Skip to main content

Falling in Love with the Half Beautiful

Looking back on a winter in the desert, it is gratifying to learn how to appreciate it more -- no, not the postcards of saguaro cactus or red sunsets. Those present no challenge to an experienced traveler. Rather, it is the touch-feel of harsh rocks, rocks that almost cause your hands to bleed if you lose your balance on a trail and put your hands down, to regain your balance.

Perhaps the "credit" should go to the youthful orogeny of volcanic sky islands. But when you are out there, immersed in the sheer horribleness of it, you can't help but think that aridity is the cause. Surprisingly you see that rocks are somewhat rounded in arroyos that flow only once per year, if even that often. Ironically that is where aridity makes it greatest impression.

By this time of the year we have started the Great Loop. We've moved up to 4000 foot grasslands in southeastern Arizona. My friend in Patagonia was boasting of the winter rain, so I came here expecting verdancy. But little was to be found. My dog and I did a long mountain bike loop the other day. I was overwhelmed, as usual, by universal tawniness in these parts. Tawniness doesn't seem like it should be impressive, at least not like floods, storms, and volcanoes.

Grass seldom responds to winter rains in the Southwest. It ain't even tempted. It waits for the monsoons of late summer to "verde" up. Until then a horseman or mountain biker must surrender to what is actually here. At first you resist all the dry stickery stuff and sepia tones.

There is more annual rainfall here than in the desert, or grass wouldn't be growing in the first place. But ironically it seems dryer here than in the desert because the vegetation is 100 times thicker. 

Our species is not a ruminant that can digest grass, nor can our eye-brains feast easily on grasslands. We want something easier, something more like a photo cliche with a bar code on it. But with persistent effort you can see these tawny-wastes as glorious.

Think of the freedom of movement that grasslands give animals and humans. It was the great inland sea to ancient and medieval Eurasia. It enabled the Silk Road, finally leading to communication between East and West. It enabled our starving ancestors from over-crowded Europe to own their own farms. It led to the fabled trails of the pioneers. And while thinking of this, contrast it with the horribleness of overgrown, thicket-like forests.

Even more, there is a beauty to a Balance between the useful and the merely pretty. What results is a natural experience that has integrity and authenticity. 

What are mountains and deserts good for? McMansion subdivisions, and that is all. It is only the people of a spoiled, post-industrial, and over-populated civilization who could see such places as beautiful. Such lands have contributed very little to civilization. 

This is the sort of experience an outdoor traveler should want over and over: a place where there is just enough easily-recognized beauty to arouse your eye-brain, and then the rest is up to your imagination and the sweaty straining of your body. 


Ed said…
I posted this Comment at another blog where all the other Comments were raving about trees and green. It was in opposition at that site; I post it again here as support for what you have written.

After doing two trips across/around the USA I had people ask me what I thought of the country. I said that I would probably never go east of the Mississippi again because it was Too Damn Green.

I'm a desert rat that likes to see bare mountain rocks not hills covered by Trees. The dry desert ground looks just fine to me and when it greens up during the summer that looks good also but it only last for a few months then returns to 'normal'. I like my Green to be provided by cactus and the small green leaves of mesquite, palo verde, creosote and trees/bushes you can usually see through. Ya, I'm a desert rat!
Ed, good for you, for trying to enlighten those barbarians at the other website, whoever it was! (grin, obviously)
George said…
Rangelands don't exist for the purpose of meeting human approval either for their beauty or their usefulness. We're really not that important, you know.
They actually cover almost half of the earth's surface and are called by many names other than grasslands. Finding beauty is more than just looks. In terms of grasslands, for me, it is in knowing the function and the evolution and the resultant habitats and ecosystems created. How life seems to just emerge on this planet just given the smallest chance. How varied and enduring it can be. The ability to adapt to challenging and changing environments. It's quite amazing.
Looks are such a small part of beauty.
Mountains, deserts, forests, rivers and watersheds, oceans, etc. All beautiful if you look correctly. But if you see everything in terms of its usefulness to humans, then your vision is greatly narrowed. We are just one species. No more than that. A limited vision only speaks to our limited usefulness to the planet's overall heath.
Just one more species? Man's intellect is the pinnacle of evolution.

The planet's overall health? You mean that when one species gets the upper hand over other parts of nature, that the result is unhealthy? It seems to me that everything homo sapiens does is completely natural.

If beauty lies in "knowing the function and the evoluion", then why not see homo sapien's mastery over nature as function and evolution, and beauty.

George, you are preaching the Naturalistic Fallacy: everything in nature is perfect and holy, except homo sapiens, who alone have known Sin.
George said…
How far do you take that? Where does man's mastery over others become something else, or does it ever? Slavery, genocide, murder, rape??????
Alfred said…
Gosh, George you are absolutely right, and I am surprised by the push-back

I must confess that I am even more surprised at KaBLOOnie's anthropocentric world view (certainly not an ecologically aware one, especially for someone who likes the outdoors an awful lot).

This paragraph was most troubling:

"What are mountains and deserts good for? McMansion subdivisions, and that is all. It is only the people of a spoiled, post-industrial, and over-populated civilization who could see such places as beautiful. Such lands have contributed very little to civilization."

By the way, the term "naturalistic fallacy" has a specific meaning (in philosophy anyway) which is a bit different from KaBLOONie's use.

This from wikipedia:

In philosophical ethics, the term "naturalistic fallacy" was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.[1] Moore argues it would be fallacious to explain that which is good reductively in terms of natural properties such as "pleasant" or "desirable".
Alfred, thanks for the excellent comment.

Yes I am anthropocentric. In the pre-PC days, the word would have been "humanist", and it was meant as a compliment.

I WAS playing fast and loose with the term "naturalistic fallacy." Was trying to be brief.

George said…
I believe our knowledge has grown since those days of old. We now realize that human beings are dependent for own existence upon other species and the habitats necessary to support them. The egocentric view of endless exploitation of the planet has moved on to an understanding that human beings, being at the top of the food chain, are utterly dependent upon the overall health of the planet to produce what we need.
I would like to think that humanism has evolved to understand that other species suffer and that just because we can doesn't mean we should.
Ed said…
kaBLOONIE boonster you have fallen into a discussion with two believers in the Religion of Deep Ecology. There is no way that religion can be discussed in a rational way because so much of what is 'known' is based on belief and faith.

Proponents of Deep Ecology believe that the world does not exist as a resource to be freely exploited by humans. The three basis tenets of the religion are a) wilderness preservation b) human population control and c) simple living (or treading lightly on the planet). Because you subscribe to the simple living belief it is thought that you are a member of the Deep Ecology Religion but you then go and express ideas that only an infidel would believe. An anthropocentric has been declared to be an infidel in Western culture since the 1970 and '80s as you pointed out.
George said…
I think it would be more helpful to stay focused on ideas instead of grouping people into labels which have predetermined emotional responses attached to them.
It sets up an atmosphere of disagreement and conflict which is unnecessary among friends.
Ed, you are probably right about people misjudging me.

It is true that religion and the core values of political views can not really be discussed, except at the margin, or in "if...then" frameworks.

Your first paragraph sounds utilitarian/practical. But earlier you were encouraging me to renounce that point of view.

Other species suffer when they live "in harmony with nature" in the "cathedral of nature." How would you like to be an older or sick deer in late winter, in a pristine wilderness?

The only place where suffering stops is when something happens between the left and right ears of homo sapiens, agriculture develops, industry is invented, science erupts, and wealth is accumulated.

But remember that this post is really not about talking anybody out of their environmental ideology. I was discussing some great land and how to appreciate it.