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Tales of the Desert, Hot and Cold

Four travel writers touch and taste as they explore varied environments and a range of personal experiences to offer readers an entertaining and informative mixture


DESERT TIME: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST By Diana Kappel-Smith, Little, Brown & Co., 262 pp., $22.95.

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THE CRYSTAL DESERT: SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA By David G. Campbell, Houghton Mifflin, 308 pp., $21.95.

SALMAGUNDI: a meal composed of a little of this and a little of that. In a new batch of travel books, this notion has become an organizing principle. Rather than integrating their observations into a grand repast, writers are now putting out nibblers.

The fragmentary approach to description is not merely another idle entertainment fad. It is a philosophy that sanctions cozy, colloquial fare. How far we have come from the flinty judgmental stance of authors like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, who initiated the current vogue for travel literature. In the 1970s, these travel writers stood above the fray, casting a stern eye on the cultures below. In the 1990s, authors have begun to mingle with the crowd and sample the street food.

For example , Barbara Tedlock defines her journal of life with the Zuni people of New Mexico as a venture in what anthropologists call "narrative ethnography."

Tedlock rejects the dispassionate observation of traditional anthropological field work, which requires the student of non-Western cultures to develop human relationships and then systematically depersonalize them for the sake of science. This book, drawn from her early graduate work among the Zuni in the 1970s, has none of that wintry indifference.

Instead, Tedlock recounts Zuni religion, myth, medicine, art, and nature lore in the unhurried, informal way that one would learn it through everyday existence within a family. Tedlock's admiration for Zuni life is palpable, yet she does not disguise ugly moments of violence and alcoholism. The incidentals of her host family's life, like sheep-raising, deer-hunting, vegetable-gardening, and child-rearing, which other anthropologists might judge too anecdotal for objective social science, are scattered th roughout her text.

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Indeed, much of the book is rendered in dialogue with her host family. The technique honors the extent to which Tedlock's knowledge of the Zuni outlook originated in the roundabout, open-ended character of personal conversation.

Similarly, New England naturalist Diana Kappel-Smith speaks about being satisfied with "partial, elusive, fragmentary answers." Her scientific exploration of the deserts of the American Southwest is permeated with a sense that one must not pen a natural history that is indifferent to the people living in the landscape. Her report easily shifts from data about biotic groups to depictions of human communities.

In one chapter, she wittily details the thorny realm of desert plants. In another she contemplates discarded hopes of desert ghost towns. Her visit to the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona intermingles the natural history of the saguaro cactus and ocotillo plant with a portrayal of the pressures modern life has put on the O'odham people.

Despite her clear-eyed assessment of loss both in the human and natural worlds, Kappel-Smith is committed to a belief that though deserts and desert life change, they will yet endure. That perspective is best exemplified in her pilgrimage to the sacred cave of the O'odham high in the hills outside Tucson, Ariz. In a kind of altar alcove, she finds votive objects left by other visitors. Traditional offerings like candles, corn cobs, and seed pods vie with more recent contributions like baseball hats and t eddy bears. But the cave, and its significance to the O'odham, persist.

"Desert Time" is aptly titled. We glimpse moments of experience, rendered both in words and in conscientious line drawings. The book has a gentle, meandering tone. It consciously refuses to manufacture dramatic events.

Because so much of the new travel literature accentuates first-person experience, it often reads like fiction. Douglas Preston's memoir of his 1989 horseback journey across the American Southwest, following the putative route of the 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, is a riveting yarn, with as many turns as a switchback road.

While relating an expedition jinxed with interpersonal problems and logistical obstacles, Preston slips in stories of gun battles, cattle drives, homesteading, and native American history and religion.

When they set out, Preston and his traveling companion, photographer and artist Walter Nelson, had no solid experience in horse-trekking nor in desert orienteering. Early in the trip, they learn that their hired guide and horse-wrangler has not only misrepresented his skills, but also that he is unpredictable and argumentative.

Like the other new travel books, "Cities of Gold" is a resolutely intimate portrait of people and places. Ideas are pegged to events in the journey. For instance, readers learn about the natural history of the mesquite tree, whose wood has become a trendy addition to barbecue fires, as Preston's party attempts to move through the scratchy mazes the tree has created in the dry river bottom or arroyo of the San Pedro river, near Benson, Ariz.

When the American West was settled, beaver were killed and cattle allowed to overgraze. As a result, marshy river banks dried out, creating an ideal habitat for the mesquite tree. Early in this century, cowboys who worked cattle in the difficult mesquite areas were known as "brush poppers." Today the mesquite trees have constructed formidable barriers to human movement. Where Coronado's ride along the San Pedro took two days, Preston's took eight.

Interestingly, Coronado's party had little difficulty locating water, except when his guides deliberately led him astray. But the vast ocean-like desert of the Southwest is so seldom traversed off-road that sources of fresh water are no longer known. Consequently, Preston had constant difficulty in locating the 63 gallons of water that his party and their heavily laden pack horses required each day.

Lack of water and searing heat typify the most familiar kind of desert. But as biologist David G. Campbell points out in his portrait of Antarctica, cold and ice are just as effective in fashioning a harsh, yet extraordinary landscape.

Campbell, who spent three summers at the Brazilian Antarctic Research Station on Admiralty Bay, writes with a radiant simplicity that is reminiscent of the southern icecap. He recounts how glaciers, black with volcanic ash, or stained red with minerals, slide on their bellies to the sea where, with a roar, they calve litters of icebergs. With descriptive powers like these, it is little wonder that the book won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship award, the first time the honor has gone to a scientis t.

When Campbell addresses Antarctica's historical importance to the whaling industry, his sinewy prose details beaches littered with the bones of the giant mammals taken decades ago. At the same time, lesser things continually fascinate him. In his hands, the diminutive botanical realm of lichens and mosses - what he appealingly terms "biological haiku" - appears like a Lilliputian world.

As he explores the relatively benign landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula, the hook of land pointing toward South America where his scientific field station is located, he reflects on larger issues, like Antarctica's global reach.

The forgotten continent begets global weather and wind patterns. Currents of frigid water, originating in Antarctica, undulate along the planet's ocean floors, and even flow beneath the balmy Caribbean Sea. Now Antarctica is at the center of an ominous inadvertent global experiment. The ozone layer has thinned drastically over the southern icecap, allowing more ultraviolet light to filter threateningly through to Earth.

Like the other new travel books, "The Crystal Desert" is an amalgam of material. Campbell mingles geology, nature study, travel writing, and history, and tops it off with chilly adventure. All the while, his ardent prose warms the Great White South and manages to make even sleet attractive.

Though the deserts in these chronicles run hot and cold, the texts have many qualities in common. Each author holds that the whole can be teased from a sum of ideas and impressions. Resisting solemn generalities, these writers are nonetheless anxious to point out the incursions of modern life on the deserts. One detects a nostalgia for times past and apprehension about the future. Still, for all of their frets, each traveler finds comfort in the contrast between the human life span and the time scale of nature.

In the waning years of the 20th century, it is not surprising to see travel literature address ecological concerns and the sustainability of indigenous peoples. What is unexpected is the myriad medley that emerged from so many facts, thoughts, and places.

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