The Desert is Not About You

A piece that appeared in issue number 2 of Luna Arcana, Joshua Tree’s local arts and culture print journal, published in June.

There is a new gold rush in the Mojave Desert, a new ore being mined from the landscape. The mines are everywhere, but they concentrate here in the Morongo Basin. Unlike the first Gold Rush, this “gold rush” isn’t chasing gold. The New Miners aren’t after silver or uranium or borax. Unlike their predecessors in recent decades, they’re not even after the desert’s scant water or ubiquitous solar energy.

Some of them are after enlightenment on demand, the people who come to the desert for a three-day weekend to find more meaning in their lives, then declare to themselves they have found it whether their lives change afterward or not.

Some are after a self-declared authenticity, a reputation as the kind of person that hangs out in the desert instead of, say, the beach or the mall.

Some are chasing style points. Their pick and shovel a selfie stick and a smartphone, they fan out across the desert, a good day’s haul a few artfully framed shots of themselves in front of desert plants they cannot name.

Some are after a sense of the edge, a fulfilled longing for post-apocalyptic lawlessness with a rust-colored motif, the Wild West updated to the 21st Century.

They come. They delve the Mojave. They prospect for their intangible prizes. And then they leave, thinking they have gotten something of value.

Is this assessment too harsh? The Mojave has seen far more than its share of mining, some of it catastrophically destructive of the actual desert. The New Miners generally do not slick ephemeral streams with mercury or cyanide, nor do they leave radioactive tailings piles a thousand feet tall behind them. They do sometimes leave behind tire tracks on previously undisturbed desert soils, a moment’s carelessness that will take centuries to heal. They sometimes set fires, or leave behind spray-painted tags on rocks or old houses or Joshua trees. They sometimes assemble in large groups for events that could far more easily have taken place in a stadium in Covina, save for the fact that Covina isn’t cool.

Still. Each individual New Miner is generally a fine person with lofty personal ideals, a fine sense of responsibility for her actions, and a willingness to listen and learn. Few of them actually want to damage the desert.

I certainly didn’t want to when I first came here. But I did, in a dozen small and stupid ways, born out of ignorance of what the desert actually is. In thirty years of seeking my own self-proclaimed desert authenticity, of stripmining the landscape for meaning and inspiration, I have just begun to learn a few things.

The biggest of those things I’ve learned: the desert— shockingly! — does not primarily organize itself around providing you with maximum comfort.  Things that have lived here long enough have had the sense to grow thick skins, stout spines, chemical weapons and the ability to just… wait. The desert works just fine for them.

The desert is not about you.

It’s not a stylish backdrop for your music festival. It’s not your post-apocalyptic theme park. It’s not a monastery or a boot camp. (There are monasteries and boot camps here, but outsiders brought them.)

The desert is a tough, sensitive, harsh, forgiving environment. It is barren and lush, dangerous and nurturing, hard and soft.

A while ago, well out in the outback, I laid my sleeping pad down on a flat expanse of black-varnished gravel, desert pavement. I laid my sleeping bag atop the pad, crawled into the bag and laid there for a few hours, mostly sleeping. I awoke in the same position I’d fallen asleep in, my mummy bag too tight for thrashing. Packing up I found that my pad had left its mark in the black gravel, which was actually a layer just one stone thick. Beneath was a pale, invasive dust that began to billow from the scars I’d made in the gravel cap.

Black varnish develops slowly, over millennia. That gravel layer was very black. It had lain there for thousands of years, withstanding storms and howling wind and time and parching sun, and I broke it with a sleeping pad in a few hours.

We can take desert pavement as a symbol of the desert itself. The threat comes when we do not see it for what it actually is. When you see a continuously evolving, sensitive and responsive, nearly organic surface as just a pile of gravel, you will do damage.

But when you toss your preconceptions about the desert out with your empty IPA and kombucha bottles, when you start to see what the desert actually is, that right there is the beginning of hope.

It is not too late for you. Just put down the miners’ tools.

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