In Desert Notebooks, author Ben Ehrenreich ponders the future through the lenses of climate change, the desert, mythology, time — and Las Vegas
In January 2018, Ben Ehrenreich packed up his car and left his home in Joshua Tree to spend the next few months living in downtown Las Vegas on a fellowship with the Black Mountain Institute. During his residence, Ehrenreich journaled his thoughts about life in the desert in the 21st century, and these thoughts became Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint, $26). The fellowship seems to have been a mixed blessing; it gave him the resources he needed to write the book, but it also obligated him to live in a city that filled him with anxiety and despair.
Like almost everyone these days, Ehrenreich can’t shake the feeling that we are hurtling toward the apocalypse. Every time he checks the news, he sees another report about violent uprisings in the Middle East or disappearing glaciers in the Arctic Circle. “The plots of every science fiction novel published since the 1960s are unfurling all at once,” he writes. Although composed before the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, Ehrenreich’s book resonates powerfully with our current moment, in which the prospect of a shining, prosperous future has, for many, been replaced by visions of ruins and wastelands. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that William Butler Yeats’s hundred-year-old poem “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) has recently become more famous than ever before.
Desert Notebooks criticizes the Western myths of urban, industrial, and technological “progress” and recommends instead the restorative properties of the wilderness. Ehrenreich combines his personal observations about the American Southwest with a wide range of references to his readings about the history of time. The result is a compendium of short, fascinating anecdotes about Native American mythology, Middle Eastern history, Enlightenment philosophy, and modern literature. The traditions of the Mohave and Chemehuevi people are especially important to Ehrenreich, who argues that we have lost and overlooked valuable stories about how to conform our lives to the natural rhythms of the desert — a landscape that “shrinks you and puts eternity in the foreground.”
Rather than a sustained narrative, Desert Notebooks presents disconnected snippets of text — some as long as several pages, some as short as a single sentence — that describe personal excursions, summarize news reports, and relate historical curiosities. While the subject matter occasionally becomes academic (the works of the philosopher Walter Benjamin are such a big touchstone that Ehrenreich begins dreaming about him), this anecdotal form makes for a breezy drive down the road to doomsday.
And for those who enjoy exploring our national parks and wilderness reserves, Ehrenreich’s book offers beautiful descriptions of the local flora and fauna and of the feelings of serenity and eternity that often accompany treks through the desert. But lovers of Las Vegas may be disappointed by his sustained distaste for a city he characterizes as “a brutal, gleaming, plasticized absurdity.” Leaving the city each weekend, often for California, he records dreading his returns to a place that he perceives as “vibrating with despair.”
In one such trip to San Francisco, Ehrenreich visits his mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, who is the author of Nickel and Dimed, a bestselling book about the difficulties of working-class life in America. Given that connection, it’s a shame that Ben Ehrenreich didn’t seem to talk with any of the millions of folks making a living in Las Vegas. They might have expanded his sense of what it means to inhabit this desert city. Instead, Ehrenreich mostly kept inside his Downtown apartment, checking the news, and reading up on the Enlightenment, emerging only to pop in earbuds and jog past decaying buildings and homeless camps. No wonder it felt like the end of the world.
Nevertheless, Ehrenreich’s contempt for our commercial age is often compelling. He doubtless embraces his role as a voice crying out in the wilderness (often against the president of the United States, whom he repeatedly and exclusively refers to as “the Rhino”). A fierce protector of this wilderness, he astutely observes that “most of us still see only two options for the desert: dig it up or blow it up.” This certainly applies to the mining and military legacies of Nevada. Ehrenreich’s attempt to offer a counterhistory — with informational vignettes on topics such as the Native American Ghost Dance of the 1890s — presents a very different way of thinking about our place in space and in time.
My own scholarly work on end-of-the-world fantasies in American literature convinces me that we have always anxiously anticipated apocalyptic scenarios. The United States was conceived as a “new” nation devoted to progressive, Enlightenment values. But progress is rarely unlimited. Just as frontier expansion ended with the settlement of these desert areas at the turn of the last century, Western writers imagined that a much greater catastrophe was imminent. Arizona became the last contiguous state admitted to the Union, in 1912; in that same year, Jack London’s short novel The Scarlet Plague described a pandemic swiftly reducing the global population to just a few hundred souls. In 2020, our anxieties remain the same. As Ehrenreich notes, the Doomsday Clock has been set closer than ever before to midnight.
Of all the historical anecdotes in Desert Notebooks, the best is about Martial Bourdin, who in 1894 attempted to blow up the Greenwich Royal Observatory in England, home of the prime meridian and Greenwich Mean Time. Bourdin was unsuccessful — he managed only to blow up himself — but his action was considered mysterious by the authorities. It appeared to be an act of terrorism (and inspired Joseph Conrad to write his 1907 novel The Secret Agent), but why would anyone target an observatory? It was, concludes Ehrenreich, as if Bourdin’s enemy was time itself.
John Hay is an associate professor of English at UNLV and author of Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature.