STRETCHES of desolate sand dunes, dry lakes, distant buttes shimmering in the heat--this is what most people picture when they think of "the desert." Thus it might seem appropriate that the word "desert" comes from a Latin word meaning "abandoned." In reality the deserts are anything but abandoned. All of them contain native plants, animals and even humans, as well as some of the world's most awe-inspiring scenery.
It is now commonplace to meet people who have been enchanted, even overwhelmed, by the desert's magnificence. They are the fortunate ones who have truly experienced the desert, rather than having quickly passed through it, and who have come to understand what the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry felt when he wrote: "The love of the Sahara, like love itself, is born of a face perceived and never really seen."
The desert's many moods and quiet mystery, the bizarre ways in which plants and animals are adjusted to living in it, are all fascinatingly portrayed in this volume of the LIFE Nature Library. It provides a solid introduction for those who are not personally acquainted with deserts, as well as a great deal of information for those who may already be familiar with one or more of the dozen principal deserts of the world.
During the past two decades, partly as an outcome of wartime and postwar events, there has been a tremendous increase in man's interest in the arid lands. Many broad problems common to all deserts are being investigated in the biological, physical and social sciences. These range from questions as general in their economic implications as our "fossil" ground water, which may be on the order of 25,000 years old, to the intricate evolution of water balance in tiny desert kangaroo mice, which have already solved the problem of living without ever taking a drink of water. Much of this information has not yet reached the general public, and in this book Dr. Leopold has done an outstanding job of presenting a large amount of such new knowledge in a clear and lucid manner.
The desert is man's future land bank. Fortunately, it is a large one, offering eight million square miles of space for human occupation. It is also fortunate that it is a wondrously rich bank, which may turn green when man someday taps distilled sea water for irrigation. Bridging the gap from sea to desert will be greatly facilitated by the geographical nearness of most of the world's deserts to the oceans.
When this occurs it will surely be one of the greatest transformations made by man in his persistent and successful role in changing the face of the planet. Indeed, an ultimate result of this role could be, to many, a far less fascinating world to live in--a completely domesticated earth.
CHARLES H. LOWE JR.
Professor of Zoology
The University of Arizona