“Ultimately, deserts are man-made in what may be a culturally important sense. The Mojave may be my desert of definition, but all deserts are deserts by definition. Not definition by statistics and norms – there are areas drier and less populated than many reputed deserts that no one ever speaks of in those terms. (…) This is more a question of reputation; the very word desert is a human value judgement.
I say “value judgment” deliberately: we dub territories “desert” almost regardless of their ecological performance. (…) I notice that we seem to need continually to remind ourselves that deserts are not sand, and that “deserts are really teeming with life”. The Mojave may be seen as a desert only because it is the last identificable remnant of the deaded legendary Great Basin. If it had been somewhere else, it might – just – have fallen under some different classification.
Ultimately, desert is a concept of, and about, people. The word originally meant “unpopulated”; that is the primary sense given by the Oxford dictionary and many others. That is why the world’s most prestigious desert was labelled on old maps Arabia Desert, and why Doughty is such a valuable corrective to ingrained misconceptions – for his Travels are crowded with all kinds of human beings, settlements, and tribes. The other common root meaning of desert as a verb should also be keep in mind: “to leave”. Arabia was “deserted”, even if the Latin deserta is not necessarily a past participle in the normal sense. The people had abandoned that classic desert, just as they were to abandon the North African coast lands. The ultimate definition of a true desert may yet prove to be concerned with the number and type of people present, and what they think they are doing there.
I try to think of days when I have been out in the “hard” Mojave away from the Interstate and many dusty miles from any blacktopped roads – and have seen nobody at all. I am not talking about inanimate signs of former human presence; I am talking about human beings alive and moving about in the landscape. And I can recall no such days. (…)