The Twentynine Palms Highway snakes its way into the southern edge of the Mojave Desert through the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Angled at a low incline, it ascends gradually to high desert country. In Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, the journalist Ben Ehrenreich writes that every time he traversed this route, he would feel the tension fade away.
When I first drove up the road a few years ago, I too, in a way, felt at home. Driving through the foothills of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, I was reminded of a similar spot on a desert highway at the other end of the planet, in Pakistan’s southernmost province of Sindh—the place I call home. It was a site I had driven past all my life, on the long journey from the port city of Karachi to my ancestral village. There was nothing melodramatic about it: two hillocks flanking the M9 motorway as it curved through them. But the scene caught my attention as a child and continues to fascinate me to this day.
I encountered the same uplifting feeling, subtle beauty, and sense of awe on the Twentynine Palms Highway, heading north from Interstate 10, past Desert Hot Springs, and towards Morongo Valley. This was just one of many areas in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts where I found the terrain, flora, climate, and overall feel of the place to be strikingly similar to that of Sindh. In the bright afternoon light, the largely uneventful, brownish-yellow landscape, dotted with shrubs, felt unexpectedly familiar and close to home; I saw plants that are common in Sindh, like the tamarisk and mesquite trees. These parallels between two distant lands, and their play on the senses, would lure me back to the American Southwest again and again.
Ehrenreich’s desert, too, is steeped in parallels: “Remember that all roads are connected,” he declares. Among the many forgotten old texts that he refers to in Desert Notebooks is that of the seventeenth-century philosopher and mystic Jacob Boehme. In The Signature of All Things (1621), Boehme echoes the suggestion of the sixteenth-century alchemist, physician, and astrologer Paracelsus that all things are connected via a divine set of principles and thus interwoven into the fabric of the universe.
Desert Notebooks is many things at once. It is a memoir; a travelogue; a commentary on the environment; and an urgent inquiry into our understanding of the very concepts of time, history, and progress. It is written in the form of a notebook—as the title suggests—or a diary, spanning the course of three years from 2017 to 2019, in Joshua Tree, Las Vegas, Landers, an unnamed European country, and during short trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Spain.
While stargazing one evening outside a rented cabin in Joshua Tree, Ehrenreich undergoes something of an epiphany. His study of the stars over the course of winter had led to a deeper understanding of the universe and our place within it. He now viewed the concept of time in the same way that the Mayans, Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, and Native Americans had done long before him: cyclical as opposed to linear, and inextricably linked to nature. “Time is motion. It favors circles, spirals, ellipses,” he reflects.
The very different sort of timekeeping that we are familiar with today, however, is a product of the Industrial Revolution—the 1790s, specifically—when time was first used to organize the daily work hours of factory employees and as the basis of their pay. “Moments of inactivity were suddenly transformed into something that would have been nonsensical a few years earlier: a ‘theft of time’ that vigilant managers strived to guard against,” while “leisure…was refigured as waste.” This usage of time as a tool to control people’s lives coincided with the advent of the coal-powered steam engine, and industrialized societies began spewing carbon dioxide into the air, triggering a process of climate change.
The harnessing of time for capitalist purposes; the belief that history is a single, linear path traveling toward a state of perfection; the pursuit of what we define as progress; and the resulting environmental degradation are all connected, Ehrenreich argues. He traces the modern notion of progress back to a speech made in 1750 by the French political economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who placed Western civilization at the zenith of human achievement and downplayed the importance of those that had preceded it, dismissing them as mere steps on the evolutionary ladder of progress. Hegel would echo this belief in 1830, when he asserted, “World history travels from East to West; for Europe is the absolute end of history.” It was, at its core, observes Ehrenreich, “a highly parochial and amnesiac variety of chauvinism, a way of celebrating European dominance by anchoring it in time.” It is worth noting that Turgot’s subsequent policies as finance minister under Louis XVI resulted in famine and widespread riots, and helped create the conditions that would lead to the French Revolution.
In response to Turgot’s dismissal of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “savages,” Ehrenreich cites a letter from Francisco Pizzaro, the conqueror of Peru, to King Charles V, describing the Inca capital of Cuzco as being “so beautiful” and having “such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.” Likewise, Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire, “apologized to the same monarch that he did not have the literary skills to adequately describe the marvels of Tenochtitlan [the Aztec capital], with its temples and wide causeways rising from the waters of Lake Texcoco, its fragrant gardens, great public squares, markets filled with riches.” Cortes wrote that he was “unable to comprehend their reality.”
As European societies grew wealthier and more technologically advanced, they rewrote history in an attempt to justify their dominance. Ancient Greece was cast as a paragon of civilization in a makeover so radical that the Greeks’ contemporaries would never have recognized it, while ancient Egypt, which had been revered, was now reviled as “a stagnant mire of corrupt and monstrous superstition.”
Yet Ehrenreich argues that the very things Western civilization identifies as its distinguishing traits—like science and reason— are in fact borrowed from a long-overlooked work known as the Hermetic corpus, a series of texts believed to have been written in Egypt in the early centuries of the first millennium. In the Hermetic corpus, “theology, cosmology, magic and the seeds of what we would now call science—astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics—are inseparably linked.” The texts also proved to be a valuable source of reference during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. From the eighteenth century onwards, however, the Hermetic corpus was neglected, “like a forgotten continent,” until it was revisited in the mid-twentieth century by historians like Frances Yates in her work Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964).
If we have lost our way over the millennia, Ehrenreich insists, there is no reason why we cannot revisit our lost histories and use them to forge “other ways of thinking, living, seeing.” He quotes Smohalla, a nineteenth-century prophet of the Wanapum tribe, who urged his people to give up all agricultural work and distance themselves from the ways of the white settlers, “because men who work cannot dream.”
Before adopting erroneous notions of time and progress, Ehrenreich argues, humans had once led freer and more satisfied lives and demonstrated an advanced knowledge of astronomical events. The clues to some of this ancient wisdom are carved into the rocks of the Mojave Desert. In 1980, archaeologists discovered petroglyphs at the base of the Providence Mountains, in the heart of what was once Chemehuevi Indian territory. They functioned as a clock, or a calendar of sorts, that measured time on the basis of the cycle of the sun and stars. The site was referred to as Womb Rock, because the carvings depicted two vulvas. The ancient Chemehuevi myths believed to be associated with these petroglyphs revolve around a matriarchal family structure: the stories always begin with a woman, or a single mother.
Interestingly, the patriarchal figures in these myths are portrayed as hostile, or driven by carnal desire, and are depicted either by the sun, which impregnates the woman with its rays, or supernatural immortals like Coyote or Snake. The women’s male offspring too turn against them and, in the name of honor, commit matricide—in one case, after seeing their mother and Snake “enraptured and entwined.” The stories are otherworldly and eerie, almost evil, and are described by the author as “a Jungian analyst’s dream.” They were told to the ethnographer Carobeth Laird by her husband, George Laird, the grandson of a legendary Chemehuevi chief.
Some of these myths, like the tale of Snake, take on a symbolic significance when viewed in the context of recent events. They seem to warn against temptation and greed. Ehrenreich mentions a company called Anaconda whose mining practices led to arsenic and uranium contamination in the water around Yerington, Nevada. Thousands of migratory snow geese died after landing in the toxic waters of an open pit left behind by the company. Like Snake, who seduced the mother and brought about her demise, Anaconda wreaked havoc on its surroundings. This story has another ironic twist to it, and an uncanny connection to the author. Anaconda had once employed several of the Ehrenreichs’ forebears, including his grandfather, who in his later years, after developing dementia, “became obsessed with the solar system” and spent his time producing detailed sketches of it.
Ehrenreich provides a glimpse of the sophistication of indigenous cultures when he sheds light on the Mohave Indians’ “attentiveness to dreams and their general sexual openness…[which] made them uniquely insightful about extrarational states, and empathetic to those who suffered from even the most floridly antisocial psychiatric conditions.” He refers to the work of ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux, who lived among the Mohave in the 1930s—“nowhere else in the world had Devereux felt so much at ease, and so at home”—and authored Mohave Ethnopsychiatry and Suicide. According to Devereux, mental illness did not carry any stigma in Mohave culture, which frowned upon the practice of confining individuals to mental asylums.
The desert, for Ehrenreich, is a place where all the concepts discussed in the book converge. It is where “the vitality of natural and celestial objects” and the cycle of life and death can be observed, and a place where “progress” has left an indelible mark. The latter, in particular, is identified with Las Vegas, where the author moves from Joshua Tree for a fellowship. His early morning jogs on the pavements of the city and hikes in desert canyons give us the impression that he is searching for traces of Joshua Tree in Las Vegas: “I kept telling myself it’s the same desert, only paved.” He picks up on the slightest similarities, such as flora, during a hike in Sloan Canyon.
On the outskirts of Las Vegas, Ehrenreich observes that “the desert was being devoured to make way for new construction.” Similarly, the two hillocks that I once enjoyed driving past on the M9 motorway in Sindh have, of late, also been devoured by a housing development built by the country’s military. A highway interchange now runs over them and the area is no longer recognizable.