UPDATE: revised and augmented on 1/09/05.
When I went to the desert through books
I felt blind. History is a wilderness:
we’ve made of both a moonscape
& planted the flag. Peopled them
with beasts, with demons,
with the ghosts of lost tribes.
Unsettled them with Potemkin villages
complete with fake tombstones
& technicolor cowboys who, with
a wink & a wave, vault into the saddle
of the Great White Father.
The silence from ten,
from twenty million untimely dead
might strike us as appalling if
the din of our monstrous cutlery
were ever to stop. It takes fewer
than a million head of starving cattle
& only three years of drought to turn
the best pastures in New Mexico
& Arizona into a wasteland. That’s why
in the Old West of cartoon fame
carrion birds are always circling
& no saguaro seems complete
without the skull of a cow
resting in its emaciated shade.
Those who had farmed
the baked earth for millennia
& foraged from the desert as if
it were an endless garden
learned about livestock & devils at
the same time: ghost riders came to haunt
every other sacred hill of the O’odham.
For the Diné and the Pueblos,
Coyote the sheep eater now shares
his skin & thieving yellow eyes only
with witches, the eaters of people.
While those who come for love
of the desert sun, seekers of Native artifact
& lawn-green uniformed utopia, thrust
their steel straws in the earth & suck.
In this Land of Enchantment, ah,
that the Indians should have guessed right
about underground lakes! Where once
the wind was gentled in vast ciénagas,
willow-lined marshes teeming
with reedtalk and birdsong, now
even the deep-rooted mesquite trees
offer their sun-bleached bones as souvenirs.
ten, twenty million: Estimates for the aboriginal population of America north of the Rio Grande vary widely.
fewer than a million head of starving cattle: This happened in 1871-3. According to Gary Paul Nabhan (Gathering the Desert), “When the rains finally came in the following years, floods were ‘flashier’ in that there was less ground cover to slow their flows. The downcutting that followed has been extensively studied…It is unlikely that the Sonoran Desert has ever regained the carrying capacity destroyed at that time.”
livestock & devils: A vast number of southwestern toponymns include the words “devil” or “hell.”
Land of Enchantment: New Mexico’s official tourist slogan.
underground lakes: A regular feature of indigenous mytho-geographies of the Southwest. These geographies are accurate in the sense that underground aquifers do exist, are vital to the health of desert ecosystems, and are thus, at least figuratively speaking, the ultimate origin of human civilization in such regions.
ciénagas (Sp.): marshes. In the Sonoran context, the word is retained by English-speaking ecologists to refer to a specific, endangered habitat.