Inkstain mailbag: Why “Ribbons” plural?

Image of text message reading: "Why 'Ribbons' vs. 'Ribbon'? I can't wait to read all about it."

reader mailbag, except it’s a “text bag”?

Alert reader T texted a question:

Why “Ribbons” vs “Ribbon”? I can’t wait to read all about it.

Thanks, T!

The title of our forthcoming book* Ribbons of Green: The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City comes from a passage in the strange and wonderful book The Desert by John van Dyke.

The desert terraces on either side (sometimes there is a row of sand-dunes) come down to meet these “bottom” lands, and the line where the one leaves off and the other begins is drawn as with the sharp edge of a knife. Seen from the distant mountain tops the river moves between two long ribbons of green, and the borders and the gray and gold mesas of the desert.

So two ribbons, one on each side of the river.

Cover of Peter Wild's book about John van Dyke, with picture of mustached man and cactus

Peter Wild, who lovingly debunked van Dyke’s excesses

Published by Scribner’s in 1901, The Desert is a weird and wonderful book, a milestone in the 20th century cultural evolution of our attitudes toward deserts. Far from being frightening wastes, van Dyke suggested for the first time to a broad audience that deserts were kinda cool.

Its influence hasn’t seemed dented by the work of late 20th century scholars (see Peter Wild, image right) who figured out that van Dyke, umm, embellished his stories about his wanderings – that he mostly rode trains and stayed in railroad hotels rather than riding around on a horse living the desert up close.

I’ve always loved the “ribbons” passage because it touches on my childhood experiences of driving across the desert on epic summer car camping trips – the feeling as you drop down off a mesa toward a community tucked into a valley next to a river, from the brown and hot and and dry into the green and moist and cool.

That’s greater Albuquerque, y’all.

* The Book

As I’ve mentioned approximately 8 jillion times here, Ribbons of Green is being published by the University of New Mexico Press. My co-author Bob Berrens and I spin a yarn about how the modern metropolitan area spreading up and down the river valley from Albuquerque came to be in an institutional dance between people and river.

Coming spring 2025, we hope.

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  1. Your description of descending into a river valley on a car trip (in the ‘60s for me) twanged my heartstrings a bit. Your description of that view is a fundamental aspect of my love for the extended topography of the west, the Basins and Ranges and Mountains and Drainages.
    The Van Dyke book is available on AMZ if anyone’s interested.

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