Georgia O'Keeffe came from lush and wide-open landscapes of Wisconsin, but famously translated desert landscapes into vibrant and intensely personal visions. And, it is that interplay between scarcity and abundance that seems to lay at the heart of much of the blossoming genre of "desert writing."
This Thursday, the High Desert Museum will host the inaugural Waterston Desert Writing Prize, an honor to recognize and encourage creative and literary nonfiction that "illustrates artistic excellence, sensitivity to place, and desert literacy." The new award was inspired by local poet Ellen Waterson.
The winner for this inaugural award is Rebecca Lawton. In the 1970s and 1980s, she worked as a whitewater guide, rowing the raging Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for more than 10 of her 14 seasons. A collection of essays about river guiding established her as a primary interpreter of the nexus between ecological and natural landscapes. Reading Water: Lessons from the River, was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller in 2008; as much about the human landscape as the geological, the essays are heartfelt and insightful.
Lawton currently lives in Sonoma, California, and is far more than an observer when it comes to water and conservation issues; she actively works with consultants in California and has helped revise the Sonoma Creek Basin Plan and serves on the Board of Directors for Friends of the River.
For the appropriately named Waterston Award, Lawton submitted an essay about the role that California fan palm oases play as a barometer for the effects of falling groundwater levels, an acutely timely issue in California. She plans to expand the essay into a full book, and will return to the U.C. Irvine Steele-Burn and Research Station in the Anza Borrego Desert, California to continue her research.
The prize includes $1,000 and a four-week residency at PLAYA in Summer Lake, Oregon.
Lawton will read an excerpt from her winning submission titled, "The Oasis This Time."
Prize finalist Caroline Treadway, from Boulder, Colorado, also will read from her submission, "Desert Ants: Step on This," a proposed collection of essays and photos about ants in the desert Southwest.
Waterson Desert Writing
6 pm-7:30 pm, Thursday, June 25.
Free, but reservations required.