the large soundness of nature
September 10, 2006 7:12 PM   Subscribe

The moral terrain of the desert. Mary Austin describes a desert "where the borders of conscience break down... where the boundary of soul and sense is as faint as a train in a sand-storm... [where] the senses are obsessed by the coil of a huge and senseless monotony” -- is that the desert of photographer Richard Misrach? Joan Didion describes a "country so ominous and terrible that to live in it is to live with antimatter, [where] it is difficult to believe that 'the good' is a knowable quantity... [T]here is some sinister hysteria in the air out here tonight” -- is that the desert of photographer Bill Lesch? Possibly the most depressing are these suburban deserts.
posted by salvia (7 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oops, this is a fixed link for suburban deserts, sorry.

Also, don’t miss earlier Misrach images, 1975-87 (Flash gallery, link goes to front page of Fraenkel gallery), and those of Olaf Veltman (Flash again – the desert images are the 3rd – 6th in the “01” gallery). The Mary Austin quotes are from “The Land,” an essay in her book Lost Borders.
posted by salvia at 7:15 PM on September 10, 2006

I find the desert beautiful; especially the high desert valley in and around Tucson, AZ. The desert is unapologetic in its austerity.
posted by ryanhealy at 9:20 PM on September 10, 2006

Great post. That Didion piece really resonates with me. There's something about the desert that makes all human endeavour seem like folly; while at the same time every action, every incident, is harshly magnified out of all normal proportion. It's a strange nothing matters/everything matters sense of reality that skews perception. The deserts of the American West are fascinating places to visit, but at some point I end up feeling that humans are too fleshily vulnerable to spend much time in such places without morphing into something totally other.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:03 PM on September 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

S.Çrane in his story he Open Boatg seems to say it onece and for all: we impose our imaginative notions upon an silent Nature. But the photos and texgt are lovely.
posted by Postroad at 4:51 AM on September 11, 2006

Didion was a fine writer but not (in my opinion) much of a thinker, at least when her brains were being fried by desert heat.

...It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.


She seems to be saying we were in trouble in 1965 not because of racists and warmongers but because people who claimed to be moral were opposing them ("all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times"). That's just nuts.

My family lived in a tiny desert community for a few years, thankfully after I'd left home. I can still see the tumbleweeds blowing across the back "yard." I'll take greenery, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 5:29 AM on September 11, 2006

"The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid, like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear."

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
posted by Urban Hermit at 10:17 AM on September 11, 2006

I always tell myself that if I ever get divorced, I'm chucking it all and going to be good and crazy in an aluminum airstream out in the middle of the American Southwest desert. Mmmm.
posted by quite unimportant at 6:08 PM on September 11, 2006

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