Category Archives: The Neighborhood

In the wash

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

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

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

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

Mesquite

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

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

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

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

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

Vanessa (Cynthia)

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

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

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

Moon run

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

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

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

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

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

The giant ancient forest you cannot see

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

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

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

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

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

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

creosote

A mere baby of less than a century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click

Desert senna, Senna armata

Senna armata

I drove a few days back, with a friend I had not seen for years, through the Pinto Basin and into the Chuckwalla Valley. She drove, which afforded me an unusual opportunity. Living alone except for Heart I am usually the one behind the wheel. On Saturday I had the chance to gawk at the desert through which we drove.

There were wonders. The Pinto Basin ocotillos are in fine bloom, and psychotropically magenta flowers blaze from every clump of hedgehog cactus, and the roadsides were lined everywhere other than the pits of washes with desert senna blooming yellow like wallflowers in a cottage garden.

The palo verdes bore sprays of blossoms, translucent yellow veils showing uninterrupted blue sky beyond. Even the desert ironwoods outside looked greener, their usual washed out olive drab leaves and charcoal trunks a bit less washed out drab.

I looked past them all to the bunchgrasses, the big galleta grass overflowing from the washes. Near my house, where big galleta is the third most common perennial plant after creosote and senna, each bunch is maybe a foot tall, with a dozen or fewer new flower stems per bunch. They bring me joy, to watch them knitting the desert together, but it is a special kind of rarefied, austere joy, the feeling that seeps in to fill the void when you give up, at long last, on disappointment.

In the Pinto Basin, though, the big galleta is lush and green, fair billowing across the smoketree-studded washes, and I fell into place with a click so profound I looked at my friend to see whether the noise had startled her.

My life is good these days. I have frustrations and sadnesses in full measure, fears and regrets, and yet I think when I look back at the full run of my life from some vantage point toward its end, the weeks since last autumn will be one of the highlights, one of the stretches of which I will say “that. That was the entire point of this exercise.”

A few weeks back I walked in the Oakland Hills, along trails I once knew well, and counted one wild plant species after another that I had not seen in years. The weather was perfect, the company even more so, and I had a moment of unnerving split perspective, like the one provided by the bifocals I have finally relented to wearing: I was suddenly seeing the world from two perspectives at once. I was in my old haunts but looking forward to future happiness, no Marley’s Chain of memory and regret dragging behind me. I was home at last and yet I was away from home, a long haul over the Tehachapis between me and the thin joys of big galleta.

Pleuraphis rigida, big galleta grass

Pleuraphis rigida, big galleta grass

 

 

Bump me with your plastron, you sexy Threatened thing you.

Making new desert tortoises in Joshua Tree.

Ladderbacks

Another walk tonight as the wind picked up, this one two hours before the moon. Walking in the desert in the dark with only the dim light of other people’s homes to guide me: a metaphor for something or other.

Three miles and change, almost all with sand ground into my heels. Arrived at the front door shaking with hunger, some of it for food.

At the house in the late afternoon after my trip down out of the Mojave to drop A. at the Los Angeles shuttle, I watched two absurdly gawky ladderbacked woodpeckers wrangle over the hummingbird feeder. They were teens with back haircuts and pointed elbows. One climbed the window frame and drummed on it for a few minutes, then drummed on the window pane to see how that worked.

What it did was summon the cat, and each regarded the other with frankly hostile interest.

In Palm Springs this afternoon I found myself idling in traffic in front of the vet where last I saw Thistle. All at once I couldn’t see the street in front of me, blurred with saltwater. I pulled over to let the moment pass.

Regarding my difficult workplace environment

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to get anything done around here when just any old mythopoetic demiurge can saunter up and look at me through my office window whenever she feels like it.

Especially when she takes off before I can get my camera focused.

coyotebutt

 

Though she did kindly stop for a glimpse back at the property line.

coyotesilhouette

It’s just non-stop productivity losses around here, I tell you what.

Great Scott’s

Nine years ago this month I drove to Arizona, met some friends on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and then spent a little while lounging on the deck outside their room at the El Tovar. We were planning a hike down to the river the next day, and as we talked logistics and caught up I felt a shadow pass overhead. I looked up.

Sitting there on a chaise longue on a deck with a drink in my hand, and that’s how I saw my very first California condor. So I can’t honestly say that today was my best inadvertent birding day ever. But it might be the second best.

To wit: I looked up from writing this early afternoon at the hummingbird feeder outside the window, six feet from my head, and saw a mated pair of Scott’s orioles squabbling over whose turn it was at the feeding holes.

First time I saw a Scott’s oriole was just a day or so after that first condor: I was hiking alone in the Canyon, some of our party twenty minutes ahead and the rest twenty minutes behind, and there he was: a bright, chipper and aggressive male scolding me from his perch on a spent Agave flower stalk.

I’ve seen them on and off since, most notably on one day in 2006 at Wee Thump, when I felt as if I could walk forever into the desert despite the half cup of water left in my pack. But today was the first time I’ve seen them while sitting at my desk.

I did see them earlier this morning. I sat out back at 7:10 in my robe with a cup of coffee in my hand. I’m not sure whether it was the caffeine or the orioles that woke me fastest. This morning a pair of black-chinned hummingbirds was at the feeder. By noon they’d been displaced by a solitary female rufous. “That didn’t take long,” I thought to myself.

They have the place surrounded

Just ended: 20 minutes of the best coyote hootenanny I have heard in my entire life. It would seem to be a big family. There are pups with their plaintive, piercing peep-yowls and elders with their complex, scat-singing syncopation. They are behind my house and in front of it, close enough that I imagine I can hear the static electricity crackle in their fur.

The local dogs are so well outnumbered that they stay quiet.

I set up the hummingbird feeder outside the office window two days ago. So far two Costa’s hummers have fought over it. A cactus wren tried to drink from it this morning, and late this afternoon a juvenile verdin just old enough to have a tinge of yellow on its face stopped by to see whether the sugar was to her liking. Apparently verdins like to eat the dried remnants of hummingbird food from feeders, which I only learned today. This being the Mojave Desert, the hummingbird feeders are constantly secreting dried sugar. Lucky verdins.

Concert night

Coyote hunting n the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

Coyote hunting in the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

We had a concert out in the back yard last night. Closest I’d heard them to the house since I moved in. Looks like someone other than the cat has noticed the presence of rabbit neighbors.

The cat was frankly curious at the singing, wearing his “my better instincts tell me to run for the closet but I’m trying to be brave” face.

Funny thing: looking at the photo above my eye is drawn to the amole, the weedy-looking agave family plant just behind the coyote. A constant companion in three decades of hiking in the Bay Area hills, and it never occurred to me just how much I miss it.

Out front

2014-05-14 19.53.15

Rabbit and agave with low-light smartphone camera visual artifacts

It’s only half a mile from my new doorstep to Route 62, but it seems longer: the desert eats sound, the noise of traffic muffled through a half mile of creosote. I sit out there despite the cat’s complaints through the window, watch the moon rise over Queen Mountain.

Night traffic noise on a high-speed desert road should annoy me, but I find it a comfort. Truck tires on pavement slabs have sung me to sleep often enough. In July 1982 I spent a night in a cold sleeping bag at the interchange of Interstates 80 and 25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was on my way here, though I wouldn’t arrive for another 32 years. Tonight sounded like that, a little.

At the grocery store, on an impulse, I grabbed a live rosemary plant and a mint to keep it company. When was the last time I bought terra cotta pots? It’s been years, I think. Two bog-standard eight-inch ones at the hardware store, plus enough potting soil to fill them eleven times over. I will clearly need to get more pots and more herbs, and this is how treadmills are built. repotted and watered on the front step, the new plants scent the night air.