In the fall of 2017, Ben Ehrenreich traded one desert landscape for another, and moved from Joshua Tree to Las Vegas. By then, he had already embarked on a journey through time, with owls—some real, some mythical—as his guides, who would ultimately lead him to The End. In Las Vegas, where he spent a semester as the 2017 Shearing Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, Ben covered his office walls in index cards. These cards, with scribbled notes on imperialism, environmental collapse, and time (as measured by both natural and imposed human forces) eventually took shape as Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, an urgent, meditative account on how we arrived at our current reality, and where we possibly have left to go from here.
I got to know Ben a couple years later, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world had changed, and the fears that he had been grappling with about our future had only proliferated, becoming ever more dire, and more undeniably clear. Still, life went on, as it always does. Ben spent the early days of the pandemic in Spain, with his partner and newborn child. While he may have been considering the same old catastrophes, somewhere in our conversation, I discovered a bit of restored faith in the notion that with uncertainty, comes possibility.
Ben’s writing, above all, is deeply human. It carries concurrently existential doom and resilience, destruction and beauty, through thoughtful, incisive prose. His last book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, chronicles the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation—their suffering, joy, and acts of everyday resistance in the face of stark injustice. Ben is a National Magazine Award winning journalist, a columnist for The Nation, where he writes about climate change, and the author of two novels: Ether and The Suitors.
Desert Notebooks does not gloss over the crises we face (the climate crisis, the lethal consequences of capitalism, etc.)—it names what is at stake, and what we bear to lose. All things considered, the subjects that Ehrenreich confronts in his writing should fill you with despair. And yet, I walked away feeling a profound sense of hope. Desert Notebooks arrives at a moment when there is little left to do but challenge what we’ve been told is possible—to reimagine our world, rebuild, and hope for a better future.
— Summer Thomad
THE BELIEVER: Desert Notebooks deals a lot with time as a concept and why we experience time the way we do. With the pandemic, time feels disrupted, altered, and in some ways, even inconsequential in a way it never really has before. Has your understanding of how time functions in our lives shifted over the past few months, and do you think that shift might have any lasting effect moving forward?
BEN EHRENREICH: All the things that we guided our days around no longer exist. And for a lot of people that’s really distressing because we counted on that to structure our days. But I think it also makes clear to us on the one hand that time was constructed all along. That we experienced time because we’d built it together, not necessarily consciously or willfully. Time was something that our society built, not because it’s something natural to the world. Nature has its own rhythms. And the kind of time we’ve been living under has been like this very specific kind of capitalist time that orders our days. If something as enormous as time is dependent on an economic order that we know to be killing us, then so much that we take for granted as being immutable suddenly appears to us as mutable.
If that could change, if time could fall apart, what else could fall apart? And if it could fall apart, maybe it can be taken apart too. So I think it’s possible to find some revolutionary hope in this situation, because things that we never imagined could possibly change, or even if we imagined, things that we were reassured by everything in our society couldn’t change, changed. They changed overnight; just in a matter of weeks, the entire world shut down. That happened, not because we wanted it to, but because this disease hit. What if we got together and actually wanted to collectively remake the world? Suddenly it’s clear that it’s possible to do things that seemed impossible a few months ago.
BLVR: It’s also interesting to think about how writing can function as a tool for measuring time, or helping us map out this prospect of remaking the world. In the first chapter of the book, you consider who and what the act of writing serves in a world in which literacy might be nearing its horizon. You come to the realization that time and writing are inseparable and that “writing extends us in time.” What role do writers play at this moment?
BE: Something that surprised me when I started the research for this book was the degree to which particular enlightenment thinkers had structured time on this kind of hierarchical ladder, in which societies advance from a primitive state through barbarism to civilization. The thinkers who first articulated that also lined up those states with various forms of writing, so that pictographic writing was the kind of writing that was appropriate to savagery. Then finally, everyone graduates to the glory of alphabetic writing. It was this way of making writing, and making the very particular kind of writing—the kind of writing practiced in the West—the signifier of civilization of a society having advanced to a certain point. I find that pretty disturbing, because it was used as a way of discounting the cultures and even the written traditions of huge parts of the world.
So that was one of the things that I was grappling with in the book. Another thing was the way to which certain philosophical anthropological traditions have argued that writing is always a tool of power. The very first kinds of writing that we have from the earliest Mesopotamian sources are lists of who’s paying taxes and what the Royal warehouses contain and who conquered who, et cetera, et cetera. They argued that it’s impossible for writing to escape from this role as a way of both preserving and expressing authority. So in addition to worrying about “why do this if no one is going to be left to read it?”, there are these ways that writing seemed implicated in structures of power that I want to think that writing can actually combat. I think it can.
Writing can also be liberating. There are kinds of writing that don’t get recognized by the state, that don’t get recognized by power, and that are routinely excluded from the narratives of power. I think writing in moments like this one, I hope, can play a liberatory, insurrectionary role. A lot of us have been not only inspired, but radicalized by the written word. I think that can continue to happen. It certainly needs to continue to happen. It makes me all the more impatient with writing that plays the opposite kind of role—that uncritically serves power and does so smugly and arrogantly, which is just a great deal of what we read these days.
That was a long answer to your question.
BLVR: It was a good answer. There are also so many gatekeepers and power structures that are now such an inherent part of writing, or at least writing for a living. It’s interesting to think about writing as being inherently tied to a form of power and a way of reinforcing the powers that be, but concurrently having the capacity to liberate, and to challenge those powers.
BE: Yeah, it’s been interesting that over the last six months at the same time that we’re seeing monuments to slave traders and monuments to genocidal imperialists being toppled, we’ve also seen these rebellions within the publishing industry. Like with representation of Latinx writers or of Black writers, and the publishing industry struggling to go on the defensive, and trying to live up and walk with them, maybe some of them being quite healthy, but nonetheless struggling with these really unheard of kinds of challenges in our culture to the stranglehold that a certain kind of racial power has had over the written word.
II. “WHAT I LOVE AND WHAT THEY’RE PANICKING ABOUT.”
BLVR: I want to talk a bit about the desert. In the book you write “The desert enforces its own perspective. It shrinks you and puts eternity in the foreground.” You’ve talked about how the experience of being in the desert radically decentered you, and how it decenters humans as the main force of life in the world. Could you speak on how being in the desert does this, and how your relationship to the desert reformed your way of thinking about human’s place in the world?
BE: A lot of people really don’t like the desert. A lot of the people enter a certain existential panic in the desert. And I’ve always loved it. But I think what I love and what they’re panicking about are kind of the same thing. It’s this radical sense that you don’t really matter. It’s not a kind of beauty that nurtures you, that you can imagine you have a comfortable place in. It’s a kind of beauty that’s closer to the sublime, one that really profoundly shakes you if you let it. It’s an extremely harsh environment. I don’t know how hot it is there today, but probably 106-ish.
BLVR: Around that.
BE: It’s very easy to die in the desert. And the desert will go on; your death won’t be marked. That should be really alarming, but I’ve always found that on the contrary, there’s something enormously comforting about that in the same way that like looking at the night sky from anywhere in the world, if you can really see the stars, it can be both dizzying and terrifying, but also profoundly beautiful. It’s also like, my life is just a little tiny speck. This is all going to keep twirling around without me, it’ll keep happening for billions of years, just as it has done for billions of years preceding my birth. On the one hand, you can be threatened by that and you can be disturbed and defensive about that kind of ego collapse that it implies. On the other hand, if you try to fit yourself into it, it means trying to do so without without making too big a deal of yourself, which means trying to understand how you fit into those rhythms and how you fit into these these kinds of time, which are so much bigger than us, and so much bigger than human time.
How do we fit into these webs of life in which we’re not central? We’re just a tiny node on a much more intricate pattern. That to me was really exciting and life affirming in the kind of deepest, I hope least cliched sense, that it allows us to see a much bigger world than the one we’ve created for ourselves. So for all those reasons, for me, living in the desert was really transformative. I’ve been going there for years and spending a month here two months there whenever I could before too. But living there for a more protracted period of time really kind of pushed it down. I think I was also ready to be pushed at the moment that I moved there.
BLVR: You talk about progress as a theory of white supremacy, and the factors that shape our perceptions of time, like the rise of capitalism and structures of racial hierarchy. How do we reconcile the ethnic cleansing of our past as we move forward in this moment of resistance among the Black Lives Matter protests, and all kinds of resistance happening globally? What do you think differentiates this moment from say, the sort of bullshit resistance we were seeing earlier in this administration?
BE: I mean, we’ll find out. I think it’s a very different moment in a lot of ways. I think it’s clear now having had a basically fascist administration in control of the country for nearly four years, with the path that we’re going on, there’s no pretending. It’s also very clear who is most at threat. And it’s not the people who were vocally part of the resistance in the beginning of 2017. But also, I think the ways in which the pandemic has laid out like the racial and economic fault lines of this country make it hard to back up. A lot of people are killed by the police every year, right? But it was George Floyd’s death that it sparked these protests. Why wasn’t it one of the thousand people who died in the previous year or the year before that? I think a lot of it has to do with what people have been suffering under the pandemic, the ways in which it realized that the entire system is really geared to kill a lot of us.
Right now we have more than forty million people unemployed in the U.S. This is a revolutionary situation. This is the kind of situation in which people don’t have any options except to try to demand radical change and fight for radical change in their society. I don’t think the political class has quite figured out how serious a situation this is. When the Senate went home without having extended the $600 a week unemployment benefits, they were doing what they’ve always been doing, which is taking for granted that people will suffer and continue to. They could play their games, but I don’t think they knew how evolved the situation is now. When you start having millions of people evicted, millions of people unable to pay the rent or feed their children or pay their medical bills, I think that level of urgency completely shifts the political terrain. I think that’s where we are. No matter who wins in November and, even after that, no matter who takes office, I think the situation is going to be a very different one than we lived in a couple years ago.
III. THE OWLS OF XIBALBA
BLVR: I got the sense that your reading and research for this book lead you to taking a sort of ethnographic approach, where you were weaving connections across several cultures and mythologies and histories (notably from the Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Mojave). As a reader, it was exciting to go further down these rabbit holes with you. I wonder how you settled on the structure of the book; did it feel overwhelming to be grappling with all these different stories?
BE: I don’t think I always knew that it was all going to weave together. Or, I didn’t know how it was going to weave together. But I knew that it was all connected. I knew that there was one thing pushing me to read all of these things even if I couldn’t articulate it yet. Even if I couldn’t see the way things interwove, I knew that there was some kind of a pattern there. I started putting up index cards. I went back to like high school note taking methods, because I was writing it in this sort of fragmentary section by section notebook kind of way that the book ultimately stayed with. So each scene, each section was a notecard, and I put them up on the wall of my office.
I was always moving around trying to figure out which [index cards] connected to which ones. And that was basically the process. I wrote all of these things. I wasn’t sure what order they would all go into or how they would all fit. But I knew I had to keep writing until I was done. And when I was done, I had a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the final book. There were some things that kind of hit the same note. And then I would realize that there were some gaps that I needed to connect some things. But once I had all of those pieces, it was just a question of shuffling that deck of cards basically. And I probably shuffled it six times or so before it became something close to its current state. The book proceeds more or less chronologically, but I didn’t write all those sections in the order that they appear.
BLVR: Where did you start finding all of these various works for mythology and from various philosophers? Did it all start with your obsession with owls?
BE: Yeah, it really did. The book starts with this hike during which we scared off these owls, and while we were out there and my friend Anthony McCann, who appears in the book as “A” said, “Oh, it’s just like the owls of Xibalba in the Popol Vuh.” And so I went back to the Popol Vuh to look at those owls. And then the Popol Vuh led me through a bunch of Mesoamerican history and aggregating accounts of the conquest and the genocide that followed it. And then I started thinking about other owls. So I remember the famous line of Hegel’s, “The owl of Minerva flies only at night.” And then I started reading more about Minerva of course, also Athena. And that led me to Maria Gimbutas, this feminist archeologist, which led me down in various other paths. And thinking about Hegel also made me think about Walter Benjamin. So it did come together like in the slightly insane organic way that it seems to in the book. Some of those things I’d read before or was familiar with before, I’d read Hegel and Benjamin even before. But a lot of it was new to me.
Kind of on a parallel track, I think living in the desert, I had started becoming curious about the people who lived there before me, and who still live there. So I started reading about the Serrano and the Chemehuevi, in precisely the places where I was living around Joshua tree. So I started trying to learn as much as I could about them. And I don’t think at that point I quite understood why those histories were going to interweave with the rest of this project. I figured that out.
BLVR: How did you figure it out?
BE: I guess trying to both in terms of this other way of looking at the desert and understanding the desert and other ways of thinking about storytelling and narrative and other ways of thinking about time. All of those sort of wove together.
BLVR: I’ve observed that at times, people look at the realities being presented in your work (the the imminent doom of environmental collapse, etc.) or the even just look at the name “a road map for the end of time” and see it at a surface level, implying that there’s a level of pessimism or a sense of meaninglessness in your work, but I find that at the heart of it all, there is this deep sense of love and appreciation for all life. You write that there is so much beauty, and even humor, to be found under the most dire of circumstances (in the desert, a so-called barren wasteland, or in Palestine, for example) and in the presence of any form of life. Is that something that you find that people often misunderstand about your work or about your writing perspective specifically?
BE: That’s really good to hear, so thank you for saying that. It means that I did what I wanted to do. As a writer, you find a problem, and you try to write your way out of it. I wanted to write my way out of despair and to try to find reasons to go on—to go on writing, to go on living in, in the face of all the horror and all the kinds of collapse that we’re facing. That was my project. In some ways I knew the answers before I started, but I had to write them out in order to understand them. Palestine definitely played a big role in how I see the world and think about it, and spending time in a place that in many ways feels really insanely hopeless, an incredibly brutal occupation and the entire world having kind of moved on and abandoned a cause that once united large parts of the world. Seeing how my friends and people I came to care about grappled with despair and lived with it, but also lived on and fought on and laughed and loved. I sound like a greeting card when I start talking that way. But that really shifted my way of thinking. I think this is true in the most difficult parts of the world (and we now live in a difficult part of the world.) People still fall in love. People laugh. I find that people laughed a lot more in Palestine than they did in most of the parts of the U.S. that I was familiar with. And they were up against more immediate forms of violence for the most part. I think it was with some of that spirit that I approached this book.
The desert reinforces it too. Among all of the harshness that the desert wears as its surface skin, there’s also incredible beauty and so much life. You only have to live through like one spring in the desert to see this landscape that looks entirely dead just burst into, into beauty and color and life, and to understand that all is not as we see it. If a creosote doesn’t despair, if a barrel cactus doesn’t despair, who am I to despair?
BLVR: I noticed that short excerpts from Natalie Diaz’s poetry are interspersed throughout the book; do you often look to poetry and source of inspiration for your writing?
BE: More and more, I read absolutely everything again, and find the barriers between genres more a nuisance. Writing in the U.S. is so professionalized. If you’re going to be a fiction writer or poet, you go and do an MFA. If you’re going to be a journalist, you go to journalism school. Once you’re in doing an MFA program, you have to choose your genre. And people I think tend to get thrown into little channels. The more, I think we expose ourselves to completely different ways of using language, the better.
BLVR: Do you ever have times in your writing life where you really struggle to get into what you’re working on? What strategies do you employ to enter the work? Can you say a little bit about how you find your subjects?
BE: Yeah, of course. Writing is a pretty masochistic endeavor. I don’t trust writers for whom it’s easy. I think it’s always hard, and no matter how much experience you have, it doesn’t get easier. There are good days in which it’s absolutely wonderful. But those coexist constantly with really awful days. And how do I choose things? It’s really just a matter of letting them choose you. That might sound like a cop out. But I try not to be too anxious about it. If you’re stuck, you can tie yourself up in knots and then feel really distant from whatever part of you might be capable of writing fluidly. The more you can trust yourself and trust that that you’re going to stumble on something, it will stumble on you. Like if you’re a human being who’s curious about the world and interested in the world, stuff is going to start to nag at you like burrs on your ankles, and eventually you look down and there’s enough burrs to build some horrific sculpture out of it. Maybe this book is a good example, because I didn’t plan to write this book. I was working on a novel, and I had written more than a hundred pages of it, but I was having a really hard time getting into that novel. I sat down and eventually something else like came out that I didn’t expect to come out. There’s a certain amount of faith involved that if you let yourself and if you kind of trust yourself enough, your subjects will choose you.
BLVR: It is a sort of magical thing, where sometimes when I have an idea that I’m dwelling on, suddenly it starts to prop up everywhere in what I’m reading, watching, etc. I also wonder if that’s just a level of my own self involvement, of seeing what I want to see reflected in the world, but then sometimes it just appears in these very natural moments.
BE: I think you have to trust that. You have to be kind of self-involved to be a writer, right? You have to be arrogant enough to think that other people are gonna want to read your ideas and read your thoughts. But the moment that you start seeing those connections and that sparkling bridge starts to spread itself through your mind, you gotta let it happen.
BLVR: Are there any writers and thinkers that you have sort of taken comfort in lately?
BE: I go back to Baldwin’s essays with some regularity. I can’t think of anyone else who writes about the U.S. with this combination of conviction and sadness. Both the sort of moral passion, and it’s not forgiveness exactly, but it’s a compassionate sadness at the failure of the United States to live up to the promises it makes. There’s so much love in his writing. There’s so much anger, but there’s also so much love, and I think you need both. For some of the same reasons, John Berger, who has the same sort of love and wisdom and anger that I go back to again and again.
BLVR: Not to sound glib, but what prevents you from giving up hope on the human race?
BE: We don’t have time! I mean, we’re all we have. I think it’s really easy, especially in times like these to write humans off as a virus upon the face of the planet, and there’s something kind of comforting about that, because once you’ve decided that, you don’t have to do anything else. But I think that the intentionally destructive era of human habitation of this planet is only a couple hundred years old and is very specifically tied to an economic system which was born around the same time. It’s more difficult to think that no, it’s not humans that are this pox, but the way humans have organized themselves over the last couple hundred years. This is challenging to us, because this means we have to do it differently. It means we have to rethink things really radically and relate to each other in radically new ways. And that’s really hard. But it’s also our only hope. I have a kid now; she’s six months old and she’s going to grow up in this world, and it’s bad enough that I haven’t done more to make this world something other than it is. It’s bad enough that we’re giving this world to her and every other child who’s alive now. Then, if we give up on it and give up on them? I can’t do that.