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Rants from the Hill: The silence of desert greetings

Desolate as their reputation remains among people who are looking for a handy place to test weapons or dispose of nuclear waste, American deserts have had as allies an impressive bunch of talented, passionate writers. Among these lyrical defenders I’d include Wallace Stegner, Cactus Ed Abbey, Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Bowden, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Terry Tempest Williams. And at the headwaters of this dry river of sparkling prose I’d place Mary Austin, the early-twentieth-century writer who once described arid landscapes as “forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.” We don’t need to agree on what God might be to recognize how powerfully this expresses the exhilarating experience of desertness. In her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain, Austin writes of the desert that “There are hints to be had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its dwellers.” As a desert dweller myself, I’m fascinated by Austin’s geographical determinism—by her conviction that folks who live in the desert long enough are profoundly shaped by it. Out here in Silver Hills we’re buffeted by uncontrollable desert forces, from aridity, wind, and snow to earthquakes and fire. But we’re also profoundly influenced by the crisp, thin air and the unique quality of the light, by the unforgiving openness of the land and the monstrous silence it engenders. Lately I’ve been thinking about this towering desert silence, and how it might be shaping us even as we speak, or choose not to. I’ve long observed that raven and coyote talk more than we laconic Silver Hillsians do. The few folks scattered along our rural road seem to have tacitly agreed that words are best left in town, and out here we ration them as we do whiskey when we’re snowed in for too long. To illustrate how this desert silence has shaped us, I offer these three small stories of unusual encounters with my rural neighbors. Read more here.