My brother the geologist shuffles in his sandals to kneel on the earth. He sifts some of it into his cupped hands, lifting the white sand to his mouth to taste. “Salty,” he notes, marveling. The White Sands National Monument is a gypsum field, an assemblage of bone-white sand dunes rippling in slow motion within the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico—the northernmost reaches of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. As a sand, gypsum is dissolved by rainwater, but here the air is dry enough to halt one of nature’s own processes. The monument grounds are flanked on all sides by mountains, the lucent San Andreas range and the earthier Sacramentos, and by operations of the United States military. Encompassing nearly 3,200 square miles, the White Sands Missile Range holds rank as the largest military site in the country.
United States military forces first began scouting this region in 1849. By then, the Mescalero Apaches had dwelled there for over 500 years; by 1880, they’d been forced onto reservations. Then, at approximately 5:29 AM on July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project detonated, on land deemed remote and uninhabited, the first test of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb meant for Nagasaki. The device fizzled, meaning a failure of design or construction released, in this case, over four and a half kilograms of radioactive plutonium—ten pounds—into the atmosphere. Witnesses observed light from the blast as far away as Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The hides of cattle on nearby ranches turned white. Upon the surrounding homes of over 20,000 New Mexico residents, ash from the fallout tumbled down like snow.
I first came to White Sands National Monument by myself, on a spring break road trip in college. From the top of a dune, the March sun blazed already with the heat of the summers I was used to. The wind roared, whipping sand hard across my skin as if to hiss, Out, out! I crouched down and let myself tumble gently to the hospitable earth below. There, all was still and silent, but for the militant scurrying of tiny red ants and flicks of lizards’ tails among the wildflowers—trumpeting Colorado four o’clock; desert dandelion, Mentzelia; and gypsum rosita, little rose—which it seemed no stretch to imagine one could hear. I let my fingers trace symbols in the sand. When I returned with my brother that July, and again on a trip with my parents the following June, I nearly expected to find those markings there still, as if I had left them on the windless moon. To my eyes, the only clue that any time had passed between these visits was the progress of the yucca plants: bare in March, creamy bloom in June, and busy ripening their green-banana seed pods in July.
Time seems to slow in a desert. It is no wonder we often bring less urgency to our admiration for these arid, quiet places than we do for our mountains and forests, where threats announce themselves in more obvious or alarming ways. Deserts offer us less on their surfaces than verdant places. With untrained eyes, scant visual cues are interpreted as evidence of stability on land whose climate is defined by being in crisis. In deserts, life already exists on the edge of a knife. There is an unfortunate tendency to look out on them as vast and empty—to instead see them as merely beautiful, or as fantastic backdrops for our own makings.
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Originally published, and continued, in HUMANxNATURE. If you missed our Kickstarter, you can read the rest by subscribing to our Substack newsletter.