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As Mars was once thought to be, Phoenix is crisscrossed by canals. Except for what remains of its desert setting, canals may be Phoenix’s most distinguishing feature. Varying little, pooling a personality, they make soft incisions through what surrounds them. As you jockey through traffic dizzied by small businesses and their signs, numbed by miles of ranch homes and convenience stores, your eyes will ﬂicker coolly down what seems an open tunnel of water. Receding parallels of packed desert sand, twenty feet wide, clean of vegetation, frame an even, sky-reﬂecting ﬂow. Glimpses of joggers and cyclists along the banks indicate that there is still human life without combustion. For all their sterility, the canals command moving water and thus retain more mystery than anything else in the valley. Because they so prominently display what makes a desert city possible, it would seem that to get to the bottom of the canals would be to get to the bottom of Phoenix.
Part of the canals’ mystique is that some of their routes predate Phoenix by nearly two millennia. Beginning around A.D. 200, Hohokam Indians, using handheld digging tools, moved tons of earth and engineered the largest pre-Columbian irrigation system in the Western Hemisphere. Some 250 miles of canals fanned like tufts of hair from the Salt River, irrigating several thousand acres of corn, squash, beans, pumpkins and cotton. Having reached a population of twenty thousand, the Hohokam abandoned the Salt River Valley around 1400, possibly because they had depleted the soil.
For the next four centuries the drainage cooked in the sun, its canal system choked with the debris of ﬂash ﬂoods. The dormancy lasted until just after the Civil War, when gold miners burst into the Arizona Territory. Migrants to the West Coast passed through the valley. U.S. Army forts were established to the northwest at Prescott and Wickenburg, and upstream from Phoenix at Fort McDowell, to fend off Apaches. Miners, mi- grants, and soldiers all needed to be fed. In 1867 a scheming ex-Confederate soldier named Jack Swilling responded with the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company. Using Mexican labor, he retrenched many of the old Hohokam canals. Alfalfa for horses and grain for persons soon ﬂowed from the Salt River Valley to the forts. So responsive was the soil that miners and migrants, safe from attack, grabbed shovels and went what was soon called “canal crazy.”
The founding of the Swilling Irrigation Company was, in essence, the founding of Phoenix. An American grid of streets was imposed on the snaking, geologically determined weft of canals. Canals bred canals, and Anglo machines were able to tap the Salt River farther upstream than had been possible for the Hohokam. The river’s wild ﬂoods clearly couldn’t be al- lowed to roar through the reworked water system, returning it to waste, and a canal users’ association called the Salt River Project was organized to brake the ﬂow. Private and territorial boosters lobbied for passage of the National Reclamation Act of 1902 and landed a federal grant for what is still the world’s tallest masonry dam, eighty miles upstream on the Salt River. Named for a president eager to replumb the West, Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911, one year before Arizona became a state. It was eventually joined by three more dams on the Salt River and two on the Rio Verde, which meets the Salt just above Phoenix.
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The history of Phoenix, from outpost through oasis to elephantiasis, is written in channeled water. With the completion of Granite Reef Dam in 1908, just upstream from Phoenix, it was possible to split the entire ﬂow of the Salt River to either side of the river itself, so that 100 percent was siphoned into man-made canals and zero percent maintained the riverbed. Changing attitudes toward the canals present an oblique but curious record of how America expressed itself on its driest fringe and remind us that, even in the desert, water remains a primary ﬁgure for the human unconscious.
* * *
The Salt River Project consolidated a system from canals that farmers and water companies had dug on their own. This system incorporates 151 miles of main canals that deliver water to 880 miles of subsidiary canals, called laterals. From there, it is the prerogative of every recipient, or group of recipients, to take the water through any system they have rigged and to irrigate what they will. As alfalfa, the main original crop, was replaced by citrus groves and then by residential neighborhoods, the delivery points remained exactly where they were. The urbanization of an agricultural area with its irrigation system intact created a genuine novelty: a desert city of canals.
As Phoenix started to expand into its farms and orchards, life became intimate with the ﬂow of water. The riparian zone of the Salt River, to be sure, died at a blow when Granite Reef Dam cut off the ﬂow, but in another sense, the river habitat splintered and ﬁssioned through the canals. The laterals were open ditches with culverts where streets passed over. Shady Fremont cottonwoods, the dominant tree along the Salt River, fanned through the new water system, along with willows and tamarisk. From the twenties through the ﬁfties, when dude ranches were romantic getaways for Easterners who rode horses into the desert, the outdoor life of locals centered on the canals. No one yet had private swimming pools, and in summer, when water still ran cool from the reservoirs, children learned to swim in the canals. Swings hung from cottonwood branches over the water. Arizona’s native ﬁsh used the system freely, and people ﬁshed from bridges and canal banks for bass, crappie and cattish. Eric Bergersen, who later became a ﬁsh biologist, remembers a bloom of silverﬁn shad from Saguaro Lake that poured into the laterals and got stranded during irrigation on the lawns. “They stank for a while, then they became good fertilizer.” And where there were roads instead of trees along the bank, people skimmed along the canals on aquaplanes and water skis, holding a rope from a car.
Living with the canals meant accepting the risk of open water. More perilous than the canals were the laterals, where children splashed through the undergrowth and dared one another to swim through culverts that often had no air at all and could be clogged with brush in the middle. Child drownings were a summer staple. When water spilled over a canal bank, ﬂooding a neighborhood so that water covered the baseboard plugs and people worried about electrocution, a friend of mine became a teenage hero by digging a trench in a bank farther down, which the water itself widened on its way back into the system. “Instead of being grateful,” he says, “the Salt River Project was mad as hell that I had violated their sacred canal bank.” Water skiing at ﬁfty miles per hour in a canal ﬁfty feet wide took skill, and those who veered into the banks came to grief. Neighborhoods considered the canals their social centers, and people accepted the dangers in the same way they tolerated swimming with dead cats, dogs and snakes. Adults staked ropes over the banks to provide sure places to get out, watched over their children and taught them safe swimming. Most of the resorts were beyond the canal system, but Frank Lloyd Wright designed a textile block bridge over the Arizona Canal to harmonize architecturally with his Arizona Biltmore, and the canal-side Ingleside Resort had canoes, a romantic promenade and a waterfall.
Through the end of the ﬁfties, Phoenix grew in leafy, low-keyed neighborhoods. Even when houses took over citrus groves, many of the orange and grapefruit trees were left standing. With the sixties came walled subdivisions full of houses with backyard pools, and the mentality shifted abruptly. Canals were now the murky area over the wall, slightly mysterious and decidedly unsafe. There was a push from mothers, taken up by the newspapers, to cover the laterals because children could drown there, and the laterals disappeared into buried pipes. Canals were literally screened out of people’s lives, and the Salt River Project, ﬂowing with opinion, put out messages on the radio and in the schools not to swim in them. As the canals became demonized, people who lived in the immaculate subdivisions threw their trash over the wall into what had been communal playgrounds, and once the canals had become corridors of garbage, there was a clamor from the very perpetrators to clean them up.
The Salt River Project had never been happy to see water mandated for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses being transpired into the sky by cottonwood trees. The political climate was ripe for defoliation. Cottonwoods, tamarisk and willows along the banks were felled and plants were cleared. Annuals such as weeds and wildﬂowers were poisoned. Service roads were elevated on either side of the banks, and the porous interiors of the canals were lined with gunite, a brew of sand, cement and water sprayed three inches thick onto a wire mesh. People who ﬁshed during the puriﬁcation remember that when there were cottonwoods on one side and gunite banks on the other, all the ﬁsh were under the cottonwoods. In 1973, the Salt River Project inserted steps painted yellow every ﬁfty yards along the canal banks, but only as emergency exits for people who fell in. By the time the devegetation and lining of the canals were complete, the man-made but luxuriant meanders that had softened and socialized Phoenix reﬂected only gunite, phone poles, utility wires and sky.
* * *
Even as the canals were sanitized and agricultural lands were diced for tract housing, water continued to arrive at the delivery points, creating a system unique to any American city. A citizen whose home sits in a former alfalfa ﬁeld or citrus grove may sign up for water to ﬂood his yard. Water arrives every fourteen days from April through September and every twenty- eight days the rest of the year. Deliveries are measured in time, and a typical ﬁfth-of-an-acre lot will take forty-ﬁve minutes of water, or 27,000 gallons. Water is rotated through the network of laterals on a twenty-four-hour basis, and each lateral services several blocks of a city. Recipients are responsible for opening the valves in their yards when their turn comes, whether it is during the day or in the middle of the night. They must also maintain any ditches, gates, valves or berms on their properties.
By this subterranean means, the ghost of the Salt River still holds a neighborhood together or pulls it apart. Blocks scheduled for night deliveries will sometimes keep vigil at someone’s house over coffee or drinks to supervise a smooth passage from yard to yard. Those unable or unwilling to twist their valves at odd hours may hire zanjeros, whose function is to turn valves on cue and watch that water doesn’t spill over. Spillage is a serious offense, for water does not merely moisten the ground; it steeps in the yard, swamps the grass, turns ﬂower beds to gruel. Homeowners who let their allotment escape have been responsible for up to 40,000 gallons of rogue water that can destroy a neighbor’s den, chew up the streets, and divert cars into each other. Letting water run wild is a misdemeanor, and as a Salt River Project brochure observes, “Once water is ordered, it cannot be sent back.” The Salt River Project’s official obligation ends at the delivery point, and they try to make neighborhoods themselves deal with local problems, such as a neighbor who doesn’t clean his ditch. They have, however, been forced to hire ﬁeld representatives who try to get neighbors to cooperate and who have authority to close the headgate if a neighborhood just lets the water run. One neighborhood was about to be cut off when the ﬂooding was traced to a tied monkey who had no diversion but the valve.
Even after sterilization, the system itself remained strange enough to spark incident. A bar friend of mine was deluged with Esther Williams memorabilia when it was reported that he had driven home after last call, rolled out of his car and landed facedown during irrigation night. He might have drowned on his front lawn if his roommate hadn’t heard the splash.
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In another neighborhood a canal-loving friend, who nearly died as a child when a lateral pulled him under a sluice gate, was throwing rocks into a gunite-lined canal with buddies at the age of ﬁfteen. He spotted what looked like “a shoulder and a cowlick” drifting slowly in the middle of the water. Unsure of the object, he chucked a rock, hit the cowlick and heard a thud so dull he was sure it was a man or a mannequin. He ran home and interrupted a card game between his mother and his uncle with the story. The uncle, half convinced, called the police. By the time they caught up with the object, it had gone through a lock at Central Avenue and resurfaced as a fully clothed adult male. The body was still mid-canal, and police and ﬁremen tried to reach him from the bank with hooks. Tom’s uncle, disgusted with squeamishness in uniform, plunged in and dragged the body to shore. Dressed in a suit, tie and wingtip shoes, the victim sported an expensive watch and an unrecognizable face. Because the year was 1971, the zenith of the mob-related Arizona land-fraud murders, Tom was sure that the man had been done in and dumped. The police report stated that the deceased, overdressed as he may have been, was repairing his car on a service road when he fell backward into the canal, and his death was declared an accident.
Such larks are the exception, and most of today’s adventure is suffered by those who unwittingly drive through neighborhoods toward a canal to ﬁnd that streets come irrationally to a dead end, hook into residential circles, or double back on themselves as grid turns to labyrinth. Peering into those labyrinths from the canal banks, one sees that the backyards are furnished with endless permutations of swing sets, patio furniture, oleander hedges, barbecues and small pools. The neatness and lack of eccentricity suggest that Phoenicians have become a passive lot, content to tend their gardens, unconcerned that their river has been diverted into most undiverting canals.
* * *
There are, however, active Phoenicians who have looked urban dissolution in the face and seen the canals as potential deliverance. They have built-in constituency in the many citizens who walk, jog or bike along the canal banks, both for exercise and for nonmotorized transportation, braving vistas of cinder blocks, employee parking, dumpsters, and windowless office backs. In the fourteen contiguous communities serviced by the Salt River Project canals, a battalion of civic groups has proposed a transformation of the canals to include landscaping, drinking fountains, pocket parks, equestrian trails, waterside rests, pedestrian bridges, islands, underpasses, illumination, signs to tell you what street you’re crossing, pedestrian-activated traffic lights, integration with canal-side housing projects, public art, decorative paving, a mini-railroad, restoration of an old waterfall, and call boxes for emergencies. Renovated canals are seen as a way of linking greater Phoenix while each community projects its own identity. Scottsdale would specialize in outdoor cafés and shops fronting the canal. Gilbert would feature a farmers’ market. It seems apt that Sharon Southerland, president of the Metropolitan Canal Alliance, which coordinates the planning groups, bonded with the unreformed canals as a child, nearly drowning when she tried to swim through a pipe.
Southerland sees the canal projects as a link to the city’s origins. Archaeological studies, she says, keep raising the percentage of the main canal routes that follow those dug by the Hohokam, a ﬁgure now approaching 70 percent. Modern Phoenix is made possible by the canals: they are drinking water, irrigation, life. With grant money from various communities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the College of Archaeology and Design at Arizona State University has come up with guidelines that have been endorsed, sometimes in extravagant language, by public officials. Said the mayor of Scotts- dale, “I think the canal banks can be almost as great an attraction as the ocean in San Diego, even in August.” Said the assistant professor of architecture who is spearheading the plan, “We want to create a memorable image so that people think of us like other memorable cities throughout the world, such as Paris and Vienna.” Most observers agree that it will take more than well-trimmed water to turn Phoenix into Paris or Vienna, and a more reasonable — and interesting — perspective is offered by Cindy Ashton, also of the Metropolitan Canal Alliance. “Someday people are going to ﬂy into Phoenix and there will be green lines winding through town. It’s an aerial identity that people will want to explore on the ground.” Southerland is quick to add, “But we’re looking at it not as a tourist attraction, but as a way to improve our own lives.”
Beyond agreeing on the details and then paying for them, a major impediment is the Salt River Project’s system of service roads. Says Southerland, “You can’t do anything on the banks that gets in the way of trucks going by. The canals are also corridors for electric lines. Near the water, for instance, we can have planters but not rooted trees. We’re looking at hydroseeding and native grass right up to the edge. That’s what it looks like in the spring now, until the Salt River Project poisons the vegetation.” While Southerland claims a good working relation- ship with the Salt River Project, she also bluntly stated what I had suspected. “The Salt River Project uses us as a buffer with the public. It’s good PR.”
To see how citizen greening of the canals sat with the Salt River Project, I left the Metropolitan Canal Alliance, which was camped in the temporary headquarters of the Phoenix Junior League, upstairs in a shopping mall, and negotiated traffic to a sprawling office building set in acres of parking. The Salt River Project does not just run one valley’s canal system. It is part owner of various coal-ﬁred power plants, including the Navajo Generating Plant, which had just been ordered to stop smogging the Grand Canyon; it generates hydroelectric power on the Salt, Verde and Colorado rivers; it partially owns the controversial Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station; and it is the third-largest power utility in the United States. Meeting me by appointment were Paul Cherrington and John Egan, respectively manager of water transmission and superintendent of media relations.
Cherrington and Egan led me through a warren of polished halls to a sanctum I had hoped to see, the control room of the canal system. Theater-like, its banks of manned computers faced a curved wall of screens that showed the canal networks north and south of the Salt River, along with a screen called a water log, which scrolls through the canals’ measuring devices and can report the precise amount of water at any given point. Cherrington explained that the Salt River Project’s zanjeros in the ﬁeld take orders from farmers, residents and water treatment plants, then a water master determines each day how much water needs to be drawn from the storage dams and in what ratio it should be divided at Granite Reef Dam into the system’s two parts. “The control system is getting very automated. Every gate out there is telemetered back to the computer terminals here.” He bent to an unoccupied terminal and began pressing keys. “We can open a gate just by putting the cursor here and pushing this button on the left.”
“During the summer thunderstorms, this is a very interesting place to be,” said John Egan. “We have people getting information from the U.S. Weather Service radar, which hap- pens to be just down the hall. There are water masters taking ﬂoodwater in and water masters keeping the canals from overﬂowing. It’s a real madhouse.” A quite unmad calm marked our visit, but it was a calm in which one could dispatch a smart bomb.
Once we had retreated to a generic office, I asked Cherrington and Egan their opinion of canal reformation. “I’m chairman of the Salt River Project’s Canal Multiple Use Coordinating Center, which entertains all the various proposals,” said Cherrington. “You have to realize, of course, that our job is to deliver water, which belongs to the users, not the Salt River Project, and part of our job is keeping the canals clean.” Growth of vegetation in the canals, he explained, had been a problem since their inception, because the combination of silt and sunlight grows algae, moss and weeds that can use up to half the water and choke the channels themselves. Canals were historically cleaned by stopping the water and clearing the bottom with horse-drawn scrapers. The ﬁrst canals to have roads on both sides were dredged, full, with ship chains hauled by trucks. Eventually chemicals were introduced, which are more effective on plant life but tended to worry people who received their drinking water from one of the canals’ seven water treatment plants. The thirty-day dry-up was instituted by Phoenix. In this operation the canals, in rotation, are emptied and the Salt River Project gets in, sprays gunite and scours them.
Two recent additions to the cleaning process may aid the forces of transformation. One is the telescoop, a long-armed robot that can clean the canal from one side, freeing the other side to be vegetated. But ever more uptown is the white amur, a vegetarian carp from Asia, commercially grown in Arkansas. Weighing seven pounds when released, an amur can eat its weight in vegetable matter daily and in ﬁfteen years may grow up to ﬁve feet long and weigh seventy-ﬁve pounds. Arizona’s ravaged native ﬁsh are protected in that only sterile amurs are released, and amur-proof grates keep them within the system. Fifteen thousand amurs were dumped into the canals between 1989 and 1992, and they have proved the cheapest and safest canal cleaner yet — though dry-ups, machines, and chemicals downstream from the treatment plants are still used in changing combinations.
Now that I was up to speed on canal cleaning, Cherrington addressed my question. “We have a ﬁfty-foot right-of-way from the highline of the canal, but we need only ﬁfteen or twenty feet for equipment. We have agreed, in certain cases, to give up one side of the canal, and will give up both sides if the city in question will pick up the tab for maintaining that part of the canal. We resist trees within ﬁfteen feet of the canal, and we resist boats. But the trend now is toward attractive canals, and there’s pressure to build things like the San Antonio River Walk.”
I found it curious that both the Metropolitan Canal Alliance and the Salt River Project referred to the precedent set by the popular River Walk in San Antonio, Texas — and both agreed that River Walk, though admirable, was puny and artiﬁcial in comparison. River Walk was only a few blocks long and water was diverted to it strictly for effect. The Phoenix canals, by comparison, were 181 miles long if you included an extra 50 miles of canals that remained outside the Salt River Project system. That was 362 miles of canal bank: no other American city had anything like it.
I left the Salt River Project tallying the phases the Phoenix canal system had gone through: Hohokam routes; canal consolidation under the Salt River Project; canals as social centers teeming with natural growth; sterilization and ban on public recreation following the advent of walled subdivisions; now plans to convert the canals to highly structured, mulitple- use greenbelts. The revival of recreation at the canals was hardly a return to the era of swings hung over swimming holes from cottonwood limbs, although many people planning the reconstituted canals lived their childhoods during that period and might unconsciously be trying to reproduce it. The new focus on the canals was rehabilitation by master plan, with every planter positioned, every café table in conformity with rules of access, every bypath checked for liability, every inspiration — however lovely — thrashed out by committee. It was hard to be spontaneous in the age of litigation. The improvements, if brought to fruition, would vastly enliven the waterways that cross the Salt River Valley so bald and alike. And in continuing to reﬂect America in controlled water, the plans project, unavoidably, the age of shopping malls, of political com- promise, of safety, of bond elections, and of social correctness and urban design.
Of course, all the assorted forms of canal craziness overlook what Phoenix and the Salt River Valley might have been if the water — even part of the water — had been left in the river. It was, to be sure, the Hohokam, and not the Anglo, who dipped the ﬁrst straw, but the Hohokam lacked the storage dams to gain total control. If enough water had been left to maintain riverbanks of cottonwood and willow, with habitat for tanagers, otters and herons, the Salt River might have made a luxuriant focus for a romantic city of canals. But total control, once gained, was exercised, reducing the riverbed to a waste of gravel operations and blowing trash. A proposal to restore a section of the river, again with highly structured landscaping, was voted down, primarily because it seemed to tax all of Greater Phoenix to beneﬁt one area. During the spectacular ﬂood years of 1978 and 1980, when record rains and snowmelt funneled water even ﬁve storage dams couldn’t handle, water poured through the bed of the Salt River like lava, severing all but two bridges, undermining the interstate, infuriating commuters and bringing smiles to the faces of river lovers. While the water was unable to rouse a long-dead ecosystem, it was viscerally thrilling to watch that raw, sinewed power even while stalled bumper to bumper on a gridlocked bridge. Floods hinted at the Phoenix that might have been.
Phoenicians have accepted for generations the theft of their river, usually without a thought, and the few who take offense vent their spleen on the agency with the power, the Salt River Project. One such person — the one who incurred the wrath of the Salt River Project by breaching one of their canal banks as a teenager, and who returns the sentiment—is Tim Means, who later gave up managership of a Phoenix Jack in the Box to become a guide on the Colorado River. I once had the pleasure of touring the Phoenix Zoo with Tim. At one point the displays parted to reveal, across Mill Avenue, the corporate headquarters of the Salt River Project. As if reading a sign in front of a cage, Tim extemporized, “Salt River Project. Projectio Fluminis Salarius. Endemic to Arizona, where it is the most dangerous predator. Exhibits beaverlike compulsion to impound moving water. Favored prey species include wild rivers and tax dollars. do not feed.”
* * *
My own canal madness was the idée ﬁxe that to get to the bottom of the canals was to get to the bottom of Phoenix — an act best accomplished during dry-up. Because the canals are public, and it is a global vice to dispose of unwanted objects in moving water, for eleven months each year the canal is fed a rich diet that is exposed when the sections are dried for repairs. As with ski resorts, where locals walk under the chairlifts when the snow melts to see what has fallen out of suspended pockets, Phoenix scavengers prowl the canals for booty when the sluice gates shut. Reported ﬁnds have included vending machines, refrigerators, tires, chassis, couches, money, jewelry, guns, needles and, for the ﬁrst to arrive, edible ﬁsh. In answer to my question, John Egan said, “Yes, we ﬁnd six to ten bodies a year, but Phoenix is not the murder capital of the United States.” The canal had been empty for two weeks when I made my foray, so I had missed the good stuff, but it was still an opportunity to test my notion.
I was ﬁrst overcome by the stench. It had rained in the night and the canal had a stagnant marine smell, as if the sea had been locked in a closet. The name of the original canal company — Swilling — ﬂoated to mind. The bottom was not the smoother surface I expected; rocky here and muddy there, it was grained with what looked like tide ripples between bits of broken mirror, hubcaps and plastic bags. The canal banks had the look of plain dirt, with weeds at the waterline, so that I was unsure whether I was looking at disintegrating gunite or a stretch of canal that had never been lined at all. As I forced myself to continue through what seemed a festering hospital corridor, I could see by the prints of people and dogs and the treads of bicycles that many adventurers had preceded me. Dominating all other refuse, the principal landmarks of that anticlimactic stroll were shopping carts sprawling on their sides, on their ends, even upside down, at regular intervals. Dripping with algae that bleached like Spanish moss, stuck with shredded plastic, ﬂecked with Styrofoam, they loomed in that shrunken perspective with the grandeur of shipwrecks.
Just when my nostrils had reached their limit, my eye was caught by a frantic, swarming movement on the canal bottom in the distance. I raised the binoculars I carry in the most unpromising locales and found, to my astonishment, a ﬂock of Audubon’s warblers — the ﬁrst I’d seen in metropolitan Phoenix — hopping, darting, veering off and back, stabbing greedily at nourishment I couldn’t imagine. That banquet was the image that stuck when I tried to get to the bottom of Phoenix: the hunger of creatures, gorgeous in the individual, feeding in the most straitened circumstance.
Bruce Berger grew up in suburban Chicago. A poet and nonfiction writer, he is best known for a series of books exploring the intersections of nature and culture in desert settings. The first of these, The Telling Distance, won the 1990 Western States Book Award and the 1991 Colorado Book Award. His articles and essays have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Sierra, Orion Magazine, and Gramophone; his poems have appeared in Poetry, Barron’s, and various literary reviews in the United States, Scotland, and India, and have been collected in Facing the Music.
Excerpted from A Desert Harvest: New and Selected Essays by Bruce Berger.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 1990, 1994, 2004, 2019 by Bruce Berger. All rights reserved.
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