Synopses & Reviews
In the early summer of 1898, John C. Van Dyke, an asthmatic forty-two-year-old art historian and critic, rode an Indian pony out of the Hemet Valley, and headed southeast into the Colorado desert. With his dog, his guns, and few supplies, this sickly aesthete wandered, mostly alone, for nearly three years across the deserts of California, Arizona and Mexico. He crossed the Salton Sea Basin, forded the Colorado below Yuma on a raft he built himself, followed the railroad line to Tucson, then turned west again toward Sonora. His exact route is not known; he did not always know where he was himself. He sought both health and beauty in the dry country and wrote that the desert "never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover".
This extraordinary book, composed "at odd intervals, when I lay against a rock or propped up in the sand", is a masterpiece of personal philosophy, containing precise scientific analyses of diverse phenomena-- from erosion to sky colors-- and prescient ruminations on the nature of civilization. "The desert should never be reclaimed!" Van Dyke wrote, yet he lived long enough to see the reclamation projects in what became the Imperial Valley. He did not witness the virtual destruction of the Colorado Desert still ongoing. As poet Richard Shelton wonders in his introduction, "Where are the herds of antelope Van Dyke spoke of, and the gray wolves and the pure air?"
This series celebrates the tradition of literary naturalists-- writers who embrace the natural world as the setting for some of our most euphoric and serious experiences. Their literary terrain maps the intimate connections between the human and the natural world, a subject defined by Mary Austin in 1920 as "a third thing... the sum of what passed between me and the Land." Literary naturalists transcend political boundaries, social concerns and historical milieus; they speak for what Henry Beston called the "other nations" of the planet. Their message acquires more weight and urgency as wild places become increasingly scarce. This series then, celebrates both a wonderful body of work, and a fundamental truth: that nature counts as a model, a guide to how we can live in the world.