The mystery next door
Excavated, trod upon and endlessly imagined, Nevada’s Black Rock landscape represents many things to visitors. Its stark playa has grown widely popular due in great part to the Burning Man Festival held there each year, while its lesser-known areas remain sacred stomping grounds for lone travelers. That variance of landscape adds to the general allure of the Black Rock. It is a place of geographic diversity, holding surprises even for those living just a short car trip to the south.
In an effort to celebrate and chronicle the complex history of the area, two University of Nevada professors—Peter Goin and Paul Starrs—produced Black Rock. The recently released book represents decades of the authors’ varied experience in the area. Starrs, the geography professor who penned the text, resists characterizing the Black Rock as an entirely arid region.
“While it’s all collectively a kind of ‘desert,’ it’s also streams and lakes and trees—huge groves of them, forests, in fact. It’s wildlife and box canyons and hot springs, Native American land and little historic corners forgotten for a hundred years.”
The Nevada Museum of Art recently marked the release of Black Rock with a special exhibition featuring photographs by Goin and original maps and text by Starrs. Although their fields may appear at first glance to be divergent—art for the former, geography for the latter—the collaboration was a fruitful one for the UNR professors.
“Working together on someplace like the Black Rock isn’t a very big stretch for either of us,” says Starrs. “Peter and I worked together to see if we can’t get maps, text, significant epigraphs, satellite views and splendid photographs to work together. I think we made it—with results that are pretty charming.”
The book itself and the NMA exhibition bear out that charm. Meeting the displayed photographs and commentary eye-to-eye, it is hard not to be swayed—and surprised—by the multi-colored geysers, luminous hot springs and turbulent skies peering out from the exhibition walls.
The Black Rock opening was followed by a selection of readings given by poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder. Warmly greeting friends along his path to the stage, Snyder wore the visage—and arguably, the demeanor—of a sage poet walking right out of a desert sojourn. A tightly packed audience of 175 people (and nearly 100 more viewing the presentation as it was simulcast to the museum’s third floor) watched as the poet discussed his own “deeply irrational” love for the Black Rock while applauding the work of Starrs and Goin. Several of Snyder’s poems are featured in the pages of Black Rock, including “Finding the Space in the Heart,” which evokes the almost indescribable imagery of the Black Rock.
The Black Rock exhibit offers a visual meditation on the landscape that lies just about a hundred miles north of Reno but a world away perceptually. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds those of us who consider ourselves “in tune” with nature that we all have something new to learn about the mystery that lives next door. As someone who has taken on this challenge, Starrs muses, “We aren’t hard-wired anymore, if people ever were, to cope with someplace like the Black Rock, which isn’t one place, but instead many.”