BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Linking the Desert to Its Native Souls : FOUR CORNERS: History, Land and People of the Desert Southwest by Kenneth A. Brown; HarperCollins $26, 372 pages


On a topographical map of the American Southwest you can see the Colorado Plateau with striking clarity. It stretches from the Uinta Mountains of Utah in the north to the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and New Mexico to the south, from western Arizona to the Rio Grande Valley and the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in the east.

"A brightly colored block of rock, cut by a maze of canyons, it is a landscape unlike any other place on Earth," Kenneth A. Brown writes. "The land is wide and open. In the high, thin air, views reach for 50 or 60 miles--off to the distant lines of plateaus and mesas, unbroken by the signs of cities or towns, or even trees.

"The relationships between things are easier to see here, not only between the land and the plants and animals that cover it, but also between the land and those who live upon it."

Brown's fine book looks at all those relationships, carefully and lovingly. "Respectful" and "sympathetic" are the adjectives his prose evokes as he takes us on an easy tour of the current theories about the plateau in geology, biology, anthropology, archeology and history.

He conveys a sense of awe that this 2 billion-year-old mass of rock apparently migrated from the equator, and has risen and fallen, but, for reasons no one knows, has never been subjected to mountain-building forces, though it has been punctured by volcanoes.

Brown doesn't just talk about this land. He shows it to you, takes you there, like this:

"I spent the rest of the day walking along the Tonto Plateau [in the Grand Canyon], watching the clouds drift across the sky to send patterns of sun and shade dancing across the rocks. By late afternoon a winter thunderstorm had settled into the canyon, bringing swirling clouds of snow that melted as soon as they touched the ground. The wind whistling along the canyon walls sounded like the surf of ancient seas."

For the geologically challenged, there is a nice cross-section of the plateau showing the layers of rock laid down when it was under the sea, from just above the granite at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the topmost pink cliffs, like those in Bryce Canyon.

Brown also takes you to the people on the land.

The Colorado Plateau has more remnants of pre-European settlements--like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly--than any other place in the United States. It also contains the remarkable Hopis and Zunis and the Rio Grande pueblos.

Brown accepts the argument that the various pueblo Indians are descendants of those somewhat mysterious earlier inhabitants whom the later-arriving, pastoral Navajos called the Anasazi.

"It has become fashionable today to portray Native Americans as nothing more than victims," Brown writes. "While there is no doubt that Native Americans often suffered mightily, to see their history as simply one of submission is an insult to both their achievements and their memory--a facile manipulation of the facts that ignores the complexity of the relation between immigrant and native; the struggle between old and new." But Brown does not ignore the strains and conflicts between the peoples of the modern Southwest.

Nor does he ignore the perils to the land itself. "While people have lived here for thousands of years," he says, "the conflicting demands being placed upon it today for water, work and play seem to be pushing the land here to the point of exhaustion."

His hope for the land lies in our realizing what a rare treasure we have and in trying to learn from it.

"The ancient peoples of the deserts and canyons here have not only struggled to survive, they struggled to build a society as well. That ancient past has much to teach us. Here on the Colorado Plateau you can see not only the past but perhaps a way to the future as well."

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