All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. By Lawrence Hogue. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000. Illustrations, maps, bibliographical references, index, 272 pages. $24.95 Cloth.
Reviewed by Rachel D. Shaw, Assistant Professor of History, St. Olaf College. Dr. Shaw works on the environmental and cultural history of the Colorado Desert and Palm Springs, California.
Human beings have often found deserts to be places of strange fascination. Lawrence Hogue and Diana Lindsay are no exception. In All the Wild and Lonely Places, Hogue explores the Anza-Borrego desert of southern California, seeking but not always finding the meaning of life in a desert ecoscape. Taking the reader along on his rambles through place, time and philosophy, Hogue presents an intriguing argument for the protection of the Anza Borrego desert and its inhabitants Ð and for other “wild and lonely places.” Diana Lindsay’s Anza-Borrego A to Z, on the other hand, focuses more on the human history of the region. Hogue writes to argue for the protection of the region—a “manuscript of overlaid marks and erasures” (p. 18); Lindsay collects and narrates the myriad stories behind those “marks and erasures” as worthy of interest in themselves. Between the two, readers can find much to create or nourish their own sense of desert fascination.
All the Wild and Lonely Places is a better place to begin, as it assumes little or no prior knowledge of the Anza-Borrego desert and surrounds. It is also directed at a wider audience than Lindsay’s book, having much to say about larger issues of wilderness preservation and management. Divided into five sections—Introductory, Deep Time, Cowboys and Indians, A Century of Wilderness, and Desert at the Millennium Ð All the Wild and Lonely Places both paints a compelling portrait of the region and presents a thoughtful argument about the relationships between human beings and the non-human world.
A major goal of Hogue’s work is to challenge the ideal of “preserving pristine wilderness” while offering other reasons for protecting “wild and lonely places” like the Anza-Borrego desert. Hogue thus joins a growing number of scholars and philosophers troubled by the implications and limitations of “wilderness.” His thoughts and solutions are a welcome contribution to this conversation, enhanced by his extensive personal experience with the desert.
Wilderness preservation rests on the belief that the only areas worth saving are those free of human presence (or taint, as some would have it). This human-less environment provides human visitors the opportunity to experience something larger than themselves, to encounter the sacred, and to escape the restrictions of daily life. Protection of such areas involves limiting or eliminating the signs of human activity and encouraging the “natural” balance of pristine ecosystems. In Anza-Borrego, this means limiting access to fragile areas like springs, eliminating exotic species like tamarisk (salt cedar), and educating visitors in leave-no-trace camping skills. Hogue readily acknowledges the appeal of such ideas, yet his book serves to slowly and surely erode such easy formulations.
First and foremost, wilderness as defined is difficult to find in Anza-Borrego; as Hogue reveals through his explorations and conversations with anthropologist Florence Shipek and various Kumeyaay and Cahuilla Indians, human beings have been manipulating the environments of southern California for thousands of years. Indeed, some environments arguably became dependent on such intervention for their very existence, such as the now-gone grasslands and marshes of Mission Gorge and McCain Valley. Pursuing a course of preservation thus becomes problematic, if maintaining wilderness purity is the goal. In effect, Hogue argues, one must create (and maintain) a “wilderness” where none existed.
Moreover, the amorphous quality inherent in concepts like “nature,” “wilderness” and “pristine” makes it difficult to justify or create a plan for the preservation of regions where repeated human intervention has made it impossible to define what is or is not “natural,” such as the Salton Sea. Also, the very idea of wilderness may discourage people from treating wild places with respect. Hogue notes that a desire to escape the constrictions of society Ð a desire wilderness promises to fulfill Ð can all too easily develop into the idea that wilderness is a place for wild, ungoverned behavior such as that exhibited by renegade ORV-ers bent on evading the watchful eye of park officials and the BLM. The ironic result? The idea of wilderness encourages activities that destroy wild places, while failing to protect wildlife in areas like the Salton Sea.
Yet despite all the problems and contradictions inherent in wilderness preservation, Hogue finds that his desire to protect wild places is too compelling to let go. Out of this tension a two-fold solution slowly emerges. First, Hogue argues, enhancing biodiversity would be a better goal than preserving “pristine nature.” Second, he advocates that we take a leaf from the book of the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay, and learn to view wild places as living gardens in which human beings play important roles yet are not the most important participants. In combination, he argues, such shifts in perspective would encourage people to act when needed to protect other species Ð to “give back” as he puts it Ð but, held in check by a sense of humility and responsibility, they would also know when to leave well enough alone. The payoff? A society that learned to see the world in these ways would lose the sense of lonely alienation from a dead world that plagues modern societies. Humility would replace hubris, allowing people to regain their sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. And wild places and their inhabitants would be protected.
Such arguments are not especially new; other scholars have made similar points Ð William Cronon in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” for example. Nor is the history Hogue narrates unknown; much of the information he provides is available in a number of other, more comprehensive sources, including Anza-Borrego A to Z. The value of Hogue’s book lies more in the graceful way that he synthesizes this information and combines it with his own personal meditations on the value of the Anza-Borrego desert, than in the originality of his ideas.
For even if one is not interested in Hogue’s argument per se, All the Wild and Lonely Places offers an enjoyable journey through the geologic and human history of the region. Wandering with Hogue through the Carrizo Badlands, the reader learns how the forces of plate tectonics and erosion shaped the desert and surrounding mountains. During a visit to Mission Gorge and ensuing conversations with Florence Shipek and local Indians, we learn how the Kumeyaay altered their environments, and how they are reclaiming those ancient technologies. We visit the abandoned home of Marshall and Tanya South, Yaquitepec, and muse about how romantic ideals are both challenged and inspired by the realities of desert life. We follow in the footsteps of Pedro Fages, traipse the mud hills in the wake of J. Smeaton Chase, trace the paths followed by cattlemen and gold seekers. We count bighorn sheep, build water tanks, and accompany rangers in pursuit of exotic tamarisk. We are awakened with Hogue by the scream of a mountain lion at night, lament the destruction caused by irresponsible off-roaders and military maneuvers, and marvel at the sight of bighorn sheep and restored grasslands.
If you know Anza-Borrego, it is refreshing to see it through another’s eyes Ð especially so thoughtful an observer as Lawrence Hogue. If you are new to the desert, Hogue provides an excellent introduction to its wonders, terrors, and persistent appeal. In either case, the provocative questions he raises about the protection of wild places make this a worthwhile read.
Another useful companion on desert journeys would be Diana Lindsay’s Anza-Borrego A to Z: People, Places, Things. Designed as a companion book for The Anza-Borrego Desert Region, (Lowell and Diana Lindsay, Wilderness Press, 1998), Anza-Borrego A to Z provides an intriguing mŽlange of personal accounts, historic events, and legends about desert personalities and places. Organized like an encyclopedia, but highly readable, this book offers a wealth of historical nuggets for the desert aficionado. Thoroughly cross-indexed, the book enables the reader to take virtual journeys through the desert and through time. (Such journeys can be extensive; I began with “Anza” and followed it through a fascinating chain of well over 20 separate entries, all linked through cross references.) Each entry is followed by a short list of relevant sources; a comprehensive bibliography allows the interested reader to track them down. A brief historical overview at the beginning helps the reader place the entries in a larger context, and an index supplements the main entries.
I have only two minor reservations about the book as it currently stands; one concerns the way entries are listed, the other the effectiveness of the included maps. Both of them reflect perhaps the author’s intention that Anza-Borrego A to Z be primarily a companion text; correcting them would render the book independent. If All the Wild and Lonely Places offers a useful introduction for those new to the desert, Anza-Borrego A to Z is better suited to those with some prior knowledge of the region and its features. As with searching for Pegleg’s gold, it helps to know where to dig.
In order to save space for more interesting details (of which there are many), Lindsay has abbreviated many of the longer place names. While a short list explaining the abbreviations is tucked away within the preface, the abbreviations are listed neither as separate entries (e.g. CLRO: see Clark Lake Radio Observatory) nor in the index. Given that all cross-references are given in capitals, a reader following a cross-reference to OWSVRA, for example, may experience momentary confusion looking for “Owsvra” when they are in fact searching for the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area. Using bold text rather than capitals in the cross-references, prominently placing the abbreviations in a separate table at the beginning, listing them in the appendix, or listing them as forwarding entries would correct this.
Second, the maps that are included in the book could be more useful. There are, for example, no grid references that would allow the reader to quickly locate sites described in the text. Second, they do not cover all of the areas discussed. One map offers a low-resolution overview of the entire region. The other two maps focus on the Coyote and Vallecito Mountain ranges within the park. Given that these maps exclude many of the region’s interesting and popular sites, such as Borrego Palm Canyon, the Goat Canyon Trestle and the Pegleg Smith Monument, it is not clear why only they have been included. A more detailed map of the Anza-Borrego area is included with the companion guidebook, and also available for separate purchase. As this map does include a site index with grid references, it would not be a bad idea for a reader new to Anza-Borrego to obtain a copy if possible.
For a reader with some familiarity with the region, these are minor quibbles. To such readers I whole-heartedly recommend this book; indeed, several of my desert-rat friends have already asked to borrow my review copy! (You may also appreciate that the author’s royalties are to be donated to the Anza-Borrego Foundation.) For those of you who are learning about Anza-Borrego for the first time, these omissions are more vexing. Even with companion guidebook in hand, such readers may find it difficult and frustrating to read about interesting sites in Anza-Borrego A to Z and not know where to find them Ð either in the book or on the ground. For such readers, I recommend starting with the guidebook and with All the Wild and Lonely Places before turning to the riches Anza-Borrego A to Z has to offer.