Category Archives: Desert

Turkey vultures

In a dead eucalyptus tree two blocks from my house this morning, ten turkey vultures. Some of them folded in tight upon themselves, others held their wings spread toward the warming breeze.

They do not live here year-round, but migrate through the Mojave in autumn on their way from coastal California to Colombia, or perhaps farther. And then back again in spring. The dog and I walked beneath them — a risky move, but we did not linger — and they regarded us placidly and with little interest, as a cook might regard thoroughly unripe fruit. They perched on branches that seemed far too thin to bear their massive dark bodies. But they are mostly feather, of course, with a little sinew and hollow bone, plus the weight of their sanitary responsibilities and mortal symbolism.

On the return part of our dogwalk, I saw they were still there. And so were another dozen I had not noticed earlier in the tree across the road from them. I had spent five minutes with my back to them, their presence never registering.

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.

The Desert is Not Your Blank Canvas

First published April 19, 2015, at BeaconReader.com.

When street artist André Saraiva got the notion to tag a parking lot boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a few miles from where I live, he probably didn’t expect the roof to fall in on him a few short hours later. Saraiva whose work has appeared on blank walls and in galleries around the world, was in the area visiting a family member, and blithely documented his visit on Instagram. That was his mistake.

One of Saraiva’s Instagram followers took offense at his signature “Mr. A.” tag being applied to a boulder with a millennia-old patina of desert varnish. Said follower alerted Casey Schreiner of the website Modern Hiker, who posted the image. Schreiner’s readers quickly identified the boulder as one in the parking lot of the National Park’s Contact Mine trailhead, and the outrage flew.

Here’s the original image as posted to Saraiva’s Instagram feed, which he made private within hours of Schreiner’s post:

Photo by André Saraiva, reprinted here under Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law relating to public discussion of an artwork.

Saraiva’s response to the furor was to deny the rock was in the National Park, then to threaten Schreiner with legal retaliation. Then, perhaps realizing that his attorneys’ letter to Schreiner contained an admission that he had in fact vandalized a rock inside the National Park, Saraiva paid a fine to the National Park Service for the act of vandalism. The case is presumably closed.

Shortly after Saraiva tagged the boulder, I visited the parking lot. Someone had gone to some trouble to cover over the surface with a layer of something like mud and plaster. Here’s my household’s leading street art critic inspecting the work:

Not impressed.

Some weeks afterward, the boulder was flipped so that its painted side now faces the center of the earth.

In the week in which the news broke of Saraiva paying his fine, a remarkably similar act of vandalism was reported in the Nevada desert. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was an ill-considered defacement of a natural desert surface intended to boost the creators’ commercial prominence. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was reported to the world by its creators, who were apparently under the impression that they had done something admirable.

But unlike Saraiva’s tag, the vandalism in Nevada was larger than New York’s Central Park. Five and a half square kilometers of Delamar Dry Lake, near the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, now bears a heavy-handed attempt at viral marketing by the Hyundai Corporation. It’s a “feel-good” campaign in which a 13-year-old girl’s message to her astronaut father was carved into the lakebed in January by 11 synchronized Hyundai sedans fitted with special spiked tires that gouged the girl’s message into the desert.

Photo: Hyundai

In the expensively produced video on Hyundai’s campaign site, we see Stephanie’s astronaut dad — unidentified by Hyundai, but likely current International Space Station mission chief Terry Virts, who has a daughter with that name — photographing the dry lake with a long lens. And the crowd cheers.

It’s an undeniably sweet message; a young girl missing her dad, of whom she is proud, and wanting to tell him she loves him in a spectacular way. And in an ideal world, she’d have had grownups around to congratulate her on her initiative, explain to her that even a message as important as this one didn’t justify scarring two square miles of public lands in the desert of southern Nevada, and suggest a less destructive manner to get that message across.

But instead of grownups, she had the Hyundai Motor Corporation, which saw an opportunity to scrawl a bit of feel-good advertising into those public lands. And it’s paid off: glowing praise of the stunt has appeared in venues from Forbes to the Huffington Post to ABC news, with none of the  coverage mentioning any environmental cost.

What environmental cost? It’s a dry lake, after all. Won’t the next big flood smooth out the playa soil, erase Steph’s ❤ as if it were on a Central Park-sized Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe. The next big summer monsoon flood to fill Delamar Dry Lake with water could come four months from now. Or four decades.

Fox News quotes BLM spokesperson Chris Hanafeld as saying the message is fading “quickly.” One hopes that’s true. More likely, though, that fading is as the result of the newly exposed soil drying out, becoming the same color as the original crust.  The damage to the playa would still be there; just less visible.

Delamar Dry Lake isn’t a wilderness: it’s been an occasional airstrip since World War 2, and is the site of activities like amateur rocket launches.  But so far as I can determine, it’s never been the site of a project that deliberately gouged the playa soil a couple inches down over several thousand acres with the sole intention of making some of that soil a different color for an ad campaign.

Playas such as Delamar Dry Lake aren’t lifeless. They contain unique ecosystems with unique organisms: fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp and clam shrimp, spadefoot toads, algae, halobacteria, and unknown other odd life forms adapted to prolonged desiccation.  Their soils are fragile, and once the surface crust is broken random winds can carry particulate matter far away and into people’s lungs, increasing locals’ risk of valley fever… and considering Delamar Valley’s proximity to 20th Century atmospheric nuclear weapons testing sites, perhaps maladies far worse than valley fever.

It’s worth comparing Delamar Dry Lake to another playa that periodically gets a lot of vehicle traffic. Here’s a satellite photo of that other playa in the off-season:

Google Maps screencap

Marked changes in the playa surface just leap out at you there, and that’s without special studded tires making marks: just regular car and truck tires, bicycle tires, flip flops and ill-advised bare feet.

In fact, in Black Rock City shown above, occupied by people during Burning Man and at almost no other time, the powers that be take special pains to limit their damage to the playa floor. They require that campfires be kept on metal sheets. They ban digging. They urge volunteers to pick up and pack out every last stray discarded pistachio shell.

And yet there’s seemingly permanent damage done to the playa at Black Rock City, or permanent enough that traces will likely still be visible when today’s 20-something burners are boring their grandkids with stories of how the playa used to be cool.

All that said, it’s possible that the direct ecological damage done by Hyundai to the Delamar Dry Lake was indeed minimal, at least by comparison to previously existing damage.

It’s hard to tell at this point. The federal government does have a means by which it’s supposed to gauge the impact of projects as big as Hyundai’s on public lands, and it would have been nice if the BLM had put that to work. It’s called the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that has brought us all those fancy Environmental Impact Statements. True, if BLM had opted for a full Environmental Impact Statement process to evaluate Steph’s note to her dad, that note might not have been delivered until she started college. There’s a short-cut in the process called a negative declaration, in which an agency can determine that a project doesn’t have significant potential effect on the environment. That short-cut can still sometimes take a year.

Yes, that would have interfered with Hyundai’s ability to get those playa-scraping precision drivers out on the dry lake in a timely fashion. That’s a feature, not a bug. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of those mechanisms by which the federal government, when it cares to, can be a grownup when neither private nor corporate citizens are willing to take on that responsibility, a massive “let’s think this through” written into federal law.

At any rate: assume the Hyundai project did not in fact cause significant damage to the desert environment. That doesn’t matter. André Saraiva’s spraypainted tag in Joshua Tree National Park didn’t cause significant damage to the environment either. His black spray paint damaged less than a square foot of the desert varnish ecosystem on one boulder. The old guy I met in the Park three weeks ago heading the wrong way up a dirt road, who politely pulled off to the side onto what had been untrammeled desert soil, did immeasurably more damage to the Mojave Desert ecosystem than did Saraiva.

People were furious at Saraiva. And rightly so. His tagging was an insensitive, self-absorbed act. I have appreciated Saraiva’s work in other venues, but let’s be clear: his endlessly repeated “Mr. A” character has been, since the late 1980s, as much personal brand as artistic expression. Saraiva’s tag on the rock at the Contact Mine trailhead was a billboard advertising the rest of his work, at least to that circle of artistic insiders familiar with Saraiva’s brand. His decision to leave that brand on a rock inside a national park was a decision to usurp public property for his own (admittedly somewhat intangible) personal gain.

Until that rock was flipped, there was no way members of the public could use the Contact Mine trailhead without being subjected to Saraiva’s tag. It was a high-handed, narcissistic act. Anyone at that trailhead is likely there out of a desire to experience the Mojave Desert in a somewhat untrammeled form. Saraiva decided that the wishes of those Park visitors were less important than his desire to have his artwork seen.

It was an act that a trained, professional psychologist might well describe in technical terms as a “douchebag move.” And the reaction to Saraiva’s act was almost immediate, and fairly intense.

Why then the difference in public reactions to Saraiva’s tag, which covered about five square feet of rock surface, and Hyundai’s 59.7-million-square-foot tag on Delamar Dry Lake? If anything, Saraiva’s tag was a more honest act than Hyundai’s, which cynically capitalized on a young girl’s love for her father to get people on the Internet to share a long video showing Hyundai’s products driving across the desert with a waltz soundtrack. Is it that Delamar Dry Lake isn’t part of a national park? Is it the sentiment? Is it the social esteem granted astronauts, which is generally significantly greater than that bestowed on poseur douchebags? I suspect that question could fuel weeks’ worth of late-night beery arguments.

I see more commonalities than differences between Saraiva and Hyundai. Aside from the incomprehensibly larger scale of Hyundai’s act, that is.

Saraiva’s tagging was clearly illegal, and given the apparent lack of NEPA analysis, a good lawyer could make the argument that Hyundai’s was as well.

Saraiva used social media to publicize his tag, adding fuel to the social-media-driven epidemic of vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park. Hyundai is doing the same. That facet of both acts may well turn out to be the most damaging, as they inspire others to vandalize the desert landscape in ways that are far more ecologically destructive.

As if to underscore the potential for copycatism, Hyundai’s campaign site offers visitors the opportunity to scrawl their own messages on the virtual floor of Delamar Dry Lake, like so:


Couldn’t help myself.

But the most central similarity of the two acts of vandalism is in the attitude each act conveys about the value of the desert’s living, non-human landscape.

For the plainest, clearest symbol of that attitude, let us once more consider the Burning Man festival.

Every last Monday in August since 1990, celebrants have gathered on the Black Rock Desert’s playa for what has been described (as for example in Wikipedia) as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.”

There is much to admire about the sentiment behind Burning Man, and much to admire about both the creativity and good cheer of many participants, and the organizers’ commitment to reducing their impact on the Playa. But at its literal core, Burning Man is a manifest symbol of the sickness in our relationship with the desert, the sickness that drove both Saraiva’s and Hyundai’s vandalism.

Every late summer, Black Rock City swells with celebrants. Since 1999, when the crowds had grown too large for random campsites to be either feasible or safe, the city springs up on a arcuate grid, concentric two-thirds circles with radial avenues intersecting the arcs.

When Black Rock City is dormant, the desert is omnipresent. A few miles to the east is Old Razorback Mountain, also called Boiling Butte, with a diverse vegetation of shrubs native to the Great Basin Desert. Westward, the taller Granite Range is even more diverse, with seeps and hot springs supporting perennial wetlands choked with bulrush. I have visited the foothills of the Granite Range, and if there is a prettier small mountain chain in the United States I do not know it.

And between the ranges, opening up to the north and stretching 100 miles from Black Rock City, is The Playa, the Black Rock Desert, so perfectly geometrically flat, in that non-Euclidean sense to which we are confined by our occupying the surface of a sphere, that the mountain ranges at the far end are obscured only by the curvature of the Earth.

Your mind will struggle to make sense of scale on the playa. It will fail. Without a frame of reference other than flat, flat soil, flat, flat sky, and mountain ranges that seem as inaccessible as Jupiter, the question of your place in the universe becomes more than an idle, philosophical rumination. The question becomes visceral. You see an object out on the playa, its details heat-shimmer obscured. Is it a house-sized boulder or a tin can? You don’t know whether you’re much bigger than it, or much smaller. Your proprioception shifts. You start to feel very small, properly insignificant, and then the sun sets and the Milky Way appears and erases any lingering sense you might have had of your importance in the grand and indifferent scheme of things.

And then late August rolls around, and Black Rock City, LLC builds itself with its back to the emptiness, a city of clustered rings with a figure at their center. The figure? Not the sun, which would seem an appropriate object of veneration and respect in the alienating desert. Not a coyote, nor a raven. Not a tree to represent those in the fringing ranges. Not an abstract figure of geometry to symbolize the abstract geometrical perfection of the surround.

The narcissistic city centers on a man, and that man is lit aflame at the city’s climax. The firelight drives that impersonal galaxy back where it can be safely ignored. It makes eyeshine in the animals outside the fence, who regard us in yet another demonstration of the exclusive esteem in which we hold ourselves.

 

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.

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.

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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.

The giant ancient forest you cannot see

Imagine we found a country the size of France covered in ancient forest, where trees a century old were mere saplings just getting started, where the oldest sprouted when near-mythical monsters roamed the landscape.

Imagine visiting this country, standing in a particular spot and watching. Perhaps you’ve left the house on an errand. Perhaps you just went out to get some air. And you walk a half a block from the place you’re staying, caught up in one important thought or another, and you suddenly realize that within 60 feet of you are three trees more than a thousand years old. You turn your head and there are two more.

You start to see the open, park-like forest with new eyes, really seeing the unimaginable ancientness of it. Everywhere you look: trees 700, 1,000, 3,000 years old. You rack your brain for half-remembered scraps of human history. Charlemagne was emperor when that tree sprouted, and that one a dozen paces east was probably sending out leaves when the Magna Carta was written. Every now and then you see a tree that could have sheltered Nefertiti, had she the airfare.

And imagine that as you really see the trees for the first time, you remember hearing about a hundred different plans to cut them down. It’s not that their timber is valuable, or that people need centuries-old firewood.

It’s just that people have deemed this incredibly ancient forest worthless, and they’ve decided the land it occupies could be better used for other things. And so they plan to bulldoze it, stack the trees in debris piles to rot, and build their more important parking lots and garbage dumps.

This country, this forest: they exist. I live there. The trees rarely exceed ten feet in height. They are well known to science: Mojave yucca, diamond and buckhorn cholla, Mormon tea, but mostly, and almost everywhere you look below 5,000 feet in the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, creosote.

creosote

A mere baby of less than a century

The oldest known creosote bush, about 40 miles from my house as the raven flies, is estimated to be 11,700 years old. It’s a ring of seemingly independent shrubs. A single creosote seed germinated, its stem grew and widened for perhaps a century, then a side shoot emerged from the ground next to the original stem. It grew. Side shoots emerged. After another century or five, the oldest stems began to die, leaving a widening hole in the clump of stems.

That 11,700-year-old creosote, which for a tiny fraction of its life has been known as King Clone, expanded outward across the Mojave landscape at an average rate of three quarters of a millimeter per year. It’s not the only creosote that has done so. When I take my dog out for her walk in the morning, I pass within stone-throwing distance of two or three dozen smaller rings, some of them ten or twelve feet across at the soil. Some have open soil in their centers. Others have not yet cleared the dead stems from their hearts.

Do the math, and use a much more conservative millimeter per year to defend against charges of hyperbole, and that’s 300 years of age for every foot in width of those rings. Creosote stands in excess of 500 years old are as common as dirt where I live. (That’s literally true: just about the only humus you’ll find in this part of the desert gathers at the base of these creosote clumps.) A ten-foot clump of creosote may have germinated about the time David threw his stone at Goliath, a 12-foot clump before people in Japan started growing rice.

I have been thinking these days about a particular large-scale plan to convert much of the California desert to renewable energy generation plants. This plan has been a decade in the making. It is controversial, but it is getting less so as the years pass. There are provisions in this plan to set aside wide swaths of the California desert for conservation, in arrangements as permanent as anything can be when it’s the U.S. government doing the arranging. There are provisions to protect certain threatened species, and to preserve habitats that are rare or ecologically important or which possess the ineffable characteristics of wilderness.

And so many environmental organizations have been persuaded to support the plan, which trades those protected areas for freedom to convert a large number of square miles of desert deemed to have no wilderness characteristics, lesser ecological significance, fewer endangered animals, fewer rare plants.

Creosote is the most common woody plant in the Mojave. No one fears its extinction. In this renewable energy plan, creosote is mentioned primarily to identify the kind of habitat it dominates. It is not a special status species; it is barely a regular status species. It is ubiquitous and environmentalists peer through its branches hoping to see something interesting on the other side.

I have seen creosote rings 1,500 years old on the footprints of proposed desert solar facilities, at the verges of dirt roads in off-road vehicle sacrifice areas. I have seen them bedecked with discarded plastic bags in vacant lots next to chain drugstores.

They make up the only ancient forest I’ve ever heard of that no one can see, though they look square at it.

I see it lately, and it tears my heart. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

Berta Cáceres and the California Desert

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Berta Cáceres | Photo courtesy COPINH

In March of this year, Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras. Her family is certain the assassins were sent to end Cáceres’ opposition to a twenty-megawatt hydroelectric project at Agua Zarca, on the Gualcarque River near Honduras’ border with eastern El Salvador.

The project, which is still being touted as a source of carbon-free power for more than 100,000 Honduran households, would have blocked Cáceres’ Lenca people from access to the river. The Lenca hold the Gualcarque as sacred. Cáceres’ work to stop the project, on behalf of the group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was lauded worldwide. Her efforts won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Her death is mourned by human rights and environmental activists around the world.

Also in March of this year, The Bureau of Land Management held a meeting with Native tribes in the California desert to discuss the proposed Crimson Solar Project, which would generate more than 20 times the power of Agua Zarca, using six million solar panels on as much as 4,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mule Mountains, which the Mojave people and others hold sacred.

The project is new, and local Native people sometimes take a while to draft opposition to specific projects. I don’t wish to put words in their mouths. But after talking to a few of them, it’s clear to me that Crimson enjoys little support among local tribes, and is opposed by many. Aside from infringing on landscapes held sacred for millennia, Crimson risks depleting valuable groundwater — solar panels in the desert do need washing, and dust control is a serious public health issue — and the Mohave in particular suspect their rights to use Colorado River water may be a casualty to increased water demand from industrial solar.

And yet few of the environmental organizations who lent early support to COPINH and to Berta Cáceres as they fought renewable energy development on the Gualcarque have not said word one to oppose Crimson Solar, or to support the project’s Native opponents.

There are two main reasons for this. One is sad, the other ugly.

The sad reason? While Agua Zarca is one of just four planned hydroelectric projects in Lenca territory, there are dozens of solar projects proposed, under construction, or completed on culturally significant lands in the California Desert. Across the interstate from the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat Crimson would convert to an industrial facility lies the nearly 2,000-acre Genesis Solar Project, which generates 10 times as much power as Agua Zarca would, and the construction of which was halted time after time as construction crews found cultural artifacts, habitation sites, and human remains. Being built not far to the east are the Blythe solar projects, which will generate 485 megawatts on a bit under 4,000 acres, and the adjacent McCoy solar project, now generating 250 megawatts on about 2,300 acres — though McCoy’s owners hope to double its output once they find a buyer for the additional power. To the west, the 3,800-acre Desert Sunlight solar project has been powering Californians’ video game controllers for a few years, at the cost of culturally significant landscapes and the views from Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds the plant on three sides. Down the road from Desert Sunlight, the ever-changing Palen Solar project might convert as much as 5,000 acres if it ever gets built. The proposed 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa solar project and 4,900-acre Desert Quartzsite project, both within view of the shifting sacred sands Crimson would occupy, merely drive the point home: part of the reason you haven’t heard of the Crimson Solar Project’s harm to Native people is that Crimson is just a drop in the bucket.

And that’s only counting projects within an hour’s drive of Crimson. There are just far too many projects to track.

The ugly reason: It’s easier for American environmentalists to support Native activists living in lands far away, where their activism doesn’t risk cramping the environmentalists’ lifestyles.

And, of course, we do things differently for the most part in the United States. Cáceres’ assassination was an atrocity, as are the killings of her COPINH compañer@s both before March and since. In the U.S., we don’t bury our Native activists in unmarked graves so much any more: we bury them in paperwork and poverty and bureaucratic inertia. The Bureau of Land Management is obligated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to consult with federally recognized Native tribes when considering a project, and to take steps to protect the kind of artifacts and remains found on the Genesis Solar site and to protect the location of other sensitive sites by keeping them confidential. But while those distinct and discrete artifacts and sites are important to the tribes, they aren’t the whole story.

There are few generalizations one can make about the dozens of diverse Native cultures in the California desert, but here’s one, as near as my faulty understanding can manage: The whole desert landscape is considered something like sacred. That “S” word, mind you, carries connotations of piety that are both too exaggerated and too superficial to describe the actual relationship of people and desert. The people see themselves as part of the landscape. They see the landscape as part of the people. They see landscape, people, and a metaphysical layer of ghosts and supernatural entities inextricably intertwined.

In this world view, paving the living landscape of the wild desert is something akin to homicide. Wreaking massive changes on that landscape — industrial conversion of 40 square miles just in eastern Riverside County, if all plans proceed — is a blow to both Native culture and Native lives every bit as threatening as the joint Honduran-Chinese plan to dam the Río Gualcarque.

And yet some of the same environmental organizations that lauded Cáceres’ work, and wrung their organizational hands over her murder, are supporting the wholesale conversion of California desert Native people’s sacred landscape to power plants to run coastal cities.

It’s easier to oppose colonialism when it’s someone else doing the colonizing. When you are the colonialist, it’s important to mask it in procedure, to make a show of formal consultation and grinning respect, to speak in high-minded tones of stakeholding and win-win solutions.

That illusion must be maintained. Faults in the rhetorical armor must be defended. Those of us who’ve spoken up have often found ourselves criticized by our erstwhile colleagues; ostracized, barred from supposedly public meetings and conferences, having our jobs threatened for the simple sin of saying something about the growing cultural genocide that is renewable energy development in the desert Southwest.