“Nothing means what we want it to,” writes Ben Ehrenreich, “or never just that.” In Desert Notebooks, Ehrenreich seeks to define our human relationship to time, including how teleological explanations of progress are an erasure of stories that don’t fit the narrative. “What is time?” he asks. “How do we understand it? Why do we experience it the way we do?” Ehrenreich’s story begins in Joshua Tree, where the author becomes more attuned to the natural cycles of life; it moves to Las Vegas, where he encounters people living at extremes. But as much as it is a story of place and experience, Desert Notebooks is a work of illumination. Ehrenreich steeps himself in history, philosophy, science, and mythology, analyzing how stories shape our concepts of past, present, and future.
Ben Ehrenreich sits down with author Robert Lovato and Alta Live for a digital discussion on their new works on Wednesday, January 27 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Aware that his writing parallels the writing he’s exploring, Ehrenreich notes that “time and writing are inseparable.” He records his own experience with an ironic awareness of creating meaning. He welcomes ambiguity and interpretation. “A single message,” he writes, “no matter how apparently unambiguous, can mean more than one thing. I’m counting on it.” Ehrenreich marks time with mentions of climate change research and President Donald Trump’s tweets. Political and climatic apocalypse loom. Yet despite its sometimes dark tone, Ehrenreich’s research is the compelling force that drives Desert Notebooks forward; he asks ontological questions while celebrating discovery. “One of the things I am trying to do here is not ever shrug,” he says, and his vignettes about life in Joshua Tree and Las Vegas exhibit the same vulnerable awareness. Ehrenreich is deeply curious and deeply affected by everything he encounters.
It’s a lot to take in at once, this web, and in our dizziness and fear that its limitlessness adds up to meaninglessness we can’t help but hack a story out of it, following a single path from node to node and ignoring or excluding all the other links. That’s what we do. That’s what I’ve done. But the stories that have been winning out these last two-hundred-and-change years—that have been erasing all the other possibilities, the other choices that we had—they have led us here, to this particular regime of power and to this too-warm abyss.… If we are to survive we will have to remember, if we can, that there are always other paths, and that this regime can be dismantled just as it was built. And that beyond any individual route or routes, there is the map itself, this sprawling connectedness without terminus or border. It tells a different kind of story, and presents a different kind of choice.
Alta caught up with Ehrenreich recently via email to discuss the connections in his work and how our stories shape our sense of time.
What central question does your work ask?
I guess the central question is, How did we get here? I started writing Desert Notebooks in 2017, about a year after Trump took office, while living in a place—the Mojave Desert—that made me at once aware of the rhythms of the earth and of all the ways in which they were being disrupted, with devastating effect. It turned out to be a good place to ask big questions about our society and the myths that animate it, about time and how we experience it, about how to keep going when it feels like all is lost.
Does the overlap of ideas and connections in your work happen organically? How did your conception of this project change over time?
I wish I could say I had planned it, but yeah, it happened very organically. I wrote this book in a bit of a frenzy, and it very much tracks what I was reading about and thinking about while I was writing it. It’s no small thing, I know, but I wanted to understand time, so I started reading works of philosophy, history, anthropology, science, and a lot of what we call mythology, which is the bag into which we throw Indigenous narratives that don’t fit into our theoretical categories. One thing led to another, and paths were constantly crossing in ways I could never have expected. It was that momentum that pushed the work forward.
Your descriptions of the shape of time are almost synesthetic. How did your concentration on the nature of time affect your view of your own life as you were writing?
That’s a hard question to answer in the abstract, but some of the questions I was asking were ones I had started thinking about as a weird and lonely teenager, in that painful and ridiculous but also at times profound period of adolescence where you can’t help but question absolutely everything. I remember being disturbed by the notion of time as an independent vector, which meant our lives were these sort of floating line segments, solitary and untethered and to my mind completely meaningless. So in some ways writing this and questioning that notion of time was a way of coming back around and fulfilling a debt to my younger self by putting old existential anxieties to rest. Because if time is not an abstract linear vector but something more like a flowing fabric, the weave of which is advancing in every direction at once, then we are not alone but connected to absolutely everything, and meaning never ends.
Desert Notebooks is underscored by a constant, terrifying sense of political unease and climate change. How is the current moment shaping your work?
Well, the unease only got worse, and the sense of crisis that I was feeling then has been put into much sharper focus by the pandemic and all the cascading disasters of the Trump years. I’m still writing about the climate crisis and about politics more generally. I’d love to one day go back to writing novels again, or even children’s books, but at the moment, I feel a pretty urgent need to address the dangers that we’re facing.
Do you still see owls everywhere?
I was a little afraid for a while that people would start giving me all manner of owl tchotchkes and my apartment would fill up with them. I would be the owl guy for the rest of my life, but fortunately my friends know me well enough and that hasn’t happened. I do notice them everywhere, though. There is a shocking amount of owl kitsch out there once you become attuned to it. I like it.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
Oh man, it’s long and always getting longer. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring is high on the list, as are Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History, and the latter two-thirds of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Last year I became obsessed with the philosopher Charles Peirce, and I’ve been impatient to get back to his work. When I have time (ha!), I want to go back and read all of Dos Passos and all of Du Bois.
Give us the elevator pitch for Desert Notebooks.
Absolutely not. I hate elevators. But I will say that I came across a photo online a few weeks ago of some graffiti that came closer to summarizing it than anything I could have come up with: “No cops, no jails, no linear fucking time.”