a pale person with dark hair, I’ve spent a good deal of my life hiding from the sun. I need some shade.

My first foray into Utah was Arches National Park, a place most people find spectacular. But it just didn’t feel like home to me. That scenery isn’t the Earth I know and have the deepest affection for; it gives the impression of another planet entirely, but one where humans don’t belong. The colors are monochromatic instead of vivid. Everything is dusty and red and brown or beige. The only trees are dried out lifeless things or those scratchy little scrubs that look like stubble on a man’s face. The Southwest seems eons from our time on Earth, better suited to the primitive savagery of the dinosaurs. The desert – at least as I’ve seen it here – is mostly miles of nothing: empty, windy, lonely corners of our country. Cool to visit, but, ultimately, inhospitable.

— Anya Jaremko-Greenwold


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