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.
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.
“The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming.”
— Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more. Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness.
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia.
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.
Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
”Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912)
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold.All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.” — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882
Clarkia unguiculata off Panoche Road Creative Commons photo by Eric in SF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarkia_unguiculata#/media/File:Clarkia_unguiculata.jpg
In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big. The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet above the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”
Valley Oak in the Stanislaus County hills above the Central Valley Creative Commons photo by Allie Caulfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/wm_archiv/6546517055/
In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.
As mapped in 1873.
Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all, Tulare.
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.
Utica Avenue near Kettleman City, looking east across the northern end of Tulare Lake. Via Google Street View
California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity. But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes.
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens. I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.
And then I remembered. There was no confluence. The riverbeds met here, but the rivers themselves had not met in half a century. Diversions from the Friant Dam above Fresno had “dewatered” a long stretch of the San Joaquin River on the valley floor. Just upstream from where I stood, an electric fence spanned the San Joaquin to keep chinook salmon from trying to run upstream, where they would strand themselves and die.
It was the first time I realized it, and as I would prefer to forget it I have realized it again many times since. The Central Valley is a moribund landscape.
There are fragments left. A chain of wildlife refuges and preserves runs up and down the Valley floor, a rosary of tiny protected beads strung along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. A patch of upland here and a patch there holds hints as to what the Valley was, once. New ecologies emerge within the irrigated cities of the Highway 99 corridor.
But the pronghorn Muir called ubiquitous in the Valley have been gone for decades. Tule elk survive only because of a fluke, a weird moment of compassion in the heart of a 19th Century landowner not given overmuch to compassion. San Joaquin kit foxes skulk around the margins of the Endangered Species list. Tricolored blackbirds, the Central Valley’s passenger pigeon, now nest primarily in grain fields; one recalcitrant dairy farmer wanting to feed his chattel could do in the species.
And the Delta smelt, a little two-inch fish that once thrived in huge numbers at the shifting interface between saltwater and fresh, where water from the snows of Lassen and Shasta met water from the tidal Pacific, that defined better than any single organism the sensitive, beating heart of California… the Delta smelt probably went extinct this year. It is at least functionally extinct.
It would be a mistake to treat those who benefitted from this wholesale and rapacious conversion, this breaking of one of the globe’s richest environments to the wheel of commerce, it would be a mistake to treat them as monolithic. They are not. A rice grower in the Sacramento Valley might well be proud of her farm’s providing habitat for waterfowl and baby salmon. Delta farmers regard their colleagues farther south in the Tulare Basin with some suspicion. It was a single San Joaquin Valley dairy farmer who, in the spring of 2014, gladly held off on harvesting his triticale until the tricolored blackbirds had left his field. That decision came at no small financial cost.
But it is not the sympathetic farmers, the salmon- and blackbird-loving famers, who have ahold of the megaphone. It is not the farmers who are grateful to the natural world for the common bounty they have privatized who get the press attention. There are no signs along Interstate 5 saying “We farmers can coexist with the salmon and the valley elderberry longhorned beetle.”
Instead, the loudest voices coming out of the Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley, are spreading resentment and lies. Here’s Fresno’s House Representative Devin Nunes on the delta smelt and its defenders:
I don’t see any of them up here saying that they’re going to tear down this [Hetch Hetchy aqueduct] system, dump this water into the Bay to protect their stupid little fish, their little delta smelt that they care about.
The political discourse in San Joaquin Valley water politics is dominated by voices like this one, in which those of us who prefer not to see one species after another go extinct to enable another few fiscal years of ag industry profits are derided as “radical environmentalists.”
On this last visit to the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered, and not for the first time, whether maybe we shouldn’t take the Wise Use, Tea Party San Joaquin pundits at their word.
What if environmentalists’ approach to the issue of the Central Valley and its dying ecosystem was as radical as the other side claims? Ignore for the moment the fact that the biggest groups in the modern environmental movement are so tamed, so addicted to access and consensus, that if you presented them with the last tree on earth they would try to save half of it. What if we weren’t so domesticated? What could we demand?
Let’s focus on the far more injured San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture as it has been practiced there for the last century cannot continue. It’s the fate of all societies based on agriculture irrigated with imported water: the aqueducts will fall. It was true for the Hohokam and the Sumerians. It will be true for the Southwestern United States. If the rains come back, the system will silt up. If they do not, the system will fail.
The handwriting has been on the wall since the 1980s, when irrigation drainage with dissolved selenium salts from the western San Joaquin Valley began poisoning wildlife in the wildlife refuges the irrigators used as sumps. It was a shot across the bow: massive irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin would not be sustainable.
We did not heed that warning then. What if we did now?
What if we turned off the taps to large corporate farms in the Westlands and the Tulare Basin? What if we held true to the original intent of the Central Valley Project, which was to serve family farms of 160 acres or less? We can grow all the food California needs on 500,000 acres, less than 800 square miles. That could all be in the better-watered Sacramento Valley, which leaves the San Joaquin, as they say, in play.
What if we decided not to pay for more water diversions that serve only to enrich family farmers like the Resnicks of Beverly Hills?
What if we lived up to the antienvironmentalists’ worst fears, the thought that a fish and a fox might mean more to us than a split stock? What if we started taking back some of the land we gave San Joaquin’s One Percent?
We could twist the knife: we could call it a biosphere reserve. The “Barack Hussein Obama San Joaquin Valley Biosphere Reserve and Ecosystem Services Research Center,” perhaps.
First step: raze the almond groves, let the trees die and dry out, set them afire and bury the charcoal as biochar. (If that seems draconian, perhaps we could merely biochar the 320,000 acres of almond trees planted since the drought began in 2009, almost a third of the state’s total acreage. But we’re blue-skying it here, and besides, those older almonds are toast within a decade anyway.)
Concomitant with ending the San Joaquin Valley almond industry, we let some water back into the rivers. Start with opening the taps at Friant Dam to let the San Joaquin flow year-round again. Follow up with flows in the Kings, Kern, White and Tulare rivers to fill Tulare Lake and its siblings, Buena Vista and Kern lakes. That reemergent vital stopover point on the Pacific Flyway would do a lot to make up for the impending loss of the Salton Sea, and some of the people who lose their jobs tending almond trees could get jobs as fishing guides.
Once the placid shores of Alpaugh have waves lapping at them once more, we hire more of those idled ag workers — who have formidable and relevant skill sets — and put them to work planting valley oaks. We can plant them in orchard rows if the powers that be insist: the woodpeckers and owls won’t care, and in a few decades those acorns might make an edible cash crop for the trendy food people of 2075.
Under the valley oaks, our noble and heroic oak restoration crews — los robleros — can plant bunchgrasses. Nasella pulchra, purple needlegrass, can be the backbone of this reimagined Central Valley Grassland: it’s the state grass of California, after all, and it’s a fine food source for the rodents and rabbits that will feed a growing population of the once-endangered San Joaquin kit fox. But we’ll add other species to the mix as well: Muhlenbergia rigens for its prodigious soil-forming abilities, Leymus triticoides in the boggy and alkaline wetlands of the Tulare Basin, and then there are plants other than grasses, the Clarkia and Madia and Salvia of Muir’s (at that point) two-centuries-old revery.
As temperature climbs, our strategy for the Tulare Basin might shift: instead of cottonwoods and willows, we might need to plant plants from the deserts, mesquite and palo verde and big galleta grass. We can be flexible. We can think outside the box. The point is: the valley soils right now loose carbon into the atmosphere. They could be sucking it out of the atmosphere. As the soil recovers, we could be sequestering billions of tons of carbon in a landscape that once contributed nothing but export cotton, tumbleweeds and pomegranate juice to the global economy.
That sequestration could even be happening on the San Joaquin’s remaining farms. In Upstate New York, the farms from which my family springs were farmed out, worn out, down to cracked gray soil. And then in the 1980s young Amish families started buying up those farms, working them with draft animals. Those farms are rich and productive now, and the manured soil is astoundingly fertile. Hand out parcels nationalized from the holdings of Tenneco and the Resnicks to the Oaxacan and Hmong laborers who know how to work the land, and make that grant contingent on using healthy draft animals instead of fossil fuels, and Fresnos and Visalia and Bakersfield could have food supplies the envy of elitist foodies anywhere — with a negative carbon footprint.
Wild notions of reclaiming the arid wastes, of greening the deserts, are old hat. They are nothing new. But the San Joaquin Valley is a landscape we took in the opposite direction.
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.
I’ve been seeing neatly dissected prickly pear fruits out here the last few weeks, and yesterday morning I learned who might be responsible for some of them. I watched as a pair of white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, Ammospermophilus leucurus, examined the fruit on the cactus outside my front window to see which ones might be ripe. They were engaging, showing what seemed like affection, coming together every few minutes to rub noses and groom each other. A few minutes later, one of the heaviest, reddest tunas on the plant had had its insides surgically removed.
It’s clear that if I want seeds from that cactus, I’ll have to collect them soon.
I was bleary. I’d been up late. A poet-neighbor-friend and I had met for dinner the night before and drank pints of iced tea. This is what passes for debauchery in my life these days. She and I sat on the restaurant’s patio, catching up on the last few weeks, and as the sky darkened bats came out of the nearby palm oasis and began to drink from the hotel pool next to us, skimming mouths full of water as they flew just above the surface. And then the nighhawks came, swooping and arcing twenty feet above us, in pursuit of moths and small dragonflies. They used to visit my yard in Nipton every night, but that was nearly a decade ago. It took me a long while, and several false guesses made aloud, to identify them.
The realization came this morning. It was not the first time. I busy myself with small crisis after small crisis to stave it off most days, most years.
Today it persisted through noon, through an afternoon of rain, through a moonlit walk under fresh-washed stars with a joyous dog.
We are losing. We have always been losing, the desert tortoises and the coho salmon and the Lane’s milk-vetch and the few humans who care to think about them. The losses come day by day, and I have taken the short view, fought for one desert valley or one small species at a time.
It is a form of triage, a way to focus one’s effectiveness, but it is also a palliative. A way of focusing on a discrete, winnable battle while the war is lost all around us.
It’s not just the one desert valley you choose to defend, its birds and herps and undocumented wildflowers written off as a sacrifice somehow more acceptable than unplugging your game console. Worlds of unknown species, unknown relationships among species, paved before the scientists get to them because we need those phone chargers ready to go while our phones are in our pockets somewhere else.
It’s not just the one valley. It’s the forested ridge above, ancient fire-scarred trees cut down to fuel biomass power plants, trees turned to pallets to ship cubic miles of consumer crap to the big box stores where the vernal pools used to be. It’s hundreds of miles of river, once wild and flooding in spring, now slack behind concrete plugs, bereft of fish and watering rich men’s investment export crops. Mountain passes once choked with eagles now industrial landscapes of whirling blades.
We have warmed the deep valleys beneath six miles of sea. We have bred monstrous storms, put plastic in every drop of ocean, thinned the glaciers and slicked the seas. The planet is heating up, and the damage done by deniers is rivaled only by the damage done by those who would remake the world because they fear climate disaster — but not enough to change the way they live.
I live too comfortably myself: I have power and running water 24 hours a day, a lifestyle that is likely unsustainable, a lifestyle that will soon be reserved for the very rich. I would haul my own water on my back if it meant I could see desert tortoises on my 75th birthday. I will not, and that birthday is less than 20 years away.
They are losing, the wild things. They are taking a hit for a team they never joined. We see the damage we’ve done by burning coal to feed our habits, and contrite, we propose to scour forest and desert to feed those habits instead.
And all the while the best and brightest concerned young progressives argue about themselves in comfortable chairs.
Last night, under a quarter moon, the dog and I stood not 50 feet from a trio of coyotes as they sang a counterpoint to the sirens on Route 62. They were mainly unconcerned by our presence, as if they knew we would not be here much longer.
Strands of gray-green Ramalina lichen, torn treetop lace, fall at my feet. I crane my neck backward, scan the sky. Only the swaying spruce and Douglas fir, the crash of surf seven hundred fifty feet below, the distant peeping calls of bald eagles.
I would drape myself in western sword fern, weave for myself a beard of moss and liverwort, exhale mist and sneeze sea spray. I would curl myself into the fallen hemlock, insinuate myself into the vertical root walls of downed cedar, I would send my component amoeboid cells to ease into the landscape whole.
The impossible blue green sea, and bright eyes pop out of it. I slip on algae-slicked rock, fall hard. Instructions from the world: sit here. Orange sea star sleeps at sunset.
Woodpecker drums on mushroom-scented snag. Staircases of white bracket fungus. Logs sawn to clear the trail: the smell of my grandfather’s workbench. Peer close at the disheveling bark.
It is the lichen’s lesson, and the kelp’s: hold fast. Hold fast.
This week The Guardian published perhaps the finest piece of writing I’ve ever seen in its pages, and it has gotten me thinking.
The article, by British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, comes as a sort of prologue to his book Landmarks, due out next week. The book and the article in The Guardian discuss our increasing loss of a vocabulary befitting the landscapes in which we live.
There’s a paragraph in Macfarlane’s Guardian piece that’s gotten a lot of attention, fittingly enough as it’s the springboard from which the rest of his essay sproings. That passage concerns a revision in 2007 to the Oxford Junior Dictionary:
A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.
If I can’t spend my childhood having acorns and conkers be relevant to me, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. Still, Macfarlane notes, the 2007 revisions to the OJD are just the culmination, reductio ad absurdum style, of cultural trends outside Oxford University Press. Macfarlane has spent a lifetime collecting odd regional words used throughout the British Isles to describe natural phenomena, and the 2007 deletions from the OJD spurred him to formalize his hobby.
Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.
The rest of the article is a delight, and it’s a longish read by the standards of The Guardian. Macfarlane trots out a vocabulary of words used in a number of British Isles dialects that seem archaic and yet far from obsolete:
Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.… On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”.
And my own personal favorite:
Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.
Important, that detail: without a word for a thing, our chances of noticing the thing when we see it are diminished.
I never pass up the chance to use the word “autochthonous” in a sentence, and that’s what the lexicon Macfarlane has curated is: a collection of words that emerged out of the very soil of the countryside.
And of course there’s a problem for us American nature writers, bound as we are to the traditions our nation’s dominant cultural whatchamacallits have attempted to import wholesale from the British Isles. American natural history writers owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Brit forebears, the Gilbert Whites and Strata Smiths and Chuck Darwins, without whom we might not have had a genre at all. But the natural history of Great Britain bears only a passing resemblance to that of eastern North America, and both of those two exotic and unusual places share little but carbon-based life forms with the Mojave Desert.
We in the Mojave may cross swords rather often, but we rarely cross swards. The autochthonous vocabulary of fen and moor and marsh does not, in general, apply to us, despite some of the vocabulary of river people like the Aha Macav, lately known as the Mojave. (The Mojave phrase ‘a’ii hana’e, “wood that has been in water a long time,” makes sense coming from a riverbank language, even in the desert.)
There are words that have sprung organically from the North American deserts, though many of them are loan words. Likely the best known in this age when Burners run the world is “playa,” Spanish for “beach,” used to describe dry lakes — though salina is better used for those dry lakes made more of salt than dust.
The jargon of geology has permeated modern desert language. When rocky detritus builds up a pediment at the mouth of a mountain canyon, it forms an alluvial fan; when a number of alluvial fans merge at their margins, they become a bajada: an apron (the literal translation from Spanish) girdling the mountain.
(In case you’re starting to think all the loan words come from Spanish: when a bajada envelops an isolated prominence of the local mountain range so that it appears to be an island mountain disconnected from its parent range, it’s called an inselberg: German for “island mountain.”)
In the desert we have rivers of sand that flow under the force of wind, and they create a unique and dynamic kind of habitat that’s crucial to animals like a few species of fringe-toed lizards. It’s called blowsand habitat.
Sometimes rainstorms head in from the coast, or from the Sea of Cortez, and they shed precipitation that doesn’t reach the ground, sublimed instead into the greedy desiccated air. Such a rain is called virga, and it frustrates those of us who live below.
And as I mention above, there are whole libraries of words in disappearing languages spoken by those who lived here for millennia, whose languages and lives hang on by the slenderest of reeds. Another Mojave phrase: ‘amat iimiith, the fine, hairlike tendrils of grass or moss that grow suddenly in wet places after a desert rain. The Chemehuevi call the beans in mesquite pods opa, the berries of Rhus trilobata “hu’upi,” and an abandoned settlement ka’nip, all of them perfectly useful words, the last especially in today’s Mojave Desert.
I’m no expert on the lexicons of languages I don’t actually speak, but I do know that there are some words desert English lacks.
That Exmoorian “zwer” works as well for a covey of Gambel’s quail taking wing as it does for Devonian partridges, so that’s covered. But I want a word for that season in which those Gambel’s coveys dissolve into mated pairs, the formerly cooperative males suddenly regarding one another with something like suspicion. That season would roughly correspond to summer, but longer, beginning with spring nesting and mating, ending when the baby quail no longer require their parents’ solicitude.
I want a word for the ring of chaff surrounding the hills of the Mojave’s ubiquitous small red and black ants, created when each hill’s workers take the seeds they’ve gleaned from the surrounding desert and husk them, then carry the inedible seed coats only as far as they have to from the nest.
I want another word for the circle of bloom that bursts forth when the flower seeds those ants accidentally discarded with the chaff get enough water to germinate.
A word for three days after a rain, and the difference in color of the desert soil at the surface and just below the surface.
I want a word for the scent of rain a dozen miles away, and another for the sight of storm clouds on the hundred-miles distant horizon.
I want a human word for that coyote word that is neither bark nor howl, but something unresolvably between. I want words to distinguish the group howl from the solitary, the tentative yip from the full-throated song of the successful rabbit hunt.
There ought to be a word to describe the islands, raised up a foot from the sea of surrounding desert, buttressed with ancient roots and well-fed with resinated humus, that surround every single creosote bush in the desert.
I want a word for the spiny gloriole of backlit cholla. I want a word for the tracks of Pinacate beetles, fearlessly straight across a desert full of beetle-eaters.
I want a word for the earth’s shadow in the sky on a summer sunset evening, that terminator between pink and indigo, and the knowledge in the gathering chill that tomorrow’s sun will be every bit as hot.