DesertrnPassagesrnby Gregory McNameernThe Mojavernby David DarlingtonrnNew York: Henry Holt;rn337 pp., $25.00rnOf the four major North Americanrndeserts, the Mojave has been, atrnleast until recently, the least explored.rnGood parts of the Sonoran Desert arernmore forbidding; most of the GreatrnBasin Desert lies farther from highwaysrnand settlements; and much of the GhihuahuanrnDesert is less interesting thanrnthe fiercely hot Mojave of California andrnwestern Nevada. Still, accidents of geographyrnand climate have left the relativelyrnaccessible Mojave the province of desertrnrats, isolated Indian nations, prospectors,rnand outlaws. All that is changing, writesrnDavid Darlington in his thorough historyrnof the Mojave, an account populated byrnsix-foot-tall, club-wielding Indians, byrnfrustrated engineers trying to buildrnocean-going canals in the desert, byrnbureaucrats assuring “downwinders”rnthat A-bomb blasts were nothing butrnminor inconveniences, by madmenrnseeking sanctuary in the American outback.rnTo the untrained eye, Darlingtonrnwrites, “the desert is evil.” He elaborates:rn”It is deadly and barren and lonely andrnforeboding and oppressive and godforsaken.rnIts silence and emptiness breedrnmadness. Its plant forms are strangelyrntwisted, as are its citizens, who live therernbecause they can’t get along anywherernelse.” This is hyperbole, of course, but itrnexplains, or so Darlington suggests, whyrnthe federal government should have chosenrndeserts, those geologically and climacticallyrnvolatile places, to store toxicrnwastes and explode nuclear warheadsrn(“because there’s nothing out there torndamage”).rnOn cursory inspection, there seems indeedrnto be little damage to the Mojave,rnthe realm of “the Joshua tree, the desertrntortoise, the high-speed jet fighter, andrnthe car.” (The desert’s unofficial symbol,rnDarlington notes, is the abandonedrnvehicle.) But, he adds, there is surprisinglyrnabundant animal and plant liferneven in the most barren parts of thernMojave. Although natural history is notrnforemost among Dariington’s interests,rnhe well explains the ecological workingsrnof the Mojave, distinguishing it fromrnneighboring biomes in a long account ofrnthe life history of Gopherus agassizi, therndesert tortoise.rnBut human history interests Dariingtonrnmore, especially the personal historiesrnof the people who live now—quietly,rnfor the most part—in the Mojave, sellingrngas and sodas to passersby, milling gravelrnand ore, prospecting, and especiallyrnranching. The economy of cattle grazingrnis a matter of vital importance and ofrnfierce debate in the contemporaryrnWest. In the Mojave, as in other deserts,rnthe argument takes on added force becausernovergrazing is a demonstrablerncause of environmental degradationrnfrom which recovery is a slow process.rnWhile recognizing this, Darlington isrncareful to let the people who earn theirrnliving by ranching have their point ofrnview.rnIndeed, Mojave is at its best when it allowsrnthe people of the desert to speakrntheir minds, lending a perspective thatrnwe might otherwise not have. Manyrnwriters have made their coin writing ofrnthe Mojave-haunting Manson family, ofrnwhich there are reported to be morernmembers now than in the late I960’s,rnbut the threat of the dune-buggy psychosrntakes on a different color when seenrnthrough the vantage of desert rat TomrnGanner, who remarks, “We’ve had Mansonrnpeople pass through here, but they’rernreally more of a pain in the ass than anythingrnelse.”rnDarlington also understands, as toornmany environmental writers do not, thatrnmany people live and work in the difficultrnplaces that lie far from policymakers’rnair-conditioned offices. He is thus ambivalentrnabout the kinds of federal protectionrnbeing considered for the Mojave.rn”As a rule,” he writes, “I’m all for wilderness,rnbut it seemed that the area’s ungovernedrnmystique would surely evaporaternif it became part of a national park.”rnThe people of the desert are, he writes,rnnear uniformly opposed to falling underrnthe protectorate of the National ParkrnService, in part because “the desert hasrnhistorically occupied the most antiregulatoryrnplace in the American imagination,”rnits residents men and women whornusually want nothing more than to bernleft alone. The 104th Congress seems tornbe letting them have their way; in 1995,rnthe House Interior Appropriations Committeernawarded the Park Service the sumrnof one dollar to manage roughly ninernmillion acres of desert.rnNeither is he happy, however, with therncurrent trend toward development. LasrnVegas, the Mojave’s most populated settlement,rnis an example of how not tornmake cities in the desert; so are the newlyrnsprawling ranchettes of AntelopernValley just over the mountains from LosrnAngeles.rnWhile the names of new communitiesrnin Antelope Valley aspired tornevoke the outskirts of Paris or London,rntheir counterparts in thernNevada desert… suggested anrnecosystem in imminent danger ofrndrowning. Among Clark County’srnnew housing projects were thernLakes, Green Valley, Silver Springs,rnSunset Bay, Desert Shores, BayrnBreeze, and Bermuda Springs. Inrnan effort at consistency, developersrnmatched these names with moisture-rnintensive landscaping, specifyingrnsod lawns and shade trees forrnyards in a region with 20 percentrnrelative humidity and four inchesrnof annual rainfall.rnThe result, in Las Vegas, is a scandalousrnrate of per capita water use: 250 gallons arnday, far higher than New York’s. But developmentrnis everywhere in the Mojave,rnand development seems to be therndesert’s future. West of the hamlet ofrnGorman in the Tehachapi Mountainsrnlies the densest stand of Joshua trees—rnone of the Mojave’s characteristicrnplants—in the world; this is also preciselyrnwhere developers are working busily tornturn the Mojave Desert into a bedroomrncommunity of Los Angeles stretchingrnfrom San Bernadino to the ColoradornRiver, swallowing little towns like Bakerrnand Soda Lake and Rhyolite into the urbanrnmaw.rnGiven a choice, Darlington rightlyrnsuggests, we are better to see cattlernranchers and offroad racers, perhaps thernoccasional psychopath, even federalrnmanagers, than endless strip malls andrncondominiums in the Mojave Desert.rnHis book is a reasoned plea for accordingrnrespect, environmental and cultural, to arnplace long regarded as a wasteland, butrnone that is now being torn apart.rnGregory McNamee’s most recent hook isrnThe Sierra Club Desert Reader.rn34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn