Thirst for the Desert

This is no news for those who know me well: I’m a desert person. In the classic movie, “Lawrence of Arabia”, a British officer asks Lawrence, filthy after weeks riding on camels in Saudi Arabia, why he loved the desert so much. “Because it’s clean,” he answered. That makes sense to me. Wandering in the desert cleanses my soul of hubris. It puts me in my puny place in the cosmos. It’s bigger than I am, bigger than we are. A hike in the desert is a walk on the “via negativa”. Its vistas sweep away all that obscures the divine, so that God, though always near, seems nearer.

The desert is huge and its plants and animals have adapted to its harshness. But its ecosystem is deceptively fragile. Right now it faces a new threat: a plan to suck the water out of a huge aquifer in the Mojave.

The Cadiz Valley water project is a boondoggle, to repeat the description used by a desert-loving activist, Emily Green. Only someone who believes there there is such a thing as “Clean Coal” could believe the assumptions built into the name of the project: the “Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project.” A well-connected investor, aptly named Keith Brackpool, stands to rake in vast sums of money by selling this underground resource, deposited during the last Ice Age, to the Santa Margarita Water District in order to water lawns in Orange County. With buckets of money, Blackpool has ingratiated himself to a who’s-who list of politicians in California. One who is resisting his plan is California US Senator Dianne Feinstein, a long-time defender of desert wilderness. She had this to say in a recent letter in response to my letter to her, protesting the Cadiz project: “I have concerns about the Cadiz Project. These concerns stem from my desire to ensure the Mojave National Preserve is not harmed by this project. Unfortunately, the data provided by Cadiz’s geologists conflict with the surveys of the U.S. Geological Survey, particularly in regards to the groundwater recharge rate. The USGS believes the Cadiz geologists have overestimated the groundwater recharge rate by 5-25 times. Without an accurate determination of the recharge rate, there is no way to be entirely confident that the additional water for the Cadiz project is not coming at the expense of the Mojave.” Now is the time to stop this scheme, by contacting our senators, Secretary Ken Salazar of the US Department of the Interior, and local politicians in Southern California.

Dozens of causes, addressing dire human needs, pull at my heartstrings. I have only so much time and money to make a difference. So why should I care about what happens to water hidden under a remote area of the Mojave Desert?

Because that water was there before any of us existed, with our dire needs of the day. And unless we prevent a speculator from selling it for a spectacular profit, it will be gone in a mere heartbeat of geologic time, causing lasting damage to the desert’s delicate natural balance.

We are most fully human, and closest to the divine, when we remember our intimacy with the web of life. Preserving the future of this earth, especially its most remote and vulnerable features, ennobles us. To despoil by our deeds or inaction a vast tract of natural scenery is a rejection of the divine source of our dignity as human beings. Yes, all people in semi-arid California need water to sustain their lives. But there is another kind of thirst to be quenched: the thirst for the desert itself.

“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…”

(Isaiah 58: 11) Parched places satisfy our spiritual needs. The sight of that spectacular Mojave Desert landscape, or even the memory of it, is water for our souls that we waste at our peril.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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