Category Archives: Desert Solitudinousness

In the wash

Desert lifts up; desert washes down. A small quake this week beneath our town served as a reminder of why the mountains half a mile from my house are there. Two inches of rain on my neighborhood last weekend? A reminder of why those mountains aren’t taller.

We plat out the desert, grid it with our sections and townships, and each day the desert rises up to shake off those imaginary lines like rotten fishnet off a leviathan. Here the roads are arrow-straight where we could make them that way, running due north-south or east-west, but the desert’s blueprints are all French curve, no straight-edge even on the flattest playas.

The dog can walk more than a mile now, and we have been taking in the patterns of recent desert flooding along a long straight dirt road. Accumulating rain pools in the low spots until the sodden berm collapses; four inches of breach quickly becomes a foot, a meter. The road sprouts gouges, dendritic and nearly fractal, to sprain the ankles of unwary moon-light runners. Downstream the gouge continues, broadens, follows the laziest path toward the bottom.

On the map, the dry washes here are rendered as dashed blue lines, as though each were an uncomplicated watercourse suffering a temporary embarrassment. It occurred to me this morning that that isn’t quite right. Washes aren’t streams, but floodplains with multiple channels, now diverging, now braiding. This morning, in a small wash, I traced three tiny dried streams four inches across, their paths discernable mainly as flattened grasses, that diverged and conjoined at least four times before the dog lost interest in walking upstream. Downhill she chose a new wash, which arced in a gentle swoop down toward the highway though it was carved in a few violent minutes.

Mesquite

You need to fence new trees away from rats and rabbits here, and the antelope squirrels that will strip bark off all but the most unsavory plant. I was a little slow in getting one tree wrapped in chicken wire, and the wildlife girdled it. By the time I got the tree protected, wildlife had eaten bark all the way around it, consigning the foliage above to a slow death by thirst.

The victim: a mesquite, planted with a twin a few yards downhill from the house’s graywater outflow, fed by the washing machine.

It wasn’t a big financial loss: I got the tree and its twin from Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley in exchange for teaching a class there last year. Picture the Lorax on a streetcorner, holding a sign that reads “Will Speak For Trees.”

But it was an emotional loss, at least until I was pulling a weedy annual grass away from the enchickenwired trunk last night to find several sturdy shoots coming out of the trunk below the injury, and from the roots as well. In all likelihood they will be taller than the uninjured tree up the hill in five years. Between the mesquites and the palo verde a few yards to the east, and the smoketrees I asked Nicole to order for me at Cactus Mart, there will be a bosque here yet.

Side note: pulling weedy introduced grasses is twice as much fun when you know there’s a cholla hidden in there somewhere. An excellent exercise in mindfulness.

Vanessa (Cynthia)

A painted lady butterfly lay struggling in the road. The dog finds insects interesting, aside from the Eleodes beetles which satisfied her curiosity early on in the relationship. She went to look.

Painted ladies live about a year, the vast majority of that time spent as egg and then caterpillar. They do not live long as adults. This one was tattered, unable to lift itself from the pavement.

Heart sniffed gently at the butterfly, reluctant to cause it harm. The insect raised one tattered wing to caress the side of her nose, as if seeking one last moment of kindness before the end.

Moon run

It’s always been easier for me to run at night. A quick little 12 minutes, most of a mile down a moonlit desert dirt road, and then the walk back.

Great horned owl atop a transmission pole, its call like a heart asking what hearts always ask. Who-who? Who-who?

And then answered by another great horned a half mile toward the mountains.

Moon was coy, now hiding a cloud, now showing half its full face peeking out from behind.An odd feeling, this being not-depressed. I could get used to it.The local coyotes broke a short song over the rocks, one soloist letting fly with a sustained and soulful tremolo.

And then back to the house, grab the leash and head back out again with company.

Sky blue

There is the smoke from California’s frightening fires to consider, and the dust kicked up by winds off the tropical storm front, and the contrast provided by incongruous ranks of rain clouds. Illusion may play a role.

But something happens to the blue in the desert sky this late in summer.

In June and July, the sky here fairly pulses indigo. But something fades that depth by September. Perhaps it’s the endless baking heat, irradiance desaturating the sky as though it was a plastic wading pool left to soak up a year’s ultraviolet.

Where once it was lapis and sapphire, the late summer sky fades to Kingman turquoise. Tinges of celadon, of rose and khaki.

Day 999

Labor Day weekend ends, and soon the days will cool enough that people will consider coming out to the desert for their retreats and their fashion shoots and their self-finding. Selfie-finding.

For now, we still have the place mainly to ourselves, me and my neighbors and the dog and the quail and jackrabbits, the cactus wrens and ladderbacks and desert iguanas. Louise says the sheep are back again. She has seen them on the ridge outside her bedroom window, drawn out of the National Park by the attractive force exerted by a nearby swimming pool. May the chlorine protect them all against pneumonia.

Tomorrow it is 1,000 days since this dog has had me, and this evening she celebrated by eating a rawhide chew and then taking me for a walk. Every day is a celebration around here, what with all the walks and rawhides. She recovers quickly from her surgery three weeks ago; a mile of walking and I have to haul her back home unwilling.

Yesterday morning, an overcast cooling the Mojave for a few minutes, we stepped out to see a coyote gliding across the road, regarding us sidelong and a trifle annoyed.

The quail are many, last winter’s rains apparently abundant enough that few of last spring’s chicks starved. It was a bumper crop of wildflower seeds and insects both. I expect the gopher snakes are benefitting in turn, and the roadrunners.

This morning I got up early, startled by a dream that I had lost the dog. I awoke to find her staring at me. We went out just after sunrise, red light filtering through thick clouds left over from a tropical storm off Baja. The scent of creosote and ambrosia. The weft of big galleta grass in clumps, ridiculously succulent after all this year’s rain. The lazy parabolas of antisocial jackrabbits. The clatter of jake brakes on the highway a half mile north.

Mojave River

I would drink every dram of you, were you
not secreted away beneath all these
ten thousand years’ alluvium. I would
wade into you up to my chest, my brow.
Your stony countenance doesn’t fool me.
I know what flows beneath. I know the flood
concealed so artfully, that now and then
wells up like wounded lovers’ brimming eyes.
A day will come, and soon, when the dam bursts,
your empty bed a passionate torrent,
and I will warm my fingers by the fire
I aim to kindle in your lovely wrack.
That day will come, and so today I am
content here, a pale breeze’s slight caress.

Listening to the coyote

There was something about the noise
he made tonight
that got to me.

Something about the curdled yowl,
what seemed insensate rage
that came choking out
a rising-toned flood of staccato yelps

Or something I imagined
about his eyes, gleaming cold
and furious,
pinning some imagined quarry.

It is his nature
to prey on weaker things:
I understand that.
It is wrong to ascribe to him
a moral sense,
a willing violation
of some imagined ethical code.
It asks too much of him.

But tonight it was too much.
His manic yelps, incomprehensible
and fervid, sneering sniffle snarls,
his coiled-spring choking throat
as if his claws scraped blackboard.

Tonight it was too much,
and I spent the evening
listening to the coyote instead,
a clear healthy song to wash away the debate.

Cynicism and sentiment in the desert

Originally published February 17, 2015 on BeaconReader.com

I couldn’t tell where the feathers came from. There were no trees, no power poles or other perch from which they might have descended; just the bare Mojave Desert sky, uncharacteristically overcast. There were four of them, then six, then a dozen, arcing and twirling lazily toward the ground.

Had a peregrine or a prairie falcon swooped and caught one of the Eurasian collared doves that flock in my neighborhood, knocking a few feathers loose from its inflight prey? Had a hawk’s talon scraped them off a quail’s breast? I glanced at my dog Heart at the other end of the leash, briefly imagining she would nod, mutter “huh,” and confirm the oddness. But she was lost in thoughts of her own, sniffing after side-blotched lizards beneath the desert milkweed.

The feathers were beautiful and plain, a dun-gray color slightly darker than the sky, each of them the length and width of a fingernail. They pirouetted and eddied in the light wind. I craned my neck again to find where they’d come from. I failed again.

Sometimes the small painful pieces of a desert life provide their own creation myths. Sometimes they don’t. Walking a few days beforehand Heart had done a classic olfactory doubletake, doubled back forcefully to sniff at a patch of sticks, a bit of fluff. It was downy rabbit fur, and the sticks were spattered with a bit of gore, and a pile of coyote scat lay nearby.

“Clearly, Holmes,” I explained to Heart, “an unfortunate hare happened upon this sample of coyote dung, sniffed at it, and exploded.” She gave me the merest ear flick.

ravenThe dog is new. I’ve had her for two months. She is energetic and exuberant, and as a result we have spent a lot of time walking. We put in four miles a day or so, sometimes six.

A couple weeks ago, that odd Mojave overcast having reached its full and appropriate flower as a slow, soaking rain, we walked out at 8:30 in the morning. I had my phone to my ear. I talked with a close friend as we walked. A mile from the house Heart froze at roadside, stared off into the creosote. I didn’t see why for a few long minutes, but I was distracted and glad to stand. It took a moment for them to resolve out of the blur of creosote and fog: a pair of coyotes, then three, then four, out doing a few late morning rounds under cover of the sheltering gloom. One of them, a seeming youngster, approached to within 20 yards of Heart in apparent guileless curiosity. A moment of curious sniffing for both young dog and young coyote passed, and then the wild ones loped casually across the road in front of us and into the National Park.

Phone to my ear, I would have missed them if not for Heart, wholly in the present as dogs always are.

It was a good reminder of the value of time spent the way dogs would prefer.  I now spend two hours a day at least outdoors walking with Heart, afoot in the Mojave Desert. I have walked with her first thing in the morning and then after midnight.  The extra time spent away from screens has been instructive. I have felt more hopeful. I have felt invigorated.

Mainly, I have felt less cynical.

If you were to sum up the usual mood of the Internet as a whole in a single word, it’s would be hard to find a more accurate one than “cynical.” That’s a generalization, of course, but I think it’s a fair one. Cynicism is a suit of armor. If a video or a piece of writing threatens to teach you something new and uncomfortable, you can just dismiss it by arguing with the headline. No need to actually click away from Facebook and read the thing.

Modern cynicism defends itself by casting itself as the only intelligent alternative to mawkish sentimentality. But in truth, it’s only the mawkish sentimentality that cynics allow to survive. A video of a kitten giving a mastiff a shoulder massage will go uncriticized. So will a mass and useless catharsis over the political tragedy du jour, drip with sentiment as it may. As long as sentiment is utterly powerless to change anything, cynics like it just fine.

Sentiment with power behind it is a different matter altogether. Develop a passion for a particular place, or a cause, or group of people, and harness that sentiment to protect what you love, and you will be tweaked for caring too much. Caring too much about an issue makes the cynic tired. It makes the cynic defensive against the possibility that his or her life is lacking something essential. Hackles will be raised. Suggestions will be offered that you get a life, that you have too much time on your hands.

Personally, I’m thinking cynics have not enough time on their feet.

Heart and I don’t just notice the lovely things, the wondrous things, as we walk. We see the damage we’ve done to the desert as well as the desert’s attempts to survive. We find plastic grocery bags blown here from twenty miles away and fetched up against the shores of a stand of creosote, wrack on the sea of local commerce. (I disentangle them and fill them with dog shit.) We find broken bourbon bottles and illegally dumped mattresses. We find new tire tracks on the open desert. Some of them, the ones that end a few yards from the road, were left by people clearly just looking ineptly for a place to camp. Others, the ones that crash through the creosote and cholla and hold deep spun-tire ruts along their path, were left by off-roaders. That last is another generalization. There are some off-roaders, myself among them, who see four tires and a bit of clearance as a way to get to wonderful places where we can then get out and walk, or camp, or sit and look around, or drink in solitude and fall asleep under the wheeling stars. You almost never see these people breaking new illegal trails.

But there are others, the ones who find it fit and proper to blaze their new and aimless roads across intact deserts and decry the landowners if they object, who go out expressly to tear shit up. Incurious enough to drive over desert plants they could never name, too lazy to hike any slot canyon that might reasonably be driven, these are the people who lack the courage to face the landscape as it really is without the shelter of their metal and plastic armor. They leave gouges in the desert it will take centuries to heal — if those gouges do not metastasize by eroding into gullies, loosing eons of sequestered dust into our lungs.

Ed Abbey wrote that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He had a fair point. Sentiment devoid of the power that passion brings accomplishes little. It may be, like that quadrant of the Internet devoted to pictures of cats, of momentary value for entertainment and distraction, which few would argue we don’t need.

But sentiment without action, sentiment without passion, bolsters cynicism. It reinforces cynicism. It justifies cynicism. And cynicism is the off-road vehicle of the soul. It selects a goal and bee-lines toward it, heedless of what lives along the path. Cynicism is incurious. It obliterates nuance, breaks the branches of actual living detail as it roars past, then reaches its destination and declares there was nothing worth noting en route.

Yee haw. And yet the cynics miss the drifting of coyotes across their path, the unexplained showers of odd feathers. I could not give those up for anything.

These three things happened

Thing one.

My colleague Matt and I were sitting in the shade of a black locust on a Southern California Indian reservation week before last, watching some dogs. The dogs were boisterous mutts who’d found a family to watch over them after white people had abandoned them on the Rez.

They were wary when we first arrived, but soon got over it and welcomed the new human company. We’d been there a couple hours when one, a brown brindle mix, trotted up to us all proud, wanting to show off the toy she’d found.

Matt noticed something odd a split second before I did. “Is that…” he said, just as my eyes registered the rabbit ears sticking out the right side of the dog’s mouth.

I gestured to the dog, a come-hither tone to my voice. “Good dog. Can I have it?” The dog looked at me as though I had lost my mind, a polite back-sidling side-eye, and found a shady spot beneath a shrub a few yards toward the house. There commenced a sound of crunching.

Thing two.

My ex-wife and her best friend visited me in the desert few days ago. It was the first time B. had seen where I live since a short visit in 2009 to my apartment in Los Angeles. I tidied a bit, made sure to tell my sweetheart my ex- was going to visit (“best relationship practices,” I said), and then they arrived and met the dog and we went to dinner and B. was pleased at my house and beamed at the desert plants and she said she was thrilled that I had made such an appropriate life for myself.

As the taillights of her friend’s Tesla headed toward Los Angeles, I called my sweetheart to report on the evening. She was thrilled that all had gone well. She told me of her gratitude to the universe for providing me with that little bit of validation, of something like closure, and as we hung up I felt buoyed by love in its many forms, and I went to bed.

A different, more recent ex- showed up in a dream to correct my course. We argued over things I forgot as soon as I awoke. All that remained when I awoke was the feeling of worthlessness she had inspired, and that I ended the dream by walking away from her.

That afternoon I had a shrink appointment, and I told my shrink about the dream. “I feel like my brain couldn’t give me just 24 hours of feeling uplifted by people who love me and who actually want to be part of my life, so it plunged me into an argument with someone who wants nothing to do with me,” I said.

“You should write about it,” she said.

Thing three.

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing attempt to revegetate my life, I brought home a Dasylirion quadrangularum from my favorite local nursery. I put it in a big terra cotta pot and placed it on my front porch.

About a week ago I looked at the plant, wondering if the neatly trimmed stubs of what were once long-strappy leaves were a new thing, or if I’d just missed seeing them at the nursery when I bought it. No worries either way, I thought. Dasylirions are tough.

For about six years I had one plant, and the person I lived with resented me having even that one. It’s a wonder that plant survived the enmity, the being relegated to dark corners and locked in car trunks in the summer in Palm Springs while I wasn’t looking. It’s now many times larger than it was a couple years ago, and it has company: several Dracaenas, orchids, ferns and Tillandsias, a Coffea arabica I rescued from the hardware store’s trash cart.

The plants help me feel like myself, again, a commodity in short supply over the last decade. But they survive well only indoors. I set a Calibanus on my table outdoors to get some air, and something ate it in about 12 hours. The desert is voracious. White sage, chiltepin peppers, potato leaves full of solanine, it doesn’t matter. The mammals around here will take any source of green they can get.

This morning I surprised a rabbit in the act of snipping the last long leaf from the Dasylirion on the porch. I sighed, sat down in the shade of the house, and watched the cottontail haul the leaf beneath my car.

There commenced a sound of crunching.

Planting the saguaro

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I planted a saguaro cactus in the front yard today, with a little help, or at least companionship, from my dog Heart. I don’t remember how long I’ve had the cactus. It’s been at least 10 years since I bought it in a fancy cactus nursery in Berkeley, though it might’ve been 12 years.

That’s a long time to spend in a small terra-cotta pot, I’ve been thinking for the last couple weeks, especially for a plant that has the capability of growing 40 feet tall and weighing several tons.

So I planted it today, or we did, and now it can stretch its roots out into the soil 10 feet from the front door of my house. It’s far enough away from where people walk, with no overhanging eaves or overhead power lines to make it unhappy in 40 or 50 years.

I don’t own the place, so I can’t be sure I’ll see it grow for even one tenth that time. I’m not sure that really matters. All I can think of is those cramped roots now free to delve the Mojave soil.

I anthropomorphize. I shall continue. 10 years in a 10 inch terra-cotta pot seems like a Geneva Convention violation. When I bought the thing I had imagined planting it in my Bay Area yard, but it only took a moment for my better self to disabuse me of that idea. A cold winter full of rain and soggy clay soil, and that saguaro would’ve been dead nine years ago. Or maybe 11.

My yard is out of the saguaro’s native range, but they do just fine hereabouts. They’ll probably do better here in 50 years than they do now. If this little baby saguaro, 20 years old at most, makes it through the next couple of years and starts growing, and enjoys a century of life, maybe the last decade of confinement will seem worth it.

Of course, whatever story the saguaro tells in the course of its life will have nothing to do with me. It endured the confinement, and now it’s no longer confined, and my feelings about the whole thing matter not at all. The saguaro has more important things to do than reassure me that it looks back with fondness on its time in the too-small clay pot.

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Certainty is death

I told a writerly friend, a couple decades ago, that the only thing interesting enough to write about is doubt.

She asked me if I was sure.

I have been certain about so many different things over the years. Each certainty has in turn fallen away. What was frightening at first has become exhilarating.

Certainty is a shell that surrounds your world view, like a layer of plaster smeared onto a balloon and allowed to dry. It provides an illusory sense of security. It also constricts and confines. It prevents movement and expansion.

And it’s self-healing, once you apply it. The wonks say that the more certain a person is about something — a political conspiracy or a religious tenet or the surpassing danger of genetically modified food or the complete safety of genetically modified food — the more likely that person is to dismiss evidence to the contrary.

No philosophical tendency is immune to this. Which might be why I’ve been accused of being a shill for coal companies and extreme green groups by people responding to the same article.

Any bit of nuance is a threat to certainty. Certainty requires a clean, uncomplicated surface: no speckles of data that don’t quite fit, no tiny fractal eddies of facts that seem to contradict one another. I call it “poikilophobia,” the fear of complexity, from the Greek ποικίλος, meaning “diverse.” Fear of philosophical messiness, of nuance.

A friend sent me a link yesterday to a video about vulnerability. It’s good and you should watch it. And I began to think about how in the common American parlance, the word “vulnerability” has come to mean something along the lines of “feeling bad if people are mean to you.” Same goes for “sensitivity.”

But I think we miss a lot when we cast vulnerability only in that sense of requiring others to tiptoe around your important feelings. We miss out if we are not vulnerable to new information, sensitive to contrary bits of data.

Certain certainties are a necessary baseline for living in the world. I am certain that all people deserve to be treated kindly. I am certain that we as a species are not more important than all the other species in the world combined. I am certain that I wish to limit the harm I cause and I am certain that I wish to be loved. I am certain that all of us furred finned fanged fungal or foliaged multicellular organisms are kin. I am certain that if I drop my phone in the bath I will need a new one.

I am certain that I will rethink some of my certainties before long.

Breaking that shell of plaster lets the light in. How wonderful to feel the breeze on the back of your neck again, to shed a layer of outmoded certainty like a snake its old skin. What dreadful confinement to have everything figured out so tidily, to fit each mindblowing wonder into its little box and to discard those wonders too ungainly to fit.

Pleiades

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There’s a thin haze on the sky tonight, so I can only see the Pleiades through my peripheral vision.

The fall constellations are parading again. The Pleiades rise in the east, and then an hour or so later the head and horns of Taurus, and Orion after another hour, and Orion’s dog after that.

When I first started spending nights in the Mojave Desert, 20 years ago almost, I used those four constellations as a clock. Well, three if you’re a traditionalist who counts the Pleiades as part of Taurus. I would have the fire started and the first beer cracked as the Pleiades rose over the ridge of Kessler Peak on an October evening, and me and my fourth beer would cozy in my sleeping bag as Canis Major bounded up over that same ridge three hours later, as the embers of my little fire crackled and hissed.

I used to sit by those fires and feel as though I had just awakened from an improbable dream, unrealistic adventures of riding trains underwater and spending whole meetings talking about spreadsheets, and waking only at long intervals to find myself at fireside in the Mojave, watching the ice crystals grow in my water bottle.

I used to wonder what it would be like not to descend back into that sleepwalking through cities.

On Monday mornings these days I haul myself out of bed at 4:00 am, and Sirius shines directly overhead as I load the dog in the car. I drop her off at a friend’s house and drive westward toward where Orion sets behind Black Lava Butte. It has taken some doing, but I no longer sleepwalk.