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Photo of Death Valley National Park OPEN SPACE

In the Age of Perverse Beauty

by Jacques Leslie

As a young reporter covering the Vietnam War, I once saw purple lightning, or thought I did. I was lying on a reed mat in a sampan on Hue's Perfume River, ostensibly spending a night away from war, when the clouds over a distant mountain range flashed an otherworldly purple, and it took me a moment to register that they were reflecting explosions below. It was a B-52 strike, of course. What astonished me was how anything so malign could be so beautiful.

Now, as we tumble headlong into the age of global warming, such perverse beauty is becoming common. Ever-larger fragments break away from the polar ice sheets, issuing thunderclaps as they sink majestically into the sea. Spring arrives weeks earlier, like an unexpected reward -- here in Mill Valley, in Northern California, apple trees bloomed last November. Robins turn up in the Arctic. A drought reveals the magnificent golden, petroglyph-adorned walls previously drowned by Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Chaos arrives as a festival, an innocuous spectacle.

The example that has lodged most firmly in my mind took place this spring in Death Valley, the heretofore supremely sere Southern California expanse that Mary Austin described a century ago as "the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands." Austin called her book about the region The Land of Little Rain, which was an apt title until this year. Death Valley customarily receives less than two inches of rain a year, and in some years it gets none. But from September to March, more than six inches fell, surpassing the highest annual total in all 94 years of record-keeping. By February -- two months before wildflowers usually appear there -- the area was flush with them. A page-wide photograph in the New York Times of a field of yellow wildflowers suggested that Death Valley had turned into a Swiss meadow.

Increased precipitation, of course, is a likely artifact of global warming, as higher temperatures increase ocean evaporation, but this was at best a secondary concern to my wife and me; we reserved a room at a Death Valley inn for an upcoming vacation. Apparently many other people got the same idea. Before our vacation started, we read another story about Death Valley, this one in the Los Angeles Times. So many people had turned out for the wildflowers that the region was overrun. No hotel room was available within a hundred miles. So many cars had clogged Death Valley's roads that they were riddled with potholes, and fistfights broke out at gas pumps. Beleaguered park rangers got instructions from their bosses to seek tranquility on their days off -- in Las Vegas, for instance.

We canceled our trip, but Death Valley lingers. What does it mean that avid outsiders by the tens of thousands -- most of them presumably residents of such nature -- defying metropolises as Los Angeles and San Diego-suddenly spilled out of their cars and into fields of wildflowers? We seem to pay far more attention to these outbursts of beauty than to their ominous causes; even the pursuit of natural splendor becomes a facet of denial. Neither newspaper account mentioned global warming, though it is by far the likeliest culprit in the ongoing destabilization of our weather systems. Such omissions are, in fact, the rule. Global warming was not often mentioned during the European heat wave that killed 35,000 people in 2003, nor during the quadruple onslaught of hurricanes that struck the southeastern United States in 2004. Few Americans even know that 10 typhoons made landfall in Japan last year, breaking the previous record by four.

In our spectacle-consuming culture, it's hard to imagine what momentous event will shake us awake and convince us that we're experiencing an alarming breakdown, not an exhibition. After all, I once flew in a helicopter with John Paul Vann, the legendary American soldier, as B-52s attacked a North Vietnamese military unit in the central highlands of South Vietnam. As our helicopter swooped low over the bombed terrain, I got a much closer look at a B-52 strike than I'd had at Hue. All I could see were charred tree trunks and oozing smoke, but Vann, who himself was shot down and killed a few weeks later, saw no horror. Instead, he called out with appalling glee, "I see some bodies!"

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Jacques Leslie covered the war in Vietnam for the Los Angeles Times. His book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August.

Photo of Death Valley National Park: John Bohner

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council