Monthly Archives: June 2011

More Tortoise Math for Joe Biden

PZ linked to my little debunking of the White House’s lies about the desert tortoise website, and Pharyngula commenter Spinniac did a little calculation that I absolutely love.

Remember, Joe Biden said — of the website, which costs the government $125 a year:

And I bet you didn’t know that your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise. I’m sure it’s a wonderful species, but we can’t afford to have a standalone site devoted to every member of the animal kingdom.

Spinniac’s comment:

Cost of war in Afganistan = $423,000,000,000 / 10 years
= $42.3B/year
divide by $125/year/website gives us
338,400,000 websites.
There are currently less than 2 million known animal species, but there may be as many as 100 million.
100 million is less than 338.4 million

Yes we can!

What does the Desert Tortoise Website actually cost?

Again, for those of you just seeing this, a quote from an earlier post of mine, citing a new initiative from the White House to “crack down on waste” that leads with a subject near to my heart. This is what the email from Joe Biden said this morning, in part:

Did you know that the government spends millions to maintain buildings that have sat vacant for years? Or that your tax dollars pay to needlessly ship copies of the Federal Register to thousands of government offices across the country even though the same information is available online?

And I bet you didn’t know that your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise. I’m sure it’s a wonderful species, but we can’t afford to have a standalone site devoted to every member of the animal kingdom. It’s just one of hundreds of government websites that should be consolidated or eliminated.

And I said:

It’s a small stupid thing, but it just reinforces the fundamental dishonesty of this administration. This is the website he’s talking about. It’s a low-budget website. The money involved in putting it together has already been spent. The only reason to get rid of it is that it works to promote appreciation for an endangered species that the Administration has decided stands in the way of its policies being enacted.

The website at is run by the Desert Manager’s Group, a network of federal, state, and local agency staff including the Department of Defense (which, of course, manages millions of acres of land in the California desert). In the words of the website itself, the purpose of the Desert Tortoise website:

The website provides information and weblinks related to the threatened Mojave population of the desert tortoise. Included within this site are photographs, maps, tools and resources for Recovery Implementation Teams, information about the range-wide monitoring program, and educational and outreach materials. We encourage you to browse, learn, and enjoy!

It’s a way of making information available transparently — remember transparency? — from a mind-boggling range of agencies for the use of land managers and their contractors, state and local agencies, developers, and members of the public.

A source with detailed knowledge of the Desert Managers Group and its budget (which should after all be public information) tells me that the total annual cost of operating the website at is $125.00, plus eight hours of staff time. Per year.

BrightSource, the developer of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, has received (last I checked) $600 million in direct grants from the federal government, and $1.3 billion in loan guarantees. That’s $1,900,000,000 taxpayers’ money for a project that will denude 4,000 acres of old-growth desert, kill between 400 and 1,000 tortoises, and provide electrical power for maybe two decades.

That’s enough money to maintain the website at for 15,200,000 years.


A note for future historians if Obama loses in 2012

[Update: What does the Desert Tortoise Website actually cost?]

If, in November 2012, the incumbent in the Presidential election loses the State of California by one vote, and the course of the nation is thereby altered, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you just why that happened.

Today was the day that the Obama administration lost even my reluctant, slightly-lesser-of-two-evils vote against whatever maroon manages to emerge still functioning from the GOP clown car.

It’s not enough that the Obama Administration guts the Endangered Species Act by having Interior force the production of a BiOp that says killing 1,000 desert tortoises won’t jeopardize the species. It’s not enough that they stack the deck by appointing a BrightSource flack as Commerce Secretary. Now they’re trying to sic the Tea Party on the desert tortoise.

Did you know that the government spends millions to maintain buildings that have sat vacant for years? Or that your tax dollars pay to needlessly ship copies of the Federal Register to thousands of government offices across the country even though the same information is available online?

And I bet you didn’t know that your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise. I’m sure it’s a wonderful species, but we can’t afford to have a standalone site devoted to every member of the animal kingdom. It’s just one of hundreds of government websites that should be consolidated or eliminated.

It’s a small stupid thing, but it just reinforces the fundamental dishonesty of this administration. This is the website he’s talking about. It’s a low-budget website. The money involved in putting it together has already been spent. The only reason to get rid of it is that it works to promote appreciation for an endangered species that the Administration has decided stands in the way of its policies being enacted.

This is Reagan-style lying. I didn’t vote for Reagan back in the day, and I don’t plan to now. This is the straw that broke the tortoise’s back, for me.

Naming the Joshua Tree Part 4: Scientific American

The author of the paragraphs quoted below, excerpted from a longer piece on California plants then assigned to the Liliaceae, is Francis M Fultz (1857-1948). Fultz is best known for his popular guide to the SoCal chaparral, The Elfin-Forest of California. Fultz was an avid botanizer and member of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.

I find this passage notable not only because it’s the earliest instance I’ve seen of the Joshua tree origin myth — interestingly, attributed to generic “emigrants” and “argonauts” (read: 49ers and their cohort) rather than Mormons — but also because this earliest instance I’ve seen comes from the pen of an emphatically Angeleno writer. This leads me to suspect that the name may have originated in Utah, but the story in Southern California. Also noteworthy: the obsolete botanical name Clistoyucca, the spelling of which I have corrected from its original appearance in the Scientific American. Fultz’s expressed disdain for the Joshua trees may be tongue-in-cheek, or it may not. Coastal Californian environmentalists’ disregard for the deserts is an old story.

The Lilies of the Field; Beautiful and Striking Wild Lilies of California’s Fields

By Francis M. Fultz

Printed in the Scientific American Supplement, Vol. 88 No. 2275; August 9, 1919

The Joshua-Tree (Clistoyucca arborescens) is a desert plant, attaining its largest stature and most luxurious growth in the Mohave Desert. There it commonly grows to a height of fifteen or twenty feet and about as many inches in diameter. Extra large individuals may reach two feet in thickness and thirty feet In height. They are strange and weird in appearance. It is doubtful if the world produces more grotesque objects in the way of trees. Until the trunks reach the height of eight or ten feet they are set with bristling leaves from the ground up. Then the tree begins to bloom, and the branching commences by forking at the top. Each fork then divides, and the branching thus goes on, until the top is a mass of short stubby stems sticking out at all sorts of angles. The leaves along the trunk gradually droop and hang downward. In old age the lower part of the trunk becomes entirely bare. The branches are apt to remain covered, however, and the end of each is armed with tufts of long dagger-like leaves that successfully keep all would-be intruders at a respectful distance.

In March and April the large clusters of greenish white flowers appear, thrust out as it were from the tufts of leaves at the ends of the trunk and stubby branches. Each cluster contains numerous bells which are from one to two inches across. At that time the yucca-covered desert wears an attractive dress. As you ride swiftly by on a railway train, you may become wildly enthusiastic over the beauty of the Yucca. But it is well that you view the flowers from some little distance, for they give off a strong fetid odor that is exceedingly disagreeable. It would seem as if the bunch of dagger-leaves with which each flower cluster is surrounded were enough protection, without the addition of the horrible smell. Whenever I see the Joshua-Trees I think how considerate they have been in choosing to make their home where few men have a desire to live.

Just how and when this desert yucca came by Its name of “Joshua-Tree” no one seems definitely to know.  The name dates from the earliest emigrant trains’ that crossed the deserts, and it is claimed by some that these early argonauts saw in the grotesque yuccas signs which pointed to a land of promise.

A quick note

A number of Coyote Crossing readers have, over the past few months, been very generous with the PayPal button over to the right there. I would not now have food, shelter, or a way of making a living if not for those donations. I am humbled and grateful.

The vicissitudes of freelancing will be well known to some of you. Clients sometimes, for reasons that are completely understandable, get checks sent out later than would be comfortable. I’ve been fortunate: this is usually not the case with any of my clients. This month it was the case with all of whom I expected payment.

I find it more than a little mortifying to do this, and the fact that readers have responded kindly in past months only makes me blush harder. But if you’ve been meaning to drop something in the PayPal bin for me and for one reason or another haven’t gotten around to it, let’s just say that today would be a very good time. Even a five-spot will make a huge difference at the moment. Thank you.

Regarding the use of the phrase “Yucca Palms” in 19th Century discourse

An excerpt of From San Francisco to Yuma City by “G.D.F.”; June 6, 1878, published in the July 1878 issue of the Monthly Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers

Here we begin the ascent of the Sierras via the Tehachapi Pass, “over the Loop,” which is acknowledged to be the greatest feat of railroad engineering in the world— where a railroad is made to cross itself, and where, at one point, the passenger can look across the main track three times. Much has been said and written of the “Horse Shoe Curve” on the Pennsylvania Central, but it is mere child’s play as compared with what is before us.

Leaving Caliente, we run for a short distance south, round a ten-degree curve, the road doubling back upon itself; again passing Caliente, we enter a deep cut and begin to climb up the side of cliffs, pass through tunnels No. 1 and 2, curving around high bluffs, the next moment crossing a high embankment or winding around the head of a ravine. The huge “McQueen,” 18×24, is laboring hard to drag our train of four cars up the steady grade of 110 feet to the mile. Following our serpentine course, the mountain gorges become deeper and more abrupt, passing through tunnels Nos. 3, 4, 5 and C, the scene constantly changing, new wonders follow each other in rapid succession, passing around several mountain spurs where the side of the train overhangs the edge of the precipice into which we gaze, hundreds of feet below, where winds, the Tehachapi Creek, appearing like a ribbon of silver through the bottom of the gorge and becomes lost to view; while upon the opposite side a sea of rocky peaks, crags and defiles are seen, dotted over with liveoaks and spruce trees where sufficient soil is left to sustain them. After climbing for seven miles we round a bluff, and by looking down the cañon Caliente can be seen, which, as the bird flies, is only one and a quarter miles distant, and seven hundred and seventy feet below, and far beneath are seen in several places, the cuts and tunnels through which we have passed. Winding, curving and twisting for two miles more, we arrive at Keene. Continuing our ascent we pass through deep cuts and tunnel No. 8, and are fast nearing the “Loop.” Upon emerging from tunnel No. 9, we start to curve around the “Loop:” its length is 3,705 feet—crossing the tunnel at right angles, with a difference between the tracks of seventy-nine feet. Soon after leaving the “Loop” we rattle through tunnels Nos. 10 and 11 and arrive at Gerard. Leaving this station the road curves to the right, then to the left, repeatedly doubling back upon itself, crossing high embankments and trestle bridges, around lofty bluffs, through deep cuts and tunnels Nop. 12, 13, 14, 15, 10 and 17, after which the grade becomes lighter, the mountains gradually recede, and we soon reach Tehachapi Summit, with an elevation of 3,904 feet, and twenty-six miles from Caliente.

Leaving the summit we begin the descent toward the Mojava [sic] Desert. The mountains again gradually approach each other, and we enter a narrow gorge; upon either side is a huge wall several hundred feet high. Passing through this canon, we soon enter the desert, where immense numbers of Yucca Palm trees (a species of cactus) are seen. They are peculiar to this desert, are from twenty to fifty feet in height, many of them attaining a diameter of three feet, and are scaly looking monsters. A run of twenty miles from the summit brings us to Mojava, the terminus of the Second Division of the S.P.R.R. It is a dreary, dismal place, of one hundred inhabitants, with repair shop and round-house. Here are seen large numbers of heavy freight wagons, used for carrying freight from this point to the mines in Inyo County; returning, the wagons are loaded with silver bullion.

Leaving Mojava (pronounced Mo-ha-vey) our route for forty-five miles is through the desolate, barren desert; the only vegetation to be seen is the numerous palms. Arriving at Acton (flag station), we enter the Soledad cañon and begin our ascent of the mountain of the same name. This is a fearful and gloomy defile with perpendicular cliffs towering from 1,000 to 1,500 feet above our heads. After a ride of twenty-seven miles through this cañon and terrible mountain scenery, we arrive at Newhall, situated in a narrow valley surrounded by large hills, where great numbers of cattle and sheep are seen grazing.

Soon after leaving Newhall and directly in front of us, the San Fernando mountain is seen, lifting its summit far in the heavens. We approach the mountain by a heavy grade, passing around high bluffs, through huge cuts, and enter the San Fernando tunnel—6907 feet in length; upon emerging from the other end we plunge down a heavy grade for several miles and enter the San Fernando Valley and reach the station of the same name. This valley is hemmed in on three sides by ranges of lofty mountains; as we glide along it gradually presents an improved appearance; we pass groves of planted trees, and herds of cattle and flocks of sheep are seen; continuing down the valley, highly cultivated farms are left behind, vineyards appear on either hand, they in turn giving way to beautiful groves of orange trees and lovely gardens, surrounding many fine residences, half concealed in the verdure of semi-tropical foliage, and we stop at Los Angelos [sic], 470 miles from San Francisco.

Los Angelos is located eighteen miles from the sea, in one of Nature’s most favored valleys, and boasts of 18,000 inhabitants. The city contains very few fine public buildings or handsome business blocks, but Yankee enterprise will make up the deficiency in the near future. As I have said, it is beautifully situated, and as it quietly nestles amidst the wilderness of glossy, dark green foliage of the orange, lemon, lime, fig, pomegranate, pepper, cypress and liveoak trees, it is certainly a very pleasant and handsome little city. Its suburbs are one continuous garden of verdure, and nearly every habitation is encircled by a beautiful lawn, dotted with many different species of fruit and shade trees, holly bushes and choice plants, while beds of clematis and fragrant jessamine, and circuitous walks bordered with rose bushes covered with countless blossoms are to be seen upon all sides.

KCET and Naming The Joshua Tree part 3

1) Those of you not connected to me on Facebook or Twitter may not have gotten a reminder of late that I have been writing a weekly column at KCET, the Los Angeles public TV station’s website. They show up every Wednesday at 10 AM Los Angeles time, more or less, and you can see the list of my past commentaries here. Today’s piece is on discussion of handing California’s State Parks over to off-roaders. You heard me.

It’s always helpful — to me and to KCET — if you pass the posts around: link to them, Tweet/Fbook/Tumblr them, email them to your mom, comment on them, what have you. As Southern Californians know, KCET has gone through a lot of changes in the past few years, not all of them pleasant ones, but hiring LAist’s Zach Behrens away to run their website was kinda brilliant. Zach, aside from being a good soul, has a vision for the site that’s pretty compelling, reporting on culture, politics, environment and everything else within the reach of the station. (Which covers a lot of ground.) I’m stoked to be part of it.

2) I stumbled across this post by Ed Yong this morning. It’s a fascinating profile of Erez Lieberman Aiden, a brilliant polymath who puts me in mind of Tom Lehrer’s line about Mozart. The post is one of those that’s worth reading for any number of reasons: the reminder about breaking out of comfort zones, the observations about the salutary effects of failure, and the fact that it’s written by Ed Yong, which makes most things worth reading right there. But Ed included an almost throwaway link to Google’s Ngram viewer, which allows you to search Google’s gigantic Books archive for words and phrases, then charts the number of occurrences of each phrase by the year in which the book was printed.

I immediately thought of the Joshua tree book chapter I’m stuck on, namely the one about the name of the tree. I’ve written about the canonical naming story here before, both to debunk the canon and subsequently to debunk my own debunking of the canon.

Short version: The canon holds that the Mormons named the tree. According to Wikipedia’s version:

The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

There are many variations of the story, some of them implausible. But for a long time, I’d suspected that they were all spurious. It took me a while to document any use of the name during the period in which the Mormon pioneers were gallivanting around the Mojave. When I wrote this, I still hadn’t found any.

Within a few months, though, I found reliable documentation that the tree was referred to as “The Joshua” as early as 1875 in that part of its range that overlapped with the Mormon settlements in southwestern Utah. Still, it seemed that people in Arizona and California didn’t start calling the tree by its present common name until much later.

So when Ed inadvertently called the Ngrams doohickey to my attention, I had to try it out.

This is a graph of the frequency with which four phrases appear in Google Books’ entire library. The phrases are “Joshua tree” (in blue), “Yucca brevifolia” (red), “yucca palm” (green), and Yucca arborescens (yellow.) “Yucca palm” was a common name for the Joshua tree in California and Arizona, and presumably elsewhere. “Yucca arborescens” is an obsolete formal name for the tree. As you can see, “yucca palm” was the most-often-used common name for the tree in those books Google has catalogued from its first appearance in 1875 until about 1910, after which the phrase “Joshua tree” — which doesn’t even register here until 1886 — beats it rather unambiguously into the ground. Within just a couple years it seemed familiar to the point of use beyond explanation in Nevada and in California. At the outset of “Joshua tree’s” leap to popularity, in 1910, California botanist Willis Linn Jepson felt obliged to point out that “tree yucca” was the more commonly used name in California. Within a couple of years that was no longer true. For what it’s worth, here’s a comparison of “tree yucca” with the other two common names. Many other yuccas were referred to as “tree yuccas” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and not all of them were really tree-like: Hesperoyucca whipplei, for one.

What caused the sudden growth in popularity? Not sure. Some of it may be an artifact of publishing trends in the 1920s, or of Google’s ability to acquire books to scan. Certainly using printed matter as a way of sampling folk linguistics puts the data at a remove: someone has to decide to write about it before it gets documented. What’s more, there are certain — shall we say — concerns about the accuracy of some of Google’s metadata.

I now have more work to do. Still, interesting, and how cool is it that I got there via a link from an article on the serendipitous aspects of research?

Dasylirion wheeleri


This isn’t one of my photos. It’s a lovely Creative Commons photo by Dennis Behm. There won’t be many more of mine until I can afford to replace the Canon’s dying battery, which may be some time. Thank you, o stalwart battery. Your lithium ions served me well.

Moving to an entirely new biome brings with it unexpected treats. I’ve enjoyed getting to know a few new wildflowers — though not so many in the past weeks, as financial and health issues have gotten in the way of my spending a lot of time hiking. Not long ago I learned that the most common lizards around here have three male… well, genders, for lack of a more precise term. Or castes. Or guilds. You got your blue-throated side-blotched lizards, and your orange-and yellow-throated side-blotcheds as well, and each color has a different mating strategy. The blue-throats are steadfast, if I may anthropomorphize just a tad, and they stand guard over their mates’ territories. The bigger orange-throats can chase the blue-throats off. The yellow-throats are smaller than the blues, so they can’t usurp the blue’s mates, but they can sneak in and cuckold the orange-throats, which apparently have trouble distinguishing the little yellow-throats from female side-blotched lizards. Thus orange outcompetes blue, which outcompetes yellow, which outcompetes orange: a rock-paper-scissors-style circular hierarchy. Now when I see the side-blotched lizards on the trail I always try to look under their chins, which is difficult from my usual respectful distance.

And as I said, not so much of that lately. Instead, I’ve started running at night again, when I have the reserves and it’s down below 99 degrees. About three weeks ago the neighborhood handed me another little treat I wasn’t expecting: all the Dasylirion of a certain age started blooming.

It’s a common landscaping plant around here. It’s not native to the Salton Sink: it comes from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua. But it’s pretty ubiquitous in the neighborhood: it does great in the summer heat around here with just a little water. It’s a rosette succulent in the agave family, though the leaves don’t call to mind “succulence” so much as they do “chainsaw.” The species has some wicked teeth. I omitted it from my old garden up north — though I had its sibling D. quadrangulatum, and many of its pokey and even serratedly spiny cousins in the genera Nolina, Yucca and Agave, because this Dasylirion was just too damned unfriendly, and I didn’t really want to deal with lacerated dog every week or so. Or lacerated me, for that matter.

But I’ve always appreciated the plant, and it’s been nice to get used to having a lot of them around as boring commercial landscape fodder, which in these parts includes a few species I’m still not used to in that context. There’s a cheap motel around the corner, for instance, that’s got a huge saguaro in its front parking lot. It’s blooming right now. I’m not quite ready to be nonchalant about a Motel 6 parking lot saguaro in bloom. There are tons of Hesperaloe all up and down the divided highway medians, wrongly labeled as “aloe relatives” in the gardens at the Living Desert — it’s actually about a hair away from being a yucca. We’ve had palo verde blooming in the vacant lots with happy hour going on next door. It’s all a bit disconcerting, like when I went to Honolulu and saw a sad, broken, neglected street tree that turned out to be a plumeria.

I should have expected it all by now. When I first moved to California from back east in 1982, there were certain plants that I knew well as perpetually ailing houseplants: consumptive little spider plants, jade trees coughing Camille-like and always on the verge of expiring just before spring, and then I started working in gardens in Oakland and casually ripping up what would have been six hundred bucks worth of Buffalo houseplants that had gone a little too feral in someone’s backyard, or cutting back a meter of growth off the jade tree because it was blocking the client’s driveway. Moving to Los Angeles was a bit like that as well. In Berkeley, my crazy gardening housemate Marcia was unduly proud of her Chorisia, which was at least fifteen feet tall and three inches across at breast height, bedecked with killer thorns. IN Los Angeles they were the size of telephone poles. Like I said, I should be used to this kind of thing.

Still, it caught me by surprise in May when just about every single Dasylirion of a certain size started putting out a flower stalk a couple inches thick, each stalk growing a good few inches a day. Within a couple weeks most of them were 8-12 feet tall, and they started unfoldling their flowers. The hummingbirds have been very busy.

I’ve been missing having a garden, a feeling that wasn’t particularly assuaged by visiting the Living Desert’s nursery. Annette and I walked in and I saw the plant stock, the thistle tube sock feeders covered in finches, and my heart opened up a little and then I remembered why I didn’t let it do that these days. Also, I suddenly really missed Ron’s company, not that I don’t anyway.) I didn’t tend well to the last garden I had in the last year I had it, nor to much else, and I suppose it’s been good to have that responsibility lifted from me for a bit. But there’s something missing from me without a patch of earth to tend. Even the rock-hard, ivy-infested square of builder’s clay I called a front yard in Oakland when we first had Zeke grounded me, gave me someplace to sink roots. I realized yet again this last week that I’ll likely never have a “rest of my life” garden. I seem to be yanking myself up by the roots too often for that. And yet without a garden it’s harder for me to feel connected to a place. I got around it in Nipton, where it felt like the entire Mojave was my garden: I would go to Wee Thump or the Preserve and feel utterly connected, if utterly desolate. But who knows how I would have felt if I had been there longer than a year?

In any event, the coordinated sotol blooms are a good palliative, something to notice and know that not everyone does notice and thus a way to feel slightly more connected than I might otherwise. Darwin said “a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment.” Turns out that holds true of people staying at home as well.

The Ghost Plums of Evolution

As long as I’m digging old impromptu poems out of comments from years back and giving them pride of place, I might as well do this one, which was in a comment here. Which post also provides context in case you don’t know right offhand what a Maclura is and why it’s relevant.

And yes, everyone and his grandblogger has satirized WCW’s icebox note, and it’s a very old and tired joke. Believe me. I know. I’ve even done it before in mixed media. Forgive me. It was so trite and so old.

This is just to say

I have not eaten
the Maclura
that were in
the ice age

and which
were probably
on seed dispersal

Forgive me
I was delicious
wild meat
in times cold