John Charles Van Dyke (1861–1931)
Above: Looking out from the top Acoma, New Mexico, 1990
The Desert by John Charles Van Dyke, published in 1901, is a lush, poetic description of the natural beauty of the American Southwest. “What land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canopy of sky!”
Van Dyke, a cultivated art historian, saw “sublimity” in the desert’s “lonely desolation,” which previous generations had perceived only as a wasteland, and his book has a conservationist flavor which seems distinctly modern. “The deserts should never be reclaimed,” he writes. “They are the breathing spaces of the west and should be preserved for ever.”
The changing colors of the sky, hills, and sand impress Van Dyke, as do the mirages. He celebrates the “long overlooked commonplace things of nature”— cactus and grease wood, desert animals, and “winged life,” the birds and insects. His writing has a philosophical undertone. “Not in vain these wastes of sand … simply because they are beautiful in themselves and good to look upon whether they be life or death.” Anyone who views with equal awe fiery sunrises and weeds growing out of pavement cracks will enjoy this reading of Van Dyke’s The Desert.