Months of desert living schooled me — months of smelling smoky creosote before a rain and greeting blooms of green for days after, of spying roadrunner tracks and squinting for glimpses of bobcats in the distance. Deserts are a paradox: brimming with life, much of it still unknown to humans, even while the elements — heat, wind, light, dark, earth, spirit — play there starkly enough to kindle the Abrahamic religions and infinite mythology since, including the stories of UFOs and alien visitations that proliferate in US deserts today.
This elemental narrative fertility of the desert, and specifically the deserts of the American Southwest, is Ken Layne’s subject. His cult zine, Desert Oracle, launched in January 2015 with stories of desert rats, legends, and con men; of supernatural phenomena and natural wonder; and, at the heart of each tale, of a pulsing wilderness that gleefully and sometimes dangerously confounds humans naïve enough to believe it’s deserted. The best of that writing has now been collected here, along with some new pieces by Layne.
A pulsing wilderness — well, what does that mean? Most often, it’s defined as an antithesis: the opposite of urban sprawl and strip malls, a place where “nature” unfurls unfettered. But Ken Layne’s writing shows us that human nature is its own wild thing, sprung from the same source as forests and deserts and oceans, and every bit as unruly.
Reading this collection, you sense that Layne’s lifelong love affair with deserts has as much to do with the wild human archetypes they attract and produce as with their big skies and mythic vistas. He traces a compelling character study of desert rats: “[A]rtists and philosophers, misfits and outlaws, generally not very fond of busy cities and the busy work of American life.” He originally applies this archetype to a Dr. Jaeger, a desert dweller of the mid-20th century whose major contribution to desert lore — and, indeed, human history — was to discover the first known hibernating bird, the common poorwill, and conduct a series of questionable experiments on one poor specimen, including taking a rectal temperature every fortnight.
But the “desert rat” character study could apply to any number of Layne’s subjects: author Ed Abbey; Doc Springer, who set up shop hawking snake oil at the short-lived health estate Zzyzx; or legendary late-night DJ of the paranormal, Art Bell. The desert mystic, a distinct subset of desert rat, is another of Layne’s favorite subjects. He traces the story of occultist and JPL founder Jack Parsons, who, when he wasn’t blazing a trail for American space exploration, ran a magickal lodge in frequent collaboration with one L. Ron Hubbard. And the collection’s UFO enthusiasts are too numerous to name.
If you happen to be human in 2020, it’s very easy to hate yourself. I mean, honestly, what is our goddamn problem? Though it offers some variation on the garden-variety crooks and brutes who cram our newspapers, Layne’s romantic taxonomy of desert humans doesn’t immediately seem to challenge any misanthropy readers might be nursing. Between Charles Manson and Western-swing-star-turned-wife-murderer Spade Cooley, not to mention a string of lesser reprobates, there’s plenty to deplore here. Which is as it should be: Layne didn’t set out to write an antidote to human shittiness, nor should he have to.
And yet, slowly, an antidote of sorts emerges. Not so much in the portraits of individuals, or even in the prose, though when Layne hits his stride, this rumbles with a pleasing barroom growl. As with the desert itself, the balm is in the expansive sweep: the way Layne threads together stories from the known history of the Southwest, from its Native inhabitants to today’s UFO conventions. By pulling at the common threads in this history — the way some Native art prefigures later UFO sightings, for instance — he shifts a frazzled 2020 reader’s consciousness to the enduring mysteries of humanity and our relationship with the world around us. He reminds us that, like his desert rats, we are wild, too, and of this wild world. Like staring at hundreds of miles of earth and sky, it’s humbling.
This kind of devotion to place is meaningful. Carelessness about place pervades developed nations, but the United States has a particularly potent strain of it — you can see it in the nuclear test sites; the decapitated, mined mountains; the regions drowning or desiccating after rivers were rerouted to make way for human habitation. In this careless world, deep relationship with a place, especially a wild place, is powerful, even political. It retrains the heart and mind. In the cities, surrounded by other humans and our constructs, it’s too easy to forget that there’s anything else — hence, perhaps, the carelessness, the lopped-off mountaintops. But spend long enough attending to the desert or the forest, and you wake up to the whole living world of which you’re only a small part. Or, in Layne’s words:
Wherever you live in the world, there are weird and wonderful tales about that place […]
We are a fractured and confused people in this strange century, and most of what once connected us to a place — knowledge of the land and the animals, origins of the regional beasts and abominations, shared rituals and traditions — has been lost or taken away. We are strangers in our own land.
But we don’t have to be like that.
In its best moments, Desert Oracle is more than a collection of Wild West miscellany for the Instagram crowd, or a catalog of unruly humans in an unruly landscape. It’s a lesson in training the heart and mind to attend and honor and listen, over the course of a lifetime. Though it’s somewhat patchy, with a frustrating abruptness to the ends of some essays, its strength is in the author’s plain enchantment with the place that chose him.
This isn’t just a romantic idea: it’s salvation. What I didn’t understand, during my winter in the desert (while Ken Layne was cooking up the first issue of Desert Oracle), was that it’s not more renewable resources that humans need, not really. It’s precisely this capacity for attention. Filling the wilderness with wind farms, digging up pristine land to attach solar panels: These are things we do out of ignorance and immaturity because we can only hear ourselves and our own trained wants — because we haven’t taken the time to listen for the unruly story playing itself out in perpetuity in the wilderness, or to hear its echo inside us. This is the stuff of great writing about place, as in the work of Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry or Ken Layne’s own muse, Edward Abbey. Desert Oracle doesn’t reach those heights, but it could well serve as an appetizing primer for a journey into place. What’s clear is that Ken Layne has tuned his ear to the unruly story.
Ellie Robins is a writer and translator. Her translation of Alan Pauls’s A History of Money was published by Melville House in 2015, and she writes about place at tinyletter.com/here.