The View from Tumamoc

Today’s blog by Katherine Morrissey celebrates the publication of a Special Issue (12.1, March 2019) of Global Environment co-edited by Morrissey, Andrew Isenberg and Louis Warren, entitled Deserts in Environmental History 

At the end of the day, I love to steal away from my office and head to the city’s edge to spend some time in the Sonoran Desert. I live in the southwestern US within an arid and semi-arid basin-and-range landscape where the desert is surrounded by easily accessible hills and mountain ranges. Hiking up Tumamoc Hill is a local tradition, an exercise habit and a reminder of the past, especially its twentieth-century role in the environmental history of the desert.

Sonoran Desert Landscape
Sonoran Desert landscape. Photograph by the author.

Rising 700 feet from the desert floor, the hike takes you through stands of saguaro cacti and other arid lands vegetation; the view from the top stretches from the city and into Tohono O’odham lands. Known as Cemamagĭ Doag or ‘Horned Lizard Mountain’ in O’odham, Tumamoc is a sacred space as well as highly protected wild land, a place with a deep and meaningful history. And, as the signs along the path remind hikers, the Hill is ‘the oldest continually monitored ecological research preserve in the world’.

In 1903, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, established its Desert Botanical Laboratory at this site to investigate desert plants and their arid environments. In addition to pursuing their work at the research station on the hill, the Carnegie scientists conducted field investigations and collecting trips within arid regions – locally and globally – and developed expertise in desert plant physiological ecology. I know this place through personal experience, but also through my own research as a cultural environmental historian. For me, the view from Tumamoc Hill looks into the past, not just to the specific contributions to ecological knowledge but to the imaginaries of the diverse peoples who have interacted with arid lands; it offers insight into the odd juxtapositions between a colonising perspective and indigenous agricultural practices, between an intensely localised attention to plants and an extensive global reach, between westerners’ interactions with deserts as scientific praxis and as imperial conquest.

Main Laboratory at Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory, circa 1912. The Desert Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington: History and Achievements Collection, Special Collections, University of Arizona Libraries.
Main Laboratory at the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory, circa 1912. Photograph courtesy of Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries. © Arizona Board of Regents for The University of Arizona.


Given this history, and my love of the place, it may not be surprising that it was here in 2015 that we brought Global Deserts: Environmental History in the Arid Lands participants. The international group of arid lands historians and specialists had gathered in Tucson for the symposium sponsored by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society; Temple University; the University of California, Davis, and the University of Arizona. During our Tumamoc hike, led by Jeremy Vetter, we extended the discussions and debates that we had begun in more formal settings, on the changing understandings of deserts by both their indigenous inhabitants and colonisers; on the influences of deserts upon human societies; on the impact of human habitation and resource use upon deserts from the pre-modern period to the present.

Our questions explored several themes, but many of our conversations swirled around the conceptualisation of deserts as imperial spaces. Inspired by the symposium, Andrew Isenberg, Louis Warren and I determined to share this strain of insights that emerged from the collaborative work. We are delighted that The White Horse Press is publishing a special issue of Global Environment (March 2019) on Deserts in Environmental History. In its pages you will find deeply researched and thoughtful analyses of imperial interactions with deserts through time.

Framed by our introduction, ‘Imperial Deserts’, these case studies examine diverse historical efforts to control arid lands and, often, their unintended consequences. They are enriched by close attention to interpretations, words and meanings assigned by newcomers to what they frequently perceived as alien, exotic and inhospitable, from Gary Reger’s examination of Greek and Roman seventh-century BCE literary tropes of the Sahara to Aleksandar Shopov’s interrogation of Ottoman anarchist Pavel Shatev’s early twentieth-century Saharan prison memoir. Articles by Diana K. Davis, Adam Guerin, and Tor Benjaminsen and Pierre Hiernaux, on the Middle East, on Morocco and on the Sahel, unpack the persistence of the western trope known as the desertification narrative. Roberta Biasillo and Claiton da Silva, Marcus Burtner and I, Andrew Isenberg and Sterling Evans provide intriguing historically-grounded examples stretching from Africa to the Americas.

I invite you to explore the complexities of Imperial Deserts and arid lands environmental history through their words and research. And, if your travels bring you to the Sonoran Desert, be sure to include a hike up Tumamoc Hill.

Looking over Tucson from Tumamoc Hill
Looking over Tucson from Tumamoc Hill. Photograph by the author.






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