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Home is the Desert (1964)

by Ann Woodin


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This is my favorite book about living in the desert -- and I'm someone who loves books about living in the desert. Woodin and her husband (a former director at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum) raised four boys on forty desert acres outside of Tucson, along with a menagerie of wild and semi-wild animals.

I like this book so much, I'm not going to say anything more about it. Instead, I'll just include more excerpts than usual. Enjoy!

  • It is a noble land, fierce and unyielding, and the eye becomes used to looking at things far away.
  • To the west, farther away still and hidden by the intervening hills, are low, jagged, volcanic peaks, drawn on the horizon as a child might draw them. Between these and ourselves lies the city. To it we are connected by our dirt road that climbs up and down a few hills until it merges with the official black pavement. At the end of this umbilical cord we swing somewhat apart. But we are grateful that, unlike an umbilical cord, our road does not furnish all of our needs.
  • Not long ago Michael, our nine-year-old, announced at the dinner table: "I wouldn't like to live all hunched up in the city like a grain of sand on the beach. I just couldn't bear it."
  • [Tucson's] Chamber of Commerce enthusiastically describes desert living on the one hand, urging people to come to Tucson to enjoy it, and on the other hand it defines progress as a continually expanding city and encourages the developer who sees the desert only as a foundation for more houses.
  • Having been nurtured on green and shade, the love of the desert came to me slowly, for it is a hard-mind place, not a soft-skin place, and concealed in its openness. You cannot stroke it as you would a meadow, you cannot dissemble, nor are there corners in which to hide. You can only fling wide your arms, sprawl on the nail-bed, let the skin be punctured and the mind ooze out to be bleached in the sun. Then you will find yourself standing in the light, miraculously whole and as skeletal as the desert itself. In its qualities of severity and reserve, in its harmony of line and color, in its abstraction of design, lies an uncompromising formality. No other scene achieves this to such a degree. Once met on its own terms it evokes a curious tranquility and composure.
  • In a moment of anxiety, I asked my husband what would happen if a boy, a nice chubby little boy, were to wander past a bush behind which a mountain lion was resting. "Would he attack?" "Not out of meanness!" was his reply.
  • Along our south fence the buzzards are beginning to congregate in preparation for their flight south. In the early morning we count dozens of them roosting in the trees and bushes, on top of the telephone poles and fence posts, some spreading their wings to the warming sun.
  • I think, as I lie there, that the real luxury of time is not merely to have enough of it in which to get done all the things that one wishes, but to have enough time to squander idly, in clover, like this.
  • As with most things, mine was a long and confused road, an imperceptible slipping into something from which I would have run had it suddenly presented itself before me. Life is dotted with sly events that with guileless smiles lead us farther along an unplotted pathway until we have passed the point of no return.
  • Even after weaning, our bobcats never gave up their love of rubber nipples. In fact these became such an obsession that whenever they found one of our youngest's bottles, they would drag it off to some quiet place, such as the living-room couch, or better yet our bed, and chew on the nipple until it was demolished and they themselves were lying in a cold puddle of milk. If I discovered them so occupied and tried to remove the bottle, the cat would growl in what I judged to be a threatening manner. When I complained, my husband would comfort me by saying: "But dear, not everyone is so lucky to have bobcats living with them."
  • All of our bobcats -- and we have raised more than a half-dozen over the years -- have taken not only to our domestic pets, but to our other wild ones as well. We have had them with ravens, a wolf, and a coyote. Mostly each goes his own way. Our oldest son Peter once had a small box turtle living with him which did lead a dubious life, as the bobcat liked to carry it around in his mouth. The turtle did not fancy this at all, becoming even more withdrawn than I think a turtle is supposed to be.
  • Bobcats sleep in an abandoned and disorderly fashion compared to domestic cats. We had one who liked the crack between the two seat cushions of the sofa where he would lie on his back with his head hanging over the edge. Another preferred a particular planter in which he would sleep for hours, his chin propped on the rim and his legs spilling out.... I have never seen a bobcat sleep with his front paws tucked neatly under him in that trancelike Buddha pose common to house cats.
  • Sometimes I am asked what this is like, to live with a wild animal, and then I think of those black tufted ears and the large golden eyes that turn to look at me, and I think it is keeping lordly company. I thin of those peculiar pulsating moments when we confront each other, eye to eye, and I feel in her tensed muscles and twitching tail a flow of life quite independent of my own and yet akin to it. With a wild animal there is no question of ownership, nor is the relationship one of master to servant, of superior to inferior; it is an equal affair, equally given. A mutual curiosity always lurks, and perhaps a slight wariness, as neither of us is absolutely sure what the other's reaction will be; and on my side comes an insatiable desire to hear the voices that speak to her secretly and by which she lives. To watch a bobcat and a small boy climbing around in a tree together, to sit by the edge of a stream and share a sandwich with a raven, to shiver beside a coyote because the night is wet and cold, is to be reminded that we are all entangled in the long dark sigh of life, which is at once a wonder and a comfort.
  • When [her husband] says, "I'll leave them alone if they'll leave me alone," he means that children should be children in their own world, he preferring to remain an adult in his (I think). And when a cocker puppy appeared in the wake of our first-born, he said, "You can have either trained dogs and untrained children, or trained children and untrained dogs, but we haven't the time for both." Fortunately I chose the second. His Al Cappian point of view, implemented by fairness and clearly understood discipline, has had excellent results, and thanks to him we have what I am told are four presentable sons.
  • Mountain lions have been known to follow people, but out of curiosity rather than with sinister intent. In the Huachuca Mountains to the southeast of here, a friend of ours was walking along one summer night looking for some bug or other by flashlight when suddenly he "felt" that he was being watched. The next morning he found large mountain lion pad-marks paralleling his previous night's excursion, which, far from alarming him, delighted him. Having spent so many years scrutinizing with fascination other forms of fauna, he liked the idea that one of them at last was returning the attention.
  • In many ways the desert mountains are more tantalizing than others. Rising high out of the heat and sand, their crests darkened by trees, they suggest a different and more congenial world. The oven-heat of a desert summer is not so unbearable if you know that with a car and an hour you can be in sweater weather.
  • I remembered, almost with anguish, that long-gone afternoon when beauty first squeezed my soul. It happened when I stood up to leave; the beauty suddenly expanded, became more radiant, and soared away from me. Then I thought myself to be outside, detached from its immortal flow, and I felt such a terrible helplessness, such a yearning to possess it, that, being young and self-conscious, I wished for a camera as another might have wished for a pencil or a paintbrush, because I could not bear its transiency. Not until our Huachuca summer, living as we did in the lap of a beautiful mountain, did I learn that the only place to keep such things is behind the eyes in the magic lantern of the mind. Now I set those moments adrift in my memory, where they float like glass beads in an ocean. When I wish, I go afishing, cast forth my net to catch them, and then I choose one and hold it in the palm of my hand all wet and shining.
  • In the fall of 1957 we joined a group of scientists who were planning to drift leisurely through Glen Canyon investigating their respective fields, for on completion of the dam above Lee's Ferry this canyon would be flooded, inundating not only some of the world's most spectacular scenery, but also many prehistoric Indian ruins and relics. This would be one of the last opportunities to see and study what would later be destroyed.
  • Much of the afternoon was spent exploring Forgotten Canyon. To reach its entrance involved a long waist-deep wade followed by a messy tramp over an oozing mud flat where, if you paused, you sank up to your knees. Trying to run over this was slightly nightmarish, but excruciatingly funny to the onlookers sitting safely on the bank.

    That night we spread our sleeping bags close to the cliff on a ledge above the river, well out of the sand should it again blow. How strange and wonderful it was to see, no matter where one looked, not one sign of man, not even a road or trail to have brought us. These days most of us are so used to billboards along highways, to telephone poles against the skyline, to electric lights gleaming somewhere in the night, that we have come to accept them as a natural part of our surroundings. How astonishing at first is their absence. Nowhere that I looked at that minute could I see any light but that of the stars and our campfire close at hand.

  • Inevitably, around that night's campfire, we contemplated the Canyon's fate and passed again over the arguments which streamed out from the basic man-pivoted premise: a great river is a natural menace and must be converted to a natural resource. That the Glen Canyon Dam is unnecessary is a well-documented case, for its waters cannot be used for irrigation, and already the three existing dams on the Colorado sufficiently control it and provide ample hydroelectric power.

    With the sound of man's fingerings still lingering in our ears, we had to ask ourselves as did Romain Gary: "Are we no longer capable of respecting nature or defending a living beauty that has no earning power, no utility, no object except to let itself be seen from time to time?" Perhaps in the dim recesses of his mind man is partly seeking revenge for his centuries of fear and helplessness; and like a child he shouts, "Now look at me!" as he knocks down another mountain.

  • Sometime later I was discussing the Glen Canyon Dam and particularly Rainbow Bridge with a newspaperman who waxed enthusiastic at the prospect of this somewhat inaccessible country being, as he called it, "opened up." In his opinion it would be just grand to have a paved highway leading to the foot of the Bridge itself so that all one had to do was to roll down the automobile window. What cannot be seen by everyone with little or no effort, for him had no value, and a wilderness uncut by roads was therefore a needless waste.
  • Like a magic refrain the names of the many side canyons we saw during that trip go drifting through my mind: Forgotten, Twilight, Mystery, Music Temple, Hidden Passage, Labyrinth, Forbidden, Cathedral. If we should say them to our children, will they forgive us for having drowned them all in water? Were I they, "I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best stars" (Thoreau).
  • I remember once driving across the bleached and baking desert northwest of Tucson. The dusty ground was cracked with only a scattering of small-leafed shrubs shriveled to their very bones. The heat blurred the horizon and shimmered on the road ahead of us, leaving mirage-pools of water on the pavement. An occasional puff of hot wind stirred up the dust into small twisters that zigzagged in and out of a few bushes before collapsing. The temperature in the shade was close to 115 degrees and the inside of the car was indistinguishable from an oven. My dark glasses so burned my nose that I could hardly wear them, and the enveloping heat was such that I was in an insensible daze. I could have been stuck with a pin and I wouldn't have felt it. My only thought was to rewet periodically the strip of rag wrapped around my neck. This, due to the process of evaporation, is supposed to make one feel cooler! Then it was that my husband, beaming with good cheer, said to me after taking a deep breath of the fiery air, "Isn't this great! Now this is really living!"
  • That night we literally smelled out almost a dozen cereus. They are as symbolic of the desert as anything that I can imagine. Every day of the year except one or two they are a shabby, scraggly plant hidden away under a mesquite tree, where it looks like a dead stick. Then one evening in June a number of insignificant buds unfold into large, many-petaled, waxy white flowers that are as exotic as water lilies, and this desert of ours smells like a garden in the Arabian Nights.
  • If our own stream is dry at the onset of the summer rainy season, we anxiously await its refilling. After the first heavy downpour in the mountains that feed it, we listen for the warning roar that heralds its coming and then rush down just in time to see the tongue of water coated with foam come around the bend. It is always an exciting moment. Minutes later the water will be two or three feet deep.
  • I remember our fourth wedding anniversary, which started out appropriately enough with champagne and steak at a downtown restaurant. Half-way through dinner it began to thunder so loudly that even buried in the bowels of the building in which we were eating, we could hear it. My husband grew more and more restive until, just before the dessert, he excused himself and went to survey the exterior conditions. He returned with the news that a humdinger of a cloudburst was raging outside, "and this is the night the toads will really be out," he concluded. Thirty minutes later we were prowling around in the mud that edged the flooded eastside garbage dump after frogs, I mean toads, me in high heels and a pink embroidered dress sent to me by my mother for my twenty-sixth birthday.
  • As I grow older, camping in remote areas becomes more of a need than a diversion. Why this is so I do not know, unless it is the enormous relief of being out of the human current if only briefly. The ancient terror of being small, lost in a hostile vastness, is now replaced with a sense of the blessedness of this same smallness. It persuades us that since the landscape shows no signs of man, his greed and ingenuity are perhaps not as pervasive as they seem and, reprieved, we can slip back into the natural world from which our clever brains have driven us. Under the lightening sky I open my eyes to each new day, stretch, and almost say aloud in the coolness of the silver dawn: Good morning, world.
  • That night we camped on the very of the lava flow, as close to the sand dunes and the buried mountain range as we could safely get the jeeps. We were in the midst of a graveyard of palo verde and ironwood skeletons that cast contorted shadows in the low afternoon sun. Hang a few limp watches on their twisted branches and you would have a Dali painting.
  • As the sunlight here is brighter than in other places, so too is the moonlight, and the old story that you can read a newspaper by it is quite true. The night is like a negative where the normal order is reversed and I am disoriented and yet at home.
  • Some months ago seven Mexican wolves were born at the Museum, too many for the mother to care for comfortably, so I offered to take over one whom we called Beowulf.... Now he is a willful, bushy-tailed adolescent of formidable energy and bounce. In fact, like Christopher Robin's friend, Tigger, he seems a great deal bigger because of his bounces, and goodness knows he is big enough without them. On my return after even a short absence, he charges up to welcome me with a doggish enthusiasm that literally takes my breath away. When I finally manage to struggle out of the car I feel quite as anxious as Piglet being greeted by Tigger, that "Very Bouncy Animal, with a way of saying How-do-you-do which always left your ears full of sand, even after Kanga had said, `Gently, Tigger dear,' and had helped you up again." I have said "Gently, dear Wolfy!" many times, and other things besides, with no better results.
  • A few nights ago I sat on the bank of the stream while Bill was chasing cows, his pet grievance, off the property. Beowulf, momentarily tired of exploring the night smells, came to sit close by me, and together we watched the moon shadows, our minds pursuing private pathways. And while we sat shoulder to shoulder, I thought about this strange thing, a wolf and a woman side by side, with the bittersweet awareness of our kinship and our difference. Unlike a dog who is bred to sit, his freely given companionship stirs within me a longing for something no longer known, something buried and unnoticed in our mindless cells.
  • With common sense and a knowledge of the special conditions and hazards the desert provides, it is as safe to sleep on a mountain slope or under a distant cactus as in one's own backyard. However, it might be added that with the increasing prevalence of man, it is no longer as safe as it once was.
  • Our own immediate answer has been to buy enough land when it was still cheap so as to protect ourselves. With care we placed our house not on the top but on the side of our western hill where we are shielded from the wind and future neighbors and yet can look to the mountains. Here we are as unconscious of the man-made world as it is possible to be and still make use of its undoubted conveniences. It came as quite a surprise when I first realized that this was not everyone's heart's-desire. Sometimes I am asked why we didn't build on the hilltop so that we could see the lights of Tucson. But I guess I am secretive by nature, and, like Hadrian, at times want to pull up the hills around me to shut out the world. To survive we need solitude, or is it just I that need it?
  • Nature holds up a mirror in which, if we are to look, we can see ourselves in a vast scene, not lost but blended. A home is not just a house; it is the natural world around it, and with both his feet well rooted in this a child can look out with confidence to the world of man. Each will then have its proper meaning and proportion. Our home is the desert, and from it will come identity, solace and, yes, Joy, above all, Joy.

A little more Ann Woodin