The Desert: a well-spring of the imagination

Deserts cover nearly one-third of the earth's landmass but we're still unsure what to make of them. An empty wasteland or a beautiful landscape? IDEAS producer Matthew Lazin-Ryder explores our historically complicated — yet intimate — relationship with deserts.

Around a third of the surface of the Earth is made up of desert

The sun rises over the Monument Valley, April 19, 2018. Director John Ford used the location for a number of his best-known films and thus, in the words of critic Keith Phipps, 'its five square miles [13 square km] have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.' (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

* Originally published on November 22, 2019.

The desert has always been an imagined place. From cowboy movies, to religious retreats, to frenzied music festivals, the desert is where we seek the divine, escape and have an ecstatic experience.

And the impact of what we imagine the desert to be has had a profound impact on real deserts. Seeing them as desolate, empty spaces was central to testing atomic bombs in them. Or allowing urban and suburban developments, as with cities like Phoneix, Ariz., to continue expanding ever further into the desert.

Authors, poets, monks and philosophers have historically used the desert to convey complex, even contradictory, ideas about God and spirituality. 

The divine desert

Alex Nava, a professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona, says the desert is central to the origins, and articulation, of the three major monotheistic traditions. 

"Judaism, Christianity, Islam are all religions of the desert. And the image and representation of God in those traditions are clearly influenced by the experience of desert places."

An Emirati man walks with his camels across the Hameem desert, some 170 km west of the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi. (Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

The obvious example of this is in the Book of Exodus, in the Hebrew scripture, where the desert is a place of suffering and exile for Jews. 

"It's true that it seems as if it's equivalent to a place distant from the divine in some way," Nava said.

"The irony of biblical theology is that this is also the same place where God reveals God's self."

In later Christianity, according to Nava, desert metaphors were an attempt to show how words can aspire to describe the nature of God, and simultaneously how they can never actually do so.

"There's always that tension between God's presence within, and transcendence. This idea that no image, or concept, or any form of representation can adequately name or capture the divine reality. 

"So the desert as an image of emptiness, is also an image that all our concepts about God are ultimately empty."

Mark Twain described deserts as tormenting and undesirable in his book, 'Roughing It.' (Wikimedia)

The American desert

The desert is an integral feature of Western movies and books. John Beck, a professor of Literature at the University of Westminster, says the desert plays a dual role in quintessentially American stories. 

Beck points to Mark Twain's Roughing It from 1870, in which the narrator complains about the desert as being "an endless, and torturous space you need to get through as quickly as possible."

But on the other hand, Beck added, it's also seen as a space of possibility. 

"The presence of the desert has a very long complicated history of playing out fantasies of one kind or another. Fantasies of masculinity, fantasies of nationhood, and fantasies of exploration and adventure."

The desert apocalypse

Beck says that one event in the 1940s forever changed our perception of the desert: the Trinity Test conducted  in the White Sands desert in 1945, for which the first atomic bomb was detonated. 

Endless white sand dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The park offers other-worldly scenery, bringing to mind a blizzard or a beach when in fact it is a desert. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto) (Giovanna Dell'Orto/AP)

"It's impossible now to separate the images of the culture that's built up around atomic testing from the desert. The desert and the atomic weapons seem to go together," Beck told IDEAS.

"Perhaps partly because of the kind of long, sort of symbolic history, that deserts have in Christian culture and Hebrew culture. But also because of that kind of idea of the apocalypse."

The idea of an inconceivably powerful weapon being detonated in a space that already seems to have nothing in it becomes part of the iconography of the post-war period, and appears to haunt postwar the post-war world in many ways."

Beck also notes that post-apocalyptic books and movies often depict a future where the entire world is transformed into a desert. 

"The desert is this space that seems to speak of the ancient past, and also the scary post-apocalyptic future. Both of those things seem to come together in empty arid spaces."

Guests in this episode:

  • Celina Osuna is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English at Arizona State University 
  • Alex Nava is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona
  • John Beck is a professor of Literature at the University of Westminster. He's also the author of Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power and Waste in Western American Literature.

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.