Letter From the Desert: Usually I avoid crowds like the plague

I have been dreaming about people.

No particular people, really, though the dreams are populated in part by those I have known in waking life, or versions of them, and those versions sometimes shift from one real-life basis to another. You know how dreams are. I’ll be dreaming of some setting involving the dog, and then she will suddenly and seamlessly have become my previous dog, and then sometimes he will shift halfway back, becoming neither Zeke nor Heart but… Zart? Heke? Character is fluid, and amends itself to suit my dreaming needs.

The important thing is that there are people in these dreams, and lots of them. I have detailed conversations, extended interactions with tow truck drivers, social workers, store clerks and grade school teachers, street musicians and street dwellers, usually in groups of more than two or three, usually crowded far more closely than two meters from one another. They speak English and Spanish, French, Amharic, Cantonese, and Quechua, to list just those languages I remember. They are busy with one thing or another, happy to have my life intersect theirs for a moment or a week.


Every night for the last 16 or 17 days, every dream I can remember, all of them variations on this theme. I have been in the East Bay, or DC, or Seattle. I have been in Long Beach and Tucson. I have felt myself sprout joy at the presence of crowds around me, at the intertwining of hundreds of world lines. I have walked into shops selling things I neither need nor want just to feel the jostle at my elbows.

Waking up is not precisely jarring, but it does require a shift of focus that sometimes lags until after my second coffee.

The thing is, I don’t like crowds per se. After five decades spent in cities, I moved to the Mojave Desert for a reason. But these dreams are joyous.

That may be because it’s at least remotely possible I’ve been in my last big crowd.

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Any organic gardener worth her compost could have told you this was coming, you know. Global human society, with all its gorgeous and embattled diversity, is a monoculture. I don’t just mean in the sense in which the K in KFC could as easily stand for Kuala Lumpur or Kinshasa. Though that is certainly related. I mean epidemiologically. When my nine-year-old paternal grandfather managed to survive the 1918 Influenza pandemic, something like 50 or 55 percent of Americans lived in cities. That percentage is now somewhere north of 80 percent. Urbanization is a huge, contentious topic that would overwhelm my point here were I to dive in, but suffice it to say that one of its myriad effects on people en masse is to open ecological niches for pathogens transmitted by mere proximity.

There are environmental thinkers who suggest that more of us need to live in cities, and that those cities need to be more densely packed. They have compelling arguments in their favor. I don’t remember any of them ever mentioning contagion as an issue.

In the last couple of weeks we have seen throngs of Americans show up at the gates of national and state parks and similar preserves, often overwhelming the communities nearby and threatening the health of the residents. Some of this impulse surely stems from a sudden release from responsibility: people who have been laid off but who nonetheless have sufficient economic cushion to last a couple months may well see this economic shutdown as a vacation. But it’s plain that the basic motivation for swamping parks is a feeling that parks are safer. The people crowding in at the closed park gates are acting from a compulsion to escape crowds. It hasn’t been working out the way they planned, of course.

We are a monoculture. We have become a planet-wide cabbage farm with no cabbage separated from its compatriots by more than a few inches. All it takes is one cabbage looper or black rot fungal spore landing on one leaf to start a global plague.

I’ve heard people say that this pandemic will be so horrible that it will forever change the way we live. That statement seems optimistic to me, aside from the first part. We humans have a notable talent for forgetting bad things. But if the novel coronavirus reinforces our species’ desire to maintain and increase places that are not wall-to-wall humans, where that cabbage looper would have to traverse miles of redwoods and chrysanthemums and agaves and kelp and such to find the next cabbage to infect, I think that could be good. Not worth the suffering, of course, to get to a place we ought to have figured out without the bony finger of Death pointing it out to us. But a good destination anyway.

There will be more diversion and less heavy stuff in the next letter, I promise. Wildflowers are starting in the Mojave, and the yardwork I’ve been doing is diverting. The cactus garden is going in and we have some vegetable seedlings sprouting in pots. Good stuff happening. More on that soon.

None of you correctly guessed the identity of the Bob Dylan song I referenced last time around: according to the story, which may be apocryphal, it was A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall that Bobby Z. wrote in a hurry under the threat of atomic annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So we had no lucky winners, which means you all have to stay home tomorrow.

And to those of you who asked where my keys eventually turned up: that would be telling.

Please stay safe. Let me know how you are doing. Here’s a picture of the dog.

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