‘Making the Desert Bloom’

Author David Rains Wallace, in The Wilder Shore, a book about California’s landscapes, demonstrates the silliness and inaccuracy of certain clichés:

“‘Making the desert bloom’ is as great a misnomer as the ‘Bureau of Reclamation.’ The desert blooms without civilized help when ample rains bring out its considerable diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. It is not the desert that blooms in the cotton and melon fields of the Imperial Valley or the Gardens of Palm Springs. The desert no longer exists in such places; it has been replaced.”

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.

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“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

How Trees Make Rain

If you’ve taken high school geography you probably remember learning the basics of weather. For instance, that coastal regions tend to bear the brunt of rain blowing in from the ocean. And that those systems gradually dissipate as they move further inland until the clouds get rained out. That’s why a lot of interior landlocked regions of continents tend to be drier, seeing far less precipitation.

I’ve been reading Peter Wohllben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. The book is an exposé of the little-known, and even less seen, living processes of trees. The “hows” and the “whys” of all things tree-related. One remarkable nugget of information in the book (which I never learned in school) is that trees and forests are additionally important because they help extend the reach of rainfall coming off the sea into the interior. I’ll let him explain how this works, below:

“Of all the plants, trees have the largest surface area covered in leaves. For every square yard of forest, 27 square yards of leaves and needles blanket the crowns. Part of every rainfall is intercepted in the canopy and immediately evaporates again. In addition, each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration. This water vapour creates new clouds that travel farther inland and release their rain. As the cycle continues, water reaches even the most remote areas. This water pump works so well that the downpours in some large areas of the world, such as the Amazon Basin, are almost as heavy thousands of miles inland as they are on the coast.”

transpiration evapotranspiration trees forests British Columbia deforestation
Photo © John Zada

Wohllben goes on to say that in order for this water transference phenomenon, this hopscotching of rain, to take place there needs to be a forest – including a coastal forest to kick off the process. If coastal forests are cut down by humans the chain reaction collapses.

With this knowledge one can start to see how large-scale deforestation, such as that happening on Canada’s West Coast, should not just be the concern of environmentalists and activists – but perhaps everyone. Including those with no vested interest in ecology or wilderness protection. People living in the landlocked outer edge of forest ecosystems, especially farmers, and those who eat their food, even if they don’t identify with such issues, are inextricably bound to them.

Dialogue

“During the First World War it became clear to me that a process was going on which before then I had only surmised. This was the growing difficulty of genuine dialogue, and most especially of genuine dialogue between men of different kinds and convictions. Direct, frank dialogue is becoming ever more difficult and rare; the abysses between man and man threaten ever more pitilessly to become unbridgeable. I began to understand at that time… that this is the central question for the fate of mankind. Since then I have continually pointed out that the future of man as man depends upon a rebirth of dialogue.”

– Martin Buber

Futurology

In 1993, the celebrated Polish journalist and travel writer, Ryszard Kapuściński published a book entitled Imperium. It is a travel memoire that chronicles the author’s often bizarre experiences as he wanders remote parts of the former Soviet Union. Like Kapuściński’s other excellent books, Imperium brims with astute social and political commentary.

At the end of the book, Kapuściński recounts the fall of Communism, and goes on to ask what the future might hold for the post-Soviet empire

It’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer, he tells us. As is any other question about the trajectory of the modern world:

“Almost no prognoses about the contemporary world come true. Futurology is in crisis; it has lost its prestige. The human imagination, shaped for thousands of years by a small, simple, and static world, today cannot grasp, is no match for, the reality that surrounds it, which is augmenting at a rapid rate (especially due to the advances in electronics and the accretion of information), in which there is increasingly more of everything, in which millions of particles, elements, units, and beings are in continual motion, in battle, in new configurations, arrangements, and assemblages, all of which it is no longer possible to seize, to stop, or to describe.”

Kapuściński does go on to offer three future scenarios for the post-Soviet Union. But it’s the preamble above that’s striking because, though applicable to his time, it better describes the age of rapid, unfathomable change we’re living in today – more than 20 years later.

It’s for the same reason that a close friend, who works as a diplomat, recently told me that most journalistic and scholarly writing in the field of political science and international relations (with its emphasis on trying to predict the future) is more akin to astrology than any actual “science”.

This crisis in futurology is really just a small symptom of the much larger (and perilous) crisis in which it partakes: namely, our inability as individuals and as a race to adapt to a faster, ever-changing world.

Causes

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

– Buckminster Fuller

Sound familiar?

“Many times in the past, civilizations have lost the will or the ability to change after they have set on a certain course. Such civilizations soon exhaust the spiritual content and creativeness that characterized the initial phase. They usually retain for a while a certain kind of vigor based on orthodox classicism but soon degenerate into triviality before foundering in the sea of irrelevance.”

– René Dubos