Defining the Desert


  1. arid land with usually sparse vegetation
  2. an area of water apparently devoid of life
  3. a desolate or forbidding area: lost in a desert of doubt
  4. any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil
  5. any place lacking in something: The town was a cultural desert.

Synonyms: wasteland, barren wilderness.

– Sources: Merriam-Webster and

As I click through this past winter’s ton o’ photos of the Sonoran Desert, I realize how much my experience of the desert surpasses what I might have expected based on these definitions.

Certainly I have shots that evoke a sere, unforgiving environment.

Two dried seed pods against deep-blue sky.

Single blade of prickly pear with thorns

But I have other shots that invite a different understanding.

Desert: an area of lush prickliness

Close-up of thorns on rounded cactus

Desert: an area of soft prickliness

Single lavender fairy duster bloom

 Desert: an area of unexpected colour

Yellow fruit on cholla cactus

Bright yellow daisy-like flowers against bright-blue sky.

Orange globe mallow buds

Desert: an area of fuzziness, nay, even fluffiness

Red and green new leaves.

White seed fluff with green seed pods

Desert: a land of welcome shade

Yellow daisy-like flower in shade of tree

Desert: a land of life-giving water

Yellow grass reflected in water

 If a barren wilderness can so surpass its definition, surprising and delighting me, surely anything and everything can.


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6 Responses to Defining the Desert

  1. Laurna Tallman says:

    Perhaps a problem with our assessments of the vicissitudes of life is that we too often measure them against a template of ideal comforts instead of against the desert. Your brilliant photos and pithy observations provide perfect little bridges of appreciation to “soft prickles” and streams in my desert. You have a powerful message for me today and I thank you for it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Thank you. I think you’re right: I know I too often compare what is to what “ought” to be, just as if that meant something.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    And you didn’t mention poisonous snakes, sandstorms, heatstroke, and a whole bunch of other stereotypes of deserts. It’s hard for us (especially us writers) to remember that every word, yes, literally every word, comes with its own entourage of contexts. Those contexts determine our reaction. I’m reminded that in biblical settings, deserts were death (for those banished from the camp) and clarity (for those who went into the wilderness to clear their minds). Radically different; same desert. Same with other settings. Once, I dreamed of sailing around the world solo, like Joshua Slocum or Francis Chichester; now, I’m sure the open ocean would be my death.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – And all those stereotypes are also true. Its just that none of them are the whole story.

  3. Details. Love them.

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