This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on May 3, 2018
The Atacama Desert is country that wears quiet like a skin. Stretching through the top 600 miles of Chile, it is so spare of all save earth and rock that it calls to mind bone stripped of flesh by sun, wind, teeth. It is a place that makes you understand why the painter Georgia O’Keeffe saw in pelvises and skulls the curves of desert hills. But the Atacama is more naked still than the Southwestern deserts she loved. “When you think of desert, probably you think of Sonora or Chihuahua,” a Chilean biologist recently told me—the vast, brutal deserts of northern Mexico. “They are forests compared to Atacama.”
Pause and listen for a moment: Where does the sound you hear arise? In most places, it comes from life and water. Voices and the growl of cars. The burble of rain and rivers. The rustle of leaves. In the Atacama, what sound there is comes from wind. What life there is goes underground: Spiders lizards birds, finding homes in the cool dark of holes. When Rudulfo Amando Philippi, a German naturalist, made a famous expedition across this desert in the mid-19th century, he improvised by sheltering in the shadow of his mule.
But at night, the Atacama does have a song, and it comes from the sea to the west, on the other side of the mountains. More…