A Naturalist's Cactus-Country Glimpses

THE TELLING DISTANCE: CONVERSATIONS WITH THE AMERICAN DESERT. By Bruce Berger, Portland, Ore.: Breitenbush Books, 243 pp., $19.95 AT one-half to 12 pages a piece, Bruce Berger's 50 essays can be nibbled easily. Re-warmed from diverse periodicals, few are food for deep thought. But like Annie Dillard's essays, the best of these give understanding of how we see and react to nature, and how, ``as with primitive peoples or a particle in contemporary physics, time and space are an axis passing through oneself.'' As a scientist, I have not feared the effects of knowing the names of natural features, but now I am persuaded, with Berger, that ``It is too bad that things arrowed and tagged lose their vitality. The industrial web is closing in, and never had we more need of the nameless.''

Other morsels are word portraits: Phoenix's Biltmore Hotel and Squaw Peak, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the firing of a Santa Clara pot, desert rivers and side canyons, mockingbirds, javelina, and more. Where the focus is nature, the point is not (as it was for Joseph Wood Krutch in ``The Voice of the Desert'') ecology or physiology, but resonances in human psyches.

Not that Berger lacks facts; birders and botanists will approve his information bait. But that's what his natural history is: an invitation to consider our position in an increasingly paved and peopled ecosystem, where the saguaro changes from being only a home for gilded flickers to a Tree-of-the-Good-Life in Scottsdale's Eden.

The most enjoyable pieces, for this desert rat, are delicious accounts of the wars of hiking companions. For instance, on choosing a campsite: ``Sand or slickrock? Scenery or shelter? First light from the east or morning shade for sleeping?'' A site ``to expand one's ego into the universe, to gather one's fellows into a clan, or to return to the womb. Inside the party about to camp stretches a wilderness from which no psychologist has returned, and an astute gypsy could doubtless learn to read campsites as wickedly as tea leaves or a throw of cards.''

The environmental message comes with sadness and some hope. Berger reports the decline of ``gleaming sand, the deep-shadowed peaks and hot blue sky of the Sonoran [desert] dream.'' Earlier he notes:``It has been widely noted that the roles on our planet are now reversed: man seems now the sustainer and destroyer, nature the mute supplicant...''

All the writing is that good. If one is willing to follow Berger on 50 trails through Arizona and southern Utah to look at architecture and dreams, cacti and campfires, this collection will occupy a few pleasant hours.

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