Seeing the light, remembering the dark

THE last time Los Angeles writer Deanne Stillman published a book on the high desert, she was met with angry editorials in a local paper, a bitter letter-writing campaign and complaints from locals. She couldn't write, her hair was strange, what did she know? More important, some desert-dwellers said, her dark view of the place would drain the area of its lifeblood — tourism.

That book, "Twentynine Palms," a tense bestseller praised by Hunter S. Thompson and compared to the work of Joan Didion, recounted the 1991 rape and murder of two local teenage girls by a Gulf War veteran stationed at the world's largest Marine base. The book's characterization of the military presence, such as her description of "the never-ending Marine war against female civilians," also drew protests.

Six years later, on a chilly evening two weeks ago, Stillman returned to the desert for a low-key event at the 29 Palms Inn and the welcome was a bit warmer.

"She nailed Twentynine Palms with that book," Bruce Miller, a mild-mannered environmental engineer who once worked on the base, whispered as admirers gathered around heat lamps. "I was surprised to hear she was coming here tonight. Very happy to be able to meet her."

And as Stillman read from her new book, "Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango," making frequent asides about the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park and threats to its flora and fauna, she was greeted like a hometown hero. Afterward, a local man stood and announced that he found the new book "an enchanting piece of poetry about a personal journey." A high school friend of Mandi Scott, one of the slain girls, went up to shake the author's hand.

The reading's sponsor, Steve Brown, who publishes the Twentynine Palms-based Sun Runner magazine, said Stillman was uncomfortable when he first asked her to be part of the literary series the magazine runs.

"She was a little hesitant about what kind of welcome she'd receive in Twentynine Palms," said Brown, who added that the magazine was flooded with e-mails objecting to the visit and at least one city councilman still bore a grudge. (Kurt Schauppner, editor of the Desert Trail newspaper, declined to comment on the author or her work.)

"They're very protective of the town out here," Brown said. "There are a lot of hard feelings. But I think the last reading kind of broke the ice and she's feeling better about coming out here."

Stillman's new book, needless to say, takes a friendlier look at the high desert. Part of the University of Arizona's "Desert Places" series, the book is an unusual hybrid, part paean to the desert, part mystical personal meditation, part reported essay with John McPhee-style research — but with sudden asides of score-settling and Borscht Belt yuks. The writing may be uneven, but it's clear that Stillman has become one of the region's leading literary voices.

The morning after the reading, on a day so cold that patches of snow still lurked among the creosote and pinyon trees, Stillman hiked through the area called "Wonderland of Rocks," with its dramatic outcroppings of rounded, wind-sculpted stones. She recounted the forces that drew her originally to the desert, thousands of miles from the Cleveland of her birth, where, she said in her deadpan Midwestern accent, "I never felt at home, I never liked the climate. I never liked ice fishing."

As a girl, she said, "I would send away for seeds and little plants from Cactus Jack's mail order, and put them up on the windowsill. And I'd watch them against the glass during these East Ohio blizzards coming off the lake. They just always made me happy: They conjured up this land of escape."

Stillman had reason to want to escape: She lived for a time with her lawyer father and sculptor mother in a comfortable part of the city, but their divorce sent the family to a less genteel area near the local racetrack, where her mother worked.

"We would hang out at the track when we were kids and meet all of these great characters — classic misfits — Appalachian jockeys, grooms from the South — all sorts of people who didn't fit in anywhere but the track. And our move rendered us social pariahs. Even some of our own relatives wouldn't speak to us."

Stillman typically uses "misfits" as a term of praise, applying it not only to herself but to the desert's plants and animals, some of which, like the Joshua Tree itself, don't exist anywhere else but the park. "I've always been simpatico with people who are not conventional. And I've always had a deep identification with people who've had turmoil and trouble in their lives."

Some of this sensibility drew her to Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega, the two working-class girls whose murders formed the basis for "Twentynine Palms." While researching that book showed her the town's dark side, its world of drugs, heavy drinking, violence and early sex, she's most interested these days in the sense of wonder the park — the 1,200 square miles where the Mojave and Colorado deserts come together — stirs in her and others.

"Look at what trees have to do in order to live," said Stillman, who's herself known, in L.A. literary circles, for a determination verging on obstinacy. "They have to burst through the rocks. I get a lot of inspiration from all the things that endure out here. If they can last through these conditions — I'm talking about our own personal storms, not just literally bad weather."

She also praises the desert's supreme honesty.

"In the desert there's more of a direct route to things: There's not velvet rope you have to cross," she said. "There's not much guile in the desert. Which doesn't mean there's no sophistication. But there's less concern with idiotic L.A. concerns — 'I can't let the valet see my car' — none of that stuff matters out here."

What matters in the desert, for Stillman, is the parched, millenniums-old land itself: It looms larger than personality or sociology.

Driving much of Stillman's writing — she's also a widely published journalist, having written for the Los Angeles Times, Slate and Rolling Stone, with books coming on the Antelope Valley and the disappearance of wild horses from the American West — is what she calls "the power of place." She learned it, she said, from the essays of Wallace Stegner (who famously called the West "the geography of hope"), as well as her old professor Tony Hillerman, and other writers of the western canon including Black Elk and Mary Austen.

"To me, landscape and geography determine everything," Stillman said. "About the people who live there, and even in some cases, about people who don't," since "landscape and space are what define the American character."

Some critics found this deterministic approach — almost a throwback to a worldview that last flourished with 19th century Naturalism — a problem in the otherwise well-reviewed "Twentynine Palms." There, for instance, she referred to the Mojave as the "dry, baptismal font of national consciousness, mythological birthplace of America," but she didn't stop there. The desert, she wrote, "demands a blood sacrifice."

Stillman, tromping over sand and past Joshua Trees reaching skyward, hasn't changed her mind. Her own life, she argued, has shown how powerfully shaping a force the landscape is. Even the American notions of rugged individualism and personal rights, she said, come out of desert spaces and from the cultures that settle there.

"Everybody from Jesus Christ to Timothy McVeigh to [19th century frontiersman and horse thief Joseph] 'Pegleg' Smith has wandered through the desert and come out with ideas," she said. "And all of those people have changed the world, one way or the other.

"The desert says that's all OK. For better or for worse."


scott.timberg@latimes.com

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