The desert, after all, has always been a peopled place, "strategically located so that railroad, emigrant, telegraph, sheep and cow had to cross or inconveniently skirt the area," writes Proulx in her chapter on the area's military forts. "It is dotted and crisscrossed with pipelines, power lines, stone cairns, thousands of miles of rough roads, new roads constantly added, transmission towers, stock tanks, airstrips, the remains of horse traps and juniper corrals, and the ruins of old stage stations and ranches."

Even the desert's arroyos were built in part by people -- by successful fur trappers. Creeks, once kept narrow and watered by beavers' sediment-trapping dams, now flood when it rains, cutting the steep-sided gullies we take for granted as characteristic of the landscape.

By framing the desert in its history, Proulx puts aside the notion that the desert should be maintained as it is because it has always been this way, or because there is virtue in its seeming virginity, or because it is a church. It is worth attention because we hardly know what is here. Entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood spent a mere 36 hours sampling insects in the field for his contribution to Red Desert, which makes him the world's leading expert on the region's arthropods. He estimates there are 5,000 species, dozens of which have never been described.

One late October day, I head toward Adobe Town with Erik Molvar, a hiking-guidebook-author-turned-environmentalist whose group, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, is the loudest anti-development voice in the desert. On the way, we cross a cattle guard that caught the hoof of a wild horse last year; the bleached skeleton is still there, its hoof wedged in the metal bars, its skull smiling eerily several feet away. "Have you ever noticed," he asks, "that most of Marty's photographs have signs of people in them?"

It's true. Martin Stupich's 50-some photographs make up the first third of Red Desert, and perhaps only a quarter of them are the sort that might grace a calendar -- the sharp-angled tumble of the Ferris Mountains, a sweep of clouds in a wild sky, the unkempt manes of feral horses.

The rest are less about untrammeledness than the ways in which people have confronted this difficult landscape while trying to make a living, starting with an image of handprints worn into sandstone by early hunter-gatherers. The name of a gold-seeking emigrant, Milo J. Ayers, was carved into a rock along the California-Oregon-Mormon Trail in 1849. There is a photo of a day-glo-colored cooling pond at the Jim Bridger Power Plant in the central desert; an aerial view of the coal mine that feeds that plant; another aerial of long straight lines etched into the earth by the heavy trucks used for seismic oil exploration.

Molvar finds that choice to embrace industry curious. He is putting together his own Red Desert book, a coffee-table enterprise that will include his own images and those of several other landscape photographers. "There won't be any signs of human impact," he explains. "It'll be more celebrating the beauty of the place."

The argument Stupich's photographs begin to make, and that Proulx and the others continue in writing, is a radical departure from Molvar's coffee-table book, from most books that argue for a landscape's protection. It is the difference, perhaps, between studying a place and imagining it.

Hanging on Proulx's wall is a photograph taken by Stupich that serves as a reminder of their first trip together into the Red Desert.

In it, their friend and colleague, blue-eyed archaeologist Dudley Gardner, grimaces as he aims a gun at an antelope crumpled on the ground. It had been hit, Proulx believes, by one of the speeding gas company trucks that passed them earlier that day, and it was still struggling.

"We tried calling 911 and the sheriff and the Game and Fish office and so forth, and because we were in a dead spot we couldn't reach anybody," she says. "What else were we going to do, just leave it there, dying, slowly? And the heat was terrible."