It was a beautiful evening in February when my fiance and I decided to go for a walk. The dusty mountains encircling our little town glowed rose in the day’s fading light. We carefully avoided walking on the grass (or lack thereof) lest we encrust our shoe soles with burrs. The air was cool and fresh. We crested the rise just past the dry creek bed, aiming for a park bench that offered a perfect view of the sunset over the desert hills. It was then that we saw the dying deer.
A mule deer lay panting on the side of the road that edged the park. A breeze blew wads of her coarse fur across the blacktop. Stripes of blood oozed from her right side. At the sight of us, her eyes rolled in fear, and she struggled desperately to stand. She couldn’t move her legs. I could hear each wet breath she drew. Though it was nowhere in sight, the car that had hit her must have done so just moments before we arrived. We had walked into this scene of violence apparent, and yet implied. Where was the car? Why hadn’t we heard its squealing wheels, or the horrible thud of impact? Full of pity, we watched the deer suffer. We knew she would not survive.
Within minutes, a police car pulled up, and two officers stepped out. The officers stood over the writhing deer, then they gazed at us, their eyes hooded and grim. Move along, their silence ordered. Our desire to watch the sunset had fled after coming upon this bloodier ending. We turned our backs upon them all and headed for home. We heard the muffled popof a gun as we crossed the bridge over the waterless creek.
“No one sees us go under. No one sees generations churn, or civilizations,” Annie Dillard writes in For the Time Being. “The green fields grow up forgetting.”
Fields may forget, but deserts remember. They retain scars from cataclysms that shook the earth aeons ago. There is a canyon in Big Bend National Park made of a soft gray rock called tuff, which is the compressed ash of a massive volcanic explosion that occurred long before humans, or even mammals, walked the planet. On the trail to Devil’s Den, one can see a distant mountain marked with livid white scars, evidence of a rockslide whose boulders lay tumbled upon the mountain’s dusky flank. To my untrained eye, it was impossible to tell if the rockslide had happened yesterday or a million years ago. They seemed raw and new, those scars, but a friend later told me the rockslide had occurred in 1980, the year I was born. So, not so new, but this is a land that preserves in limestone the ancient seabed that once stirred under the swimming fins of mosasaurs. To the land, thirty-three years ago wasn’t just yesterday—it was mere seconds ago. I’d simply arrived a moment too late to witness it.
Deserts were almost always something else before they dried up. When it wasn’t a shallow sea, the desert where I live was once a lush swamp; fossils of ancient hippos have been found where scorpions and cacti now dwell. As I explore its sere hills, I can’t help but feel like I’m walking amongst ruins—toppled and flash-dried by some unimaginable disaster—when the truth takes more patience to understand: It’s only time that killed the ferns and forests and crinoid shoals.
It’s into a similarly blasted world that Taylor, Landon, and Dodge—three astronauts from a quaintly over-achieving retro-future—crash their spaceship in 1968’s Planet of the Apes. There are deserts, which can teem with a surprising variety of life, and then there are badlands, deserts almost entirely devoid of animals and vegetation. These men face miles of badlands, with only three days’ worth of water and food to hand. Their ship is sunk; there’s no going back. They shoulder their packs and go. Canyon rims curve in graceful arabesques over the men’s awkward scrambling upon the rocks below. Taylor (Charlton Heston), his wit as dry as the dust around them, is the only one who accepts their dire position. Landon plants a pitifully tiny flag, claiming this dead land for a country that, as far as they’re concerned, has ceased to exist. Taylor laughs in his face.
It’s no wonder that Planet‘s cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, chose to film these stunning opening scenes in Utah’s Glen Canyon. The badlands’ utter starkness is the definition of “otherworldly,” so we assume right along with the men that this place is such. I find that term ironic, despite using it myself to describe similar places. I’ve heard comparable words used to describe Hawai’i’s Ka’u Desert or Arizona’s Meteor Crater. “It’s like Mars/the moon/another planet.” It’s a cliche. But how can we say this, when this planet, Earth, is the only one we’ve ever really known? Sure, we have pictures from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, but one could just as easily say their landscapes look like some of ours. All of them are badlands. There, water does not flow. Plants do not grow. The bare earth lies alone under the touch of wind (if there’s an atmosphere), temperature, and the occasional falling debris from space.
Alone, badlands remember.
I work at a biological research institute that specializes in the desert’s large mammals, specifically pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. While the former two critters bring us the most acclaim, the latter pay the bills. Private landowners are interested in knowing exactly what kind of food, weather conditions, and ranching practices result in healthy deer, and they are more than willing to pay big bucks for big bucks. In a region where cattle ranching is fading out due to drought and an increasingly volatile meat market, leasing land for deer hunting is one of the few environmentally friendly ways ranchers can make good money. (It’s better that than fracking.) Luckily for us, and the ecosystem, a sustainably run ranch is not only good for deer, but for many other animals and plants as well, so we try to help landowners out.
Thus it was that I attended my first mule deer capture one clear March morning. Though it was certainly better than being shot at and taxidermied, it was not a fun day to be a buck. Imagine going to a routine physical checkup, except that the doctor chases you down in an ATV, captures you in a net shot from a gun, and straps you to a helicopter—which then flies away, with you spinning dizzily beneath it—before dropping you amidst a bunch of bored men in their twenties. Imagine two of these men then hold you to the ground while you wriggle and cry, “Help! Please! Stop!” One prizes your mouth open with a metal bar to check your teeth. Another clips a chunk out of your left ear for a DNA sample, while still another pierces your right ear with an ugly fluorescent pink plastic tag. Despite the blindfold the men put over your eyes, ostensibly to calm you, you feel a fresh rush of panic at the tightening of a GPS transmitter collar around your neck. (In this case, be glad you’re a male. There is such a thing as a vaginal transmitter.) Then, as if you hadn’t suffered enough humiliation, a woman in her mid-thirties spray-paints a big green “X” on your ass before the men finally let you go.
West Texas is lousy with mule deer. It’s easy to assume they’re all alike, especially when you see herds of them standing in the middle of a country road at dusk, staring at you with gentle, stupid eyes and refusing to get out of your way. Spray can in hand, I stepped away from each buck with a fresh appreciation of each deer’s individuality. Some of the deer were stoic, suffering through our ministrations with quiet dignity, while others (particularly yearlings) bleated like little lost lambs. One huge bruiser had a truly inspiring rack–nearly two inches thick at the base of each antler–but nearly all the points were broken off from fights with lesser challengers. One deer farted constantly. They all had one thing in common, though. I don’t speak deer, but the look in their eyes was as plain to me as the writing on this page, and it said, “TAKE YOUR STINKING PAWS OFF ME, YOU DAMN DIRTY APES.”
Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair: For he is the harbinger of death.
—The Twenty-Third Scroll, Ninth Verse
And so, after making friends with a couple of sympathetic chimps, Taylor escapes from ape civilization with his mute girlfriend, Nova. They go into the desert on a horse with no name, and thereby discover that there ain’t no one for to give him no name–no Taylor, no Bright Eyes, nothing. Dr. Zaius was right when he intoned, “You might not like what you find.” What I always found interesting is that Taylor’s cynicism is never actually disproved. If anything, his misanthropy is completely deserved. He hates humanity at the film’s beginning, and despite a half-assed admission that he “Needs people” (unsurprisingly, a cocky bro like Taylor could admit to needing a hot woman who can’t speak), the film’s famous twist ending proves him right. What he thought was an inverted, alien world was really his own neighborhood, transformed by human violence and time out of mind. All deserts were once something else, but this time we were the cataclysm that left nothing but sheer rock and the bluest skies above.
Each of the films in the Planet of the Apes franchise attempts to work through humanity’s collective guilt. The source of this guilt changes with the decade. The films made in 1968 and 1969 pondered racism and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. The films from the 1970’s concerned themselves with a working class revolution and animal rights. 2014’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes picked up these themes and expanded them into an unexpectedly complex exploration of non-human personhood. (As for the 2001 film, the guilt is Tim Burton’s entirely, for making such an expensive piece of crap.) Taken together, all of these films portray an uneasiness with humanity’s power over the oppressed, over the animals with whom we share this place, and ultimately, over Earth itself.
This uneasiness is what recently drove me to the desert. Like Taylor, I grew sick of living in a city filled with so many loud, violent, and selfish people, so I left. I took a job working to preserve an ecosystem threatened by humanity’s actions, hoping that would atone for the guilt I feel for my small role in our misguided dominion over Earth. And no, I will not breed in great (or any) numbers – my partner and I refuse to bring any more children into this overpopulated world. At times, especially after I read articles about climate change and how it’sacidifying the oceans and unearthing desert dust fungi that might kill me, I relate to Taylor. I want to gnash my teeth and scream, “You ruined it! Goddamn you all to hell!” I wish I could punch humanity in its collective face, but that, in the end, would only result in punching myself. So, like Taylor, I punch the unyielding earth at my feet.
At times like these, there’s always Annie Dillard. “The earth was plowing the men under, and the spade, and the plow. No one sees us go under.” Meteorites and rockslides and eruptions are cataclysms. So are we. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Does an earthquake feel guilt? Does the meteorite regret its crater? Does the canyon resent the flood that formed it? We are of this Earth: ashes and dust.
It was high noon the day I hiked to Devil’s Den, the harshest time to be out in the desert. Though I continually sucked water from my Camelback pouch and had covered every inch of my exposed skin with sunscreen and light clothing, the heat still sapped my strength. I needed shade, and there was none. I had to keep walking. I felt faint. My legs shook weakly with each step. Finally, I found a stone outcropping near an arroyo that offered a sliver of shadow. I lay my sweaty back against it, and it drew from me the heat of my racing heart. The stone was so cold that I shivered. I took from my pack some electrolyte capsules—minerals, tiny bits of earth—and swallowed them. I looked at the blue sky and marveled at how, here in the desert, hope and dread hold hands.