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'Desert' awakens lost and lonely lands

For ages, writes John Murray, mankind has looked at deserts in one of two ways: "a spare, disciplined landscape providing opportunities for solitude and revelation" (all the early prophets seems to wander in a desert) "or as a forsaken emptiness into which well-armed legions periodically marched and disappeared" (the home territory of outlaws and marauders).

But in our time, he notes, "a quiet change has occurred. The human race has begun to look at deserts in a third way--as a place for the aesthetic appreciation of nature, as well as for physical exercise and recreation. "Once throught to be abandoned wastelands, they are now known to be teeming with life, "often in quite fantastic forms."In "Desert Awakenings," Murray explores six major deserts in the U.S. The Mojave, Sonoran, Colorado, Chihuahuan, Great Basin and Painted deserts. In all, they account for nearly 500,000 square miles. (A map would have been nice.) And while they all share certain characteristics they each have a distinct personality.

Murray, a nature writer with more than 27 books on his resume, is good at this aesthetic appreciation. He respects his subject. And he knows it well, but at the same time he's open to new discoveries, which makes his first-person accounts are both informative and entertaining. He has an eye for detail and a talent for description:

"I listened for a moment, absorbing the music and the scene," he writes of a hidden oasis in the Mojave, "realizing I had indeed come to a special place. There was life here. Lots of it. Hundreds of square miles of desert and here was a piece of something different. Greater biodiversity, some would say. More poetry, I would say."

And of the Painted Desert, he writes: "It is an enormous outdoor museum, a living gallery in which those Old World masters--earth, wind, water and fire--continually practice, and refine, their craft."

Murray makes no secret of the fact that he has bonded with those lonely, arid locations--or that he would like others to do the same. He talks about Moses going into the desert to get the Ten Commandments. For example, "Over the years I have often throught we should add an eleventh. On Ajo Mountain, in the dying rays of the April sun, I consider one way to phrase it: "Thou shalt not harm the earth, or any other world on which you live.'"

And of the Great Basin Desert (which he calls "our largest, our northernmost and our most underloved") he says: "We as a people have treated the Great Basin Desert with at best indifference and at worst contempt. Of all the North American deserts, the Great Basin has suffered the most, from nuclear testing to overgrazing to urban sprawl. The desert, though, will remain. It will quietly undergo the beautiful changes that all things with eternal life experience. I take some comfort in that. All that we have done and created will one day disappear from the universe, but the Great Basin will remain."

Gnass' photographs of these deserts are breathtaking, capturing the range of light and shadow, the varied textures, the personalities of each place. Each shot easily falls into the "thousand words" category.

In the end, Desert Awakenings" is really two books in one--a book of prose and a book of photography blended together in a nicely designed package. And in the end, that's not such a bad thing. Together, they create a whole that is larger than the individual parts. And minor inconsistancies are easily overlooked. You come away with a greater appreciation of deserts, will likely never look at them quite the same again.

Which is just how Murray and Gnass would have it. "Some of the most beautiful places on Earth are found in the deserts of North America," writes Murray in the preface. "Love them, dear readers, these lost and lonely lands, and you will find that in the end what you get back is equal to what you give."