Everybody knows deserts are dangerous. You’ve got your dehydration, which can kill you in less than two days. You’ve got your venomous animals—snakes, scorpions, spiders, lizards, and I’m sure I’m missing some others—which, with just a bite or sting, can either kill you outright or kill you more slowly. Then you’ve got your sandstorms, which have buried many caravans and even some armies (if Herodotus is to be believed…but that’s a different discussion).
That’s enough to make you nervous and keep your distance, where deserts are concerned. But say you’re really intent on making the desert your home, and you’ve accounted for all of the above. You figured out where to find water (didn’t you?). You’ve taken precautions to avoid being bitten or stung. And you’ve learned what to do should you be caught in a sandstorm (see: don’t be).
You could be forgiven for forgetting about dunes.
I did. We didn’t have dunes in the Sonoran Desert—just your usual cacti and melodramatic monsoons and oppressive heat. Before I began researching real desert cities and communities for the world in The Perfect Assassin, I thought of dunes as just static geographic fixtures: majestic rolling hills, golden in the dawn, silver at night, and an annoyance to walk across.
Except that dunes are far from static. Dunes move like waves on the ocean, if waves took a year to go forty feet. Wind blows the individual grains of sand that make dunes up one side and down the other, causing them to skip, hop, and roll along the desert landscape. Grain by grain, what was once barren, rock-strewn land can become a dune field within a few months.
Dunes creep at an insidious speed until everything in their path is drowned: barren land, agricultural fields, and even whole towns. Below are three real places I came across in my research that are dealing with dune creep today, and the various ways they’re fighting back:
Silver Lake State Park, Michigan, U.S.A.
I bet you didn’t expect Michigan to head this list, but an 80-foot dune in Silver Lake State Park has been creeping on a row of lakeside cottages for years now. Their destruction may be inevitable—how do you fight an 80-foot dune?!—but that doesn’t mean the owners have given in yet. They’ve been picking at the dune by the truckload, but even that might not be enough to stop it from swallowing them up—after all, the dune’s already claimed one cottage as its victim.
According to dune experts in that area, the owners’ only hope may be a change in wind to sweep the sand back uphill and away. Unfortunately, that might not happen until long after their cottages have vanished beneath a vast expanse of sand.
Today, Araouane is a village of fewer than thirty families and a whole lot more sand. It’s the last real town between Timbuktu, 150 miles to the south, and the salt mines numerous miles further north. But caravans dropped off and trade faded.
And then the dunes came.
As Marq de Villiers describes it in his book Sahara:
The process was slow at first, insidious. There was no tsunami of sand; terrified residents were not forced to flee the enveloping dunes. And it wasn’t as though Arawan hadn’t become accustomed to sand—there was sand, after all, for hundreds of miles in every direction, sand underfoot, grit under the houses, sand in the wells, sand in the gardens. The roads were made entirely of sand. But over the course of a few years there was more of it than ever. The winds had always blown little eddies of sand through the town; now those eddies became larger, stayed longer. Little rivulets of sand built up around the buildings and in the streets. It took a decade or more for the first buildings to become engulfed, which was more or less when the villagers realized that something different was happening.
Sand attracts sand and soon the edges of the town disappeared, whole buildings consumed by dunes. Now the village persists in a long, unwinnable battle between residents and sand. Every day, people with buckets scoop sand away from their homes and sweep sand away from their doors. And every day, more sand blows in, replacing what they’ve removed and a little more.
Someday, the dunes will win.
But not today.
Sometimes, the dunes don’t win.
At In-Salah, an oasis town that, like Araouane, was once part of an important trade route, some houses are buried only to re-emerge a few years later as the dune rolls onward. Often, the original owners are identified and, if they’re still around, reclaim and re-occupy their homes.
Others avoid being smothered by dunes entirely through some innovative engineering. Some buildings are constructed so that they’re aligned with the prevailing wind instead of perpendicular to it, to allow for more sand to pass by.
Of course, if the winds change—as they did in Silver Lake State Park—then they’ll still have a problem. Which is why more recent construction has included elevation and permeable foundations, which prevents sand accumulation—and therefore dune formation—by allowing the wind to blow through, taking any sand it carries elsewhere.
Dunes are their own force of nature: slow—sure—but inevitable. Fighting is futile: bucket by bucket or truckload by truckload, the sand will always win. But by working with the dunes, acknowledging that dune creep is a fact of life and building accordingly, you might just be able to carve out a space for yourself in the desert.
K.A. Doore was born in Florida but has since lived in Washington, Arizona, and Germany. She has a BA in Classics and Foreign Languages and an enduring fascination with linguistics. These days she writes fantasy in mid-Michigan and develops online trainings for child welfare professionals. The Perfect Assassin is her debut novel.