It was not like the reaction was a total surprise to me. I had seen deserts before in photographs and movies, whether it be the Thar desert or deserts of the middle east in Indian movies, or the deserts of the American southwest in cowboy movies. Each time, I remember having a milder version of the same reaction. The reaction was just much stronger in intensity when I was finally staring at a desert in real life. How could an area become so sandy, dusty and bereft of the kind of lush greenery that makes the human heart happy? How could the people who call such a region home not do something to make it better?
I know that my perception is a pretty common one that would probably be expressed by a large majority of people who look at the desert. However, the other thing I know today is that the only reason for this state is that ignorance is also a pretty common trait in a large majority of people. In my ignorance, I was looking at the landscape from a completely human-centric view. The only reason humans find lush topography more appealing is because of our arboreal roots. There is nothing intrinsically "better" about a tropical landscape when human preference is taken out of the equation. The mistake I think we humans make is that we think of the desert the same way we think of a concrete jungle. They both lack the kind of greenery that appeals to most humans. So we assume they are both barren areas, lacking the kind of diverse biological life that could be found in thick forests or woods.
It takes a closer look to realize that the desert is nothing like a concrete jungle. The desert is literally buzzing and teeming with life. I was fortunate enough in my life to have come to this realization. Yes, the scarcity of water may have driven this life to evolve in a direction that we humans need to take a second look to notice. But once you see it, it is everywhere. Saguaros, prickly pears, creosote bush, pinyon pines, cactii, agaves, palms, mesquites, cottontails, jackrabbits, bighorn sheep, rock squirrels, lizards, tortoises, rattlesnakes, spiders, scorpions, wrens, ravens, swallowtails, the list is endless.
It is the Sonoran desert that I need to thank for my realization. It happened very quietly and very slowly. In my several visits to Arizona, my eyes opened gradually to the beauty of the landscape. I can't even remember when it was that the rugged majesty of it all finally sunk in fully. Between April 2004 to December 2006, I flew to Tucson somewhere between 15 to 20 times. Two of those visits were monthlong vacations. I drove around a bit during all those visits, not just in the Sonoran desert in and around Tucson, but also around Arizona. I visited places like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. I took a detour through scenic Sedona rather than take the interstate to Flagstaff. I've come to love the geography of the entire state so much that it has become one of my favorite regions of the world.
Would I want to live there? I don't know. It is a very harsh environment for humans. We humans got very used to technology, and wouldn't survive too long in the wild. In case the technological infrastructure breaks down, the desert would be one of the least forgiving of the wild environs out there. There is also a second reason I hesitate. The tenacity displayed by life adapted to the desert may give one the false impression that the desert is a very resilient environment. In fact, deserts are very fragile ecosystems. Life does thrive in them amidst unbelievable odds, but it takes very little effort by humans to change that from unbelievable to insurmountable.
Not that humans can't do this or aren't doing this in other places. We do have the tenacity and will to destroy life wherever we find it. We would just have to work that much harder to destroy a rainforest, is all.
Also, the rainforests and the pandas of the world have a slight advantage when it comes to appealing to the human heart. Deserts, like reptiles or arachnids, are the ugly stepchildren. The people who look at the desert and see nothing but empty wasteland are everywhere. Just turn on the TV and have a look at any extreme sports channels. There may be some human powered options like snowboarding or skateboarding, but pretty soon you'll come across folks in heavily modified motorized vehicles either trying to set some speed record or careen down impossible grades. The most common places for such activities are either playas or canyonsides. Desert races like the Baja 1000 consider their courses to be relatively barren terrain. Barren? The desert?
This disdain for the desert has a long history that precedes the recent ORV craze. Most governments conduct their nuclear weapons testing and other military operations in deserts. Got a shitload of radioactive waste to dispose of? Why, there's all that desert! I am ashamed to think that at one point in my life, I have shared this view.
Not anymore. Today, I cannot see a desert in the world and not think it is beautiful. Yes, even Antarctica. I recently happened to watch some video footage of Rajasthan after a long time. I saw the dusty Thar desert against the Aravalli mountains in the background, and was struck by how stunningly beautiful it looked. An old friend who went to BITS Pilani for his undergraduate degree used to rave about the beauty of the Thar desert. I used to think he was a nut. Turns out I was right. It takes a special kind of nut to love the desert. But it feels good to be one.