We often think of the desert as a place of negation: no water, very little plant and animal life, lots of empty space. But in reality, the desert is very full — undergoing constant physical change, very much inhabited by animals and humans, a complex geography that is imagined many different ways. Corporate interests see mining claims; environmentalists see habitats for endangered species; migrants see a burning plain they must cross to arrive in Canaan; ATV riders see a huge playground; spiritual seekers see God's country.
This quiet novel takes place in the heart of Los Angeles at a Carmelite convent where Sister John, who has gained fame beyond the cloister as a poet, faces a spiritual crisis when she is diagnosed with epilepsy. It seems that her flashes of poetic inspiration have actually been life-threatening seizures. What if the medical cure extinguishes what she thought was divinely inspired verse? Judeo-Christian, Native American and Muslim traditions often invoke the desert as a place of not just corporeal but also spiritual torment. Here, the desert is inside Sister John, a terrifying but ultimately luminous path.
Set on our contemporary desert borderlands, Ana Castillo's wrenching narrative is largely told through the idiosyncratic voice of Regina. She's a middle-aged woman facing death on all sides as she tries to protect her nephew Gabo, an earnest young penitent hoping against all hope to find his disappeared father. Across the iconic Western landscape of basin and range, immigrants are vulnerable to amoral smugglers, gangsters spar over drug territory, and those who are supposed to uphold the law do anything but. The desert is a character as well, from the very first page, which opens with a magical description of rain settling on cacti.
"The Desert," from the fifth volume of Aldous Huxley's Complete Essays, is Huxley at his most brilliant. He explores the desert both physically and metaphysically — the desert of the flesh and the desert of the spirit — from his perch in the Mojave cabin where he lived for several years in the 1940s. He opens with a reference to Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, a radical 13th century theologian who conceives the divine as "a sheer pure absolute One" — an experience that comes into sharp relief in the "boundlessness and emptiness" of the desert. And yet Huxley frets that just over the horizon are the mushroom clouds of the Nevada Test Site that would turn the world into another kind of desert.
From my house in Los Angeles, I journey with my twin daughters to the desert through National Geographic's Creatures of the Desert World, a children's pop-up book filled with coyotes and quail and night-blooming cactus and pull tabs that slide creatures out of their burrows. When I close the book and I kiss my daughters good night, I know that even though we're a hundred miles from it, the desert is deep inside them, too.
Ruben Martinez is a professor at Loyola Marymount University. His most recent book is Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West.