It’s cold. Snow is falling on a December morning in Winslow, Arizona, blanketing the streets and shrubs with a fine white spray. It’s the winter antithesis to the Southwest’s blazing summers. The desert is a place of extremes, but it makes the brief spring far sweeter, with smatters of wildflowers gracing a nude land. Tenderness and severity complement each other.
This is the land of contradictions. The land is permanent but its people are transient, many emptying the towns once winter arrives. Never has human habitation accomplished domination of the desert. Petroglyphs and cliff ruins show that the Native Americans failed one thousand years ago. Neither was the white man successful. There were, and still are, miners, oil rigs, roads, and dams, but in the end the landscape stands stoic as it pits man against a vast swathe of emptiness. The original miners left, fortuneless, or squandering their riches. Ghost towns decay back into the landscape. Rocks. Stars. Sand. The desert is the only remaining great American frontier.
Maybe in the light of development, it isn’t even that anymore. I penetrate it easily with a vehicle, but an hour after I left Los Angeles on a northeast road the dry air began sucking at my pores. The Mojave looms ahead, cool and domineering, but my destination lies further. Headed for the Colorado River and Glen Canyon, Utah and Arizona beckon me with red rock and stuttering canyon.
I have but one companion: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book I picked up in hopes of reconciling my mysterious affection for the affectionless desert. What I assume is an elegy for the desert, however, is equally eulogy. As I transcend the Utah line I morph into the book’s curse: tourist in motor vehicle, driving into the National Parks on seamlessly paved road. The desert I experience is not the real one, but a spoiled version: a parody of the rich earth. Stop at the gates of the National Park, get out and walk, demands Abbey. But that raw wilderness isn’t there anymore. It’s all been razed by the tourists, and the cutting roads, and those goddamned motor vehicles, and Desert Solitaire grieves every ounce of it while eloquating the vanished desert of Abbey’s past. My love is a farce. I’ve been warped by a corrupt view of the wilderness shaped in American culture.
My trip becomes an attempt to reconcile Abbey’s words and my place in his world. I wonder if that much has changed. The desert is no site for booming metropolis. The small towns I pass feel two decades behind. Much of the desert is still cloaked in enigma as bona fide wilderness. I wonder if Abbey’s lobby against roads is gatekeeping, naturalistic protectionism. A few roads can’t be the death of the desert.
Then again, Abbey’s word is less protest and more mourning. A need for the reworking of the American idea of land — its unfortunate tie with economic value, severed ties with man, a need for stewardship — has been protested since Aldo Leopold’s time. A botched relationship with nature continues heedlessly, half-a-century later. It does not threaten to stop. In the desert, where man meets his greatest challenge, wilderness is there, but man’s experience of it has been twisted. And I am one of them, so whilst driving through the desert, I gaze on myself from the outside, questioning the sand which I trod upon and the snowflakes that light in my hair.
My first stop is Zion National Park. When I arrive dusk is fast arriving. The parking lot is clogged with cars but further out on the trails, human presence dissipates away. There I stand, on the outskirts of society. Great pink rocks tint red with the setting sun. All is quiet except for the gurgling creek. A single Townsend’s Solitaire alights on a pinyon. In a moment all my debates on what wilderness is melt away. There is only a triangle between river, rock, and solitaire, with me in the center. They simply are. I wonder where this moment fits in, intertwined with the winding roads and distant cities and bustling tourists, myself included, and am content to let the thought fade to inarticulate mystery.
Then there they come, later on the side of the road as I exit Zion, clamouring over the sandstone and rock formations, slowing down their cars as they pass by the bighorn sheep that they watch through dusty window pane. Huge looming tour buses and smaller vans, packed full with people that stop, get out for a few minutes, careful not to dust their expensive designer sneakers and brand name bags, take a photo, get back in the bus, leave and repeat, like the landscape is an animal in a zoo. And I understand Abbey. He must be rolling in his grave by now. Bus after bus. The tourists are a mix of Chinese, Koreans, and Indians; it’s Christmas, so there are less Americans right now. They are loud. This must be the tourism that gives an economic incentive to keep the National Park running. This feels like no wilderness — it’s the Catch-22 of American wilderness.
A visit to the sand dunes. I listen to the guttural groans of OHVs spinning over the sands.
Slot canyons are common in this land, narrow twisting canals prone to flash floods. The most famous one, adorning every computer and phone screen, is called the Wave. Thirty people are allowed there each day. An advance permit is needed, and often requires months in advance. I understand this one. There are too many people. Tragedy of the commons. There are more and more people. Always the problem is overpopulation. But what can be done?
The town of Kanab, my medium between Zion and Glen Canyon, is quiet on a Sunday. A suburban neighborhood, salmon-colored like the striped canyon it lies in, is strewn with playgrounds and bikes. Not a soul sitrs. On the outskirts of town, another tour bus passes us. The desert is gone. It is just us tourists now, streaming into a dry alluvial fan, grappling with impasse. I hike in the canyon that circles the neighborhood, fascinated by multicolored rock.
Continuing. I reach the dam that destroyed Glen Canyon, created Lake Powell. Abbey bemoans this dam. Beguiled by his words, so do I.
A visit to Horseshoe Bend stifles me. Parking takes ten minutes. A Korean woman with a heavy layer of makeup applies lipstick, then resumes her posing for the camera. She has been taking photos the entire time I stand at the edge of the bend, strutting like the wilderness feels as much sympathy for her beauty as the city. There are people everywhere. Everyone is taking pictures. They barely look at the river. The most important part is the picture — and make sure to include yourself in the picture, or where will be the evidence that you travel and go places and were here at a place that you barely glanced at?
A climb up and down Lee’s ferry, from the bank of the Colorado River to the top of the canyon. Four miles but too steep for most tourists. I feel briefly free, thinking back to times in the Mojave when it was me, alone, wandering unknown canyon and watching Zone-tailed Hawks scream over my head.
I wonder if I have it all wrong, if I am just as bad as the tourists that I cannot stand. I am no saint by Abbey’s standards. Especially the next day, when I have a boat tour booked for Lake Powell, cursed bane of Glen Canyon and Powell himself. The tour is, again, crowded with tourists. I sit on the top deck of a white motor-powered boat and placidly gaze at the still blue waters. There is no risk for capsizing here, no adventure. There is simply lake and canyon and no free will, really; the only option is to sit on the boat, travel the preplanned path, listen to the tour. A few Bald Eagles fly by; the audio tour accredits Abbey and his peer’s words now: “Many have mourned the loss of Glen Canyon’s natural resources — but without Lake Powell, the cities of ___, ___, and Los Angeles would not exist,” — blanks where I don’t remember the cities named —- as if this was a worthy tradeoff! There is a brief flare of misanthropy on my part at how matter-of-fact the speaker is, as if human development and city are above wilderness, always. The justification of destruction is poor. It’s a prompt reminder of our modern view of nature; maybe the American view of wilderness can never be remedied -- humans are doomed to their fate, I am doomed to mine, and the downward hill continues indefinitely until our ruination. Maybe the desert shouldn’t be colonized if we need to destroy it or squander massive resource to do so. Almonds in California! That’s where this Colorado River water is going.
The first snowstorm of the week falls as I enter Valley of the Gods, a garden of rock. It is 24 degrees out today. There are no other cars in the parking lot. Flakes of white drift down, slowly at first, then rapidly in angry diagonal curtains. On the red soil the snow appears like icing on a cake. The rocks sport whimsical names: the Seven Sailors, the Lady in the Bathtub, the Sitting Hen. Far in the reaches of the valley I feel the presence of the Gods this place is named for. They are here in the cold crystallizing ice from water, the sun drying every drop of moisture, and the soil that grinds into dust, ensuring the ephemeral movement of humans and their eventual expulsion from the valley.
I am now on the last chapter of Desert Solitaire. Abbey now attempts to explain his love of the desert. I pay extra close attention to his words, for his mystery is my own. The desert I love may be different. My fondness, however, is real. The promise of the desert remains, no matter how many twisted roads penetrate its interior. He names Schoenberg as the artist most accurately reflecting the state of the desert. That was in the 1960’s. There are numerous bygone eras of music now, albeit not classical, that are just as empty and beautiful, cruel and listless. Post-rock: Tortoise, or how about Krautrock, with its slow, drawing, rhythms that resonate like desert rock? Psychedelic fans might argue The Doors or Pink Floyd. Or the attendees of the numerous music festivals hosted in the desert: Burning Man, Desert Daze, Coachella. The desert is now intertwined firmly into American popular culture, albeit in a way that leaves strewn beer cans and piss. Abbey would be disappointed.
The book ends. I arrive in Winslow, Arizona, where a stream of snowflakes pummels my hair. The ravens are all coupled up, grooming their black feathers as the fluff lodges in their feathers. I am left with a dizzying array of ideas: ideas about what wilderness is and man’s role within it. Muir, Abram, Leopold, dozens of other authors, the research of urban ecologists, the view of indigenous peoples, and the world of the Solitaire himself. To reconcile clashing world of bitter sand and lush forest with the roaring city I come from is hard. There is no better place to begin to do so than the desert.
Visiting a natural history museum is intrinsically philosophical; you’re surrounded by the dead. The study of that which has passed naturally brings existence into question. Some find it morbid. My curiosity is piqued in a Dada-ist way, however, by the legacy and aesthetic beauty of once-living things. I volunteer for the bird department. Two rooms are familiar to me: the lab, where I participate in specimen preparation, and the collection room, where finished specimens are stored.
It is the quiet and vast collection room which is a perfect venue for contemplation. The glossy white finish to the floor and shelves sometimes make me feel as I am in a sanitorium. Instruments and maps strewn across the wall hint, however, that the collection assumes the character of a few men: curators leaving their mark over a century rather than a staff of white-clad workers. To examine the room is to speculate character and history.
Right now I am putting away specimens. An afternoon atmosphere streams into the collection room. The clear sky fills the tiny window into a blue cutout. From the top of a ladder I have enough of a view to make out the bell tower of Balboa Park and the silhouettes of palm trees. Inside, sunlight strikes the top of the crypt-like collection shelves, illuminating thickly slathered dust on top. My finger creates a crevasse in this ancient layer. Underneath, the sun does not enter the dark chambers where the specimens are kept. Yet, prompted by the movement of time, birds seem to rouse from their cold death to enter a lazy afternoon slumber. I emerge above the vaults like a queen of the afterworld. Below me are birds-of-paradise, pittas, storm-petrels, sparrows, extinct birds, skeletons, skins, feathers, Australia, Chile, Greenland: the entire world.
It is a collective that spans time and space infinitely past present-day San Diego. Natural order has been deliberately folded here. The specimens are manipulated into an organized order that would never naturally occur in nature; sorted by age, species, and sex, the efficiency of science removes the essential chaos of life. Instead, we consider only the value with which there can be no ambiguity: the measurements, DNA sequences, and dates that yield answers with at least some certainty. The confrontation with our own mortality in the cotton-stuffed sockets of a skin is accepted, but does not interfere with its scientific value. Yet, as one handles the specimens the feathers feel rife with questions. What is the relation between the human condition of time and that cotton-stuffed skin with which I hold? I frequently try to make a connection, but that rotund body seems to hold elemental questions which, unlike basic scientific ones, can never be answered.
Specimen preparation is a similar therapy. There is no better reconciliation with death than the quiet movements of the scalpel and scissor. Prepping is an intimate encounter, first with mortality, than the process of preservation and resurrection after death: living forever. First the flesh is removed from the skin and tossed. This removes any character from the bird, so the intimate connection between human and beast is temporarily severed. As the cotton slips slyly into the saggy skin and form is once again breathed into paper, the bird is resurrected. He shall live on, far past his living peers and offspring who will die in inscrutiny. Yet this immortality is useless to him. He has won out over time but to no real purpose to himself. He is a neat summation of the human experience. We are more aware than he is, but we march towards the same ends.
Today I am prepared to tour the entire process. As I enter the lab, the musty smell of the lab hits overwhelmingly; the skinless bodies stacked in the fume hood are guilty. This week they are skeletonizing a tuna. The fan is broken. Dead fish-smell overpowers the room. Philip Unitt, my mentor, places a stack of Brown-headed Cowbirds recovered from a cowbird trap on the table. They are fresh, recently transported from the site of collection, Dos Palmas Preserve. Cowbirds are easy. They have a simple shape, easy to nail for early learners like me. “Birds are harder,” says a woman working on the opposite side of the table. In her hand, she fiddles with a tiny bat body.
The work of skinning a bird is methodical. The bell tower in Balboa Park tolls every few hours. My mind is immersed in the rich anatomy of the cowbird. Skin down the thighs, separate the thigh and drumstick meet, then a caudal cut, peeling down of the skin. Now the bird is inside out. Pull the ears and cut the eyes. Snip neatly along the skull. Clean the brains. Pull the bird back right-side out. Clean the wings, tie them together shoulder-length. Wash the bird, it was slightly soiled. Dry it. Run the cotton eyes up the throat. Wrap the body. Take your needle and your thread, and sew the belly of the bird up. A clock chimes for noon. The smell of dead fish is less distinctive.
Later that month, Phil takes me to the “beetle room,” where meat-covered corpses are left to naturally decompose in a beetle colony in the process of skeletonization. The warehouse is in Chula Vista. Phil drives me there. His truck still has one of those window cranks, that you have to physically wind to move the windows up and down. Our conversation about Trump seems out of the time period.
We stop in the parking lot of a storage center. Phil and Leah, another taxidermist, gesture towards the biggest unit, one big enough to fit five people comfortably. They open the lids of our containers. In the biggest one, a deconstructed orangutan skeleton is nestled among jars. “I think it had a human name,” Leah remarks. “Bertha, or something old fashioned like that.” The other box contains a half-decomposed lynx corpse. I remember seeing it being gutted earlier in the week. The taxidermist had appeared like a wild hunter of the West, carving out the meat with a knife while chiding the “kitty,” in a raspy voice.
The inside of the unit is stacked high with jars. Leah immediately opens a big storage bin that occupies one fourth of the floor. She sifts through boxes of half-decomposed skeletons. Stringy, dry meat hang halfheartedly from unidentifiable bones. A spider scurries over her finger.
Leah and Phil browse through the shelves, occasionally asking me to hand them jars, or giving me jars of skeletons to put away. There are not many: most of the beetle colony dies off in winter.The outside breeze shifts around layers of insect exoskeletons. I make sure to stand upwind. Five more spiders scurry out from between the shelves.
In between passing jars, I find myself staring again at the human-like visage of the orangutan. It has crooked teeth. Orangutans don’t have dental care.
The time comes to say good-bye to the oragutan. I will miss Bertha, or Debbie, or whatever her name was. But I will see her again, maybe in a year’s time, when the rest of decomposition has been completed.
When we return, we fill the jars containing skeletons with water, where bacteria will continue the next stage of decomposition. The process feels impersonal. Each animal is assigned a tag with its scientific name and date of death. Some were beloved zoo animals. All will go through the same four steps, and eventually they will all end up in a dark, small, cardboard box on a shelf in the back of the museum.
“Special Cashews,” reads the label of one of the jars. The smell of ammonia wafts from another.
Before I leave, Phil asks me to string together the vertebrae of a Harpy Eagle retrieved from the zoo. Each talon measures three inches across. I fit together the tiny pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, feeling the groove between each bone carefully. I wonder if death always feels this scientific. The vertebrae of the eagle are clean and easy to grasp.
On the train home I recall the world of the museum like a secret cult of death. There is the warehouse dedicated to decomposition, a process which turns death into rebirth and also produces a beautiful bleach-white pile of bones in the end. Or the movement of the scalpel and needle, which spin rotting flesh into ageless visage.
The days of the museum do not last forever. One year passes. My hands have long gone without a delicate skin to peel apart. Watching a short film, however, briefly takes me back to museum days: “La Jetee,” an existentialist sci-fi film made up entirely of black-and-white still images. One scene strikes me — a “museum of eternal animals,” in which the stiff glassy-eyed vessels of leopards, stingrays, and birds appeared as parallels to the human characters. The film entertains museum specimens as art. Now they are figures that reflect whatever the maker wishes to see in them, whether it is scientific vision or human condition. I see them as tokens of time: animals that once were, and still are, living as nonbreathing bodies fated to stretch their limbs in the stale airs of time. My memories of the museum are also in an exhibit of their own, deep in the past.
Weekly museum visits may be past, but I remain captivated by museum specimens. Specimen skins are a mirror of my own mortality: simultaneously living and already dead. Humans march forward bearing the knowledge of our imminent demise. One day, I will wander back to the natural history museum and ponder, knowing that I am the bird I skin with delicate hand.