The System

Desert Oracle

9780374139681 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2020
read an excerpt

The cult-y pocket-size field guide to the strange and intriguing secrets of the Mojave—its myths and legends, outcasts and oddballs, flora, fauna, and UFOs—becomes the definitive, oracular book of the desert

For the past five years, Desert Oracle has existed as a quasi-mythical, quarterly periodical available to the very determined only by subscription or at the odd desert-town gas station or the occasional hipster boutique, its canary-yellow-covered, forty-four-page issues handed from one curious desert zealot to the next, word spreading faster than the printers could keep up with. It became a radio show, a podcast, a live performance. Now, for the first time—and including both classic and new, never-before-seen revelations—Desert Oracle has been bound between two hard covers and is available to you.

Straight out of Joshua Tree, California, Desert Oracle is “The Voice of the Desert”: a field guide to the strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and aliens, authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros, out there in the sand. Desert Oracle is your companion at a roadside diner, around a campfire, in your tent or cabin (or high-rise apartment or suburban living room) as the wind and the coyotes howl outside at night.

From journal entries of long-deceased adventurers to stray railroad ad copy, and musings on everything from desert flora, rumored cryptid sightings, and other paranormal phenomena, Ken Layne's Desert Oracle collects the weird and the wonderful of the American Southwest into a single, essential volume.

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An excerpt from Desert Oracle

From the Introduction:

Desert is wilderness stripped bare, and when left alone is creation in perfection. The landscape is vast and visible, the geology raw and exposed, the plants and animals in ideal proportion. Fresh water is generally in limited supply, but that has never stopped life from thriving in lands of little rain. Our own species has always been fond of these harsh, arid places. The first civilizations rose up from desert sands: Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley. The wilderness of antiquity was wild desert. And that’s where our philosophers and prophets went to meditate on mountaintops, to abandon society for a while and sleep under the stars or within limestone caves.

There were many river-valley civilizations in the North American desert, too, before our current mess of outlet malls and cell towers and interstates: the Hohokam in the Salt River Valley, beneath modern Phoenix; the ancient Pueblo culture of the Four Corners. The Taos Pueblo is a rare unbroken link to those varied pasts. Despite the plastic letters on the gas stations and the same banal television programming beamed or streamed into every home, Taos is more or less as it was when Hernando de Alvarado arrived some five centuries ago, and as it had been centuries earlier, when the Roman church was still struggling to Christianize the diverse peoples of Europe. Through a combination of accident and intent, much of the American desert remains mostly intact, mostly wild. The accident was in the claiming of so much American territory by the U.S. federal government in the mid-1800s, actions taken to prevent competing claims and occupation by Spain, Mexico, France, England, Russia, all our old imperial rivals. Places with surface water attracted settlers, despite the heat and sandstorms and scorpions, while the vast walls of mountains and expanses of dry lakes and valleys were spared much permanent development. This was followed by dramatic efforts to preserve and protect these desert ecosystems as national parks and monuments and federally designated wilderness, actions inspired by the nature mystics of American transcendentalism.

In the twenty-first century, conservationists aim to save what they can of entire ecosystems, and not just photogenic islands of flora and fauna surrounded by industrial mining and eroded cattle range. Even without the dense forests we associate with the crucial storage of carbon on this planet, wild desert forms an immense “carbon sink” over a third of our planet’s landmass, from the ancient aquifers beneath the parched surface to the vast networks of microbiotic crust that bind the desert together.

This is a simplified explanation to a complex question— Why is so much of the American desert held in public trust?—and is not intended to negate the intentional horrors visited upon indigenous cultures, the wide-scale extermination of desert species, or the determined efforts today by humanity-hating fanatics to reverse our limited protections of this earthly paradise. When you are in the great desert wilderness, you must carry some understanding of why it’s still that way, why it’s so contrary to the numbing sprawl of our current civilization. It’s the way it is because people spent lifetimes fighting to keep it that way, suffering more defeats than victories, because when you love a place that is what you do.

  • “The desert is a powerful cocktail of breathtaking beauty, brutality, and mystery. Layne serves it straight-up in this collection of essays dedicated to his cherished, arid homeland . . . [Desert Oracle] is a soulful love letter to the rugged landscape of the American Southwest. Layne implores readers to preserve and protect the enigmatic and wild desert. Reading this book is like swapping tales around the campfire under a star-filled sky.”

    —Michelle Ross

  • “If you’re a fan of UFOs and insane heat, this is your book.”

    - Kirkus Reviews, Booklist
  • “With his succinct, descriptive, narrative-driven prose, Layne creates a fascinating homage to the beauty of an often unforgiving landscape.” 

    - Publishers Weekly