‘Man,’ wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky, fresh from five years in a Siberian work camp, ‘is a creature who can get accustomed to anything.’
A number of humans have, somewhat inexplicably, gotten accustomed to Scottsdale, Arizona. Scottsdale in full summer is a category of place I’d never seen before. A naked place, where you feel your raw, vulnerable animality, your proper place in the arch-backed, fur-raised middle of the food chain. Roughness and danger are ubiquitous, even in posh, golf course-dotted Scottsdale. The passages between fancy homes, where lawns should be, are given over to desert. Any swath of ground not forcefully manicured reverts to Biblical wilderness.
An Arizonian matter of factly expects to share his little patch of the planet not just with cacti, scorpions and snakes, but also coyotes, bobcats and javelinas. Tell him that you’re going for an afternoon walk, and he comes running at you confused, concerned, and with multiple bottles of water. And he’s not crazy — unless you’re chugging water compulsively, the hundred-plus ambient degrees will have you light-headed within a half hour. If you’re not careful, the ground-dwelling flora and fauna might not have to jump very high at all to jab their various little spikes into your courageous, afternoon-walk-taking visage.
In such an environment, those who can, put up walls. I stayed in a well-appointed development surrounded by tall iron fences, and filled with visually rhyming adobe fortresses. There are no sidewalks inside the community. During my week there, I saw nary a human body outside of moving vehicles. Big SUVs are the ride of choice. The outdoors is not a place to be, but to pass through with as little friction as possible.
In Arizona, and on the five hour drive there from San Diego, I felt like a foreigner. I’ve never lived anywhere that wasn’t deep-nestled and long-settled, at least by American standards. Massachusetts has brutal winters, but as long you don’t live alone, and even if you do, the winters inspire a cosy, communal digging in, like the Danish concept of hygge, but with dowdier furniture.
Maybe the cold is just my native danger, and so relatively comfortable for me, but the immense, rocky, sandy, blistering deserts I saw between California and Arizona inspire a different reflex of self-defense. The window of the car felt unpleasantly hot. The air conditioner struggled to keep us cool. Stepping out at a gas station, the heat palpably assaulted us. The places I’ve lived feel like human places — tamed, for the most part, marked by long legacies of human habitation. The heat-blurred vistas of the southwest make one feel an existential arriviste. These uncountable rocks, the lizards and snakes that scuttle around them, have been here, hot and jagged, for millenia. We’ll see how long you last.
During the drive we passed a portion of the wall between the US and Mexico, and more than a couple of prisons. All the shimmering razor wire reminded me of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious for running a brutal tent-camp prison in that same Arizonian desert. The state has given birth to some of the most draconian immigration policies in America. People from my neck of the woods find all of this a little redder in tooth and claw than befits a modern democracy.
I couldn’t help thinking that this environment — wide, rough, dangerous — naturally lends itself to primal concerns about in groups and out groups, a desire to fence ourselves safely away from whoever might be coming up over that distant ridge. This is no excuse for brutalising prisoners, to be clear, but I might be more of a gut-level tribalist, or a lock-‘em-up law and order type, if Arizona had been the place that taught my childhood self what the world is like.
Environment is upstream from culture. Think of the austere, chilly Christianity of northern Europe versus the ornate, sensual Christianity of France or Spain. It’s not an accident. God will naturally seem different depending on how the sunlight looks and feels on your face. Variations of sunlight, varieties of religious experience.
I’m told summer in Arizona is a special beast, and that no one would choose to live there if that were the year-round norm. I have newly acquired family there, so I’ll go back this winter and experience a more familiar climate. But even in the 70s or 80s, I’m pretty sure this is a place where the animal competition for survival is closer to the surface than a Bostonian can easily understand. I remain unaccustomed. Hell – two or three more trips, and I might get the urge to try on a pair of tough leather cowboy boots, test drive an Escalade, price out some high iron fencing. But I doubt it.