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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Grains of Sand

Air Date: Week of

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The world’s largest desert has a reputation for being vast, barren and formidable. But a new book reveals that much of what we know about the Sahara is a mirage. Reviewer Bruce Barcott takes a look at "Sahara: A Natural History."


CURWOOD: Explorers call the Sahara Desert "the great nothing," an endless emptiness that stretches for thousands of miles across the face of North Africa. The Sahara is the world’s largest desert. And there are as many stories of thirst and mirage as there are grains of Saharan sand. But there is also life in the desert, and two authors took in this formidable dry land and wrote a book about what they found. It’s called "Sahara: A Natural History," and Bruce Barcott has our review.

BARCOTT: The Sahara is so big that if you strip the continental United States of its glaciers, trees, grasslands and lakes, and turned the whole thing into an ocean-to-ocean desert, you’d still have to add a quarter of Mexico to equal it.

The place looms equally large in the western imagination. Home to ruthless nomads, French legionnaires, and exotic cities like Timbuktu, the Sahara is the ultimate inhospitable foreign land. The Antarctic seems homey by comparison.

And yet, as Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle write in their fascinating new book, "Sahara: A Natural History," much of what we believe about the Sahara is a mirage. Consider the sand. It’s said to swallow armies and smother villages, to move with menace in its grains. And it does. During a breezy 120-degree afternoon, the authors write that quote, "sand fills the ears, and the nose, and the reddening eyes, and infiltrates the clothing, drifting sand in every crack and crevice. Sand in the tea glasses, sand in the food, a dismaying grit on the teeth."

The thing about the Sahara, though, is that it’s mostly not sand. The whole thing is less than 20 percent dune. When you caravan across the desert, you’re mostly riding on hard stone and gravel. A path is firm and clear as a good grade country road. What the authors find along those roads is a land slow to give up its traditions, which isn’t necessarily good. Salt, gold and slaves are ancient mainstays of Saharan commerce, and sadly, all three can still be had for a price.

The bandits, whose clans have preyed on passing caravans for centuries, still ply their trade. For the feared Taureg nomads of southern Algeria, highway robbery is a tradition embedded in their very language. In Taureg, the verb "he is free," also means, "he pillages."

It’s not all bad news and banditry though. De Villiers and Hirtle write about the Sahara’s well-documented expansion, but they also find evidence that the desert may not be growing, so much as shifting its boundaries. And the same Taureg tribes that raise bandits, also produce brilliant guides whose code of the desert compels them to offer their last drop of water to a stranger.

For all of their knowledge of the Sahara though, the authors maintain a frustrating distance from the desert. I think de Villiers and Hirtle crossed the west central African nation of Niger in a 20-day caravan. Now, I say, I think, because their account of the experience is so sketchy as to be nearly theoretical. It’s hard to say when they departed, where they were going, and why they traveled.

At this and other points in the book, I kept hoping for less history and more travel memoir, the sort of journeying prose that makes writers like Pico Iyer and Jonathan Raban such great companions.

This isn’t to say the book reads like a social studies test. There are moments that reach the poetic, as when de Villiers and Hirtle ask a Taureg elder to explain the vivid mirages produced by desperate thirst. "What the dying see," the nomad explains, "is not a vision of paradise. It is," he says, "just the human spirit trying to escape, trying to escape its fate." In moments like these we come to understand that the vast African nothingness is actually full of fascinating stories and tenacious life.

CURWOOD: The book is "Sahara: A Natural History," by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, published by Walker & Company. Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about the environment for Outside magazine.

[MUSIC: Roger Eno, "Aryis" SWIMMING (All Saints Records, 1996)]

CURWOOD: In the far Canadian Arctic on Devon Island, a group of scientists spend the summer studying a place that’s more like Mars than anywhere else except Mars. Reporter Robin White was there recently and kept a journal about his trip.

WHITE: I’ve been warned to keep away from the dogs, and at the beach there were great long lines of them chained up. They’re sled dogs and not bred for friendliness. Apparently, some of them are wolf hybrids. They spend most of the year tied up out in the elements, waiting to be fed. Then in the winter they come into action, dragging the sleds across the packed ice.

On the beach itself there was a sled brought up with three fresh killed seals dripping blood into the water, five more on the beach. I suppose this is dog food.

CURWOOD: Starting on Monday, October 21, Living on Earth’s website will present special daily installments from Robin White’s journal of his Arctic adventure. You can see them all at loe.org. That’s loe.org.




"Sahara: A Natural History" (Walker & Co.)


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