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Perspective | As the world gets hotter, Arizona books offer lessons for the future

Midway in Denis Johnson’s 1983 novel, “Angels,” a character is sweltering outside a Phoenix supermarket. The summer heat has made the parking lot “a shimmering lake of molten asphalt.” The car’s AC hardly makes a dent: “The unit was feeble against the heat; when it blew in her face, her knees felt hot.” It’s a moment of foreshadowing — the atmosphere is growing increasingly oppressive, and all sorts of things are about to go bad.

Much of Arizona gets hot in the summer, and after a decade of living in Phoenix, I’ve learned to accept 110-degree days with a certain aplomb. I hydrate. I don’t walk out to the patio in bare feet. I quietly pray that my son won’t ask to go out for a little baseball hitting practice at 3 in the afternoon.

But this July, the hottest on record globally, was especially hard on Phoenix. For 31 straight days the city registered highs of 110 degrees or above, with 17 of those highs at or above 115. My backyard pool became unrefreshing bathwater; my prayers were redirected upward, to the rooftop AC unit. The monsoons that typically arrive in July were largely absent, a handful of storms blowing more dust than rain.

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All of this has made Phoenix a scapegoat for unsustainability. But if we agree that the threat to the climate is everywhere, it’s worth noting that Topic A in Arizona writing has always been its environmental precarity. These days, with everybody feeling the heat, there may be a lesson for all of us in Arizona literature about how far we’ve overstepped our bounds and what to be mindful of in the future.

An early warning arrived not long after Westerners began exploring the Southwest in earnest. In 1878, John Wesley Powell delivered his findings to Congress about his travels in the West, “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.” To boosters of Manifest Destiny, it was an unwelcome retort to their dreams of near-infinite agricultural bounty in the Southwest. Water would have to be carefully managed, Powell insisted; communities would have to live within their means. Developers, in response, fumed; John F. Ross’s history of Powell’s expedition, “The Promise of the Grand Canyon,” catalogues the brickbats flung Powell’s way, including a dismissal as a “charlatan in science and intermeddler in affairs of which he has no proper conception.”

It was the opening chapter in a long story for Phoenix: Writers laid out the cost of living beyond our means, and we went ahead and did it anyway; dams were built, and Phoenix started its path toward becoming the fifth-largest city in the country. In his bracing 2015 dystopian thriller, “The Water Knife,” Paulo Bacigalupi imagines a worst-case scenario in which violence and strife consume the Southwest, as long-running struggles over water rights escalate into civil war across multiple states. Arizona, home to ever-expanding development and agriculture in the midst of diminishing reservoirs and stubborn drought, gets called out for special attention: “Zoners pointing fingers at one another, none of them pointing back at themselves,” he writes. “It was how you could tell someone was from Arizona. They never owned their problems.”

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Bacigalupi wasn’t indulging a fantasy: “The Water Knife” cites and takes some of its plot cues from “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner’s 1986 investigation of Southwest water rights and the dangers presented by unchecked expansion in the face of limited resources. Reisner had company: In his 1986 book, “Blue Desert,” the firebrand journalist Charles Bowden delivered a comprehensive chastising of the people who created Phoenix, “a blob parading as a city.” People kept moving in, sold on cheap land and a little distance from the rest of civilization. But all the isolation got crowded in time, Bowden wrote: “As the water tables continued to sink across the region, as the rivers were taxed beyond their flows, people did not back off with their thirsts. They did not even become alarmed.”

The results have been as dire as they’ve been unsurprising, and they affect not just developers and residents but migrants heading north to Arizona; the U.S. Border Patrol has reported hundreds of heat-related rescues in the past month. The border is the clearest evidence of our profound disconnection between our civic and personal health and our stewardship of the resources that fuel it. That severance is at the heart of Arizona poet Natalie Diaz’s 2020 prose poem, “The First Water Is the Body”: “The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body,” she writes. “What we do to one — to the body, to the water — we do to the other.”

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Politicians and citizens have been doing enough to offer some hope — by some measures, Arizona uses less water now than it did in the 1950s. But one still has to pray that the drought doesn’t persist; that Lake Mead doesn’t reach dead pool; that desalination experiments might be meaningful and not generate their own environmental bad news; that I won’t have to eventually carry a sac around that purifies my own urine, as “The Water Knife” imagines.

If I want hope along with a warning, I return to my favorite book about my home state. Willa Cather’s 1915 novel, “The Song of the Lark,” tells the story of a Colorado-born opera singer who finds her fortune on the stages of Chicago and New York. But its emotional climax is set in Arizona’s Walnut Canyon, outside Flagstaff. There, she contemplates the abandoned cliff dwellings of the Indigenous Sinagua (“without water”) peoples, who occupied the land around the 11th century. “Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind — almost in her hands,” Cather writes. “They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and color and sound, but almost nothing to do with words.”

It’s an elegant description of a gorgeous vista — the kind of beauty that’s driven people to the Southwest for decades. But Cather is writing about a place where humanity is conspicuously absent; the Sinaguans vanished centuries before. We’re not sure why. Civilizational collapse? War with rival tribes? Extreme drought? Here, there are all sorts of ways to speculate on what might do us in. But it’s not Arizona’s question alone.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

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