In Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert, we arrive with author Susan J. Tweit in her new landscape, so named by explorer John Russell Barlett in 1856. Her husband's job has brought them and their young daughter to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Raised in the Midwest and recently moved from her familiar and loved landscape of Wyoming, Tweit is determined to like her new home. She looks around: "Here is a spacious landscape, indeed, I said to myself cheerfully. But deeper inside a voice wailed, 'It's so brown! And so hot!'" That night, alone in a motel room, Tweit cries herself to sleep.
So begins this poignant journey, as Tweit transforms her despair into a detailed exploration of her new home. We walk with her through the desert, and learn every new creature and cactus. Written with gritty honesty, the book doesn't shy away from the tougher topics, artfully weaving the historical roots and current events into her narrative, addressing such issues as spadefoot toads, storm sewers, and the disappearance of the grizzly.
No reader will forget her essay "Weeds," in which Tweit follows the explosion of tumbleweeds and their aftermath in the social and political terrain of the West and compares this with the experience of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest today. Weaving together past and present, land and people, Tweit begins with the death of an undocumented immigrant along a busy highway outside of Las Cruces, NM. "As they zipped by in their air-conditioned vehicles, passers-by could not have missed seeing the man as he stood just a few yards from the road, growing increasingly delirious from hunger and thirst." What makes such a thing possible? "When does a weed become a problem, something that we root out, spray with herbicides, destroy? When do we tolerate or ignore some people and then suddenly focus our fear and hatred on them?" Tweit conveys the complexities of this history with insights that illuminate the darkness that often surrounds these ideas.
As Tweit comes to know the land, its people and their stories, she finds commonalities with her own and her husband's heritage. She and Richard read faded journal entries from the past, which provide strength in their present. New rhythms enrich their lives, rhythms of pilgrimage, sanctuary, and ultimately, peace.
This was a fascinating journey for me, because I grew up in the Sonoran desert, not so far away. Where Tweit initially cringed at the aridity and brown, these traits have always been aspects of my beloved desert. To read the experience of one new to this landscape gave me new understandings and insights. This book is a journey for all, whether newly arrived or born to the desert.
Throughout this collection of essays, we come to know, not only the land, its plants and animals, its blend of cultures to create a culture of its own, the culture of the border, la frontera, but we also come to intimately know Tweit herself. "This terrifyingly hot and dry landscape, with its strange plants, animals, and human cultures, has taught me about myself," she writes. "Home, I have learned, comes from within." It is in sharing her "within" that Tweit takes us on the most treasured journey of all: that of one woman creating her place in the world.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Susan J. Tweit is the award-winning author of twelve books (including her memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, and Colorado Scenic Byways, winner of the Colorado Book Award), numerous magazine articles, and newspaper columns. Visit her website.
Check out our interviews (here & here) with the author of Barren, Wild, and Worthless.
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