‘Half-Aspenite’ Bruce Berger publishes new collection of essays on the desert
IF YOU GO …
What: Bruce Berger ‘A Desert Harvest’ talk and book-signing
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Wednesday, March 13, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: explorebooksellers.com
272 pages, hardcover; $26
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2019
Bruce Berger has been a fixture in Aspen for the past half-century, but the mountains are his second love.
Celebrated locally as the author of “The Complete Half-Aspenite” and the Aspen Music Festival history “Music in the Mountains,” and as the host of salon-like dinner parties at his hidden-away cabin off the west side of Main Street overlooking Castle Creek, Berger is best known beyond the roundabout as a bard of the American desert.
His collections of essays “The Telling Distance (1990), “There Was a River (1994), and “Almost an Island (1998) are on the bookshelves of desert rats around the world, poetically capturing the landscapes, life and lack thereof in the arid stretches of the West. In a major new release from publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Berger, 80, has collected his favorite works from those earlier books and added new essays.
Titled “A Desert Harvest,” the book will be published Tuesday. Berger will celebrate the release with a talk and book-signing at Aspen’s Explore Booksellers on Wednesday.
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His earlier desert books were published by small presses and university presses, and inspired a cult following. The new one, from a major New York publisher, brings Berger to a wider national audience aided by a publicity campaign, early review from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and a seven-stop book tour of the West that launches Tuesday at Tattered Cover in Denver and also includes stops in in Salt Lake City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix and Portland, Oregon.
“It’s really exciting,” Berger said in a phone interview on his way to the Tucson Festival of Books. “It’s a sense of finally having arrived.”
Revisiting his work from decades past, Berger found that — like the desert itself — the essays hadn’t changed much with the passage of time and didn’t need to be updated for 2019.
“I spent a long time getting them just the way I wanted them,” he said. “They’re not so much about what was happening at the moment, so I don’t think they’ve aged in that sense. They say things about the desert that I was thinking then, and I haven’t changed my opinions.”
The book is filled with perceptive takes on the desert and travel, filled with wry humor and telling details. Some of the pieces are as short as a paragraph — philosophical prose poems like the well-known “How to Look at a Desert Sunset,” which has been quoted on posters and postcards, and meditations on heat, cacti and the beautiful futility of canyoneering.
Berger writes slowly, with a thesaurus at his side, meticulously crafting his phrasing and cadence. The result is a contemplative style and lapidary prose to savor.
“A lot of people write quickly because things flash quickly into their heads and they don’t want to lose anything,” Berger said. “I go bit by bit, forming the sentences the way that I want them. … It’s a slow process, but it works.”
The longer pieces include some surprisingly fascinating reportage on the history of canals in Phoenix and a portrait of Berger’s decades-long friendship with an eccentric named Cactus Pete, who had lived in a long-forgotten Arizona town since the 1920s. The new works include several essays on La Paz in Mexico — where Berger spends most winters — including the spellbinding “The Search for Mata Hari,” which tells of Berger’s quest to find for a long lost song by a local composer.
“A Desert Harvest” closes with a story of traveling to a European physics conference about new theories of time (with Stephen Hawking among Berger’s cohort). That story includes the book’s only Aspen anecdote: about waiting in line at the Aspen Historical Society to have a book signed by one Nobel laureate, poet Joseph Brodskey, accompanied by another Nobel laureate, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann.
The National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann wrote the introduction to “A Desert Harvest.” McCann, during his time as an Aspen Writers’ Foundation writer-in-residency, began his novel “TransAtlantic” under the spruce trees in Berger’s backyard. Singing Berger’s praises, McCann compares Berger’s masterful tone and style to a prepared piano in the John Cage tradition (Berger, in the interview, noted that he actually held in his hands the odd metal pieces that Cage used to tweak and prepare his piano strings, assisting the pianist William Masselos for a Cage concert at the Aspen Music Festival in the late 1960s.)
Berger first came to Aspen as a high schooler in 1952, visiting an older sister who had moved here. In 1968, he bought the cabin next to hers. But it was earlier, at age 8, that the desert took hold of him. In “A Desert Harvest,” he writes of traveling from the Chicago suburbs to Phoenix, where his father sought a cure for respiratory problems resulting from asthma and chain-smoking.
“It’s all developed now, but it was open desert then,” Berger recalled. “I absolutely fell in love with the desert, the animals, the cactus and the bare geology of it not covered by vegetation. I’ve always loved the mountains, but they’re my second choice.”
As he puts it in the essay “Comfort That Does Not Comprehend”: “It was as an adult, exiled to the mountains, that I began to dream of the desert.”
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