Developing the Desert – (Part 1: The Southwest)

East of the Sierra Nevadas, heading east, we turned on the A/C for the first time in a long, long time. We’re more of the ‘windows down, feel the breeze’-type of people. As we ventured east from San Diego the scenery became more dry, brittle, and rocky. The road stretched on and on, floating above the sandy shrub of a seemingly lifeless terrain…

…and then there were palm trees.

We descended a long slow grade past rows and rows of palm trees and artfully laid stone walls. The pavement smoothed and lush grass straddled new cement side walks. Cacti were deliberately placed between art-rocks and shrubbery, giving a faux-natural, forced looked to the place.

The Saguaro, the massive iconic ideal of a cactus, can grow for hundreds of years, slowly growing skyward, its pleats expanding with the infrequent rains to store vital moisture for the long, hot days to follow. (On average, the central Arizona desert sees more than 300 days of clear blue, scorching sunshine each year!) This Cacti, delicately placed, were clearly selected for their exceptional cactus-quality to be used as decoration – a trophy life; dug from its desert home, where it worked tirelessly to establish itself where few can last more than a few hours…. naturally that is.

We were in resort country. We had entered the town of Palm Desert. Originally established as a mercantile base for a nearby military establishment, it had boomed into “Palm Springs 2:” a haven for the rich to be rich, to ‘get away from it all.’  “All what?” I wondered.

Watered green sod, towering palms, huge homes, lush golf courses, and boutique shopping… all in a place where it practically NEVER rains, few things grow, and where temperatures average in the 100’s.

This isn’t to say that no one could or should live in the desert. On the contrary, folks have lived here for millennia! Indigenous people made use of the heat, the cacti, the desert landscape, the rocks, the snakes.  For thousands of people this was home for thousands of years – and today still is. The Navajo people, the Hopi, the Ute, and so many others, though displaced through the government reservation process, still live in, and make use of, the desert.

The desert existence of the indigenous population, however, was honed over countless generations; tried and tested, established and sustained with nature on their side. It was not an attempt to subdue the heat, the drought. It was not an attempt to irrigate the sand, but rather to discover what the desert had to give; what it could give; what it could sustain.

It continues to amaze me how far we are willing to push the confines of the natural world to accommodate our wants and needs. Staying with couchsurfing hosts in Pheonix, Arizona, where it regularly hits 100 degrees in October, she remarked that “Everyone just stays inside, you don’t go out” when we asked what people do in the 120 degree heat of the summer. Is this alone not a sign that we living beyond our means?

Without regard for the world outside; without regard for the simple effects of temperature and humidity, we develop a false sense of security behind manufactured equilibrium. We air condition our homes and cars, we add or reduce humidity to suit our comfort, ship in fresh produce to deserts and heat the interiors of glass-walled office buildings in Alaska.

‘Because we can, we do’ appears to be the development ethic that continues to guide us to build million-person cities in the desert.

This is Palm Desert. This is Phoenix.

I wonder what would happen if we choose not to develop, even if we could. What would happen if we exercised restraint? What would happen if we choose to move slow? What would happen if we developed with nature, and stopped trying to break farther away from it?

2 Responses to “Developing the Desert – (Part 1: The Southwest)”
  1. alex baggins-shore says:

    we cant stop here, this is bat country!

  2. Ann Ives says:

    to answer your question…………..We would be enlightened!

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