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The Desert Year (Sightline Books) Paperback – November 28, 2010
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“In prose that holds something of the clear, dry light of the land he loves, [Krutch] shares with us his discoveries and his associations. They are richly worth sharing.”—Paul Horgan, New York Times
“Krutch’s Desert Year stands, with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, as a classic, must-read work on the arid Southwest. Krutch, a drama critic and professor of English at Columbia, demonstrates that professional training in field biology is not required to write evocatively about the natural world. What is required, instead, is a well-trained eye, a sympathetic heart, and an inquisitive mind. The Desert Year stands as a celebration of an austere landscape, a work of beauty and joy. I recommend this book equally to old desert hands, and to those who have not yet had the good fortune to wander among the cacti, heat blasted arroyos, and sheltering canyons of the Southwest.”—Christopher Norment, author, Return to Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows
“Krutch's Thoreauvian observations of the southern Arizona desert force a renewed appreciation for all forms of desert life.”—Arizona Highways
About the Author
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893–1970) was the Brander Matthews Chair of Dramatic Literature at Columbia University for two decades and served as the Nation’s drama critic for nearly thirty years. A Burroughs Medal laureate, Krutch published more than a dozen books, including The Great Chain of Life (Iowa reprint, 2000). A noted illustrator and artist, Rudolf Freund contributed to numerous nature guides and during the 1960s worked at Yale’s Peabody Museum.
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Krutch was approximately 60 years old when he took a sabbatical year from teaching at a New York university, and moved to a farm house, set on many acres, near Tucson, Arizona, in the lower Sonoran desert. In his postscript, he quotes from E.V. Lucas: "Many of us are so constituted that we never use our eyes until we are on foreign soil. It is as though a Cook's ticket performed an operation for cataract." Of course, Krutch was famous for being able to see in his native New England, but his powers of observation seemed heightened, and his spirit seems moved by the delightful differences of observing natural phenomenon in the desert. The book is comprised of 16 essays, largely independent, but united by the desert theme.
He drove from New England, and thus he could observe the landscape gradually changing. As with others, he wanted to determine a practical criteria for "where the West began." Though he does not mention antecedents, he concludes, like John Wesley Powell, that the West, the "land of scant rainfall" commences at the hundredth meridian, which roughly corresponds with the eastern side of the Texas panhandle. West of the hundredth means that the average rainfall is under 20 inches, and therefore non-irrigated farming cannot be sustained.
Like others also, Krutch is enthralled by the night sky, where one can note the phases of the moon EVERY night, since cloud cover is so much rarer. By and large though, it is the same sky as in New England, but he is thrilled one winter evening, to realize that he has come far enough south to be able to observe the brightest star of the southern hemisphere, Canopus, which he could never have seen in NE. On the ground, he observes the courtship rituals, and is astonished that toads, yes amphibian, should find a home in the desert. In this substantial essay, he notes the deficiencies of academia, in mainly studying dead fauna, and "going light" on observations of the living. He "lit one candle" against this darkness by conducting his own experiment on the time required for tadpoles to become toads, finding that it was 20-30% less in a desert environment than that usually observed in wetter climes. There is also a separate essay on bird life. During his year, he mainly observed from his one Tucson location, but managed a road trip to San Diego, and thus crossed another desert, the Mojave. He also visited the "white spot" on the map, the truly "empty" land north of the Colorado, in Arizona, as well as in southern Utah. And he ponders why bats always fly out of the Carlsbad Caverns in a counter-clockwise direction. The Coriolis effect, or no?
Unlike the columns in the NYT's Krutch also devotes some essays to the larger issues of man's place in this world. Written in the `50's, when the US population was around 150 million, he was a strong advocate for a limit to population, and realized that "free and open space" might be the ultimate luxury. What would he think now, at 310 million, and climbing, with the golden calves of continued growth and development still being worshipped? And there was a fine ontological piece on the ultimate nature of the color "purple." He states he is not a part of the Proudhon "all property is theft school" but he presents some insightful observations on the "problems" of trying to claim ownership of the natural world.
Far from satiating my need to re-visit Krutch, this book, of the natural world of the desert, has only whetted my appetite, as it were, for more, and I suspect that The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch cannot be far (relatively) behind. 5-stars for this effort.