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Drought is now a way of life. As a result, argue Patty Limerick and C. J. Alvarez in their recent Washington Post article, people throughout the United States need to start listening to desert dwellers, “the Indigenous people and others who settled in deserts for generations and who view aridity, not moisture, as ‘normal.’”

As Limerick and former SAR resident scholar Alvarez trace the development of American thinking about deserts, they show us how much the impressions of nineteenth-century travelers influenced subsequent understandings and transformations of these environments—from “wasteland” into dam-watered metropolis. One person’s wasteland, however, may be someone else’s home. The scientists of the Manhattan Project chose to detonate the first atomic bomb in the “complete isolation” of southern New Mexico, but ranchers who were evicted from this area didn’t even use the word “desert” to describe the area. “Instead,” write Limerick and Alvarez, “they referred to the landscape with great precision—everything had a name.” Perhaps it’s time to learn from the desert dwellers, as Limerick and Alvarez suggest, rather than always forcing them and their sometimes uncomfortable knowledge from our lands and possible futures.

For more on changing environments, take a look at these books suggested by Alvarez, one of our 2019–2020 Mellon fellows:

Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place, by Sylvia Rodriguez, 2006

Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range

William deBuys (UNM Press, 2015)

“First published in 1985, William deBuys’s Enchantment and Exploitation has become a New Mexico classic. It offers a complete account of the relationship between society and environment in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, a region unique in its rich combination of ecological and cultural diversity. Now, more than thirty years later, this revised and expanded edition provides a long-awaited assessment of the quality of the journey that New Mexican society has traveled in that time—and continues to travel.”

—from the publisher’s description

Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster, edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, 2002

Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest

Dan Flores (UNM Press, 1999)

“These personal and historical meditations explore the human and natural history of the Near Southwest, a bio-region that embraces New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and slices of Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Centuries ago, the Navajos named this region the Horizontal Yellow, a landscape characterized by yellowed grass stretching in all four directions, rivers that drain from the Southern Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico, and human cultures peculiarly adapted to the regional biome. . . . Moving between the present and past, the personal and historical, the author ruminates on myth, wilderness, wolves, horses, deserts, mountains, rivers, and human endeavor from Cabeza de Vaca to Georgia O’Keeffe in the Near Southwest.”

—from the publisher’s description

How Nature Works: Rethinking Nature on a Troubled Planet, edited by Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette, 2019

Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge

Linda Nash (University of California Press, 2007)

“Among the most far-reaching effects of the modern environmental movement was the widespread acknowledgment that human beings were inescapably part of a larger ecosystem. With this book, Linda Nash gives us a wholly original and much longer history of ‘ecological’ ideas of the body as that history unfolded in California’s Central Valley. . . . As Nash shows us, place-based accounts of illness re-emerged in the postwar decades, galvanizing environmental protest against smog and toxic chemicals. Carefully researched and richly conceptual, Inescapable Ecologies brings critically important insights to the histories of environment, culture, and public health, while offering a provocative commentary on the human relationship to the larger world.”

—from the publisher’s description

Making Disasters: Climate Change, Neoliberal Governance, and Livelihood Insecurity on the Mongolian Steppe, by Craig R. Janes and Oyuntsetseg Chuluundorj, 2015

The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico

Joseph Masco (Princeton University Press, 2006)

The Nuclear Borderlands explores the sociocultural fallout of twentieth-century America’s premier technoscientific project — the atomic bomb. Joseph Masco offers the first anthropological study of the long-term consequences of the Manhattan Project for the people that live in and around Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb, and the majority of weapons in the current U.S. nuclear arsenal, were designed. Masco examines how diverse groups — weapons scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, neighboring Pueblo Indian Nations and Nuevomexicano communities, and antinuclear activists — have engaged the U.S. nuclear weapons project in the post-Cold War period, mobilizing to debate and redefine what constitutes ‘national security.'”

—from the publisher’s description

Religious Transformation in Maya Guatemala: Cultural Collapse and Christian Pentecostal Revitalization, edited by John P. Hawkins, 2021

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West

Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press, 2014)

“In 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later—in 1951—and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin. In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics.”



Featured photo by Leslie Cross.