A place of sanctuary, stones and stone festivals what draws artists and writers to the deserts unforgiving landscape?
In 1990 a flyer circulated in San Francisco inviting people to attend a unique happening:” The Zone Trip is an extended event that takes us outside of our local region of time and place. On this particular expedition, we shall travel to a vast, desolate, white expanse stretching onward to the horizon in all directions .”
Burning Man, the weeklong counterculture festival and arts jamboree, has continued to take place each August, with some 70,000 people converging on the dry bed of an ancient lake in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The event is not what it was: the drive-by shooting range is gone, tickets expense hundreds of dollars, and there is a real danger of running into Elon Musk. But its founding principles are still upheld. These include” radical inclusion”,” radical self-reliance” and” radical self-expression “.
Fifty years on from the first publication of Desert Solitaire , Edward Abbey’s classic account of his time as a ranger in Utah’s Arches national park, the desert still represents freedoms unavailable elsewhere. Abbey could elicit the raw, alarming beauty of arid landscapes as effectively as any writer, but he was also capable of startling brutality and obtuseness, particularly towards immigrants. In a 1977 essay titled The Great American Desert he at once extols the desert’s appeal and discourages those who would follow him there.” Survival hint# 1: Stay out of there. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book, this one for example .” As well as the bloodsucking kissing bug and a half-dozen species of rattlesnake, there are black widows, Gila monsters, the deadly poison coral snakes and the giant, hairy desert scorpions.” Something about the desert ,” he adds,” inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity .”
Chief among Abbey’s literary forebears was art historian John C Van Dyke, who in The Desert ( 1901) wrote a treatise that transformed America’s vision of its arid south-west. It was an act of aesthetic rehabilitation of a realm that had been deemed not only valueless but inimical to the national spirit of Manifest Destiny. For the first time, the American desert was described in terms that not merely eulogised its beauties but proposed it as an image of transcendence. A longing for solitude extended to Van Dyke’s writing:” Heaven knows the literature of humanity is large enough without dragging it into such sublime isolations as the desert .” Accordingly we meet barely a single living, inhaling human in his book.