I might say at the onset that I am usually not a big fan of anthologies, though I have edited one; most end up unwieldy grab bags of vaguely related material. This is emphatically not the case with Gregory McNamee’s Named in Stone and Sky, a collection of Southwestern material that marvelously coheres into a portrait of this harsh and wonderful region. To assemble his portrait, McNamee does not rely on “literature” only, even in its broadest definition. He includes poetry and bits of fiction, but also searches out Native American songs and prayers, explorers’ diaries, and scientists’ writings. He is not afraid to add Zane Grey and the doggerel of old cowboys. The result may be the best local anthology I know. While he nods respectfully to The Last Best Place, a collection of Montanan literature by Annick Smith and William Kittredge published in 1988, I consider his to be a much better book.
McNamee has organized this book innovatively, not in chronological order or by segregating fact from fiction, prose from poetry, but around broad themes of “Airs,” “Waters,” and “Places.” He knows, as did the New Mexican historian Ross Calvin (whose writings on the Gila River he includes) that “sky determines,” that dryness and the uncertain water supply have shaped everything in the Southwest from the evolution of leaves to the (often) impermanence of settlement. He is a brave enough editor to cut in quick snippets from many authors and compose them into a kind of verbal collage, while allowing others to stretch out—a fictional thunderstorm from Barbara Kingsolver, an almost-fatal adventure from the late Edward Abbey. In between, he comments and informs. He is an editor who wants you to learn the history of the land he loves, to use its traditions to heal its scars and those of its peoples. But he is also one who can comfortably refer to Sir Richard Burton and CM. Doughty as fellow “desert rats”; serious, but not solemn.
Reading the anthology, you come to know the Southwest’s landscapes gradually. McNamee opens with a Navajo chant, passes to an 18th-century Jesuit’s account of the climate that still rings true, and gives us some passages from John Van Dyke and Ross Calvin that remind us that some of the best “visual” landscape writing has been inspired by desert light. There is the storm by Barbara Kingsolver already mentioned, so good it makes me envious—I have written a couple of Southwestern thunderstorm scenes, but none so wonderful. Soon, with “Waters,” we are in the realm of exactly what “sky determines,” up in the high mountains that in the winter resemble Montana, down in the canyons with M.H. Salmon, wondering what will be left wild. A reader from “normal” well-watered areas will learn a little about the importance of water rights in the West and about how water is wasted. Biologist Gary Nabhan details how the land has never completely recovered since the drought of 1891, and how the cities are sucking the aquifer dry.
But the real delights of the collection for me are in “Places,” which takes up about half of the book. Just as you have adjusted to the idea of aridity punctuated by cloudbursts, McNamee will remind you of the difficulty of defining the term “desert” at all, quoting the plant geographer Forrest Shreve, who classifies the Upper Sonoran “desert” as a semitropical dry forest. Architectural critic Reyner Banham reminds us that the original definition had more to do with “deserted” than “dry,” and tells how he has never spent a day in the desert that he didn’t see other people. (I can hear Ed Abbey’s ghost grumbling that he might have, if he ever got off the road.)
This section is amazingly diverse. McNamee has included rude Spanish poetry from the Diccionario Malcriado, Catholico-Yaqui creation myths in which Jesus carelessly creates the mountains of Arizona by spilling cornmeal from a pouch his mother gave him, Charles Bowden’s combination of apocalyptic fury with Cormac McCarthyesque description, Abbey’s adventure, and Page Stegner’s silly-ass Beemer wanderings in the footsteps of his betters. (McNamee doesn’t have to approve of his contributors; he all but destroys D.H. Lawrence by allowing him a drawn-out, obtuse, whiny plaint, in which the British novelist decries a trail as “utterly bumpy and horrible.”) There is another reminder—temporal this time—of the region’s greater-than-human scale, as biologist Larry Stevens speculates on whether the slow propagation of Joshua trees results from their seeds’ dependence on being ingested by the “recently” extinct giant ground sloth. Aldo Leopold continues in this perspective, thinking like a mountain. And, suddenly, we’re back in modern times—road time—as Jack Kerouac runs through Arizona fast, as most tourists do. McNamee’s switches would look like showing off if he didn’t perform them so well.
There are more treasures here, more than I can easily note. I never knew that George Simenon lived in Arizona (he writes like a flash flood). I like McNamee’s championing of good, too-obscure living writers like M.H. Salmon and Rob Schultheis, both longtime favorites of mine. I like his ethnic mix—not politically correct, just rich as our tricultural area really is.
I have only one complaint, and it is a small one. On the first page, McNamee opens: “Begin on the gunsight northern line and follow the alternating sandstone escarpments and dry washes . . . ” He is drawing a line around the state of Arizona. I wish he would do a similar anthology for the whole dry basin-and-range Southwest, the biological and geographical province west of the Pecos, southeast of the sage deserts, north of the tropical part of Mexico. It would be a more natural grouping, as he tacitly acknowledges in the introduction. And that way he could include Cormac McCarthy, Tony Hillerman, Frank Doble . . . and probably a hundred writers this New Mexican hasn’t even heard of yet.
[Named in Stone and Sky: An Arizona Anthology, edited by Gregory McNamee (Tucson: University of Arizona Press) 194 pp., $15.95]