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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Guntert

Thinking On The Desert Experience

by Anthony Guntert

Robin Mulvey - U.S. Forest Service

My life experiences of the desert are ones of adventure, self-reflection and wonder at what seems like the limitless and ancient mysticism grounded within the land itself. I’ve always been enamored with the vibrational energies one tends to feel after spending time in a desert, preferably while alone and separated from your own worldly distractions. The desert brings with it a sense of peace and decluttering, throwing off the shackles of our complicated lives for an ecosystem that is at once rich and complex in its simplicity.

However, even in a land of beauty there are harsh realities and unforgiving climates, yet we must not confuse the relative lack of our usual landmarks of nature for a landscape poor in life. In fact, we find the opposite is most often true, as the multi-layered and interconnected webs of nature have grown themselves to do what they do best: fill every ecological niche available with balanced and tactical efficiency. Seeing the multitude of native flora and fauna not just surviving but thriving in what for most species would be considered a resource poor environment is always an important reminder for us as humans in a dual capacity. It reminds us to not only be grateful for the embarrassment of riches in our daily lives but to also be mindful of those around us in our own societal ecosystem who keep on pushing through the dry, cracked soil of disappointment, grief and loss only to come out the other side flowering beautifully. They should not just be admired as dessert blooms but helped along through the drought periods of their lives with the lifegiving water that is love and support.

Along with supporting the people in our lives who might be struggling to grow in their own deserts right now, hiking the dusty trails and seeing dumped trash, algal blooms, the signs of past mining pollution and multiple invasive species likely brought in by humans acted as a stark and urgent reminder to me that we all need to support what’s left of our wild world. Ecological research and biological studies tend to be massive and complicated affairs that are both costly and difficult to get off the ground, even despite their usually urgent scientific necessity. Deserts, as far as large-scale environments go, can tend to act as relatively pared down sample sizes and often can be used comparatively as the sort of keystones species of biomes. With less raw data to collect and work through, it can often be easier to see the proverbial forest for the trees regarding ecological issues such as climate change, pollution and reductions in biodiversity. I believe it is our duty in our places of relative ecologically hierarchical power and as conscious stewards of the Earth to be not only vigilant but dogged in our pursuit of knowledge and impactful conflict resolution regarding the aforementioned ecological crises around the globe.

One of the most worrying and consistently worsening environmental issues across the world (and particularly in the less economically developed areas) is the double-edged sword that is the felling of forests and the encroachment of deserts into classically fertile lands due to a myriad of misguided past and present actions. According to the article "Desertification in Africa" (by M.B.K. Darkoh in the Journal of Eastern African Research & Development, 1989), the main causes of desertification both on the African continent and in most other encroaching desert areas are years of land misuse, the reckless over-extraction of natural resources and the removal by expansionist colonial powers of countless indigenous groups whose traditional land stewardship helped provide a stable environment alongside sustainable human settlement.

In the modern post-colonial era, many developing countries and communities that were already inside or bordered by desert regions are finding that a combination of extraction based colonial infrastructure and a socioeconomic crisis wherein cheaper and less forward-thinking mining, agricultural and processing setups are often utilized in pursuit of badly needed immediate profit for poor, self-sustaining regions. From the land around native reservations in the American southwest to the oilfields of Nigeria, corporate interests are draining the land of not just their resources but their natural beauty and the delicate tapestries of life they harbor within. Whatever the country, the corruption of officials, a chronic disregard for ecological and human health and a tendency to escape any meaningful punishments that would serve to change their ways is often rampant and directly hurts local communities in a myriad of ways.

With great deserts such as the Kalahari and Sahara expanding and formerly semi-arid areas such as the American southwest drying out a la dust bowl at ever-increasing rates, communities in the border areas have tried to contend with the coming sands by instituting a variety of programs ranging from massive reforestation campaigns to try and create a buffer zone while replacing the swaths of forest cut down and shipped out in colonial times to securing new forms of water gathering/usage that help counteract the depletion of water tables and natural watersheds that are all important for the ecosystem in already arid environments. Further complicated by events like large-scale droughts and other uncontrollable natural phenomenon, some of the primary current causes of desertification are an ever-growing cattle grazing industry, the cutting down of trees for lumber and fuel and harmful agricultural practices reminiscent of the eventually soil barrening methods used during most of Europe's' history.

The primary understanding found within all this information and the conclusion of many a study might be coming in clearer now: that almost every human resultant driver of desertification and deforestation rests solely on pure need rather than greed. For many, generations of exploitation, racist colonial structures and continuing disenfranchisement have led to being forced into practices that communities know are not sustainable; there's simply just not any other realistic choice available. Blaming the people who have had their personal and societal agency pulled from them for generations for a set of problems created by European interests makes absolutely no sense and yet is a common enough belief in privileged people who have no excuse not to know better.

Through the creation of robust social programs, the raising of millions out of poverty, the evolution of affordable and quality healthcare for the population at large and the possible redistribution of land and resources away from rich multinational companies and back into the hands of the public are just a few of the most predictably effective methods of combating these multi-generational threats and improving the health of our global environment. While the desert can be a beautiful and realigning place, its rapidly unchecked growth into once lush territories is neither natural nor separate from human influences. To keep the beauty that is balance in the natural world, we must make sure to work together to hold those with their foot on the scale accountable and to help replenish the fertility of these ancient lands.

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