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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Tonight, in dog class, a big unruly unaltered male kept getting in her face.
I don’t know what her life was like before the pound and the rescue, but I have some guesses. One of those guesses: she had to defend herself against unfriendly dogs. She is hypervigilant when other dogs are in sight, unless they are among her small circle of friends.
She has already taken this basic obedience class, and mastered everything except “heel.” I take her anyway so that she can spend time around misbehaving dogs, dogs who do not listen or respect boundaries or know how to play nice, in the hope that she will become desensitized and relax.
She shuts down when the triggers get to be too much for her. I will tell her to come with me but she will shut me out, freeze in place, pick a random spot on the floor that must be sniffed for the next 20 minutes. I have learned to ease her out of those moments, to take her muzzle in my right hand and bring her eyes around to meet mine. I whisper reassurances. I kiss her forehead. I envelop her.
Tonight that boisterous, unruly male, dealing with traumas of his own, came too close to her. A year ago she would have snapped at him. She did tonight as well, but it was a polite, pro forma snap; the merest baring of three or four teeth and a nod of her head, as far removed from an actual bite as a handshake is from an attempt to jostle loose any sleeve-hidden daggers.
That male is one of three in the class, and they have developed a triangular and resentful rivalry. There is much serious growling. There is unseemly barking. There is aerosolized testosterone and display of tooth enamel.
Tonight she grew tired of the boys.
It took her 45 minutes to reach the limits of her tolerance and shut down. When she did, it was a thing to behold. I took her muzzle in my hand, brought it around to make eye contact, and she was so rigid I lifted her front feet off the linoleum. We took some time away from the activities, off to the side, me whispering blandishments and offering bits of dried liver.
Twenty minutes later, in front of the whole class, she demonstrated for the less-tutored dogs the perfect sit-lie down.
That was lovely, but what made me happiest was something only I noticed. For the rest of the class I watched her. She lay on the floor at my feet watching the other dogs. I watched her. Every now and then, as she looked at one of the boys, her glance would harden, fix itself into a cold and calculating stare.
Each time I whispered “leave it.” And each time her shoulders would relax and she would turn her gaze elsewhere.
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.
In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.
I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.
It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.
We walked together again, the four of us.
I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.
It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.
Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.
For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.
It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.
One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.
I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.
And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.
Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.
When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.
And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.
People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.
A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”
One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?
I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.
“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”
She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.
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.
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.
Having decided to renew my attention to this blog, I spent a little time tonight looking through some of the hundreds of posts I’ve written here in the last 13 years, each one a little time capsule from a time before my life splintered.
I got what I longed for back then, though it took a while to sink in after I got it.
There was so much about movement then, lists of miles hiked and feet of elevation gained, as befits a life lived where the summers are seldom deadly and the winters mere damp hindrances. Here, even my intrepid pit bull wilts at the thought of a walk after 9 a.m.
I have joined a gym. I put on the miles on treadmills and Adaptive Motion Trainers. About six and a third miles today, counting those spent at one end of the leash.
Surprising how good it feels to move. All these years spent sitting in chairs, and I’d forgotten. Credit the dog with my being able to still do it at all.
The other day said dog and I, and our significant other visiting from out of town, hiked into a canyon that cuts through a small mountain range north of my house. We stopped after a mile or so when the way got a little rockier than we were prepared for. It turns out we were just a hundred yards or so from a spot where the canyon clears, and widens, and starts rolling downhill on the other side of the mountain.
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.