he desert borderland of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, the pimería alta, emboldens and challenges the tired format of photographs in that, when looking at photographs of this place and of these people, you must also hold the photographs up to your ears.

        When you look at this desert world, so much of it is so bright, so many times you have to close your eyes.  When you close your eyes, typically, you are resting, you are going to sleep, and in sleep you dream.  Stepping out into the desert world, stepping out into light, closing your eyes: you are stepping into dream.  You look at this world, if only for a moment, with your eyes and with your imagination both.  That is what the desert is, and what border defines.  You become a part of this place in that instant, complicit in its landscape, a partner to its vistas. 

        The ancient Irish alphabet, the
beth-luis-nion alphabet, was based in looking at the world in similar fashion.  This alphabet was not humankind's making.  We did not impose an alphabet on the world.  Rather, this alphabet was in the world, in nature.  You learned to look for what nature was telling you, rather than the reverse.  beth-luis-nion means "birch-rowan-ash," three trees that grow in what the ancient Irish believed were the three seasons, and are part of a larger tree alphabet.

        Understanding the predictable angles of each tree, and the subsequent predictability of other things, one began to recognize the coming of the seasons, for example, and therefore one was gifted with the ability to extract meaning from the surrounding world.  Nature could be read, could speak, could predict--if you were willing to listen, to look, to smell for its news.  This was more than an idle set of observations: this was hope, hope that something, that someone, was telling us the big answers.  This is still in so many ways our hope.  But control of this hope, understanding this exchange, this was power and magic and survival.  It was both delicate and dangerous.

        The desert borderland landscape speaks with a similar voice, through the unrealized, undiscovered and ancient alphabet of this place.  This alphabet, this language, speaks eloquently, perhaps more eloquently than those who inhabit it.  We have stitched this land where there was no wound.  We have bandaged it where there is no blood.  We have erected things on it, but without paying attention. 

        I have seen the brush and cactus, the rabbits and the javelina.  But too often I only ever look at them.  I don't listen.  Instead, they listen for me, and they run.  The rabbit runs fast, and I recognize that movement.  The cactus, it runs by growing needles, in that way distancing itself, more and more, farther and farther, from me.  It runs that way, and it is just as fast as the rabbit.

        In this desert world, I know as well that a needle is a leaf, and an ear is a radiator.  A yip is a song and the cactus can jump.  Mirages are television, the desert a radio.  There is so much world, the stars are a sieve that let just enough out, an open-weave hat.

        The icons of this world all have voice, the chili pepper and the coyote, light itself, the saguaro cactus--the singular, native species of cactus, which, because it is limited in where it grows, is recognized the world over as the desert itself.  In this way the cactus has grown much bigger than itself, and this is a kind of magic: people know the cactus who do not know it.  It is everywhere, but nowhere they have been.

        The relationship between this desert landscape and the people who live in it intrigues, and is everywhere--but not in the manner one might suppose if all we've heard of saguaros, for example, is that they are "great sentinels of the desert" and other trite, earnest mush like that.

        A new text of the desert and of the border is waiting, some lines from the desert for the new century as much as the ancient.  Discovering what is new in something so old, some new way of seeing what we've seen thousands of times--this goes deeper than simple seeing.  This is the beginning of understanding why a photograph must also be listened to, and tasted, and touched.  A good photograph of this place and of its people must prompt the viewer into using some second set of eyes they are unused to using, eyes that open when the eyelids close, something to help show and give voice to the life in things as well as the nature in people.

        To this end, imagery that simply captures and describes the desert is not enough.  We must look for the undiscovered alphabet: for the shared nature of things, for a way to translate, and, therefore, for our common language--both people to people and people to place.

        I am confident it exists.  Without too much trouble I see cactus needles in house antennas, wildflowers in windmills, cat's claw in barbed wire, lightning and fires in branding irons and brand marks, dry river beds in arms and fingers.  I smell the summer-storm smell of ozone the same way I smell a large meal of chicken and
mole being made in my family's kitchen.  I hear the cicadas sing loudly about impending rain in the same way I hear people yell when the border patrol is coming, and the cicadas themselves look not unlike the officers dressed up in their most fearsome gear. 

        The prickly pear and its fruit looks like so many heads with so many ears, all of them listening.  A quail's pompadour falls over its face the way a doorway peephole-cover swings to the side.  Gila monsters are full of rosary beads, and jagged horny toad necks sit as tin sheriff's stars and light rays at the tops of Christmas trees.  The border fence snakes in a line like a deer dancer.  The pupil of an animal eye is a mine's entrance the way oranges on a tree are its earrings. 

        The markings of a coyote's mouth, a chili pepper, a billy club, an engine gasket--one image carries through a fast-frame sequence of things and lives, ten things that look the same, the markings of the coyote's mouth first cousin to the shape of a chili pepper.  So much like that.  So many ways to see, all of them new and full of energy, but based on the oldest idea of all: the search for meaning through connection.  It is the finger snap, the aha!, the lightbulb above the head, the
excelsior, the broad smile on the face of anyone who has ever suddenly realized something.

        In this world, in this desert, in this West, at this border, when you step into the light and close your eyes and then open them,
you are not where you were but you have not moved.


Alberto Ríos
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe AZ 85287-0302
(480) 965-3800
Top of Page

Date last modified:
Friday, May 24, 2002