Round the Prickly Pear
Text of a talk given at In Solution Symposium, San Francisco, September 2014.
ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, ὁ δὲ χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ
ἅτε διαπρέπει νυκτὶ μεγάνορος ἔξοχα πλούτου:
εἰ δ᾽ ἄεθλα γαρύεν
ἔλδεαι, φίλον ἦτορ,
μηκέθ᾽ ἁλίου σκόπει
ἄλλο θαλπνότερον ἐν ἁμέρᾳ φαεννὸν ἄστρον ἐρήμας δι᾽ αἰθέρος,
μηδ᾽ Ὀλυμπίας ἀγῶνα φέρτερον αὐδάσομεν
Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But, my heart, if you wish to sing of contests, look not past the sun for a warmer star in the empty sky of day, nor let us proclaim a contest greater than Olympia.
That is Pindar in 476 BC, writing an ode for the Olympic Games. His purpose is to praise the victorious athlete, flatter the athlete’s family, and cement social bonds; but he begins by proclaiming that water is best: ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ. This preambulum is a funnel. Before the pre-eminence of the victor, he establishes the pre-eminence of the contest; before the contest, he acknowledges the social beacon of blazing gold; before gold he gives pride of place to water, a foundation to life, perhaps a god to be propitiated. In the early Archaic period, Hesiod describes a world of recurrent scarcity and hunger. By Pindar’s time the government of the polis was more consolidated, but rainfall had not grown any more regular from year to year.
In 1799, the Grand Pump Room was completed at Bath, England, and Pindar’s ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ set over the door. The imperial British were of course Romans and not Greeks; it is a purely Roman act of appropriation to set this phrase on the front of a public utility—not only a utility but a tourist attraction. Throughout the nineteenth century crowds came from around Europe to bathe in and drink the sulfurous water, and to see and be seen in its presence. Bath resident Jane Austen has the characters of Northanger Abbey visit just long enough to find that “the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season.” The pump room belongs to our world of insupportable crowds, where water comes out of a pipe; not Pindar’s scarce world, where one must pray for it.
We don’t think of Greece as a desert civilization in the manner of ancient Egypt, or Mesopotamia, or Palestine. But this picture, which I took a few years ago at the temple of Hephaistos in Athens, shows on the hillside what sprouts everywhere in the city, prickly pear cactus. These are very common plants in Tucson, where I grew up, and I was astounded to find this mythic city, which I had always thought of as a marble model kit, possessing not only a landscape, but a landscape very like the hard, bright desert of my home country. I was then working on my collection The Drowned Library, which adapts mythic stories that principally take place in deserts, since our culture has so many desert roots; and to find prickly pears at the temple helped me to define one aspect of that gaze into the past, which is that it displaces the gaze we, in our own day, project into the future, anxious that heat and water will carry us from Jane Austen’s world back into Pindar’s.
Pindar would not have recognized the prickly pears, since this genus colonized the Mediterranean only in the last five hundred years, following Euro-American contact. This territorial gain may recompense an earlier loss. The ecologist Daniel Janzen proposes that the spiny defenses of these plants, their brightly colored fruit and their propagation by breaking off pads must have co-evolved with some large mammal, which would have browsed them and carried bits of them like burrs from place to place. No extant species plays this role, but as recently as 10,000 years ago North America was home to camels, which disappeared in the late Pleistocene extinctions. It may be that not only the prickly pear but other cactus, yucca and agave species in the region are ecological orphans, components of lost systems.
The plant kingdom is slower to change. For the last century Tucson has been draining its basin groundwater; at present its wells are pulling up liquid that was laid down in the last ice age, before the camels disappeared. In the nineteenth century Tucson sat on a river, the Santa Cruz.
In the first photo, from 1942, the river’s course is hard to make out because the mesquite and cottonwood trees are so abundant. The second photo, taken in 1989 from the same vantage (note the large rock at bottom), shows an arid channel. Groundwater pumping in Tucson has dropped the water table more than 100 feet, and the river is now permanently dry, except during rains.
The monsoons blow north from the Gulf of California in August, and are why the Sonoran desert, despite being hotter than the Mojave, supports a far richer biodiversity. This is the foundational water that Pindar propitiates, that the Aztecs worshipped as Tlaloc and whose current in our culture flows out of the book of Isaiah: In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. That is the source for poetic droughts from Eliot’s waste land, there a metaphor for personal emptiness, to Mahmoud Darwish’s “A River Dies of Thirst,” there a metaphor for political deprivation—although it is not only a metaphor in Palestine, where physical, drinkable water is hard to come by.
People die of thirst in Arizona as well, most often during the illegal crossing from Mexico. The piece in The Drowned Library that records such a crossing is titled after Tlaloc, who was not only the god of agriculture but the guardian of those who died by water, a protector and an object of fear, who is said to have received child sacrifices. A child who dies in the desert is not sacrificed to any purpose. Still, water may kill otherwise than by simple lack. One who suffers from mortal thirst will not hesitate to drink from a stagnant cow pond. And the rains themselves can be fatal in their unexpected coming; the packed ground cannot drink the water quickly enough, and flash floods will course along any channel they find. The title of my book refers in part to the library of Alexandria, a desert outpost which was nonetheless brought down by water; whatever remained of the complex after multiple rounds of conquest was probably cast into the harbor by the earthquake and tsunami of AD 365.
The study of antiquity is a study of loss. I’d like to close on the question of what is lost and what persists, our anxious gaze into the future, and also a nod back to Pindar, who played something that he called a kithara. Over the last few years I’ve made many guitar-based home recordings. The music is mine, but I think of them as collaborations, since they were released with photographs by my friend Matthew Besigner. He works in the desert at night, using ambient light with long exposure times to bring out the contours of the land, while man-made objects, the light sources, shimmer and become unreal. To me it looks like the landscape forgetting what has been built over it. Musically I’m interested in similar effects, how the clipping of a distorted guitar signal both drops information and amplifies power, like the surviving half of a damaged statue or ode. This track has on its mind the colossal wreck of Ozymandias half sunk in sand, and is called “Archaeologists.”