Tales of the Desert, Hot and Cold Four Travel Writers Touch and Taste as They Explore Varied Environments and a Range of Personal Experiences to Offer Readers an Entertaining and Informative Mixture

By Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N. Y., teaches fine arts . | The Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1993 | Go to article overview

Tales of the Desert, Hot and Cold Four Travel Writers Touch and Taste as They Explore Varied Environments and a Range of Personal Experiences to Offer Readers an Entertaining and Informative Mixture


Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N. Y., teaches fine arts ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DANGEROUS: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ZUNI INDIANS By Barbara Tedlock, Viking, 336 pp., $23.

DESERT TIME: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST By Diana Kappel-Smith, Little, Brown & Co., 262 pp., $22.95.

CITIES OF GOLD: A JOURNEY ACROSS THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST IN PURSUIT OF CORONADO By Douglas Preston, Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $25.

THE CRYSTAL DESERT: SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA By David G. Campbell, Houghton Mifflin, 308 pp., $21.95.

SALMAGUNDI: a meal composed of a little of this and a little of that. In a new batch of travel books, this notion has become an organizing principle. Rather than integrating their observations into a grand repast, writers are now putting out nibblers.

The fragmentary approach to description is not merely another idle entertainment fad. It is a philosophy that sanctions cozy, colloquial fare. How far we have come from the flinty judgmental stance of authors like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, who initiated the current vogue for travel literature. In the 1970s, these travel writers stood above the fray, casting a stern eye on the cultures below. In the 1990s, authors have begun to mingle with the crowd and sample the street food.

For example , Barbara Tedlock defines her journal of life with the Zuni people of New Mexico as a venture in what anthropologists call "narrative ethnography."

Tedlock rejects the dispassionate observation of traditional anthropological field work, which requires the student of non-Western cultures to develop human relationships and then systematically depersonalize them for the sake of science. This book, drawn from her early graduate work among the Zuni in the 1970s, has none of that wintry indifference.

Instead, Tedlock recounts Zuni religion, myth, medicine, art, and nature lore in the unhurried, informal way that one would learn it through everyday existence within a family. Tedlock's admiration for Zuni life is palpable, yet she does not disguise ugly moments of violence and alcoholism. The incidentals of her host family's life, like sheep-raising, deer-hunting, vegetable-gardening, and child-rearing, which other anthropologists might judge too anecdotal for objective social science, are scattered throughout her text.

Indeed, much of the book is rendered in dialogue with her host family. The technique honors the extent to which Tedlock's knowledge of the Zuni outlook originated in the roundabout, open-ended character of personal conversation.

Similarly, New England naturalist Diana Kappel-Smith speaks about being satisfied with "partial, elusive, fragmentary answers." Her scientific exploration of the deserts of the American Southwest is permeated with a sense that one must not pen a natural history that is indifferent to the people living in the landscape. Her report easily shifts from data about biotic groups to depictions of human communities.

In one chapter, she wittily details the thorny realm of desert plants. In another she contemplates discarded hopes of desert ghost towns. Her visit to the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona intermingles the natural history of the saguaro cactus and ocotillo plant with a portrayal of the pressures modern life has put on the O'odham people.

Despite her clear-eyed assessment of loss both in the human and natural worlds, Kappel-Smith is committed to a belief that though deserts and desert life change, they will yet endure. That perspective is best exemplified in her pilgrimage to the sacred cave of the O'odham high in the hills outside Tucson, Ariz. In a kind of altar alcove, she finds votive objects left by other visitors. Traditional offerings like candles, corn cobs, and seed pods vie with more recent contributions like baseball hats and teddy bears. But the cave, and its significance to the O'odham, persist.

"Desert Time" is aptly titled. We glimpse moments of experience, rendered both in words and in conscientious line drawings. …

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