“It is a terrible terrain
No mortal eye has seen
Whose image still seduces me
This morning as it fades…
“Sleep is full of miracles!
Some impulse in my dream
Had rid the region I devised
Of every growing thing,
“And proud of the resulting scene
I savored in my art
The rapturous monotony
Of metal, water, stone…”
Charles Baudelaire, “Parisian Dream, ”Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil)
As long as I’ve lived in the outskirts of the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest California, I have never learned to see it as lovely. Driving back and forth across the middle of this desert last week simply confirmed my opinion that the desert is an empty wasteland. Having lived in the urban east coast and west coasts of America my entire life, I am always amazed at how big and empty of human habitation the middle of the US is, especially in the high deserts.
I know my opinion of the barren desert is uninformed, biased, and simply wrong. But it’s mine.
So, we went across this high, dry grassland in Arizona that was formerly a vast floodplain, to visit the Petrified Forest (which, to my eye, is more like a petrified, scattered wood pile). According to the U. S. National Park Service brochure from the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, trees growing on the banks of the once-numerous streams became fossils as the water dried up. “The trees, Araucarioxylon, Woodworthia, Schilderia, and others, fell, and swollen streams washed them into adjacent floodplains. A mix of silt, mud, and volcanic ash buried the logs. This sediment cut off oxygen and slowed the logs’ decal. Silica-laden groundwater seeped through the logs and replaced the original wood tissues with silica deposits. Eventually the silica crystallized into quartz, and the logs were preserved as petrified wood.”
The Painted Desert seems even more barren and lifeless to my gardener’s eyes than the Petrified Forest. The Painted Desert was also millions of years in the making. According to the Arizona Leisure Vacation Guide:
“It took millions upon millions of years for nature to create this natural canvas of unimaginable design that some describe it as a multi-colored layered cake. The Painted Desert draws upon the earth’s indecisive nature. From shifts in the earth’s crust brought about by temperamental volcanoes and earthquakes to complete inundation by fresh and sea waters alike, a veritable host of elements have breathed life into this area. Colorful sediments of bentonite clay and sandstone, stacked in elegant layers, feed off the setting Arizona sun in an ever-changing display of colorful splendor.”
One man’s colorful splendor is another man’s barren wasteland. I apologize in advance to those who see these places as variations on Mother Nature’s creative and diverse landscaping style, but the few stunted and struggling plants and wildflowers we saw simply reminded me how harsh the environment is toward growing things today. I don’t need to be reminded of this.
My preference for the transience of flora over the very literally glacially slow changes of desert environments may be another manifestation of my impatience, my temperament so intolerant of sluggishness; and my preference for soft, brief life, over hard unyielding stone. Or it may simply be that I will always appreciate ephemeral seasonal changes more, and simply resent the slow-motion geological changes that I can only witness as snapshots frozen in the moment of my comparatively brief existence.