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Desert Lifescaping

Author Phyllis Barber and her book The Precarious Walk: Essays from Sand & Sky.

From her Boulder City upbringing to her Mormon adulthood, writer Phyllis Barber has always been a ‘creature’ of the desert

As a kid, Phyllis Barber fell from her bike onto a dirt road near Boulder City, dust and pebbles embedding in the skin of her thighs, “blood and gravel tangling together until I couldn’t tell what was my leg and what was the desert” — which was only the most blatant of the many ways this arid landscape (not to mention falling) became a part of her. It took hold in more crucial, long-term, life-altering ways, too, which is a lot of — but not nearly all of — what her new book, The Precarious Walk: Essays from Sand and Sky, is about.

Barber will be familiar to some readers from 1992’s How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir, part of the contemporary Nevada canon. She’s since written two follow-up memoirs, Raw Edges and To the Mountain: One Mormon Woman’s Search for Spirit. The pieces collected here source from across that same time span, and bear on some of the same concerns: growing up in the deserts around Boulder City and Las Vegas; being the daughter of a mother disappointed by the smallness of her life; an unabashed love of music and dance; leaning into and cautiously away from her inherited Mormon faith.

Wherever these essays roam, the desert is never far from Barber’s mind, and the first section of The Precarious Walk is devoted to it. She recalls her Boulder City childhood, thrilled that she could say “dam” all the time, testing the mouthfeel of a swear word signifying damnation. Visiting the dam, she scanned its smooth surfaces for lumps marking bodies in the concrete. Years later, a bike ride to the ruins of St. Thomas finds her musing on history — her great-great grandfather was among St. Thomas’ first settlers — ecology, hydrology (“A land short on water, but the word short is too generous”), and more. Austere, unpredictable, scoured to some eternal essence by erosion, for Barber the desert can’t help but be immanent with spirit. “Of course there is another world,” the poet Max Ritvo once wrote. “But it is not elsewhere.” And so, filtered through the memories of old sermons and church teachings, for her this landscape “explains God, heaven, and hell with no words, no scriptures, no ideologies.”

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Barber’s writing is often sharp: Of Boulder City she writes, “One could almost smell the town’s respectability.” Yes! Exactly! Now and then a cliché gums things up: “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” A few times, she tries to match the mythic resonance of the desert by affecting a poetic viscosity that sometimes intensifies the reading experience but occasionally gels her sentences into awkward shapes. I didn’t hate it; your tolerance may vary.

The second section is more miscellaneous, with travels and portraits — “The Knife Handler” is a particularly affecting account of attending church with a rural Southern artisan she’s just met  — and lots of dancing. She compulsively visits churches. In an essay about writing, she’s particularly good in the way that the writer and her material conspire to devise the self that will write that material.

What coheres all this is the presence — up close or at a remove, but always there — of her faith. If, as I do, you flinch when someone talks directly and unapologetically about his or her belief in God — if you’d just rather not hear it — consider yourself warned. But not warned away. Throughout, Barber is upfront about her spirituality, but never dogmatic. Indeed, while we’re right to be skeptical of religion’s role in America these days — it often seems to exist mostly to apply a Biblical shimmer to the necrotizing politics of the right — Barber shows how, at the individual level, it can bestow dimensionality to one’s life and perceptions. And she exhibits an appealing independence of spirit. The title essay finds her straining against the received dictates of her LDS upbringing; she will always question her way toward the divine, wherever that takes her: “It was necessary and compulsory to find my way to God by myself.” So she will consult with shamans in South America, attend a Gullah church in South Carolina, and play piano for a Baptist congregation in backwoods Arkansas. She’s familiar with the Eastern texts. At no point does the reader feel Barber is busking for her church; she’s making room within a system she wants to belong to, but on her own terms.

From an anecdote about tumbling bloodily into a mountain stream, “The Art of Falling” builds into an extended riff on the many meanings of “falling.” Falling down. Falling from grace. Falling in love. Falling off of a motorcycle, as she once did, the whole essay capillary with gradients of meaning, building to her implied challenge: What’s more important about a fall, the hard landing — or that fleeting instance of suspended gravity when you’re aloft with the birds and the angels? What can you pull from that moment to make it worth the splat?

To the extent that she’s able to answer that question, she has the desert to thank. Because of it, she tells us, “I’m a creature who has found a way to live in the midst of challenges.” Φ

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Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.