Sunday, December 4, 2011

William deBuys's "A Great Aridness"

William deBuys's books include River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction in 1991; Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range; The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize in 2008), and Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California. An active conservationist, deBuys has helped protect more than 150,000 acres in New Mexico, Arizona, and North Carolina. He lives and writes on a small farm in northern New Mexico.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, and reported the following:
Maybe Ford Madox Ford, in extolling the virtues of an ideal Page 99, didn’t contemplate the intrusion of half-tone photos, maps, and graphs. As it happens, Page 99 of A Great Aridness has no text whatever; it consists entirely of a map of northwest Chihuahua, with towns, mountains, and rivers indicated, along with the boundaries of the recently declared Janos Biosphere Reserve.

What can a map say about a book?

Actually quite a lot.

What the map doesn’t hint at, however, is the quality of the read. Let’s face it: the news about climate change in the Southwest isn’t good. Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns promise a future full of drought, dust, fire, and thirst. Several hundred pages on those subjects could produce a monotone gloomcast if unrelieved by vivid characters, evocative locations, and a narrative momentum that makes you want to turn the page. Readers will have to judge how well I succeeded, but my strategy was to tell the stories--especially the stories of discovery--of smart, dedicated people who understand the lands of the Southwest best. In making the book, I drew inspiration from them. I pray that some part of that inspiration comes through.

But back to the map. Instead of writing the book from the perspective of a dozen different locations, I could have connected nearly all of the subject matter to the lands of greater Janos. The riddles of the past are there, buried in the mud-walled ruins of nearby Casas Grandes. The legacy of land abuse is there in the bald pastures of El Cuervo, which lack grass enough to hide a golf ball. Drought is there, and also storm. (The rains suddenly returned with such vehemence that we barely escaped on flooded roads.) And, no surprise, desperate human circumstance abides there, along with love for nature and its embattled creatures, amid a population hungry for finding new ways of living in a demanding land.

Also on the map is a place famous for just such insights: the Río Gavilán, where Aldo Leopold glimpsed elements of his famous Land Ethic.

And strewn across the map with spendthrift generosity are places of exquisite beauty that remind us how marvel-filled our small blue planet is, and why we might want to save it.

In the end, the goodness of the land is what the book is about.
Learn more about the book and author at William deBuys's website.

--Marshal Zeringue