So much changes with a little water. On a recent trip to Death Valley, a fragment of Eliot’s The Waste Land came to mind:
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
The menace in these lines is the same menace I felt in this desert. I have explored other barren landscapes across North and South America. But this place felt different. Drier, barer, and more malevolent. On these sand dunes, the annual precipitation averages some fifty millimeters per year, and summer daytime temperatures often exceed 50 °C. My Sonoran desert home (near Tucson), in contrast, averages a pleasant 280 millimeters of rain per year, with summer temperatures usually no worse than 40 °C. It’s enough to support small trees, columnar cacti, and a wide diversity of animals.
Death Valley, on the other hand, pushes life to its extremes. Consider this remote valley – the landscape is dominated by a dry lakebed interrupted by an intrusive igneous rock formation, and bordered by more distant peaks almost lacking any soil. It doesn’t appear to be a place that might hold any life.
Yet rain does fall, and snow melts off of distant peaks. It isn’t much, but occasionally the dry lake becomes wet, and small channels form. It’s enough for the occasional shrub to find a tenuous home. An infinitesimal change in elevation, a few extra millimeters of water, and life finds a way.
Yet it would not always have been so – fifteen thousand years ago, during a period of cooler temperatures and extensive glaciation, much of this landscape was covered by year-round lakes formed by snowmelt runoff from nearby mountain ranges. The desert, geologically speaking, is a very recent phenomenon.
It is easy to have a shorter view of this kind of climate change, and of the tenuous threads on which our lives depend. I can journey through this barren landscape in an air-conditioned car, traversing a hundred miles in a single day, and can drink water pumped from alluvial deposits. I can ignore the facts of climate in a way that the plants cannot.
I don’t like it. It makes us blind, and weak. It builds us ecologically insensitive cities that paint an artificial and controlled scene over an unforgiving and dynamic landscape. The desert is replaced by asphalt and houses – mechanisms to control and stabilize our experience of the world.
As an example, our return trip passed through southern Nevada, where the outskirts of Las Vegas continue to expand. Exurban areas of identical homes pave the desert, and are fed by water from the Colorado River. They exist because water is cheap, and is imagined to remain cheap in the future. But the river is a dynamic thing. Reconstructions for the past thousand years of its flow (based on tree rings) have indicated flows averaging much less than what was seen during the 20th century, with a multi-decade drought during the medieval period that dropped flow levels fifteen percent relative to the present. And projections for flow rates for the coming century are projected (based on climate models) to be fifteen to forty-five percent lower than we are accustomed to.
I think we are building cities that will not survive the coming century. We will have to retreat, and play by the true rules of the desert, just as the plants do. Eliot writes,
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
and I read it as a challenge to us in the American west. So much changes with a little water.