Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]

In the Deserts of This Earth
By Uwe George
Translated from the German by
Richard and Clara Winston
Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1977

Reviewed by David Steingass

[Cambridge Book Review is always pleased to print reviews and appreciations of older books which -- like so much of our literature -- are out of print (but not out of mind). Often, searching library systems or the ever-growing ranks of used bookstores across the country and on the Internet can yield a copy of exquisite books like In the Deserts of This Earth, which David Steingass reviews here.]

This book is part travel guide, pointing out new, unknown, and arresting places, what their attractions are, how and with what equipment to get to them, and what kind of visit one might expect to have. Granted, few people might take on the central Sahara's temperatures of 140 degrees and the body's need of upwards of seven liters of water each day to survive. I found myself almost completely seduced by George's photos and words about undulating "oceans" of sand, however, and seldom have I seen finer rock formations than in his pictures of the Ahaggar and Tassili Mountains of the central Sahara.

In the Deserts of This Earth is also a science book which examines deserts and desert life through the eyes of a natural scientist. Even so, the book resists pigeon-holing. This passage occurs in the first chapter:
The experience of being dependent on ourselves alone as we tramp through the boundless expanses of the desert. . .enables us to recapture our identity. . .In the desert, discoveries can still be made -- and what a host of mysteries might be hidden in those vast expanses! Seen in this light, the desert is a landscape in which the human spirit can exult, a landscape which can satisfy a man's deepest craving, which is for spiritual freedom. A French Sahara explorer once said, "The desert is probably the most intensely loved landscape on our earth."

Uwe George's emotional involvement with the desert is the first thing I noticed about his book. He travels extensively in all deserts -- enough so that he's learned things few other humans know. He seems to do his best thinking in deserts -- long, involved, and complex meditations which often read like prose poems in their perceptions, implications, and surprises. Overall, his is both an exhilarating and a sobering book, whose chapters discuss "The Merciless Sun," "The Origins of Earth and of Life," "Survival Under the Searing Sun," and "The End of the Earth." Its effect upon me was similar to what I imagine are the thoughts of people who have life-threatening episodes and who because of these experiences learn not to worry about inconsequential matters.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with ink drawings of such things as the earth's crustal plates, the tracheal system of an insect, the cross section of a lichen, and the biosphere of the primal ocean; with black and white photos of sand dunes (both real and fossilized), Saharan animals (including one showing the author fishing in a desert pool!); and with breathtaking color photos of people and travel scenes in various deserts the author has visited. The photos each seem to express George's subtext of the unappreciated wonder of the desert. Like the text, the photos are often "poetic" in the best sense of the term: i.e., deceptively simple, so that a reader or viewer experiences several levels of perception at once. For example, here is a black and white photo caption: "Rock carving, about 8,000 years old, showing a herd of cattle drinking in the central Sahara."

Slowly, a reader of this book begins to understand the history of deserts as dynamic land forms (nothing in deserts seems to be dead, for instance, except for many of our perceptions when considering them), how deserts come to exist, how they are linked to more fertile land, and where and how their lives are destined to lead human life on planet Earth. This story includes the earliest chemical, biologic, and climactic conditions on earth, and branches out with unique theories to consider the influence of such extraterrestrial bodies as our moon and the planet Mars.

Here are some things I learned in reading In the Deserts of This Earth :

-- How deserts come to exist (explained through the model and anecdote of peeling an onion), and why they are crucially important to life on earth.

-- How the author is able to fish in the Central Sahara.

-- How animals like camels, sand grouse, desert toads, and locusts have evolved to "fit" the desert like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Two more joys of this book are its love of and search for exact words, and its faith in figurative and comparative language. In the first chapter, for instance, George differentiates between duststorms and sandstorms, and describes the worst sandstorm he's experienced:
Yellow grains of sand rattled against the windshield of our car as if someone were throwing shovelfuls of sand...I drove until I reached ahill, and the effect was like that of a submarine suddenly breaking through surface of the water...I stood under a blazing sky and looked down at the top of a seemingly infinite sea of sand flowing along at top speed. The brow of the hill on which I stood formed an island in the midst of this surging golden yellow sea...The heads and humps of several camels appeared to be floating on the surface of the sand, like ducks drifting in the current of a river...moving in the same direction as the drifting sand, but a great deal more slowly.

In the Deserts of This Earth is a travel book, science book, nature book full of prose poems and quirky observations, and a self-help desert guide (see surviving the night of giant cockroaches at the oasis). And once you've seen the photos, you'll have them in mind forever.


David Steingass lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He makes his living as an artist in schools and as an arts and writing consultant. His fifth book of poetry, Greatplains: A Prairie Lovesong, is forthcoming in 1998 from Heavy Press, 1928 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53202.

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