A LIVING DESERT

The new book “No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts,” which is discussed in my Dec. 4 column (check it out at http://sbsun.com/johnweeks), is full of writings old and new by authors living and dead. They all offer a unique take on the Southland’s great deserts.

My favorite passage in the book is by John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who chronicled a 1960 trek across the Mojave Desert in his 1961 memoir “Travels With Charley.” Far from viewing the desert as a wasteland, full of desolation, he saw it as teeming with a powerful lifeforce. In fact, he said, if mankind eventually succeeds in wiping out life on Earth, for most of it, the desert may hold the last hope of survival and salvation.

Here are his words:

“One may look in vain for living creatures in the daytime, but when the sun goes and night gives consent, a world of creatures awakens and takes up its intricate pattern. Then the hunted come out and the hunters, and hunters of the hunters. The night awakes to buzzing and to cries and barks.

“When, very late in the history of our planet, the incredible accident of life occurred … a new thing emerged, soft and helpless and unprotected in the savage world of unlife. Then processes of change and variation took place in the organisms, so that one kind became different from all others. But one ingredient, perhaps the most important of all, is planted in every life form — the factor of survival. No living thing is without it, nor could life exist without this magic formula. Of course, each form developed its own machinery for survival, and some failed and disappeared while others peopled the earth. The first life might easily have been snuffed out and the accident may never have happened again — but, once it existed, its first quality, its duty, preoccupation, direction, and end, shared by every living thing, is to go on living. And so it does and so it will until some other accident cancels it. And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition. Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.

“The desert, being an unwanted place, might well be the last stand of life against unlife. For in the rich and moist and wanted areas of the world, life pyramids against itself and in its confusion has finally allied itself with the enemy non-life. And what the scorching, searing, freezing, poisoning weapons of non-life have failed to do may be accomplished to the end of its destruction and extinction by the tactics of survival gone sour. If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life. And if that should transpire, unwanted places like the desert might be the harsh mother of repopulation. For the inhabitants of the desert are well trained and well armed against desolation. Even our own misguided species might re-emerge from the desert. The lone man and sun-toughened wife who cling to the shade in an unfruitful and uncoveted place might, with their brothers in arms — the coyote, the jackrabbit, the horned toad, the rattlesnake, together with a host of armored insects — these trained and tested fragments of life might well be the last hope of life against non-life. The desert has mothered magic things before this.”