Ellen Meloy's Deep Nomadology
(How to Map the Heartland of a Nuclear-Age Desert)

Dianne Chisholm

On the Colorado Plateau, with its considerable share of wildlands, a natural world more or less intact, the most exotic terrain may be the plateau's own history. During my recent journeys this history felt foreign and unnervingly off-the-Map, even as I lived in its heart. Gaze out from the mesa, and you will meet my duplicitous lover. You will see eternity, a desert that like no other place exudes the timelessness of nature as the final arbiter. Scrape off our century, and you will find its usurper, pressed into a nugget of inorganic matter, the single greatest threat to the continuity of life. The history inscribed itself on the Map's most alarming folios; ignoring it was no way to earn Home. —Ellen Meloy, The Last Cheater's Waltz

[1] The bombing of the American west was brought home to American audiences by Richard Misrach's photography of the desert southwest. Misrach's Bravo 20 (1990) and Violent Legacies (1992) shock faith in national security with evidence of atomic war on domestic soil. [i] These photo-documentaries do more than merely expose what was previously top secret and hidden from public view. They deploy a sublime aesthetic to illuminate the holocaust of nuclear testing on home territory. The shock with which they bring the political into view derives, in part, from a juxtaposition of beauty and violence not seen before in Western landscape art. Misrach's photographs strike audiences with a sublimity that they can readily associate with paintings of Western preindustrial wilderness but also, much more challengingly, with contemporary war cinema. [ii] Artist and naturalist, Ellen Meloy intensifies the shock and raises the shock-value of such juxtaposition. [iii]

[2] In The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest (1997), Meloy testifies to her struggle to live in the desert's heartland as she becomes increasingly haunted by its irredeemable and irremediable history of violence. That she aims to explore the sublime frontier is indicated by her book cover reproduction of Patrick Nagatani's photo-collage, "Contaminated Radioactive Sediment, Mortanadad Canyon, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico" (1990), taken from Nagatani's collection Nuclear Enchantment. [iv] Meloy juxtaposes beauty and violence with arguably greater affect than the photographic sublime by mobilizing their uncanny collision in a heart-breaking first-person narrative. "The Last Cheater's Waltz" alludes to a pop song, performed most famously by Emmy Lou Harris, about a final and deeply ambivalent scene of conjugal betrayal. Likewise, Meloy's "waltz" lyricizes the erotic intimacy with which her narrative subject feels connected to the desert (to its "beauty"), and it bewails the desert's betrayal by those who claim to husband it, including not only the U.S. industrial-military complex that executes large-scale violence but also small landholders like herself who perpetrate small-scale assaults on fragile desert ecology.

[3] Meloy's narrative does not echo the tragic testimonials of downwinders whose corrosive diseases "speak" unspeakable violations by national "security forces," as, for example, so eloquently and searingly documented in Carole Gallagher's American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War (1993). Her narrator is not that good citizen who, through patriotic interpellation and governmental deception, allows herself to be exposed to lethal experiments only to discover she has been legally and mortally betrayed. Instead, Meloy's "I" suffers and reflects upon the psycho-ethical fallout of one who desires to live within the vicinity of ground zero, who knows the history of violence, and who now finds unbearable her own minor collusion with that history, even and especially as one who loves the desert. Her desert dweller does not just inhabit the desert. She co-inhabits the desert with other desert species and she co-habits the universe with the desert as the desert's lover, a desert nomad conjugated with her desert habitat.

[4] Misrach empties his post-nuclear landscapes of people and of life, whereas Meloy places her persona on site of ground zero as a witness whose troubling is witnessed in turn by her readers. Yet, unlike Gallagher's testimonial subjects, Meloy's autobiographical narrator is neither victim nor plaintiff. The Last Cheater's Waltz does not tell a tale of traumatic subjection to toxic governmentality. Instead, it narrates a crisis of de-subjectivization, wherein her desert-loving self devolves into the critical derangement of "one" who can no longer reconcile the aesthetic and ethical extremes she encounters on her native turf. Far from anaesthetizing the viewer with a spectacle of sublime nature photography, Meloy affects the reader with her psychotic reaction to ecological chaos. Like the Navajo skinwalker, she suffers a malaise of the Earth that compels her to hurl painful projectiles into the bodies of passers-by in retribution for terrestrial trespasses.

[5] The book's opening scene dramatizes her psychosis. As Meloy prepares her morning espresso in the half-constructed desert house that she is currently building, she absent-mindedly scalds and kills a side-blotched lizard that was momentarily nesting at the bottom of her cup. On seeing the parboiled corpse she experiences a psychological meltdown. Despite her every effort to dwell in the desert in low-impact style, her minimalist habitation obstructs the lives of co-inhabitors. On a daily basis, she must free hummingbirds that catch their beaks in her window screens, or she must disinter half-buried, half-eviscerated snakes that she accidentally runs over when backing up her truck. "Nuking" the lizard is her last straw. She collapses in moral despair and succumbs to a grave disaffection, feeling stone-cold indifference to what she is usually hyper-sensually aware. The nuked lizard is not the cause of this breakdown, but it cues a nomadic traversing and an unsettling re-mapping of her desert heartland.

[6] The premise of this essay is that the scene of radical disorientation with which Meloy opens her narrative initiates multiple nomadic relays across the desert, from home to ground-zero and back again. These are narrative relays that deploy a descriptive, bio-regional affect-language with which to de-stratify discrete territories of political jurisdiction—most notably, military zones and wildlife refuges that overlap and efface each other—and to decode official, off-limit "test sites," "ground zeros," and nuclear war-monuments into living and evolving desert ecologies. Another premise is that these relays take flight from the transcendent history that the military-industrial complex implants on desert geography (as blasting pad) onto the arid mesa where they reveal a thriving rhizome of river washes and vegetation that skirt the deserts borders. With these relays, Meloy performs what Deleuze and Guattari hail as the ultimate nomadic feat: of occupying terrains "where the steppe or the desert advances" to "mak[e] them grow." [v]

[7] A primary purpose of this essay is to investigate how Meloy's descriptive naturalism combines an avowed "deep ecology" with a narrative of displacement to produce a post-sublime, post-ecocidal, hybrid meditation on desert dwelling that I propose to call "deep nomadology." A secondary purpose is to use Deleuze and Guattari's interrelated concepts of rhizome, deterritorialization, nomad space, nomad science, cartography, and geophilosophy to foreground and demonstrate Meloy's nomadic and transversal thinking. Meloy offers no firm evidence that she has read Deleuze and Guattari, yet she shows remarkable kinship to their thinking. Therefore, this investigation applies their concepts lightly, preferring suggestive dialogue to rigorous exposition.

Meloy Adrift

[8] The crisis with which Meloy begins her narrative defies all understanding. "The more I attempted to fathom this malaise," she writes, "the farther adrift I felt, an oxymoronic footless nomad, caught in a slipstream of indifference that was so alien to my character it finally scared me out of my wits" (5, my emphasis). If the cause is unknown, the symptoms are unsettling. She has lost her sense—or senses—of place and she becomes disoriented in the least threatening situation. "On the way to find a paper clip, for instance, your mind suddenly develops a block fault the size of Nevada, and you freeze midaction, quite baffled by the sheer impossibility of your own existence" (5). The hyperbole is telling. She lives in Utah, yet what "blocks" her flow of direction is a "fault the size of Nevada." Nevada, as everyone who has lived through the atomic age of the American West well knows, is synonymous with nuclear warfare. A slip of the tongue exposes the metonymic link that prompts her schizophrenic narrative to unfold. In the ecology of her mind, nuked lizard and Nevada (test-site) prompt a disavowal of association by linking the banal atrocity of everyday desert living to geopolitical apocalypse.

[9] This "malaise" of place intensifies at the same time that Meloy moves from Montana to build a house in the desert on the San Juan River. For years she roamed the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau until finally resolving to move there. Attending this resolve is a heightened moral imperative to make minimal impact on the desert. As a hiker, rafter, and itinerant naturalist, she can easily meet this imperative. But as a house-builder and property owner, she finds a substantial rise in moral stakes. A nomad of sorts, she does not ascribe to the thinking that she owns the desert just because she has purchased land. On the contrary, she feels she must earn a right to live there. With her partner, Mark, she undertakes to build modestly and in keeping with desert ecology as much as possible. Yet, despite her conscientiousness, her building intrudes upon the fragile ecosystem and it endangers the very species she would protect. The realization that she cannot dwell with absolutely no impaction disturbs her eco-sensitivity deeply. But it does not suffice to cause her malaise. Her malaise arises from a subterranean awareness that her property is contaminated with the ethical (as well as physical) fallout of nuclear warfare, and that she has bought into that history of violence which she would rather disown. Parboiling the lizard in her coffee cup is but a detail of the devastation that humanity has perpetrated on the Western desert, "the most bombed place on Earth." [vi]

Desert Near Meloys

Desert near where Meloy builds her screenhouse

[10] Instead of succumbing to catatonia, Meloy acts on her malaise and determines to do something. Observing that her "derailment was not neurological but aesthetic"—an estrangement from the beauty of a landscape that has been made unbeautiful by its connection to nuclear warfare—she resists clinical therapy and follows the counsel of Kalahari nomads that says: "do not try to figure out everything that is odd; scan and digest the familiar" (21). She resolves to make familiar (again) that terrain that has been so unnervingly defamiliarized. Set adrift of her usual "nomadic compulsions" (101), she conducts relays to ground-zero, beginning with Trinity test-site, in hope of reterritorializing beauty.

[11] But in plotting aesthetic mastery, she fails miserably. She does indeed encounter beauty at ground zero. But it is negated by a past, present, and prospective violence that becomes for her even more unbearable than the violence that sparked her aesthetic quest. Her relays through the desert induce heightened psychotic breaks between self and place. Where her intent is aesthetic sublimation, the result is abyssal disenchantment. With the collision of (natural) beauty and (nuclear) violence the artist herself is "blown away" in a final psychotic episode.

A Becoming-Skinwalker

[12] Along with "satanic possession, indigestion, and a midlife crisis," Meloy rules out skinwalkers as the actual cause of her malaise. Yet, she invokes Navajo demonology to help describe her symptoms. Skinwalkers, she explains, "are normal people by day and evildoers at night [who ...] for vengeance, envy, or other reasons, inflicts injury ... often with spells or by injecting a foreign article—bone, quill, bead, stone, arrow—into the victim" (13). They are compelled to seek retribution for harm done to their lands by piercing the skin of trespassers. They absorb the land's pain to become the land's animus, nomad-zombies whose haunting has the power and magic to turn benign natural objects into avenging weapons. In her singular way, Meloy spreads herself across the desert as a terrestrial sense organ. She traverses the terrain in a continuous state of arousal, lit by the desert's "extreme landscape." She regards the Colorado Plateau as her "bio-sphere": "Here I could fit flesh to rock. The sole difference between me and the land was a membrane of skin" (6). Skin is a living tissue of connective disjunction between herself and the land: the imperceptible difference inherent to contact. But it is not her skin, unscarred and melanoma-free, that registers the damage done to that contact. It is "the land's skin" (6) that bears the ecological effects of subterranean and atmospheric nuclear bombing.

[13] So in touch with this skin, the land's skin, Meloy senses the "seismic ethical disturbances" (101) that rocked the earth over decades of bombings and that continue to ripple through geological strata and surface geography. "The silent chemistry of this desert lay deep within me," she reflects, alluding Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and its testament to the quiet, yet cataclysmic, poisoning of local and regional watersheds by the uncontrolled use of DDT and other chemical warfare. The degree to which Meloy senses the desert's malaise is more than skin deep. Just as the Earth-possessed Navajo is transformed from a daytime Joe into a nighttime zombie, she is beset by psychotic tremors. Though deep, her disturbed connection to the earth is neither empathic nor sympathetic. On the contrary, she suffers an unearthly disaffection from her beloved desert, as if she has jumped out of her skin. "To reinhabit my own body," she prognosticates, "I had to traverse, again and again, the desert's cruel and beautiful skin" (8).

[14] Traversing the desert again and again, she becomes a skinwalker of sorts, a haunted, haunting being lost in her own country. She sets out to reclaim beauty and familiarity in the claret cup cactus and to go where she knows it will be in seasonal bloom. To get there she crosses "a deep, tamarisk-lined canyon, a major tributary of the San Juan River, and rumor has it, the preferred route of skinwalkers on the move" (13). Knowing that "the upper reaches of the canyon ... have seen strife and tragedy in Navajo history," the reason perhaps for "its concentration of skinwalkers," she "leaves the canyon behind" (13). Yet strife and tragedy await her, after she enjoys what she came to find. She describes a Proustian coupling between "bloodred cup" and "little bug" from the bug's perspective as it plunges masochistically into the flower's pulsating color (15). Emboldened by her reacquaintance with beauty, she drives further into the desert on a road leading nowhere, only to encounter the poorly-covered pit of an abandoned mine. She recoils in horror from such reckless defilement of desert landscape and such wanton plundering of desert earth. She also fears that the pit is the remnant of a uranium mine and that uranium ore has been extracted from so close to home for bombing lands far away, if not the heartland that she holds sacred.

[15] The pit shocks her desert aesthetics and erotics, and it violates her geo-political ethics. It stirs her to question the fate of geography once military history lays claim to it, and it spurs her to go in quest of local rocks that, through military deterritorialization, have become "alien pebbles." Like all desert nomadism, her becoming-skinwalker entails relays across the desert. [vii] But her relays take her to ground-zero and back again, and each realy intensifies her malaise. The stakes of the quest/ion are thus raised. How can she live where beauty and violence collide to such extremes? How can she dwell in a geography that history territorializes for devastation like no other place on earth? The scorched lizard serves as totem. It signals her "to look closely and burn hotter, to forge the desert's sweetness and ferocity into my own, to find beauty" (21). In forging the desert's vital extremes into an extreme aesthetic, she might succumb to heat exhaustion or flash floods. But that is better than enduring the cold disaffection that possesses her wherever she encounters deadly history.

[16] Meloy's relays are animated by the power of the Earth to affect her aesthetically, ethically, and erotically, and by her desire to affect the Earth beneficially in turn. She is driven by care to those places where the Earth has been most harmed by the military-industrial complex and she is haunted by the damage she witnesses. Her relays are not, then, unlike the trajectories taken by those desert projectiles that skinwalkers hurl with animus. They are also akin to the trajectories taken by skinwalkers themselves when they are set adrift by the Earth's demonology.

Three Relays

[17] Meloy's nomadic drift entails three relays. They each start from "home" near the village of Bluff in south eastern Utah and return there. The first relay takes her furthest afield, to Trinity ground-zero, in the White Sands Missile Range and Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico. The second takes her to Los Alamos National Laboratory and Historical Museum, New Mexico, on an unfamiliar spur of the Colorado Plateau. The third takes her to Project Gasbuggy ground-zero, New Mexico, on another unfamiliar spur of the Plateau. The time between relays is roughly seasonal, though Meloy's purpose is not limited to tracking terrestrial phenomena like the blooming of the claret cup cactus or the migration of desert bighorn. She also sets out to map the route taken by local uranium ore to neighboring deserts to where history destined it for assembly into bombs and for exploding above and beneath the earth's surface, as well as for remaindering as radioactive waste. With each relay, she becomes an "unnaturalist" (177), undertaking to learn the logic of nuclear physics and politics. But the more she learns about the State war machine and its calculated devastation the less she is able to assimilate it to her reverence for desert ecology. She witness ground-zero's collision of nuclear history and desert geography at ground level, and she recoils in eco-ethical shock. At Trinity test-site, she finds herself "on the verge of some kind of shameless and messy psychotic event on a top-secret military base" (62). She retreats to home until another crisis-discovery sets her out again. And again. As she learns more about history's geography, her returns home are more desperate.

[18] "Home," as Meloy describes it, is "a rough-hewn, single-room screenhouse in a cottonwood grove, a few wingbeats beyond the San Juan River" on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah (3). She lives very near the Tsé Valley which she ventures frequently, especially the mid-section of sandstone reef or "Tsé k'aan" where the claret cup cactus blooms. Using Navajo place names for local and sacral landmarks, she places herself in connection to aboriginal territory. "Home" is where she dwells on earth with other desert dwellers, including the neighboring Navajo. Though her home state is Utah, she feels little allegiance to or identification with its moral majority and Mormon theocracy. She notes that Utah derives from "uté," the Navajo word for the side-blotched lizard. Placing the lizard's body on a relief map of the Four Corners area, she locates her homeland within reach of the uté's extremities. The perimeter thus mapped marks not only the domain of a native species but also the range of the ecological consequences of her dwelling here. Home is "a heartland of consequences" (224). Though she takes her cardinal points from cosmic mountains (Sisnaajinii,Tso'dzil, Dook'o'ooslííd, Dibé Ntsaa [108]), she faces a frontier of nuclear warfare from her own front door. "This incongruous geography of eternity and apocalypse began," she observes, "in a windswept valley on Navajo land, visible from my perch on the mesa"(212).

[19] With an eye to reclamation, she reckons that "the immediate task was to seek the beds of fossil rivers removed, to find the valley's missing pieces, now scattered far afield like alien pebbles" (21). Her relays from home to ground-zero and back are also forays into territory claimed by the U.S. war machine. With them she wages a "nomad war" on the State military machine, raiding its territory for reflection. [viii]

[20] Relay 1: Trinity ground-zero, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Meloy's first relay /foray into the frontier of nuclear warfare goes straight to American history's heartland of consequences: five-hundred miles to the Trinity test-site where the first atomic bomb was assembled and detonated on July 16, 1945, a month before Trinity bomb-builders dropped their warheads on Hiroshima-Nagasaki. It was to Trinity that uranium from the Colorado Plateau was sent in the early stages of the Cold War. "By coming to Trinity first," Meloy reflects, "I appear to be approaching home from outside in" (25). [ix]

[21] At Trinity, Meloy walks the literal ground of prototypical Ground Zero. To her naturalist's eye, geography displaces the scene of history and reveals an unacknowledged ecocide that paved the way for an unthinkable genocide. She prompts us to wonder: if the desert could scream in protest, would the U.S. have bombed Hiroshima-Nagasaki? The genocide has been well-documented, whereas the ecocide has not. Though, as she reports, the arsenal that Trinity generated amounted to "the equal of a million Hiroshimas" (26). Touring the grounds of Trinity National Historic Monument, she contemplates the impact in earth-terms. The blast left a depression of 2,400 feet across and several feet deep and "it obliterated every living thing within a mile of the tower" (37).

[22] Meloy echoes Mike Davis who, on reviewing Misrach and Gallagher, urges us to rethink the Cold War in ecological terms: "Was the Cold War Earth's worst eco-disaster in the last ten thousand years?" he asks. "The time has come to weigh the environmental costs of the great 'twilight struggle' and its attendant nuclear arms race." [x] The time has come, Meloy agrees. But she foregrounds the difficulty of weighing the environmental costs, given the void of information on earth matters. She considers the case of trinitite, the radioactive by-product that sheathed the earth where the blast's intense heat "fused sand, gravel, and asphalt into a glassy solid." (37). Once it recognized the lethality of radioactivity, the military eventually removed the trinitite to—"Somewhere that official records cannot quite pinpoint, possibly Los Alamos" (37). Once it had measured the magnitude of blast force and its immediate destructivity, the State, she observes, is not concerned to track ecological consequences. Is it not time, she pursues, to find "where the hell seventy-five acres of radioactive trinitite went?" (39).

[23] But for Meloy, who regards the ecocide with a geocentric (not anthropocentric) vision, the bombed desert is anything but dead. If the military focuses abstractly on nuclear death-potency, and if the humanist decries the killing fields that the military makes of the American West, the (un)naturalist is struck by the desert's rapid re-germination. "Grasses, creosote bushes, soaptree yuccas, songbirds, and other wildlife," she observes, "crept back into the hotter areas, as early as two years after the blast" (37). In the wake of absolute devastation, "the desert began to reclaim itself" (37, my emphasis). What impresses Meloy even more than the ecocide that the State secretly perpetrates on its own land is how the earth steals itself back from military territory and overgrows ground zero. Though she sees this reclamation of desert by desert only belatedly, she is prepared to look for it by John Hershey's 1946 account of post-blast Hiroshima:

A month after the bomb leveled and charred more than four square miles of the city ... a lush blanket of green rose up through the wreckage. It grew in gutters and roofs and along the banks of Hiroshima's seven estuarial rivers. It rose up tree trunks and pushed into cracks of rubble. "Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city's bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew.' Near the center of devastation, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration, 'as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along side the bomb. (45)

Meloy raids the heartland of nuclear warfare by taking the official tour as a green undercover agent and by reviewing the state's war-crimes against nature. Even more subversively, she enters enemy territory and replaces the deadly picture of military omnipotence with a lively one of earthly fecundity. Trinity ground zero was not a desert wasteland before the blast confirmed it. The Chihuahuan Desert was and is a breeding-ground for an abundance of life that springs into propagative action with seasonal rains. Along with exploding warheads, she imagines the terrestrial, cataclysmic sexuality of spadefoot toads, whose "metabolic extremes—dormant slumber and brief, frenetic activity—closely match the climatic pulse of the desert itself, a biome with dry winters and more than half of its annual precipitation in summer monsoons" (41). The monsoon, she observes, forced the Trinity test to be delayed. Had military personnel been on site "at 5:29:45 A.M. Mountain War Time," they might have tracked the "eerie strain of a Tchaikovsky waltz from a distant commercial radio" that crossed public airways at that time (26). But even had they sensed the sublime concordance of beauty and violence, they would have lost the countdown in a cacophony of mating. For the toads had "folded storm into their genetic code" (44). In Meloy's recreation, history's apocalyptic blast is eclipsed by a geographical coincidence of creative art and life: "The soundtrack for the ultimate evolutionary moment of this century, to which nothing on Earth would be immune, could not have been stranger: a Tchaikovsky waltz and small pockets of air pushed through hundreds of ballooning throats" (45).

[24] Meloy recasts the scene of devastation in a percept of positive desertification. In place of seeing the desert as the military sees it—as an uninhabited void—she sees a thriving and adapting pre- and post-blast ecology. She foregrounds the biosphere that the military zones off as its thanatoscape. Though the official tour to which she is confined never detours off-road, she sees how it traverses plateaus of wildlife that the U.S. government can neither delimit nor stratify into various departmental jurisdictions. In place of territorial order, she sees chaotic contradiction. The White Sands Missile Range encloses an overlapping of habitats, namely: the "aeolian dune field" of the White Sands National Monument, established in 1933; the "critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep" of the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1941; and the "military habitat" of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, established in 1942 (32). The latter, expanded during the Cold War for nuclear testing, is twice the size of the Nevada test-site. Keeping this overlapping in focus, Meloy sights the "incongruous geography" (50) which the military excludes from view—including its own. [xi] As the tour crosses the Chihuahuan Desert, she takes heart at the expanse and confluence of wild lands that emerge and escape from behind the iron curtain:

In this vehicle moving away from ground zero, I traverse an ocean of sediment zippered with irregular block faults, some of them uplifted in isolated, north-south-running mountain ranges, and underlined by an east-west expansion, a stretching apart too slow to feel, of course, but geologically tense—in short, classic basin and range geography... . The White Sands Missile Range includes a fair share of it: two basins (the Jornada and the Tularosa) and several mountain ranges. The predominant range, the San Andres Mountains, forms an asymmetrical rib of rock eighty-five miles long, a relatively undisturbed montane ecosystem within the military reserve... . On these lands roam mule deer, bobcats, and one of the healthiest cougar populations in the West. Golden eagles, kit foxes, gray foxes, coyotes and feral horses. Prairie rattlers and diamondbacks. Click beetles and fire ants. Panic grass and Mescalero milkwort. Peyote, cholla, and a stocky barrel-shaped cactus known as a horse-crippler... . Assorted bats, bunnies, bufos, and reptiles. On my day at Trinity I am cruising through the only place on Earth where a rare race of North American sheep shares a wilderness with two particle accelerators. (52-3)

That this land should be maximally secured by the military for maximal devastation drives her crazy. What insane law of un-nature, she asks, should permit the U.S. war machine jurisdiction over "ecosystems more pristine than national parks" (28)?

[25] Meloy prompts us to profoundly rethink the concept of "desertification." In State usage, the term applies to the negative process by which fertile lands are turned into deserts by agricultural overgrazing, industrial pollution, or, in the worst case scenario, nuclear bombing. [xii] Against such understanding, she regards deserts to be alive, if extreme, ecosystems: resilient and fragile, vulnerable yet hardy. As she sees it, the Chihuahuan Desert on which Trinity sits is germinal land that grows most profusely where alkalai flats meet high peaks amidst "grassland, malpais, sand dune, bajada, canyon, and other habitats." It is a regenerative ecology that grows with the fluctuating speed and intensity of dormancy and flash flood, animal hibernation and atomic explosion. In thinking the desert is always already a waste land, the U.S. military drops and dumps its nuclear arsenal there without conscience. The military desertifies the desert, whereas the desert grows back in a most volatile form of greening.

Trinity Test Site, Chihuahuan Desert

Greening of the Trinity Test Site, Chihuahuan Desert

[26] If Misrach draws attention to Cold War ecocide by photographing the deathly beauty of desert apocalypse by illuminating its "sacrificial" landscape of weeping, bloated animal corpses, shattered warheads, and blood-red chemical ponds, Meloy foregrounds a thriving nuclear-age biosphere that survives the human drive to destruction only to confront further destruction to the absurd brink of extinction. "This incongruous geography—shrapnel in the greasewood, antelope in the WITs [Warhead Impact Targets], toads above the plutonium—seldom," she observes, "seldom raises hairs of irony among its caretakers" (50). But for her the anaesthetizing effect of a "familiarity [that] tempers the friction between war laboratory and landscape ... into an oddly harmonious anarchy" (50) has worn off. Unlike State biologists who are able to work beside State warriors whose work cancels their own, she balks at the "deranged jungle of ironies" (29). For her, such ludicrous departmentalization of the desert "evokes a conflict of the psyche, a collision of dispassion and vulnerability, that may bear more veracity about our century's troublesome relationship to western deserts than the most sublime nature photography" (84).

[27] Struck by "the insensate logic of preserving the world by devising the tool with which to destroy it" (76), Meloy retreats from Trinity Monument. On her way home, she detours through Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. Like the survivors of Hiroshima who fled the city to Asano Park, she takes refuge in the nearest, open green space. [xiii] A refugee from military territory, she resolves to confine her "nomadic compulsions" to local environs and to drift no further afield than where the uté's belly touches the map. [xiv]

[28] But her resolve is shattered when she dislodges from the soil of her small holding, a nugget of raw uranium that, she reckons, must have fallen in transport after having been mined from some deep strata nearby. She knows local geology well enough to recognize the form of uranium ("carnotite") used to make radioactive "yellow cake" (plutonium). With horror, she sees her own home territory "fall" into nuclear history. The discovery prompts her next relay across the Colorado Plateau to Los Alamos laboratory where her piece of land was destined for apocalyptic conversion. A nomad on the war path, she sets out to track down her earth and to raid enemy territory with an affect more schizoid than sublime.

[29] Relay 2: Los Alamos National Laboratory and Historical Museum, New Mexico. At home Meloy learns that the Tsé Valley mines were in operation not only during the Cold War (from 1951 to the late 1970s) but also prior to WWII, when vanadium was mined for steel production and uranium was a by-product. Until valued and needed as the main ingredient in nuclear arms production, the uranium was left in waste piles. The Manhattan Project, the top secret Project that assembled the first nuclear warhead, drew uranium primarily from the Skinkolobwe mines in the former Belgian Congo and from mines near Great Bear Lake in Canada, and from waste piles in the Tsé Valley (94). "An officially nonexistent team of physicists at an officially nonexistent laboratory in New Mexico wanted all the uranium it could lay its hands on. This strange course of human affairs wed the Tsé to Trinity" (96). Tracking the "alien pebbles" of her displaced homeland, she drives off "the map of the known universe" to Los Alamos.

[30] At Los Alamos she enters the highly guarded territory of state science. Although the Los Alamos National Laboratory stopped making atomic weapons in 1989, it is still entrusted with dismantling the nuclear arsenal and with watching over the remaining stockpile. She enters not just physical fortresses of national secrecy (151) but also "jargon fortresses" of military acronyms that shield State scientists from sensing the real ecological vulnerability of their proving grounds. [xv] Advancing her vocabulary of desertification, she learns that "desertrons" is the nickname for the largest conceivable "high energy accelerators [supercolliders] that study the debris of collisions and resolve the sub-atomic realm in finer detail" and that, being "at least thirty miles in diameter," they need "a flat piece of dry, nothing-out-there American outback." She also learns that "populating the desert" is the phrase used to imagine "what such a machine might discover" (141). But Meloy is less armed than alarmed by this barrage of signs. She vents her "animal anxieties" by taking stock of the "ponderosa, aspen, chokecherry, mule deer, ravens, and the random monkey, beagle, elk, pig, and other species used in radiation studies, then buried in hot dumps set among off-limits compounds known as 'tech areas'" (151).

[31] Touring the Historical Museum on the same site, Meloy recoils at the evidence of a mindset that would build a model suburban town of "Typical American Life" to house a think-tank of nuclear physicists so they could have "the time of their lives building bombs'" (155). Housed together, the domestic and the scientific collude in normalizing a malignant nihilism. "After viewing the museum's Kodachrome gallery of mushroom-cloud wargasms over Nevada and the South Pacific" (155), she suffers "an existential nosebleed" and "bolt[s] for the exit" (166). A desertification of the psyche induces a longing for homeland: "I feel the same ache for the Utah Desert, the same deep longing for home that had so overcome me at Trinity as I stood on the contradictory terrain of serenity and nihilism. The great abstraction of nature—physics and the tools that enabled it—lay across a gnawing chasm from our most tangible experience of nature: the land. Yet here, again, on this grand mesa, the two had coupled intimately" (165).

[32] She returns home too unsettled to stay and sets out again with her carnotite nugget in tow. On this relay she crosses the perimeter of the uté's reach onto another unknown mesa of the Colorado Plateau to Gasbuggy National Monument. She becomes acquainted with and connected to the land, as she carries her bit of local geography to history's last (or latest) test site.

[33] Relay 3: Project Gasbuggy ground-zero, New Mexico. This relay crosses ground that spills from the San Juan and La Plata Mountains into a "broad skirt of high plateaus across the border into New Mexico" (168). Though unfamiliar to Meloy, this semi-arid region extends from her homeland on the Colorado Plateau. Traveling through Apache country, once nomad lands but now the Jicarilla Reservation, she approaches Gasbuggy Monument. She expects a ground-zero of desertification, but she finds a blooming meadow: "piñon, ponderosa, and sagebrush edge up against this patch of open grassland. The meadow rolls gently—no gaping crater here, into which you could dump a few Egyptian pyramids, just sun-drenched grasses and wildflowers blooming a kaleidoscope of summer colors: blue-violet lupine, snowy -white yarrow, yellow snakeweed, purple aster, and globemallow capped with coral heads" (171). Yet, as she familiarizes herself with geophysical history, she realizes that what she is seeing is a "pastoral illusion." This monumental flowering is really a surface reclamation of the contamination of sub-strata. The ecological consequences of nuclear testing are even more invisible underground than above ground. What she sees is a positive desertification in reaction to devastation too deep to measure. Among the piñon and ponderosa, she senses "a ghost of a bomb more powerful than Trinity."

[34] Project Gasbuggy, she learns, lies within the jurisdiction of the (now defunct) Atomic Energy Commission and was the first of many subterranean tests to be administered by Operation Plowshare. A "peacetime application of the atom, Operation Plowshare ran "a bizarre series of experiments in geographic engineering" from 1957 to 1973. Drawing authority from Old Testament prophets, Plowshare waged war on the desert [xvi] in order to transform ungodly waste lands into sites of redeeming productivity:

Plowshare's goal was to 'tidy up awkward parts of the world'—obtrusive mountain ranges, unirrigated Saharas, impassable isthmuses, and other pesky inconveniences of nature—with nuclear dynamite. Plowshare, from the biblical prophecy in Isaiah in which nations turn from war and 'beat their swords into ploughshares,' used contained and cratering explosions to determine the bomb's potential for excavating canals, harbors, and highway rights-of-way, unbending rivers to sewer-line straightness, retrieving natural resources, carving underground chasms for waste or water storage, or, if anyone had suggested it seriously, blowing the ice caps off Antarctica... . All but a few of the Plowshare experiments found their proving grounds on western deserts. (173-4)

Meloy proceeds to Project Gasbuggy National Monument to bury her nugget that she believes was ultimately destined for Operation Plowshare. Erected in 1978, the Monument marks the first underground nuclear experiment in 1967 for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs. Although the Monument indicates the site, this is not the place. The place lies "about 3, 907 feet below" the earth's surface and "several hundred feet below the point of detonation" (182). The words on the Monument's plaque measure obliquely the levels of lethal radioactivity with legal limitations on local land use, exhibiting reverence for the Earth that is no more than skin-deep. Meloy, who has been sitting on the plaque as she scrutinizes her surroundings, discovers upon standing that

Nuclear explosive emplacement/Reentry Ell (GB-ER)

has been branded into the skin of her butt, which she reads as a surface symptom of deeper irradiation. Branded by geo-history, gravely burnt by the land she loves, she feels supremely displaced. With a "rootless, half-baked nomadism" (189), she takes flight not to home for refuge but to the wilderness to escape history's encroachment and contamination.

Nomad Science

[35] Between relays to ground-zero, Meloy intensifies efforts to know home better and to make familiar what has become increasingly estranging. She wages a war of her own against the desertification of desert by military-industrial machines and by federal and municipal mismanagement of land. If, as Deleuze and Guattari hypothesize, the primary goal of the nomadic war machine is not to kill and conquer one's enemies but to maintain the desert's open ground against State military and/or agricultural territoriality, then it is indeed a nomad war that Meloy wages. Like Deleuze and Guattari's nomad, Meloy dwells on the Colorado Plateau in such a way as to "make the desert grow." She practices positive desertification by understanding the working of desert ecology (its adaptive mechanism, its fluctuating speeds of fecundity and dormancy, its extremes of hot and cold intensity) and by supporting the growth of habitats that she inhabits. She deploys a science of desert dwelling that couples with the desert's ecological machinery in an attempt to hold open ground against territorializing agents such as ranchers who over-graze the desert, townspeople who fence off the mesa and suck up the river water for trim green lawns, red-neck cowboys who crush desert tortoises under big wheels, and of course, State warriors.

[36] For instruction on how to find home and hold her own ground, Meloy refers to her (semi-)nomadic neighbors. The Navajo impress her with their "intricate" and "customary land rights." "Occupancy and use, stories, family lineage, and small bundles of sacred soil bear as much authority as a courthouse deed," she observes. "They recognized land tenure but not possession, since, in the end, the land belongs to no one" (14). The Apache, especially the "mobile and elusive" Mescalero, also impress her. She sees them as "masterful tacticians in an unmerciful terrain," who deployed raiding, alongside hunting and gathering, as a form of "agriculture" and who "made sharp distinctions between raids for goods and horses (a matter of property) and warfare (the taking of lives)" (31). She stresses this distinction, noting how the "raiders paid ritualistic attention to avoiding the enemy by artful sneakiness and swift escape" (31). She, in turn, devises a make-shift nomadism that becomes native to her despite lacking genealogy and ceremony. Her nomadism, she knows, is an idiopathic experiment with roots in Western alienation, "a displacement that feels singular although it is also a distinctly regional trait" (188). By giving her property over to desert grasses and dunes and by raiding enemy territory (military range and Mormon State) for its wealth of ecological beauty, she deploys a nomad agriculture. Her other nomad sciences entail river meandering and rhizome cartography.

[37] Desert Dwelling. Meloy regards her "desert plot" as a "slut's Walden Pond." She cultivates this plot not as "its gardener" but as an "avocational meddler" whose aim is to restore desert vegetation with a survival aesthetics of "adaptive realism" (111). She does not fence off her property from "non-productive" desert; instead, she fences off the desert from over-grazed ranch land. She helps the desert recover itself, a goal that "required the eye of the vacant-lot ecologist: alertness to rapid change, rogue opportunists, and kinetic reclamation" (111). With Meloy, as with Deleuze and Guattari's nomad, "it is deterritorialization that constitutes the relation to the earth." She aids "the earth that deterritorializes itself, in a way that provides the nomad with a territory," and she nomadizes the concept and practice of reclamation. [xvii]

[38] A maverick property owner, Meloy lays down fenceposts to take back land from enemy territory and return it to the Earth. Enemy territory is land occupied by "ecological imperialists" or such agents of negative desertification as "cattlemen, the invasion of exotic plants, and the floodless floodplain, deflood for the past three decades by the big dam and other waterworks upstream" (111). Homeland is neither wild nor cultivated land but over-used troubled land in chaotic recovery. Naturally, the vegetation most able to regerminate are rhizomatic weeds and grasses, so that the land inside her fence seems positively unruly compared to the tidy gardens of town.

The world inside our fence straddled an ancient, sand- and shrub-covered river terrace, then sloped down to a cottonwood grove and grassy pasture. The land appeared raw and shaggy, strangely ascetic... . Tumbleweed, cheatgrass, and snakeweed indicated a long history of disturbance and overgrazing, and hairy, thorny, aggressive proof that nature abhors a vacuum... . As our tenure began, the land entered a weed sere best described as the Unchewed. (111-12)

If she did not give these weeds full rein "further erosion would gnaw the slope into a mass of gullies and scour the bench to dust" (111). She acts not for personal profit but for collective, ecological, benefit, knowing that these "scruffy" species might precipitate more diversified growth. "'Disturbed or 'natural,' a plant community is a dynamic entity, constantly responding to environmental changes" (111), she reflects, staking her recovery of a sense of place in the "radical change in the local plant ecology" that her "fence precipitated" (112).

[39] Her fence, however, does not block her from dwelling on/in land that surrounds her property. Nomad dwelling is a moving in and with place that, being a "dynamic entity" not a fixed foundation, is always, itself, moving. Fencing does not halt the "herd of parabolic dunes" that surges along the borders of her land. To dwell amidst "still active dunes" means to known how to recognize and adapt to their undulating and transmogrifying geomorphology. She learns to read shifting dune formations, and where among them to find the dwellings of Pueblo archeology—another form of nomad reclamation.

[40] River Meandering. Desert geology shifts, folds, creases, spreads, and so, Meloy discovers, does desert hydrology. When she is not drifting on sand dunes, she is rafting or tubing the San Juan River that also "flows by [her] home" (89). She meanders with the meandering river, letting the river carry her along. There is raiding to her meandering. For she rediscovers the San Juan's coursing through "deep time" (90) prior to its damming by "advanced hominids banded together in a hydrocult known as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation" (91). By learning the San Juan's paleontology, she extends the geographical horizon of its river bed and she throws into relief the recent and destructive territorialization of the State's dammed river. From a paleo-perspective, the San Juan is a "young river" which "established its principle drainage about ten million years ago, along with its parent river system, the Colorado" (90). The Colorado Plateau is, itself, an ongoing geo-hydrological process whose prehistory Meloy describes with time-lapse animation:

All varieties of geological episodes rejumbled the landscape: encroaching seas, retreating seas, san dunes, ever-thickening fluvial floodplains, mudflats, lagoons, swamps, more sand dunes, a great wrenching apart of North America and Europe, volcanoes, more continental drift, crustal deformations, orogenies, folding, faulting, igneous bulges, uplifts, downcuts, some chilly glaciers to the north, and millions of years of weathering erosion. (90)

In short, the Plateau is an ongoing outflow of earthworks. Fossilized records of the Triassic river, whose deep strata the San Juan now traverses, reveal a vast rhizome of intertwining tributaries and enfolding meanders. Conversely, the hydrology of the living San Juan reveals much about the river of old. With these revelations in mind, Meloy "tube[s] the Triassic" (94).

[41] Those nomad sciences that she cultivates in greatest detail are hydrology and hydraulics (xviii)—the fluid mechanics of river flow. She applies her meandering to "stalking point bars" (90), point bars being fluvial deposits that "form the insides of meanders" which are "the river's sinuosity made solid" (91). She studies the "corkscrew motion" that water makes when rounding the curves of the river and she observes it be the hydraulic machinery that compresses sediment and produces, over the long haul, those uranium deposits so richly folded into Triassic strata. For Meloy, the earth's processing of uranium defies the unearthly process by which it is mined and chemically converted into explosive anti-matter. She raids the dammed river for its wealth of geographical knowledge and experience. But she is haunted by "this nanoblip" of geophysical history: "when uranium is involved, you cannot simply float in an ambient curiosity about how various Earth forces put together and disassembled the neighborhood. Humans use uranium for bombs" (94).

[42] Rhizome Cartography. To repeat: Meloy feels displaced in home territory by history's usurping geography. To reclaim a sense of place she creates a "Map of the Known Universe." To begin with, she circumscribes her location on a 1: 250, 000 relief map of the Colorado Plateau to a manageable two hundred square miles or so around home. Next she transcribes sections of this circumscribed area, with its familiar contours, onto the folio pages of an artist's sketchbook. Having made her map "portable," she carries it with her on her relays across the desert. She aims, initially, to reclaim her desert aesthetics from the desecrations of nuclear warfare by drawing a "deep map" of home over the State grid:

A map, it is said, organizes wonder. When I created mine, I had hoped to instill more deeply the desert aesthetic that year after year reflexively seduces me. From the most quotidian, instinctive details of my environment—light, seasons, creatures, textures, moods—I would draw a revelatory oasis, passion turned into something holy" (100). [xix]

Against the grid, she invokes a nomadic idea of mapping which is "to compose one's geography in a way that makes sense of it" (134). "Long before we reduced all of creation —earthly, celestial, galactic—to a grid, people carried maps in their heads." She defers to Australian aborigines who followed the songlines of a topography that was "simultaneously story, music, and place." She also defers to the Chemehuevi Indians, "desert nomads along the Gila and Lower Colorado Rivers," who matched their location to the range and landmarks of bighorn sheep (135). She intends her own map to be "a non-European map, an antimap that revealed the red-rock through the doors of perception" (135). To heal her wounded sense of place, she intuits the need to explore the Earth more deeply and expansively than what the grid allows. "To get back on the Map, I had to pass through the surface of things. I had to be a better Arab" (144, my emphasis).

[43] Meloy treks, tubes, and drives the geographical contours of the Colorado Plateau, impressing her senses with their metamorphic morphology and geological fluidity. Locating herself in relation to natural earthworks, she foregrounds desert geography and decenters metropolitan cartography:

Europocentrically our realm lies roughly 109° west of the Greenwich Meridian and 37° north of the equator, approximately the same latitude as Tunis and Bowling Green Kentucky, the Ionian Sea and the Tibetan Plateau. Hydrologically: the midbasin of the Pacific-bound San Juan River, which draws its lifeblood from Colorado's San Juan Mountains and drainages in the four Corners region to its confluence with the Colorado River, there to contribute its bounty to the industrial farms and megalopolitan thirsts of urban Nevada, Arizona, and southern California. Physiographically: the Colorado Plateau Province, which sprawls between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. (106)

Against political boundaries that "define this place with typically overcooked linearity," she circles the Four Corners area. Her traversal of the territorial grid creates a "transversality" or knowledge-transference across discretely departmentalized earth sciences—hydrology, geology, biology, anthropology, archeology, geophysics, and geopolitics. [xx] Such traversal and transversality results in a kind of cognitive mapping. Yet, even more resonantly with deep ecology, she performs a corporeal mapping. Her Map of the Known Universe "itches" from territorial affliction. "Unsouled shapes and cruel angularities" pierce its skin. "If," she speculates, "you overlaid [home terrain] with an opaque membrane, land mines—not cactus and buttes—would bump the surface and poke through" (100). She maps not the earth's surface but the interface of sensation and affliction, or the earth's body across which she stretches a layer of sensate flesh (136).

[44] Moved by "seismic ethical disturbances," Meloy maps her relays across the desert in vectors of affect. Affected by beauty and violence both, she traverses the desert's afflicted places desiring to restore their aesthetic integrity and volte face she seeks refuge in her less damaged home front. Ultimately, she is caught in an affect-vortex that finds no refuge from affliction and no aesthetic consolation. As she deepens her exposure to the geography of nuclear history, she becomes viscerally disoriented. Over the topography of desert heartland, she draws lines of heart-stricken displacement. She is swept into a moral conundrum as she graphs geophysical ties to other affected regions: "On the Map," she reflects, "I draw lines from Tsé Valley on the Arizona-Utah border to Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, piercing en route the flying rock with the big question mark. In this rock I sense the textured darkness of a connection, a physical link with Trinity's heart and the claret cup ledges" (84-85). The "link" is one of intensity, born of vulnerability to the desert's ethical and aesthetic extremity, and to the collision of territorial mandates in this "Psychozoic" age (69). Lines of intensity stretch and multiply across the planet as she connects deserts zoned for "strategic death": the Mojave, the Great Basin, Australia's Maralinga, the African Sahara, China's Lop Nur west of the Gobi Desert, the Rajasthan in northwest India, and northeastern Kazakhstan, ground zero for the former Soviet Union (29).

[45] In the end, Meloy's "Map" is a rhizomatic tangle of connectivity and displacement with which she fails to "find home." She escapes off-map, to a high ridge on the perimeter of her familiar and beloved (now estranged and betrayed) Tsé Valley. The ridge overlooks canyon lands and the desert wilderness beyond, an infinitely receding horizon of basin and range. She prepares to throw the Map into the abyss, "aiming it at the uranium tailings pile, that broad, glow-in-the-dark wedge set down in the heart of the world's most beautiful Universe, insane and forever" (214). But on the verge of total psychotic meltdown, she is assailed by a storm over the mountains and the Map is ripped out of her hands. Delivered of all imperative to make sense and beauty out of chaos and violence, she opens to the maelstrom that tears through Self.

[46] What opens to her is not an Idea of the desert, not the desert Sublime. The "desert itself" (216) displaces "the Map's black scribblings" (216). The real desert, uranium tailings and all, emerges in the clearing of shattered Idea and Psyche. A new percept of geography displaces the void that history tries to make of it. The black smudge on the horizon is not the end of the world; it IS the desert and the desert is still becoming (evolving, adapting, growing). At this point of consummate exposure to the desert, Meloy is atomized into charged particles of positive desertification: "The juniper tree's pungent spice mixed with a shock-treatment blast of ozone. I had Reddi Kilowatt hair and a mouthful of metallic taste, as if the charged air had made my fillings into little batteries" (215). She does not experience an epiphany of desert vitality so much as the desert, literally, galvanizes her. The final clima(c)tic scene is a percept and not a perception of the post-nuclear desert, since all perspective is lost and no one view, no One's view, dominates the sight. In the wake of the Sublime, there is no organizing aesthetic subject. The view the abyss is an abyssal point of view that foregrounds desert life—fluvial, germinal, animal—or what Deleuze and Guattari call the "mechanosphere," the evolving machinery of Life:

River-polished stones, broken cliffs, skirts of talus clad in ricegrass and claret cup. Red dune fields marching to Colorado, weeds invading from Arizona. A river of inestimable grace, devout in its persistence to reach the sea. Sinuous red-rock canyons, sweet emerald jewels of springs, arroyos flowing with nothing. A sawed rib of uplifted sandstone, mountains packed together on the horizon like islands of prayer. Clay pots and wrist shells and the jumbled bones of wild geese and tender infants. The unimagined nearness of Pleistocene rain, lifting itself from subterranean bedrock to our lips. Tales of unimpeachable blessings, the path of a single life made visible. A coyote-trodden lowland with anxious rabbits and a small ditch that would overflow with the rain from this storm and, for the first time in recent memory, with the lusty song of hundreds of toads emerged from the dry desert dust, cued by the transient fury of a monsoon. (217)

[47] She pictures a radiant Earth, an Earth that absorbs and absolves the unearthly radioactivity of history with the grace of immanent life. To live, ethically, she must match her life to Earth's life. It remains for what remains of her not to marvel or despair, but to tend the desert as best she can, and to match its creative adaptation grace for grace. "Each of us has a geography of character to match a physical geography... . There was one single way to exist here, to make my way through this land with grace: take it into myself and rediscover it on my own breath" (217). [xxi]

[48] Meloy, then, deploys art (cartography, nature writing) and philosophy (the phenomenology of deep ecology) to create the percept of a "new earth and a new people," much as Deleuze and Guattari call for in "Geophilosophy." She achieves this not by synthesizing, dialectically, a negated and degraded tradition (of nomadism) with a modern Sublime aesthetics but by eroding and invading the latter with the former—that is, by displacing the Utopia of transcendence with the "becoming" of earthly immanence. She figures herself in her narrative as the Autochthon who becomes stranger to herself, her nation, her language, even as she has taken pains to become "ecologically literate": "when geography is earned, by ecological literacy, by truly knowing the inhabitants, history, and limits of one's home terrain, some new frontier arrives. A boiled lizard inspired me to cross that frontier and deepen the knowledge. When I did, I precipitated not resurrection but a collapse of faith. Was I on the verge of an apostasy of place?"(188). History estranges her home land. Consequently, she cannot return to History without becoming further estranged. Instead, she turns to geography and wanders in place until she is struck by the immanence of the Earth's own creativity. "Becoming," Deleuze and Guattari observe, "is born in History, and falls back into it, but is not of it. In itself it has neither beginning nor end but only a milieu. It is thus more geographical than historical." She becomes-skinwalker, and she practices a nomadism that sees a way to reterritorialize the desert's own deterritorializing (evolving, drifting, growing) machinery. As such, she creates a "conceptual personae" from a singular "geographical character."


If who I am is geography as well as blood, if living where I do matters, then this place too is blood and home... . I try to live here as if there is no other place and it must last forever. It is the best we can do. Everyone's home is the heartland of consequence. (84, 224 my emphasis)

[49] A deep nomadology runs through Meloy's narrative. It departs from and enfolds deep ecology into a new literary creation. We recognize folds of deep ecology in the text's language of ecstasy and revelation at the sight of wondrous earth. We can also recognize them in a language of anguish and horror with which the text views the environmental engineering of human hubris and folly. Deep ecology reveres nature at its most wild and pristine, where nature transcends such hubris and folly and lifts the seer from the malaise of human history, whereas deep nomadology drifts onto the ecocidal plains of enemy territory and risks losing all sight of transcendence. From ground-level at ground-zero of nuclear warfare, Meloy sights (and cites) the unholy interweaving of atomic geopolitics and cataclysmic bioevolution. Regarding earth's devastation with psychotic sensitivity, she reacts unreasonably. For the ethically deterritorialized, transcendence is no option. She advances and retreats across borders of oblivion and regermination. Hers is a singular, most vulnerable, effort to confront the desertification of her desert heartland.

[50] In drifting off-map of familiar, deep-ecological, territory, Meloy's nomadic narrative relinquishes a tidy lyricism of rarefied perception to a mounting chaos of unnerving contradiction. Her meditations yield less the awakenings of phenomenology (David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous comes readily to mind) or the trauma-belated insights of psychoanalysis, than painful psychotic episodes of a naive schizo-analysis. (Naive, because Meloy is no reader of Deleuze and Guattari, though she speaks to their thinking.) If "depth"—deep familiarity, deep understanding, deep connection, deep beauty—is what she desires, what she "finds" is deepening disillusionment with a Western aesthetic that, ultimately and sublimely, fails to harmonize unconscionable contraries of human judgment. She, alone, or so it maddeningly seems to her, is shocked (into restless lunacy) by the (complacent) lunacy of the State to assign wildlife refuges to the jurisdiction of cold warriors and the "Atomic Energy Commission."

[51] Lunatically, she wages a one-woman war against the State. There being no "monkey wrench gang" for her to join that is capable of dismantling the consequences of nuclear ecocide. She refers to the tactics of nomadic neighbors and predecessors. She raids enemy territory of its sanity and contaminates it with her growing psychotic malaise. She becomes a skinwalker of the earth's most wounded terrain and she maps the "seismic ethical disturbances" connecting her heartland to global deserts that have been bombed for human progress. She also deconstructs the negative concept of "desertification," best practiced not by nomads but by State military. A neo-nomad, she affirms the process by which the desert holds its ground and regenerates itself. Ultimately, she enacts and welcomes what Deleuze and Guattari describe as nomadology's primary goal: to aid the desert's own absolute deterritorialization against the State's relative devastation—in other words, to help the desert grow.

[52] Ultimately Meloy creates a crazy hybrid of deep ecology and naive nomadology. The result is a barely narratable disjunctive synthesis of lines of flight (refuge and escape) and raids on enemy territory (relays and forays into military desert occupations). Crises drive the narrative to further crises. The more she sets out to deepen her love and familiarity with home, the more she is alienated and estranged by the lunacy that occupies the desert heartlands. The answer, however, is not to transcend the crises by removing herself to an ecosystem of greater aesthetic integrity. Rather, the only option for one whose connection to the desert is one that vibrates through all the atoms of her being, is to re-conceive the desert as much greater than history and history's terrorization. To re-conceive the Earth as a place of virtually constant becoming, even in the face of actual and potential man-made devastation. For the real geography that lies beyond the Map has already absorbed the uranium tailings into its evolutionary horizon.

[53] The desert's becoming appears to Meloy only as she, with her illusions of aesthetic salvation, becomes-imperceptible to the desert—that is, when she disappears into the creative gaze of the West's most "desertified" other. The aesthetic answer to the crises is to picture the Western desert for real, nuclear blemishes and all, without the enchantment of a sublimity that would wed violence and beauty with inspired uncanniness. The ethical answer is to become-Earth, which is not the same as to "become one with the Earth" in a kind of devotional and deluded empathy with uncorrupted nature. It is to become alive and alert to the vital fact that all life is grounded in the Earth and to learn how to tend to the geography of home as if it were the only place in the world.


[i] Richard Misrach, with Myriam Weisang Misrach, Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West (Johns Hopkins UP, 1990); Richard Misrach, Violent Legacies: Three Cantos (New York: Aperture, 1992).

[ii] "Anyone familiar with the history of Western landscape studies will recognize the presence of that tradition's sublime vision in Misrach's description [and photography], with its characteristic summoning up of fear and awe in the beholder... . On the other hand, the bombs, burned-out targets, craters, abandoned tank heads and convoys that litter the landscape belong to a genre of war photography that has no traditional place in the North American West, where the battlefields of the Indian wars have a decidedly preindustrial resonance" (Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society, New York: Verso, 1995).

[iii] Ellen Meloy is author of four books on the desert ecology of the American southwest: Raven's Exile: A Season on the Green River (Tucson: U Arizona P, 1994), The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest (Tucson: U Arizona P, 1997), The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (New York: Vintage, 2002) which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild (New York: Pantheon, 2005), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award . Meloy alludes to Bravo 20 by citing its subtitle near the end of The Last Cheater's Waltz (195). Page references to Meloy's text will hereafter appear in parenthesis in my essay.

[iv] Nagatini's photo-collage is one of forty photo-collages that compose a book-length photo-essay, Nuclear Enchantment, edited by Eugenia Parry Janis (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1991).

[v] "The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space... . Whereas the migrant leaves behind a milieu that has become amorphous or hostile, the nomad is one who does not depart, does not want to depart, who clings to the smooth space left by the receding forest, where the steppe or the desert advances, and who invents nomadism as a response to this challenge... . The nomads are there, on the land, wherever there forms a smooth space that gnaws, and tends to grow, in all directions. The nomads inhabit these places; they remain in them, and they themselves make them grow, for it has been established that the nomads make the desert no less than they are made by it. They are vectors of deterritorialization. They add desert to desert, steppe to steppe, by a series of local operations whose orientation and direction endlessly vary. The sand desert has not only oases, which are like fixed points, but also rhizomatic vegetation that is temporary and shifts location according to local rains, bringing changes in the direction of the crossings... . The variability, the polyvocality of directions, is an essential feature of smooth spaces of the rhizome type, and it alters their cartography" (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1997, 381-83). I refer to this passage throughout my essay.

[vi] Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West. Los Angeles: U California P, 1994. Solnit journeys into the desert of the Nevada test-site where she notes that 935 bombs were routinely exploded over forty years (58).

[vii] According to Deleuze and Guattari, "the nomad has a territory" even though he is primarily an agent of deterritorialization. "He follows customary paths; he goes from one point to another; he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc.)... . Every point is a relay and exists only as a relay" (A Thousand Plateaus, 380).

[viii] "The war machine does not necessarily have war as its object (for example the raid can be seen as another object, rather than as a particular form of war). But more generally, we have seen that the war machine was the invention of the nomad, because it is in its essence the constitutive element of smooth space, the occupation of this space, displacement within this space, and the corresponding composition of people: this is its sole and veritable positive object (nomos). Make the desert, the steppe, grow." (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 417).

[ix] Meloy's tactic of approaching home from the "outside in" signals a significant difference between her narrative relays and Rebecca Solnit's repeat journeys to the Nevada test-site in Savage Dreams. Solnit leaves home in San Francisco to join a protest occupation by green activists at the test-site in 1992, while there was a temporary ban on testing. (She is there at the same time as Richard Misrach, whom she meets.) She walks and talks with fellow protestors, including natives and other long-term resident downwinders, whose traumatic story of exposure to Cold War arsenals is yet unknown. Solnit sets herself the task of writing and publicizing this subaltern history. Conversely, Meloy dwells in the desert. Moved by her connection to the earth itself, she tracks the historic removal of local uranium ore to Trinity ground zero to reclaim and redeem the "missing pieces" of her local geography.

[x] Mike Davis, "The Dead West: Ecocide in Marlboro Country," New Left Review (July-August 1993): 1-13.

[xi] Solnit draws attention to a similar overlapping at the Nevada test site. "The open space [of the Great Basin] had been noted [by the State] before World War II, and a good map reveals something startling: Nellis [Test Site] overlaps more than fifty percent of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1935 in what was then one of the least disturbed bighorn sheep ranges in the Southwest... . (Thus the right hand of federal government does not know what its left hand is doing: the Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged with protecting the wildlife on the same land the Air Force routinely bombs)" (Solnit, Savage Dreams, 57). Solnit, however, returns to the dialectical history of the Cold War American West and to her primary aim of recovering stories of subaltern experience.

[xii] The U.S. Geographical Survey describes "desertification" as the "degradation of formerly productive land" by the "erratic" and "not easily mappable" advance of desert through "poor land management." Areas far removed from natural desert can undergo desertification and "the presence of a nearby desert has no direct relationship to desertification." Most susceptible to desertification, however, are transition zones between desert and less arid zones where the desert border is "difficult to define" and where the ecosystem is "fragile" and "delicately balanced." The main agents of accelerated desertification are "increased human population and livestock pressure on marginal lands." Nomads are considered agents of desertification: "In some areas, nomads moving to less arid areas disrupt the local ecosystem and increase the rate of erosion of the land. Nomads are trying to escape the desert, but because of their land-use practices, they are bringing the desert with them." «http://pubs.usgs.gov/deserts/desertification/»

[xiii] Meloy cites this passage from John Hershey's Hiroshima: "'All day [the day of the bombing], people poured into Asano Park. This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the American came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate's exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also because (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves'" (85).

[xiv] "I was ready for refuge," she proclaims. "At Trinity I had discovered that my own neighborhood might be wired to the vortex of apocalyptic horror... I felt betrayed" (100).

[xv] "A dense technical vernacular arranges the engineering at a neutralizing distance from the fact that much of what graduates from these testing grounds is designed to obliterate mammalian life... . A gluey quagmire of acronyms produces brain death long before I reach their full names or hear how they work or what they do. This is brilliant security technique, I believe, since few of us would remain conscious past jargon fortresses such as GBFEL-TIE, FAADS, AMRAMMS, and ATACMS or look up from our televisions if someone burst into the room and yelled "Blast overpressure!" (nuclear attack)" (46).

[xvi] Solnit refers to the Old Testament prophets and ancient Hebrews "drifters" who wanted more than anything to transcend the earth, as opposed to nomads, who are bound to the earth and travel with it. "The Hebrews had no interest in landscape. Despite all the journeys in it, the Old Testament reads more like a train schedule than a travel book. Few other books so completely lack a sense of place... . Perhaps it was their ignorant detachment from the desert that made it a place of hardship for them ... . Whatever the cause, their minds were on higher things, a sky-god, and they thought in terms of the finite line of history rather than the endless round of the seasons and lifecycles of the earth. They were in a hurry to move on, out of Eden, out of Sodom, onto the Ark, out of Egypt, and out of Babylon, off the face of the earth" (Solnit, Savage Dreams, 65-66). Both Solnit and Meloy observe the same "transcendental" attitude to earth in the Mormon theocracy that occupies much of the territory Utah and Nevada. Meloy, however, views her own nomadism as not opposed to drifting but as that which has been affected and set adrift by the encroachment of ecological imperialists and transcendentalists. Drifting from her usual domain, she traverses enemy territory and enacts a nomad war of territorial reclamation.

[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 381.

(xviii) Nomad science uses a "hydraulic model rather than being a theory of solids treating fluids as a special case" (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 361). This is also true of Meloy's nomad science. For Meloy, the desert is to be understood as an ongoing fluid process. She understands its geology, no less than its hydrology, to be fluvial. In this light, we see uranium ore deposits in Triassic strata as resulting from fluvial meanders, which are the "river's sinuosity made solid."

[xix] Recent and related experiments in "mapping" the desert against the grid of State or the void that history (especially military history) conceives the desert to be, are those of poet, art reviewer, and nature writer, William Fox. Fox concentrates his aesthetic reclamation on Nevada and the Great Basin. See William L. Fox, Mapping the Empty: Eight Artists and Nevada (Las Vegas: U of Nevada P, 1999); —, The Void, the Grid & the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin (Las Vegas: U of Nevada P, 2000).

[xx] Guattari argues for "transversal" thinking "in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems" (The Three Ecologies, 43). By "ecosystems," he means "mental [or individual] ecology" "social [group] ecology" and "environmental [terrestrial and territorial] ecology." If ecology's first premise is that everything is connected, then to think transversally is to think ecologically in the optimal sense. Against the territorialization and departmentalization of the universe into non-communicating and hierarchical units (horizontal and vertical zonings), transversality thinks across borders and creates lines of communication. Meloy's thinking is essentially transversal. Her thinking conjoins individual ecology (a heart-stricken sense of place) with social ecology (territorial behavior and rituals of military, scientific, theocratic institutions) with environmental ecology (missile range, wildlife refuge, township, nomad lands, desert wilderness). She thinks into the "deranged jungle of ironies" of bad ecology made by the insularity and antagonism of abutting or overlapping military zones and national parks. She also thinks into view the ecological evolution of the Earth, foregrounding what is otherwise thought to be void: the desert.

[xxi] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 111.