Thorns in the Side

Sometimes I think that the plants of the American Southwest have the right idea.

Thorns. Yes, thorns.

A multitude of long, thin, rapier-like thorns. To protect themselves from predators intent on gobbling them up.  With the large and small thorns covering these plants, few living creatures get close enough to nibble on sensitive body parts, stunting growth and destroying the essence of the hardy, persistent life forms dotting the desolate landscape that stretches for miles, as far as the human eye can see.

Thorns wound and gouge.

I think of thorns as I read Edward Abbey’s paean to the Southwest, Desert Solitaire. Really, it’s a lament, written long before the launch of what he calls “industrial tourism.” In the American Southwest, he, and his contemporary, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, found refuge from the thorns of civilization, the constant mental prodding that comes from the social contract. That contract demands of people a certain behavior if one wishes to be a part of society. Of course, each culture, each society requires adherence to a specific set of rules, many of which are unspoken and obtuse, posing an especially difficult labyrinth for  newcomers to traverse.

Although Abbey bemoans the encroachment of humans across the vastness of the Southwest, at first glance the traveler to the Southwest might sense little change in the landscape in the fifty years since Desert Solitaire first appeared. The spaces are still open and wide. Saguaro grow thick and tall on rocky hillsides. Rattlesnakes still lurk under foot. Miles of open country yawn on either side of I-10.

“Who owns all this?” I kept asking myself, on a recent journey through the Southwest in search of family roots and peace.

But change took place, just as Abbey knew it would. The land itself developed its own thorns to keep predators away, in this case more humans.

Look closely under the bridges, ponder the riverbeds, the creek beds.

No water runs through the stillness, the emptiness.

A thorny problem indeed.

Desert Landscape Near Tucson, Arizona (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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