Literature: A Dusty Desert Find

“Men can change things as no other animal can. But by way of compensation, he can change himself much less.” -Joseph Wood Krutch, in The Voice of the Desert

Krutch The Voice of the DesertIf you’re on your way to Utah’s desert for the first time, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) is required reading. But if you’ve become what Abbey calls a “desert rat,” then you can probably already quote entire sections of that book in your sleep (as you should). Perfect. This just means that you’re ready for Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation (1954). Yes. This book’s first publication was in 1954, and if you’re having trouble finding it, simply stop by Moab’s Grand County Public Library for a little couch time, and snag a copy of Krutch’s book from the shelf.

The Voice of the Desert must represent the kind of natural history that got written before natural history became hip or entertaining or cool. Krutch devotes entire chapters to topics such as how Pronuba moths pollinate the yucca, why kangaroo rats don’t need to drink much water, and what methods cacti have adopted to survive in the desert. This stuff can get dry (pun intended), but I read Krutch’s book wishing that more people would write like this these days (or that more people could get published for writing like this these days). After offering descriptions of several experiments he tries on desert seeds, Krutch says: “All these, I recognize, will seem very mild amusements to some.” Instead of apologizing, he continues: “But there is no accounting for tastes and I greatly prefer them to many of the others which most of my fellows choose.” What Krutch says about his fascination with desert seeds could apply to literature as well. Why we prefer a certain book may depend more upon individual taste than upon that book’s ability to meet some mass-market standard of excellence.

Krutch approaches his subject matter with a microscope, but he doesn’t miss out on how the details he offers help form a larger portrait of a place. And he doesn’t get so lost in discussions of plants and animals that he forgets about people in the process. Every once in a while, just to make sure you’re still with him—as I’m going to do here—he’ll insert something that deserves a deep thought. One of those moments:

“It has been argued, to take the most extravagant case, that if a hundred apes were to bang away at a hundred typewriters for a long enough time, then, sooner or later, one of them would have to compose accidentally ‘Paradise Lost,’ complete and exact to the last comma. But do we believe that he ever would?”

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