Category Archives: Desert

Wild Eyes at La Contenta

[I read this this weekend at Desert Stories X.]

At 8:15 pm on May 18, 2016, the sky was darkening over Joshua Tree. I was driving across La Contenta Road heading eastbound on Route 62, doing about five under the limit.

And then I died.

At least I think it was me. I do lose track of these things.

You need to understand this: in my entire life, spanning more than half a century spent in the company of a staggeringly diverse cast of people, I have, as far as I am aware, had precisely one nickname: Coyote. Except, pronounced the correct way, the Mexican way: “Coyóte.” The name was bestowed on me by my co-workers in the Berkeley café where I worked in 1983. I asked my boss Beto why he started calling me that. “Because, Coyóte, you shut up about them never.”

“Oh,” I said. “Never,” said Beto. “I see,” I said. “Jamas Nunca,” said Beto.

I couldn’t argue. Still can’t. I am not always happy with this human skin I wear. Coyóte has long seemed a salubrious alternative.

Where I live there are always at least three or four coyotes within a quarter mile, drifting though the creosote and yucca as silent as they wish to be. On occasion they allow me a moment or two of their time. They stand a ways off, eyeing me as though I am preposterous and likely to do something dangerous and stupid at any time, and then once they have had their fill of me they look sidelong at one another and vanish as if due to some prearranged signal.

This is precisely the relationship I have with my birth family, and so it makes me feel right at home.

Though it also makes me less certain of the precise boundary between Homo sapiens and Canis latrans. I hear coyote song and I strain to make out the words. Disoriented in the desert a decade ago I found a fresh set of coyote tracks and cursed, certain that they were mine and I had been walking in circles.

You get the picture. When my species dysphoria kicks in, when the manyfold flaws of the human race begin to rankle, there is a deep part of me that longs to run out into the desert, to chase down cottontails and sleep curled up beneath the cholla. I see one of my coyote neighbors and for a moment, a part of me becomes him. Or at least it wants to. I want to fit into the land as seamlessly as they do, to drift through the creosote and yucca with them as heedless of bank accounts or Twitter handles. There is a part of me that longs to be that grizzled fur coat camouflaged against the varnished rock and alluvium, that longs to be just a pair of wild eyes surveying the Mojave, the desert grown conscious of itself.

I long to be in the landscape, not on it.

And certainly not driving across it, dog and bags of groceries shifting in the back seat, the panel truck to my left seeming to have trouble deciding which lane it wants to occupy. I decide to slow and give him room. When we get to the east side of La Contenta he’s pulled about halfway past me, his front bumper about ten feet farther east than mine.

Coyóte

darts out from in front of the truck, avoiding it by a hair’s breadth. He is making for the Joshua tree forest across the way. His eyes are bright with glee. And then his expression changes. He didn’t expect me there in the right hand lane.


Sometimes I think that in order to really belong to a place you have to have your heart broken there, to have your smug certainty stripped away and your sentiments shattered, brought to that state where every detail of the moment in that place is seared into you, each roadside can and broken Joshua tree branded on your soul forever.

The look of surprise and terror in those wild eyes stakes your heart to the ground.

The knowing that you cannot stop in time.

The knowing that you cannot stop time.

I will grant you the kindness Fortune denied me, and spare you most of the details. But here is the worst of them: it was… subtle. Imagine the Roman soldiers’ nails sliding through Christ’s wrists as if He was made of seafoam.

Coyote dies all the time in the stories, I know, and his friends roll their eyes and set to reviving him. Or he jumps over his body three times to bring himself back from the dead. Death is a momentary inconvenience for a demigod.

I have tried to imagine this since as a comfort. It hasn’t worked.

Because in that endlessly extended second, Coyote’s eyes riveted on me in surprise and terror, I recognized that look wholeheartedly.

My eyes were the same on him.

Our hearts broke the same in that place, just ten feet from the Joshua trees and safety.

Our eyes.

Our hearts.

We are the same.

We are the same.

Blue Rodeo

I-40 Eastbound, Park Moabi Road

In 1989 you reached Barstow by driving the two-lane past worn out alfalfa fields, rotten barbed wire seining plastic bags from the desert wind, fences of decaying schoolbuses. At 45 per in the ancient veedub it was an agonizing slog. Overnight in the Boron rest area. An eternity of Hinkley. Breakfast in a Barstow bowling alley.

The old road was all there was, curling around the north end toward the dry riverbed, the derelict train depot.

Daggett by eleven, and Ludlow, past the incongruous green of the Springs of Newberry. The old split-pane windshield topped out an inch below my eyes. No gas gauge. I had to slouch to see more than a quarter mile of road.

Truck tires on asphalt gamelan, a decade-old tape deck on the passenger side seat, a tinny recording of Canadian country-rock  on endless repeat. My housemate in Berkeley had just bought the LP. An endless expanse of creosote and barrel cacti, and then gas in Needles.

Napping in the belly of the king

This piece was first published August 27, 2015 at Beacon Reader.

“They’re goddamn invasive plants.”

Biologist Tim Shields had an odd look as he observed a mid-sized shrub in my yard in Joshua Tree, California on an evening late in March. “They’re not native. They’re from South America. They got here somehow and then they colonized the whole desert, taking over thousands of square miles and making an ecosystem that never existed before.”

And then he laughed. He was pointing at a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, likely the most common woody plant in the California deserts. You won’t find creosote on any list of desert invasive plants. Most plant species move their ranges, and none of the plants currently considered native to the desert have been living here forever. Their ancestors dispersed their seeds here from somewhere else. Or their ancestors grew here, but were of a different species, and their descendants evolved in response to changing conditions. But generally, a species is considered native to the  North American deserts is if was here before the deserts were opened to global trade.

Call the cutoff date 1492; that’s close enough for government work. And the shrub Shields was regarding may have been in the desert almost that long. 300 or 400 years, easy.

backyard-ring

Creosote clonal ring | Chris Clarke photo

It’s all about perspective. Shields was taking the long view, abandoning our usual human-scaled frame of reference for something a little slower. Or would that be faster? Rewind the record of life in the North American deserts back about 15,000 years, play it back again a couple hundred thousand times faster than it happened the first time, and Shields has a point. Though it’s thought there may have been creosotes growing in Central Mexico as early as 8 million years ago, the species probably didn’t show up in the present-day North American Deserts — the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave — until  maybe 13,000 years ago or so.

Play that tape, and creosotes will seem to explode across the Chihuahuan Desert, perhaps with a few false starts as unstable Ice Age climates bring especially cold winters every 500 years or so. A reproductive fluke happened as the plants moved into the Sonoran Desert, perhaps an error in a single seed’s development: Sonoran Desert plants have two pairs of each chromosome compared to the Chihuahuan plants’ single pair. That doubling of chromosome pairs is known technically as tetraploidy, “tetra” referring to the four copies of each chromosome. Botanists who’ve looked into the creosote genome suspect that the tetraploid creosotes may have been better able to survive in the greater aridity of the Sonoran Desert. Moving from the Sonoran into the Mojave, it happened again: some creosote made a mistake in the chromosome copying and collating process. Creosotes in the Mojave have three pairs of chromosomes: they are hexaploid.

So tetraploid creosotes exploded across the Sonoran Desert, and then hexaploid creosotes rampaged across the Mojave, each covering broad swathes of new territory in a seeming eyeblink — at least on our sped-up, Shieldsian timescale. It’s not hard to imagine creosotes spreading rapidly, given the right conditions. The shrubs produce prodigious amounts of fruit, white fuzz-covered capsules with five seeds that are avidly gathered by ants, birds, and other wildlife. The fruit collects in drifts in washes and alongside the raised soil mounds beneath creosote clumps. They are so numerous that a local species of wasp known as “velvet ants” find it evolutionarily advantageous to camouflage themselves as little puffs of white fuzz the size of a creosote fruit. When the desert is awash in creosote seeds, predators specializing in velvet ants would probably prefer looking for needles in haystacks.

So, lots of seeds waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Those right conditions may not come as often as they did back in the Pleistocene. Creosote seeds germinate readily, but then succumb to desert heat unless the next three to five years are unusually cool and moist. That means that many of the creosotes in a typical desert valley full of creosote likely grew in pulses, decades when conditions were right for survival of germinated seeds.

kingclone

In Johnson Valley | Chris Clarke photo

Four months later, sweating out a July day in a broad valley north of my home, I think about Shields’ assessment of creosote’s invasive potential. Toss a fluffy creosote fruit onto the desert soil, and ensure five years of cool wet summers, and you get a seedling with bright waxy green leaves. In a mere decade that seedling may have raced toward the sky, reaching a full foot in height. In just a century or so, its single trunk will grow a shoot from its base, perhaps two or three. They will grow into mature plants and shade out, crowd out their parent stem. It will die back, leaving a hole in the creosote donut. Those stems will grow their own clonal stems, which will grow their own in turn, ripples expanding outward from the seed thrown into the ocean of desert.

The ripple I’m napping in is 45 feet across, more or less. In the late 1970s biologist Frank Vasek and his colleagues at UC Riverside calculated that it had been growing here in the Johnson Valley area for a very long time.

I once heard a joke about a family visiting Chicago’s Field Museum and marveling at a fossilized hadrosaur. “That’s 80 million and 27 years old,” said a nearby custodian. “That seems unusually precise,” said the mom. “Well, they told me when I started working here that it was 80 million years old, and I’ve been here since 1988,” said the worker.

In that spirit, I think of this creosote ring, which Vasek dubbed King Clone in 1980, as 11,735 years old. Give or take.

I’m here with my hiking buddy Monica, who is a biologist, and my dog Heart, an olfactory forensics researcher. We got here with a set of somewhat vague directions, which I improved upon using technology approximately 1/2340 as old as the creosote clonal ring: I fired up my smartphone’s mapping app and we walked until the blue dot was next to the biggest ring of creosote on the map.

Now that we’re here, Heart wastes no time providing the oldest known creosote with a bit of nitrogen, then she wisely retreats into the thin sliver of shade cast by Monica, who has found a place to sit near the edge of the ring.

monicaheart

Heart and Monica | Chris Clarke photo

I intend more contemplation than socializing, so I move twenty feet away to the approximate center of the clonal ring. I lie on my back. I look at the pale, sunburnt sky. I imagine a slow tide of invasive creosote wreaking dilatory havoc across the landscape in a mere geologic eyeblink.

When you start paying attention to very long-lived plants, 11,700 years becomes less impressive. King Clone probably isn’t even the oldest creosote clonal ring: it’s just the one we know about. So much of the desert remains unexplored, unexamined. In the last decade botanists decided a shrub oak about an hour’s drive from here is likely around 13,000 years old. A four-hour drive in the opposite direction, there’s a clonal forest of cottonwood trees thought to have germinated from a single seed 80,000 years ago.

Ancientness lurks everywhere you look in the desert. Vasek estimated the lateral growth rate of creosote clonal rings at about .7 millimeters per year. It’s not at all hard to find creosote clonal rings five feet across. Five feet divided by .7 millimeters is about 2,177 years and seven weeks. Give or take.

I’m something like 11,645 years younger than King Clone, and yet at the rate years seem to be speeding up as they pass me I expect these days that I will catch up in no time. My age is growing steadily and well, mulched thickly with calendar pages. I have shirts not yet threadbare that are older than some of the people I work with. There are urgent tasks I have been reminding myself to finish for 15 years, unfinished conversations fresh in my mind with loved ones long dead.

This past year took about 20 minutes to elapse. It has brought remarkable changes in that short time. A year ago I was resigned to settling for consistent but somewhat manageable unhappiness. I am now happy. A year ago I dreaded the future mildly: I now look forward to it. From hopeless disappointment to occasionally elated optimism is a remarkable change, even more so given the year’s racing past. I have been a bit breathless. Time and change have come at a staggering clip, and despite those changes’ positivity I have wanted a bit of slow.

Slow is here, in abundance. It is layered over with fast, of course: the frisking dog, the flies’ inexorable wingbeats, the plunge of the sun toward the mountains to the west. My shadow grows in length, and yet it is far more permanent to me than I can ever be to King Clone. I am a passing shade to King Clone, a flicker on the far margins of his sleeping consciousness, and if I had had children their great grandchildren might well have come here in their ninth decades of life to find King Clone essentially unchanged, not remembering the afternoon when I was a fly alighting briefly on his shoulder.

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo

 

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.

Whistling in the dark

In the dark and the ancient creosote, something has pulled the dog taut at the far end of her leash.

A coyote then, affecting nonchalance. It lingers, then ventures out to the road, backlit, then stops.

It is warm, despite the dark. A smell of dust, of distant shredded brake lining.  A curious liberation.

It is a puzzle. The more the years-long bleakness lifts, the more I can admit my work is pointless. Sisyphus reaches the top. There’s a sign with a boulder and a red slashed circle over it.

Silhouetted coyote flicks a silhouetted ear.

Farther east? Perhaps. Perhaps. “Remind me of this when I complain about my life,” I said today, in momentary wonder over interesting plans.The pinacate beetle over there means more to me. It walks between the dog’s tensed paws. It pauses. it turns.

We four face each other for a long moment.

Coyote tires of our company. As she glides up the road a bright blue fireball meteor burns slowly above her head, and then is gone.

As portents go, not a bad one. Abandon all hope and the trickster has no power over you.

Creosote and Dream Time

I dreamed last night that I was working on a new project, a grass-roots environmental mapping, aerial photography, advocacy, and art endeavor.

It worked like this: we’d take a drone and abundant battery recharging capability out to a plot of desert that had been approved for use as a utility-scale solar power plant, and the drone would fly over every square foot of that soon-to-be-built project, photographing the vegetation. We’d look at the photos, then pick likely ancient plants to go “ground-truth” on foot, with video cameras and implements of measurement, and means to take and document genetic samples of the candidate plants.

We found, in my dream, any number of creosote clonal rings that rivaled the 11,700-year-old King Clone in size, and likely in age. We also found very old stands of Ephedra, rings of ironwood trees forty feet across, sixty-foot semicircles of palo verde and mesquite, circles of cholla and of barrel cactus, and we sampled every likely looking potential clonal ring so that some scientist someday might determine whether each ring was really a single individual, or just a bunch of plants that happened to grow in a certain shape.

And then, the naming. We chose names for each stunning potential ancient plant, some of them possibly as old as 15,000 years. We started with the names of the executives of the companies that would be razing these ancient plants, but we quickly ran out of names. Adding high-ranking agency officials got us a bit further toward naming all the plants, but we still needed more names, so we added the executive staff of certain foundations and program staff of certain mainstream environmental groups.

Toward the end of the dream, a volunteer scientist told us she’d found that one of the creosote rings we estimated might be older than King Clone was in fact very likely a single individual plant, and we prepared the press release. Then I woke up.

I have been chuckling over the glimpse the dream gave me into my id. I don’t believe in blaming most people for the jobs they do. Many of us feel stuck in this system like flies in amber.

I just fired up Google Maps. There are some interesting rings of plants on the site of the proposed Palen Solar Plant. It may be they’re young plants that just randomly started growing in  rings. I don’t know.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 2.11.57 PM

Habitat loss

I want to go back to this little place I know, on the east side of Route 14 in Mojave, California called Reno’s Coffee Shop. I had homemade turkey soup there once two days after Thanksgiving. The waitress apologized. It would be turkey soup for days, she said. The place closed in 1992, and when I go back I will buy the space shuttle postcard I always meant to send to my brother.

In Nipomo, surrounded on all sides by close-grazed green hills, there’s a lonely taqueria I’ll revisit. A basalt molcajete on the counter holds an incendiary salsa verde. Two carnitas tacos, the gamelan hum of truck tires on Highway 101, and a wizened side-eye from the woman behind the counter as she explains again in a language you do not quite speak that the payphone has not worked in some months. I will go back, roll away the new asphalt and the Panera and the Starbucks, find the old green hills underneath the acres of shopping center parking, and three or four layers beneath the drive-through ATMs I will find her and ask for carne al pastor.

I will watch the Perseids again with Matthew, lying on our backs on the side of Grant Line Road at the farthest reach of the Bay Area’s light dome in Tracy, where the still-wild Central Valley remains just beside the glare-lit outlet malls and each meteor brings jokes about the space defense system President Reagan is pushing.

All these places. All these places. The spot below Lone Tree Point where Zeke stands, his last visit to the Bay, staring out with rheumy eyes at the far shore for which he’d soon depart. The Bay rose to cover that little beach in 2045. I want to hold his trembling hips upright, tell him how good a dog he always has been.

The Ivanpah Valley, sitting down at night among the waist-high creosote again, the eleven new square miles of solar factory hell irrelevant for now.

That place on 16th and Valencia, right on the corner, with the milanesa lunch special and banda on the jukebox. I’ll order the molé pipian.

I’ll meet her, hold her hand again under the plum trees on University Avenue in Berkeley, window-shopping in stores closed for hours and now for decades, and tell her how my life has been in the more than 30 years since she died.

I’ll hike up to the ancient junipers burned dead in the 2005 Hackberry Fire, Mojave National Preserve, and sit beneath them again in a hot noon, smell the sweet oil sun-distilled from their new leaves.