Deserts
The Living
Drylands

Sara Oldfield
(MIT Press)
In 1968, a bunch of us ran a friend for Washington State Land Commissioner. The candidate's motto was, "If elected, I will go forth fearlessly and commission the land."

Our platform included a plan to build a covered bridge over Puget Sound (because of the rain) and a suggestion that Washington erase its deficit by selling the eastern part of the state --- the high desert part --- to Idaho "because it's filled with nothing more than rattlesnakes and nitwits." We lost.

It is still beyond me why anyone would ever choose to visit much less live in the desert. From my experience, it is filled with rattlesnakes and nitwits. One month I lived in the Sonoran Desert for a year. Me and the crazies and the sandfleas and the jackrabbits, the pipe cactus and the roadrunners and the gila monsters.

And the wind and the sand and the sand and the wind and the blowing dust and the wind gusting howling around the shack and you go out to fix a window and the dust and sand blow in your hair and eyes and face and down your neck and into your shoes and you think "Why am I living here?"

When you go to take a shower either the water doesn't come out because windblown stuff has gotten into the pump or it has been fried because it got hit by lightning (this happened to me twice).

Most of the time the water comes out of the faucets so warm that you are begging the Good Lord to be able to take a cold shower but no chance because the water in the desert, like the desert itself, is hot. That's why the scorpions and agaves and turtles and prickly pears and bighorn sheep (what's left of them) like it so much.

Ms. Oldfield takes you to deserts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. We visit Bedouins of the Arabian Desert, the Thars of India, the Bushmen of Africa and the Aborigines of Australia (which the English once hunted as a game sport).

There are garish pictures of thorny devils of Uluru, orynx of Israel, and the gerbils of Mongolia. The Camæleo gracilis lizard rears up on its legs and looks bad enough to eat you.

But ... zounds! There is a picture on page 78 (the dunes of the Great Indian Desert) that looks to be nothing more or less than the lovely backside of a lovely, tan woman with wind-blown ripples [See Fig. 1]. Is it just me? And on page 127, we have the petrified sand dunes in the Paria canyon that appears to be a photograph of an overaged porn star, on her back, legs in the air, the cameraman at knee level [Not pictured because of the Puritan Nature of our editor].

Might this be a problem I have with my own scandalous mind-set? I mean, this is a serious book, from MIT, with 160 color photographs from the "Bruce Coleman Collection," with text by a serious scholar (she's with Fauna and Flora International).

Surely it's me and my smarmy imagination, no?

--- Herb Hannum


Scouting
For Boys

The Original
1908 Edition

Robert Baden-Powell
(Oxford)
    Every boy ought to learn how to shoot and to obey orders, else he is no more good when war breaks out than an old woman, and merely gets killed like a squealing rabbit, being unable to defend himself.
For the first time boys were taken seriously enough to have their own society, their own uniform, their own master, their own set of rules. And these rules were delivered in such a folksy fashion that you can't help but admire not only Baden-Powell, but the whole time, ethic and arrogant empire-set that produced Scouting for Boys.

Discipline was key to the maintenance of England's huge colonial society. The young had to be inculcated. It could have been done as it was in Germany 1933 - 1945: unsmilingly and militantly militant, using the Wandervogel youth movement as an excuse. But Baden-Powell chose something more gentle, more (even) poetic. What he did was to clean up boyhood --- at the same time romanticising it.

The poor, the dirty, the churlish and the vulgar (the chimney-sweeps, coal-miners, the homeless of Victorian England) were ignored. Those of the middle-class he turned into a timely fiction by creating a book that was nothing less than the Art of Being Boy. It was an elegant twist: loyal, brave, true, and most of all, healthy and clean.

One thing to remember in camp is that if you get sick you are no use as a scout, and you are only a burden to others, and you generally get ill through your own fault. Either you don't change into dry clothes when you get wet, or you let dirt get into your food, or you drink bad water.

Getting sick is your fault, and makes you a burden. So stop it.

B. P.'s favorite war was the Boer War, and he constantly cites it:

    We did this in Mafeking when the Boers cut off our regular water-supply, and so had no sickness from bad water.

But sometimes when we get sick , we can blame it on others, invisible others:

    Flies are most dangerous, because they carry about seeds of disease on their feet, and if they settle on your food they will often leave the poison there for you to eat --- and then you wonder why you get ill.

To survive you must Be Prepared.

Be Prepared
(B. P., my initials), which means that a scout must always be prepared at any moment to do his duty, and to face danger in order to help his fellow-men. Its scroll is turned up at the ends like a scout's mouth, because he does his duty with a smile and willingly.

§     §     §

Scouting for Boys is packed full of good stuff, a regular hamper of boy-lore. There are songs, and instructions on bird-watching, and trail-blazing, adventure and wholesome good times. B. P.'s writing is a wonderful antidote to what you and I think of when we hear the phrase "Be Prepared," vide Tom Lehrer.

There's poetry by John Dryden:

    Better to hunt in fields for health unbought
    Than fee the doctor for a nauseous draught;
    The wise, for cure, on exercise depend;
    God never made his work for man to mend.

There's star gazing, and camp fires, and drill practices, "Yarns" and John Barleycorn: "It would be simply impossible for a man who drinks to be a scout." Simply impossible.

B. P. tells you how to live off the land, how to speak politely to others, how to dress, how to make kabobs, and offers a fishy parallelism on the virtues of colonialism: "If they tried to lop off one of our Colonies it would be like trying to lop off one of the arms of the cuttle-fish."

There's information on woodcraft, continence, how to slaughter cows, how to bake bread:

    The usual way is for a scout to take off his coat; spread it on the ground, with the inside uppermost (so that any mess he makes in it will not show outwardly when he wears his coat afterwards)...

Smoking? "Any boy can smoke; it is not such a very wonderful thing to do. But a scout will not do it because he is not such a fool."

He will not do it. He is not such a fool.

Oh yes, the racial clichés appear here and there. The Japanese are called "Japs." But at the same time, they are spoken of with some respect. He compares their mortality rates during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 1905 favorably to those of the English in the Boer War: "The Japs...lost very few from sickness, and a very small proportion of those who were wounded."

    Our men were not so particular as to what water they drank as the Japs were, and they ate more meat than the Japs; but, also, they did not keep themselves or their clothes very clean. It was often difficult to find water.

"The Japs, on the other hand, kept themselves very clean, with baths every day."

If there is a theme to being a good scout, it is brave, watchful, courteous and --- most of all --- clean. There is also, what? A touch of poetry every now and again: "Never bathe in deep water very soon after a meal, it is very likely to cause cramps, which doubles you up, and you do get drowned." And you do get drowned.

There is some queer language, too. Masturbation is called "a pleasant feeling in your private parts." Going to the Kybo ("keep your bowels open" as we used to phrase it in troop 237 in 1945) is referred to by B. P. as "cleaning out all dirty matter from inside your stomach, which is done by having a 'rear' daily, without fail..."

"Having a rear." Oh, my.

--- William R. Wylie


In 1938 the author and his parents left Rovno in the Western Ukraine for Tel Aviv. From thence they went to Jerusalem, where they moved into a tiny house with thousands of books and a fold-away bed.

Amos' father could speak sixteen languages, was a walking encylopædia of etymology, and always referred to the boy as "Your Highness." His mother was a depressive who killed herself when he was but twelve-and-a-half.

This is then the story of Oz's parents and his extended family and their coming to live in the brand-new state of Israel when it was still run (and run badly) by the British. A Tale of Love and Darkness is an autobiography, a coming-of-age story, a history. It is, too, a dilly.

Oz tells us that he always wanted to grow up and be a book. His father just wanted a better job. And his quiet mother Fania once said that all brains are no more than cauliflower.

    Into this cauliflower you can get heaven and earth, the sun and all the stars, the ideas of Plato, the music of Beethoven, the French Revolution, Tolstoy's novels, Dante's Inferno, all the deserts and oceans.

Aunt Sonia says that Oz's mother was "born unhappy. Even the chandeliers and the crystal did not make her happy. But she was the kind of unhappy person who has to make other people miserable too."

In the midst of Oz's large, diverse family of authors and writers and philosophers and poets is this lonely boy --- no brothers, no sisters, no friends: a boy who is so clever that he is always on show, "a one-child show ... a lonely stage star." And since his parents have no place to put their own passionate learning, it ends up on his shoulders.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is just that: a tale filled with wonderful pictures of family, isolated lives, heart-rending stories, lived as always with great exit lines. This is his learned, always busy Uncle Joseph:

    Now run along my dear, and do not steal any more of my time, as all the world does, having no thought for the minutes and hours that are my only treasure, and that are seeping away.

And throughout, there is Oz's gentle, writerly wit. He tells us that he never was much of a scholar, never "had any talent for research," one "whose mind always turns cloudy at the sight of a footnote. My father's books are rich in footnotes..." he continues. This statement appears in a footnote.

We've always had an affection for Oz since we stumbled across his short and very funny novel The Same Sea. The autobiography is not as unified, compact, and deft. But it has the virtue of being rendered in bite-sized pieces, perfect for picking up and leaving and picking up again.

I've been spending the last month doing just that. I've arrived just past page 300. I plan to spend at least another month or two wandering through this one. We could ask no less.

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