When I encounter Claire Watkins’s place-based prose, I’m reminded of the first photograph I ever saw of a nuclear detonation crater. The image, shot at the Nevada Test Site, is disturbingly aesthetic: the blast hole lovely in its perfect symmetry, rimmed by a delicately crested lip, full of exquisite colors glowing from desert sands that were melted into glass by a terrible force born of human imagination. In Watkins’s depictions of the arid landscapes of the American West there is a sense not only that the physical environment is terrifying and gorgeous, but also that something horrific has happened here, or might yet. The lushness of her imagery contrasts with the skeletal landscapes of the desert West, while the delicacy and precision of her meticulously crafted prose compels us to envision both the human and the environmental tragedies taking place on the land. Battleborn, Watkins’s 2012 short story collection, takes us through the remote, inhospitable expanses of the Great Basin, by turns embracing the land and offering powerful glimpses into the deeply troubled human stories playing out there. Her forthcoming novel Gold Fame Citrus, excerpted here, envisions a dystopic future Southwest in which aquifers are depleted, rivers have run dry, and what was the glory of the Mojave Desert has been buried beneath an ever-growing complex of immense dunes. But while the apocalypse described in the novel is genuinely terrifying and disturbingly possible, the stunning prose in which it is sung almost makes us wish for a chance to see those invading waves of sand swallow the land’s past. In all of Claire Watkins’s writing on place there is a new kind of sublimity, a wonderful beauty shot through with fear.
An excerpt from Gold Fame Citrus, “The Amargosa Dune Sea,” appears in Ecotone’s tenth-anniversary issue.