Nature On Writing

Bleak Language

Anza-BorregoI was watching the Amgen Tour of California on TV the other day as the bike racers descended the Palms to Pines Highway into Palm Desert, passing through one of my favorite landscapes. After a year and a half here in inexorably green Michigan, it was refreshing to see the desert again, if only on HDTV.

Then announcer Phil Liggett called the desert “bleak.” Not just once, but at least three times. I bristled, as one might expect from a one-time desert writer. Just as I had bristled the day before, when he called the slopes of Mt. Palomar a desert. “No, Phil,” I yelled at the TV, “that’s chaparral. You should recognize it from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia!”

But calling the desert bleak? He had gone too far. I took to Facebook, and posted my outrage: “Phil Liggett annoyed me during yesterday’s Tour of California stage into Palm Desert and Palm Springs with his constant bleating about the desert being ‘bleak.’ It’s not bleak, Phil. It’s stark, maybe. Arid. Clean. Pleasantly uncluttered with trees. A bracing reminder that the earth doesn’t exist exclusively for human needs. But not bleak.”

Quite a few of my friends enjoyed the comment, and the photo I posted with it, but one decided that Phil’s word-choice was apt. He posted the first definition from the Oxford dictionary: “Lacking vegetation and exposed to the elements.” He said I owed Phil an apology.

Let’s leave aside connotation vs denotation. And the fact that all the other definitions present negative states or outlooks: dreary, not hopeful, miserable, forbidding. And that the word has its origins in the Old English blāc, which means shining or white, and that its roots go back even further to the Germanic, in which white was the color of death (thank you, Thomas Pynchon).

Instead I want to look at that first, literal definition, because it shows how the idea that the earth is created for human use is so deeply embedded in our language that we’re not even aware of it.

Does the desert really “lack vegetation”? The answer is: No!

But Larry, how can you say that? There’s a lot less vegetation in the desert than in a forest, isn’t there?

True, but the word “lack” doesn’t just mean “less,” it implies something about what should be. (And now, having been prompted to use the dictionary, I feel I have to return to it again: Lack means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”) To claim that the desert doesn’t have enough vegetation is absurd. Enough for what or whom? For humans, of course! But the desert has exactly the right amount of vegetation for a desert. All of the plants and animals that live there are uniquely adapted to extremes of temperature and infrequent rain.

To say that the desert needs more rain or more vegetation is to say that the desert shouldn’t exist. That the plants and animals that do make their homes there shouldn’t exist. And it’s only one step from that kind of thinking to the idea that vast fields of solar mirrors won’t hurt the desert, but will benefit it by providing all those poor animals some much-needed shade. (These statements come not just from ignorant internet commenters, but even from California’s governor. Take your shade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, Jerry.)

Heather MoorlandAnd it’s not just deserts that are described as lacking in vegetation, when in fact they have plenty. The example Oxford gives for that first definition is “a bleak and barren moor.” Google the term “bleak moor” and you’ll find a bunch of images like this one from Wikimedia, often in black and white, to underscore the, um, bleakness.

Obviously, this landscape is neither lacking in vegetation nor barren. It’s a functioning ecosystem, with lots of grasses and heather. Compared to many deserts, it has plenty of vegetation. (Although, if you said the Yorkshire moors “lack trees,” that could be technically true, because it seems they were tree-covered up until Mesolithic times. But there are moors that have existed for longer, and apparently weren’t created by human influence, in North Scotland and the Hebrides.)

So, if a land as lush with grass and heather as the moors can be described as bleak, maybe the word doesn’t mean “lacking vegetation” in a strict sense, just “lacking particular types of vegetation English-speakers like to see, such as trees.”

My desert nature writer’s license (for which the testing was onerous) requires me to quote Edward Abbey now:

‘This would be good country,’ a tourist says to me, ‘if only you had some water.’

He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.[!]

‘If we had water here,’ I reply, ‘this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey.’

The desert is a bleak wasteland only to those who believe every inch of the earth’s surface should be put to human use. And there are more and more who seem to believe this; some of them even consider themselves environmentalists (or at least “green”). It is truly dismaying that, after a hundred years of eloquent writing about desert landscapes from John Van Dyke and Mary Austin through Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams and a slew of others, much of the public still has this view of deserts as lacking something, as needing human intervention. One guy even has plans to “restore” the desert to grazing land, an idea that Chris Clarke eloquently rips to shreds.

So that’s the context in which Phil Liggett’s use of the term “bleak” landed. It’s just a reminder how careful we need to be with words, how archaic are the notions about the world embedded within them, and how changing our anthropocentric worldview is a whole uphill battle against the English language.


Book Review: Cover of Snow

coverofsnowwebCover of Snow: A Novel
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, 2013
336 pp; $26.00

When I heard Jenny Milchman at her book talk at Schuler Books, she nearly put me off reading her first novel, Cover of Snow. She said the story opened with “the worst thing a husband can do to his wife.” My mind immediately jumped to something from either Fargo or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really didn’t want to go there. Fortunately, neither woodchippers nor torture chambers make an appearance in this suspense novel, just lots and lots of snow, perfect for hiding bodies.

The story revolves around Nora Hamilton, a (reasonably) happily married woman who wakes up one morning to find her husband missing. It doesn’t take her long to discover that Brendan has hanged himself in his study. Nora is not only devastated but perplexed: why would Brendan do such a thing when he seemed content and untroubled?

As Nora begins to explore that question, she meets resistance from surprising quarters, including her mother-in-law and much of the police force for which Brendan worked. Spending too much time asking why will drive you crazy, the police chief warns her, suggesting she leave their small town in the Adirondacks to visit her family. She’s from down-state, after all. And that only pushes her to ask more questions. She soon learns that her adopted hometown not only has a dark past, but also an even darker present.

As Nora begins her journey into the mystery surrounding her husband’s death, she also begins an exploration of her own way of being, one that has kept her emotionally shut off from her husband and family. She seems uniquely uninquisitive about the interior lives of others, making her a good match for a husband with secrets. Now, if she’s going to uncover what happened to Brendan, she must overcome this central failing. Milchman’s skillful depiction of Nora split open by her own grief makes the story not only suspenseful but emotionally compelling.

Milchman is a fine writer, with deft prose and a sharp eye for detail. I’d be happy to follow her around any New England town, suspenseful situation or not. In fact, my one quibble with the novel comes from those moments when it too obviously cranks up the suspense. Nora seems to move awfully quickly from devastation to detective-on-the-case, with possible suspects lining up for the reader’s inspection at her husband’s funeral.

While most of the novel is told in Nora’s first-person point of view, several chapters in third person show chilling events from a variety of perspectives. James Lee Burke adopted a similar technique at some point in his series of Dave Robicheaux novels. I think there used to be some law of narrative unity against this approach, but if Burke can get away with it, maybe such rules no longer apply. Still, I’d prefer to have the villains looming in the background, making their appearance only when the first-person narrator comes across them. To me, that can be even more suspenseful, and a writer of Milchman’s talent should be able to pull it off.

Overall, Cover of Snow is an outstanding debut novel, highly recommended for fans of both suspense and sharp depictions of small-town life.

Tangential Postscript: While it’s true this is Milchman’s first published novel, it’s also the eighth one she’s written. She began her first novel thirteen years ago and has had an agent since she began shopping that first novel. She kept coming this close to getting published, but never quite making it. Heads of publishing houses would say they loved one of her novels, but it wasn’t quite right.

It shows how broken publishing is that a writer of Jenny Milchman’s caliber couldn’t get published for thirteen years. It’s hard to believe that her fifth, sixth, or seventh novels were that much worse, or unsaleable, than Cover of Snow. Clearly, the publishing industry needed a good kick in the pants. On the other hand, it’s now possible for anyone with some computer skills and an internet connection (or a few hundred bucks lying around) to publish their own work (I hope to be one of them soon). So we’re caught between two poles: a traditional publishing system that can’t connect a good writer like Milchman with readers, and a (largely electronic) self-publishing system that threatens to drown readers and good writers in a sea of dreck writing from all levels of ability.

It will be interesting to see how the book world shakes out over the next decade or so. How will discerning readers discover good writers? Will the discerning reader still exist? Will publishing houses still have a role in setting a standard for quality? (And I take with a large clump of sea salt the idea of publishers as gatekeepers — after all, Vintage published Fifty Shades of Bad Jane Austen-ish Dialogue Combined with Cliches from a Dictionary of American Slang and, Oh Yeah, Some Whipping and Handcuffing). Or will it be something like an online book club? Find your favorite writers on Twitter, and read what they read. And if you’re a writer, try to get them to retweet you. Who knows, but it promises to be one thrilling and bumpy ride.


Book Review: Gold and Silver in the Mojave

Gold and SilverGold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier
Nicholas Clapp
Sunbelt Publications, 2012
200 pp; $24.95
 (Note: This review first appeared in the Winter/Spring issue El Paisano, the quarterly newsletter of the Desert Protective Council.)

The history of the western U.S. is a history of booms and busts. A lode is discovered or a policy is enacted (the Homestead Act, the wind energy tax credit). Where once was “pristine” (lightly populated, subtly changed) nature, civilization rushes in, with all its attendant virtues and vices. Then the ore plays out, or the policy changes, or the rain fails to follow the plow. The people move on, leaving the rusting tin cans, the broken dreams, the windmills creaking idly in the wind.

And they leave photographs. Stashed away in shoe boxes or on display in county historical societies, these old photos can seem quaintly picturesque. Trapped in their black-and-white world, the subjects seem more actors on a stage than real people who lived, worked, loved and died.

In his excellent Gold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier, Nicholas Clapp scrapes away that quaint layer to reveal the lives behind the photos. Through vivid story-telling, insightful commentary, and carefully selected photographs, the book gets at the actual experience of the people who were part of this later, lesser-known mining boom, spanning the years 1895 to 1920. Clapp calls it a rowdy Last Act for the Old West.

From Randsburg to Ballarat to Tonopah, the book presents photos both expected and unexpected: the gold-panners and the miners, the bankers and the saloon-keepers, the gamblers and the red-light districts; but also the families, the ladies’ clubs, the children, and the Mojave Desert’s first tourists. Some of the most striking are portraits of the people of Tonopah, Nevada, taken by E.W. Smith in his studio, featuring classical backdrops and a laughing gnome for a prop. Himself an award-winning filmmaker, Clapp expertly dissects the images he presents, whether commenting on habits of dress, the expressions of men in a saloon, or the changes in photographic technology that made the images possible.

Gold and Silver in the Mojave explores all the ways wealth was made and squandered here. There was the mining of ore, but also the mining of investors’ pocketbooks; “high-grading” (mine workers lining their clothing with stolen ore); the trick of selling out while a shallow claim still “showed;” and “bucking the tiger” – trying to beat the house in the often-rigged game of faro.

And of course there is the desert. This being the Mojave, the landscapes are dramatic. Even in their heyday, these boomtowns were dwarfed by the desert that surrounded them, the humans, tiny figures amidst nature on a grand scale. This contrast is even more striking in the book’s examples of “rephotography.” A shot of Rhyolite taken a hundred years ago shows the town of 5,000 that sprang up in less than five years; today, a photo taken from the same vantage shows the blackbrush holding sway once more.

Residents of currently booming North Dakota, take heed: this is your future.

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