Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Desert Country. By Steve Crouch. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1976. Illustrations. Photographic notes. Index. 160 pages. $18.95 until Dec. 31, 1976, then $20.00.
Reviewed by Diana Lindsay, columnist, Globe-News (Amarillo, Tex.). Author of Our Historic Desert: The Story of the Anza-Borrego Desert (1973).
In this photographic essay, Steve Crouch offers an enticing description of the desert as an arid garden with “wonderous” things to behold intertwined with a disquieting depiction of man as desert destroyer.
The setting is the “real desert” with its “images of furnace heat and vast, empty wastes,” which the author identifies as the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Where one desert is viewed as “majestic monotony” the other is portrayed as a “land of many faces.”
Crouch views contemporary man paradoxically. He is the enemy, the one who pushes the denizens of the desert to disaster. Crouch cogently illustrates this message in his poignant tale of a rattlesnake’s final fatal encounter with souvenir seekers on a lonely stretch of desert highway. Yet, it is this same man who may save the desert inhabitants in spite of himself through exhausting the water supply, hence leaving alone the desert’s own kind who are uniquely equipped to survive the dryness and heat.
Numbered among the desert’s own kind are the descendants of the prehistoric Hohokam, today’s Papago and Pima Indians of Arizona. The contact with white man is viewed as disastrous in that the Indian has taken up this life style, thus losing the native skills to sustain himself in his own land. It is only the Yaqui and Seri Indians of Mexico, according to Crouch, who still retain their cultural identity and earthways, stubbornly resisting pressure to conform to mechanized and mass produced society.
The desert continues to exist today only because it is a natural barrier, Crouch contends. So called “modern” man has been and is the invader, the interloper “in” the desert rather than “of” the desert. Only the hardy have survived in their “brief entrada,” leaving such monuments as old towns, cemeteries, backroads, and diggings to mark their passage.
Related herein are the tales of Hadji Ali, the famed camel driver, and Joe “Hooch” Simpson of Skidoo, an archetypical goldthirsty prospector who lived for “the quest.” As spinner of stories, Crouch is at his best.
Although no large scale extraction of gold and silver is taking place presently, and in striking contrast to earlier days, valuable mineral deposits are still there waiting for the next boom, according to Crouch. And, “when it comes, this desert will be destroyed to get at them,” he predicts.
Crouch concludes with his answer to the bothersome question, what is the desert good for? His answer dethrones economic justification for aesthetic and ecologic sufficiency unto itself by declaiming that “it’s good enough for them [plant and animal life], and that is enough.” While the author details the case for the desert, he also cites the destruction by man. There is no call to action, no alternative for the outcome, only stoic acceptance. The natural desert community becomes unpreventably and tragically a victim of the circumstances of exploitation, consumption, and development.
The book is well designed in an eight by eleven inch format with excellent layout and sizing of the 60 color and 42 black and white photographs. The colors are true and the contrast is sharp. Well over half of the photographs were taken in either the Mojave or Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The balance capture Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, Baja’s Vizcaino-Magdalena Desert, or the upper reaches of the Colorado Desert. There is no doubt that the author is a highly accomplished photographer.
Reminiscent of Arizona Highways, the portfolios emphasize the garden aspect of the desert while ignoring the recurrent theme of contemporary human impact. Crouch missed the opportunity to visually corroborate his image of man as the interloper and destroyer.
Although this is a subjective photographic essay, a generalized map would have greatly aided the reader in grounding specific areas within their larger regional context.
The editor’s jacket description is misleading due to the promised portrayal of the desert “from the Big Bend country of Texas, across lower New Mexico and Arizona to Southern California” with “a changing panorama of the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave….” The Big Bend area, New Mexico, and the Chihuahuan Desert are never mentioned in the text. There is no hint here of the author’s theme of man as the interloper and destroyer.
Although this book offers little new for academic researchers, it receives high marks as artistic interpretation and personal testimony for the desert idea. The photographs are superb, and the author’s writing style is vivid, inviting the reader to share the artist’s sense of wonder and awe in this wild and haunting, yet threatened land.