Upstairs at the Vil­la Far­nese in Capraro­la you find the Sala di Map­pa­mon­do, with a suite of fres­co maps depict­ing the world known to Rome in the 1570s. One wall has a par­tic­u­lar­ly rash set of guess­es at the geog­ra­phy of the Amer­i­c­as, and there what would become the inte­ri­or of the Unit­ed States is labeled as the desert of Zubican. 

How could it be, long after the set­tler mind had con­ced­ed the val­ue of prairie soil, that there would still seem to be some truth in this stu­pid lie? But yet, I go every so often back and forth across the Mid­west via I‑70, in the stretch between Colum­bus and Den­ver, and bathe in the con­di­tion that most any­one sees when they say Mid­west; not the Bad­lands, not the Ozarks, not the Drift­less, but the plains. And I feel, more than I ever did around Tuc­son or Palm Springs, the feel­ing I rec­og­nize from sto­ries of mak­ing your way through desert.

unusual Thursday

Ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly, before a desert was some­thing dry, it was some­thing for­sak­en; just as a desert­er for­sakes their duty. A desert is where you are liable to be for­got­ten; a place from the out­side but not on the inside. What seems for­sak­en here is the duty that seems to hang to the more irreg­u­lar parts of the world, for each acre and square foot to be its own place, its own propo­si­tion. The corn­fields are no more aban­doned than the hills of Lazio are, but they do seem to bear a sin­is­ter sug­ges­tion that one acre is about as good as anoth­er; that there is no par­tic­u­lar rea­son to be on one plot or anoth­er; that the odd hedgerow or wood­ed stream is a hic­cup, a flick­er of sta­t­ic.

What should be sin­is­ter about this demo­c­ra­t­ic state of affairs – no less for nomadic hunters than for farm­ing set­tlers? It seems to me that a flat plain seems to ren­der every­thing on top of it as an instance, some­thing that does not have a home but has been left at ran­dom, like the instances of even­ly weath­ered stone scat­tered indif­fer­ent­ly across a hama­da. The base upon which any instance stands is men­tal­ly dis­card­ed; it is imma­te­r­i­al; it blurs into a vague color. 

sans titre
Yves Tanguy, UNTITLED

I vis­it­ed a ceme­tery near here once that had nev­er been farmed, and so still had the seed bank of the prairie. Bee balm, cone­flower, and roy­al catch­fly, mixed in with grave­stones, had an odd way of not adding up to any­thing; you walked in, found your­self face to face with flow­ers, looked at their sta­mens, for­got where you were stand­ing. You may as well have been in the aisle of a Mei­jer. As Iowan land­scape archi­tect Ken Smith put it: big, lit­tle, skip the middle.

(December 2022)