As landscapes that once seemed comparatively well-watered become more arid, it’s time to listen to desert dwellers: the Indigenous people and others who settled in deserts for generations and who view aridity, not moisture, as “normal.”
For more than two centuries, those voices and perspectives have been ignored.
But now we need the insight of the people who have long confronted desert conditions directly and found them ordinary. For them, aridity is not the temporary affliction of drought or an environmental “problem” to be solved with engineering. They remind us that the natural world is not entirely under our command, and that we can learn how to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The main currents of American thinking about deserts originated in the writings of people who grew up in well-watered places they assumed were normal. When 19th-century explorers, opportunity-seekers and overland travelers encountered deserts, they were (to use a phrase that probably should have better standing in historical analysis) freaked out.
To these disoriented newcomers, wastelands were the poor pickings that were left when the cropland, timberland and mineral land had already been identified and claimed. Driven by a sense that the best places were the wet places, these newcomers saw deserts in terms of what they lacked — rain, ground cover, trees and, of course, “civilization.” And if they talked to desert dwellers, it was often to demand directions to the nearest spring or streams to relieve the thirst of these bewildered outsiders.
In the mid-19th century, explorers and overland emigrants who had confronted arid land held one uniform and settled opinion: Deserts were dreadful places where the shortage of water threatened their very survival. Without the benefit of social media, the explorer John C. Frémont still achieved major standing as an influencer, and his reports, widely read in the 1840s, locked into place the adjectives that Americans would use for deserts for decades: “forbidding,” “inhospitable,” “desolate,” “bleak,” “sterile,” “dreary,” “savage,” “barren,” “dismal,” “repulsive” and “revolting.” In his infrequent attempts to communicate with the people for whom these places were home, Frémont set another lasting precedent. On one occasion, in the desert of what is now Nevada, he tried to get the help of the local Indian people. “I tried unsuccessfully to prevail on some of them to guide us,” he said, “but they only looked at each other and laughed.”