Tag Archives: Botany

The Wilds of California

The wonderfully talented San Diego-area filmmaker Jim Karnik has an ambitious project in mind: an hour-long film that will introduce viewers to Californian biodiversity in all the varying ecosystems the state has to offer, from coastal tidepools to alpine rock and ice. This trailer is amazing.

Jim’s got an Indiegogo site set up, and as soon as I get my December budget figured out I’m kicking something in. Check it out and see if you want to as well.

The fleeting idea of permanence

I wrote an essay about a dozen years ago that is now obsolete, a hopeful piece about eternity in a marriage that has since ended. There is a line in it:

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

This week the US Department of Energy announced it would offer more than two billion dollars of your money, and mine, to help turn that “un-named valley” into an industrial wasteland.

I am getting roundly sick of this.

I have come to terms reasonably well with the end of the marriage, am in love anew and making a life I like better than the old one, working to avoid all my old mistakes. But careful curation of happy memory is part of how a person moves on from what was. There was a time when an old man could wander out into the desert, find an old familiar spot and recall wistfully his making love with his new bride there a half century before, noting the trees’ growth and the rocks’ increased age. And now I wonder will the wash still be there? The rocks? Those ancient, “essentially non-biodegradable” trees? When I wrote this in 2000, they stood for permanence.

Palen Range


The dark wood is cool in my hand, and smooth. It sheds sawdust to my old grafting knife, a slow, reluctant yielding of deep brown flecks like ground cinnamon, powdered chocolate. I put a moistened fingertip to the pile of dust on my knee, then to my tongue, and am surprised despite myself when I taste nothing but cellulose.

Just as well. There isn’t enough of this tree for people to start eating its wood. Restricted in range to the increasingly impacted Sonoran Desert, the desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is faced with threats ranging from harvesting for “mesquite” charcoal to suburban sprawl to exotic plants spread by cattle grazing. And as goes the desert ironwood, so goes the desert: the tree is the shelter under which the rest of the desert lives.

I harvested this piece of ironwood in what I thought was as benign a fashion as possible: I found it, and a couple others, sticking out of the gravel in a dry wash. Something, it seemed — a desert windstorm, a flash flood, a band of stick-fetching coyotes — had carried them from a copse of trees a hundred feet away. They looked like they’d lain in the sun for years, wearing a gray patina that only year-round UV can provide. A few passes of the knife over this piece, though, and gray gave way to reveal this deep, confectionery brown. A few strokes with the coarse section of a four-way file, and the wood looks nearly polished.

I’m not the first person ever to pick up a piece of desert ironwood with art in mind. The Seri people along the Gulf Coast in Sonora, Mexico, among the last hunter-gatherers on the North American continent, list ironwood carving among their contributions to world culture. You’ve probably seen their work, or its imitators: deep, dark fluid sculptures of sharks, sea turtles, birds and desert animals. The best carvings, made by artists with a hunter-gatherer’s familiarity with nature, seem about to come alive. Frogs crouch in a pose they strike when under threat by something big. Sea turtles seem to bear exaggeratedly large forepaws, until you learn that, like husky puppies, baby sea turtles have to grow into their feet. Sharks are, I think, the pinnacle of Seri art: carved as the natural curves of the wood suggest, they are fluidity embodied. You expect them to flick a tail and disappear from the display case.

Other Sonorans have adopted the art form as a means of generating tourist revenue. The differences aren’t hard to spot. Where the Seri opt for spareness of form and smooth line, their Mexican neighbors turn out angular pieces with gouged-out hatch marks. The Seri rarely carve fish other than sharks, and almost never portray subjects other than local animals. Sonorans, on the other hand, will offer carvings of everything from stereotypical siestans leaning on saguaros to stunningly detailed representations of local beer bottles. The Mexicans’ powered machine shops turn out sculptures at a far faster rate than the Seri’s human-powered hand tools. More to the point, the Seri, with an ecological ethos not uncommon among hunter-gatherers, carve only wood from downed or dead trees. The Mexican machine shops, with their higher capacity, have spurred a demand for cutting green trees. The US and Mexican governments have taken some steps to restrict trade in non-Seri carvings.

I’ve been carving this piece of wood for several months. You wouldn’t know that to look at it. It’s hardly an intricate form; a rectangle, with a bend in the middle, which I labor to make symmetrical. I imagine polishing its final, perfected geometry with double-ought steel wool, fixing a barrette clasp, giving it to Becky to wear in her hair. The colors of wood and hair would complement one another well, differing shades of dark brown. For the hundredth time I consider carving a bas-relief on the surface, a raven or coyote, something appropriate to the provenance of the medium. Perhaps the leaves of the desert ironwood itself, plain compound leguminous leaves like those that littered the wash from whose gravel this wood protruded, driftwood miles from the nearest sea. It’s hard to say. There is something in the heft of the wood, the soapstone texture, that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, and yet my inclination is to scour the slightest ridge away, to make a mirror of this dark piece of old dead tree.

The eponymous “bean trees” of Barbara Kingsolver’s Tucson novel were wisteria, thirsty exotic plants brought in from the Far East by way of England and the East Coast, growing in a well-watered downtown garden behind a tire repair shop. The wisteria would wither, with most of its human neighbors in Tucson, if not for the constant pumping of millennia-old water from aquifers under the city.

But climb the adobe wall that fictitious vine encumbered. Cross the street. Pass the Sonic drive-ins and Waffle Shops and motels and the metastasizing spread of stylish homes of ringing urban Tucson, get out into the unadulterated, stinking hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert, where the rattlesnakes and tarantulas play; there, you’ll find bean trees of another sort. Native to the place, they do just fine without any help from us or pumped Pleistocene aquifers or the Central Arizona Project. Four species of palo verde, acacias with sharp claws that snag hikers’ clothing like rabid Velcro, knee-high desert senna with its complement of buzzing pollinators, the notorious and fashionable mesquites, and the desert ironwood, beans all, make up much of the perennial plant cover of the Sonoran Desert. Column cacti may have better PR, but if it wasn’t for the bean trees, there’d be damn few saguaros to grace kitschy postcards and travel magazines. The desert ironwood and its cousins are the ecological foundation of the Sonoran Desert. Remove them and the rest of the plants and animals in the desert would likely vanish as well.

If you’re a plant that wants to survive in the desert, it’s a good idea to sink your roots under a desert ironwood, or one of its cousins. Shade is one reason: as sparse as a bean tree’s leaves generally are, they’re better than nothing at all. Then there’s the heat and the humidity: even droughty desert legumes exhale a little bit of water through their leaves, and their loss is your gain. Higher relative humidity due to the bean tree means you’ll transpire less water yourself. There’s the simple fact of shelter: germinate under a bean tree and it’s less likely that browsing animals will find you and eat you. Leguminous thorns also help protect young plants. Nitrogen from shed leaves is augmented by that excreted by birds and other small animals who come for shade, shelter, or nutritious bean seeds. The shade beneath the trees is optimal habitat for cacti. Each majestic saguaro, each venerable multi-stemmed organ pipe, each white-bearded senita you see on your travels to the desert quite likely got its start beneath one of the region’s legumes. Remove the trees, as happens when a subdivision goes in or wood is cut for the burgeoning gourmet “mesquite” charcoal industry or the bosque burns after an invasion of exotic buffelgrass ups the fuel load, and you close down the nurseries from which new generations of column cacti are fledged. With this in mind, Bill Clinton — in one of his final acts in office — established a bit less than 130,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert as the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Desert ironwood trees tend toward far longer lives than do mesquites or palos verdes. One live tree near Tucson has been carbon-dated at 1200 years old: 300 years is a fairly probable average life expectancy. Even after dying, the tree can provide an oasis of shade in the desert for an immense stretch of time. The wood is, in the words of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Stephen J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum & UC Press, 2000) “rich in toxic chemicals and essentially non-biodegradable.” Once ironwood dies, nothing eats it, though I’ve seen termites making stalwart attempts. Firewood-sized chunks found in desert washes have been determined to be 1600 years old. A standing snag may, after its death, provide valuable habitat for a thousand years.

This knowledge, gained after I collected the few pieces of wood now sitting on my writing desk, does not exactly fill me with an uncomplicated sense of joy in acquisition.

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

The valley was bleak indeed. It was October, far from the hottest part of the year, and yet we saw little in the way of vertebrate life during the day. A house sparrow that had probably strayed from the alfalfa fields flitted briefly into the ironwood canopy, then returned eastward. Other than that, I don’t recall seeing so much as a lizard. Not a creature stirred the desiccated husks of summer annuals, the pallid leaves of desert ironwood and palo verde. All was silent. This was driven home when, eyes on the desert pavement at my feet, I absently muttered something to Becky. She replied with a tone of amusement. I looked up to see we were at least two hundred yards apart, yet we could hear each other’s normal speaking voices perfectly.

That afternoon I found a comfortable-looking spot in the wash, shaded by a bit of ironwood, and laid down for a nap, shifting my back to gouge out a depression in the gravel. I opened my eyes for a moment, saw nothing but a few ironwood leaves silhouetted against an impossibly blue sky, then dozed. Not a few minutes later, something soft brushed my cheek, and I started awake. Eyes the color of polished ironwood gleamed: Becky had kissed me. The image of my wife’s face, bean tree leaves behind her, deep blue firmament framing all, would prove to haunt me through months of desultory wood carving.

Things picked up a bit when the sun went down. A wind came up from the south, bearing the slightest odor of the Sea of Cortez. Zeke, our dog, noticed a desert packrat or two whose stick homes we had missed among the fallen trees. Far-off coyote song punctured the twilight, the local great horned owl providing a bass line. After dark, the valley was palpably alive.

I sat by a fire. We were far remote, there was an abundance of dead wood in the wash, and I wanted a fire, so the first two clauses in this sentence seemed sufficient justification. Ironwood burns hot. A pile of fuel the size of a regulation softball, and we couldn’t get closer than ten feet to the blaze. With wood like that, you don’t need much fire. The next morning, half the small pile of scraps I’d collected lay unburned next to the coals. I grabbed a few and put them in the truck. They’ve sat near my computer since then.

I pick up one of the larger pieces now, a rough, splintery crescent a foot long, four or five inches wide at its thickest. It looks weathered, old, rotten, yet it weighs at least three pounds. I heft the wood in my hand. I can’t be sure this stick is a millennium-and-a-half old, but I can’t rule it out, either. When did this piece of wood die? When did its tree release it into the desert soil, there to bleach and suffer futile attacks by termites? 1500 years ago the Anasazi were just learning how to add roofs to their adobe houses. Augustine was writing his Confessions. The Roman Empire had collapsed within living memory. And this stick, perhaps, or one just like it in the same valley, was already turning gray on that alluvial pediment west of Blythe. “Essentially non-biodegradable,” these few pieces of dead tree straddle the line between biology and geology. A tree grew them, but they may as well be rocks for all the effect that the centuries have on them. “Driftwood,” hell: it’s just as likely that I found these pieces where they fell, and the ironwood grove drifted away from them over the intervening millennium. The immense antiquity of this firewood makes my collection of it seem, in retrospect, abhorrent, like the actions of the guy who cut down the world’s oldest bristlecone pine to count the rings.

But there is something in the desert ironwood that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, which naggingly reminds me that issues are never as straightforward as ideology would insist. Who would criticize the Seri for turning ironwood detritus into grocery money? Ironwood supported human beings long before the first Seri carver ever saw a chisel. Leached of a mild toxin, ironwood seeds were used for centuries as food by the Seri, the Tohono O’odham, and other Sonoran Desert people. Warriors and hunters used ironwood bark tea as a ceremonial purgative. When an O’odham couple married, elders gave them an ironwood branch to hold between them, so that the wood’s durability would infuse itself into the marriage. Though we’ve done it some wrong the past few decades, this is a tree whose memory is long, and it was deeply involved in human lives long before the invention of the four-way file and the chain steakhouse.

I look again at the piece I’ve been carving. I won’t be collecting any more, and I certainly won’t insist on a fire when I’m camping in ironwood country, but giving this piece to my wife seems, somehow, appropriate, a way to infuse this marriage with the permanence ironwood engenders. A bit of dark wood, and the knowledge that more grows, protected, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

There’s no such thing as desertification

If you want evidence to support my increasingly frequent contention that environmentalists as a whole really don’t care about arid environments, it’s instructive to look at a bit of jargon in use over the last few decades.

The jargon is used to describe this process: People abuse a piece of land. They overgraze it. They build houses and cut down trees and pump water from wells, drawing down the water table. They use that water to irrigate crops, poisoning the land with accumulating dissolved salts. They start fires, by accident of on purpose, and the fires rage across the countryside. The soil’s protective coat of humus blows away. Animals die. The leaves that are green turn to brown.

In the jargon to which I refer, this process is called “desertification.”

Desertification. The transformation of useful, pleasant, healthy land—an agreed good—into desert, which is assumed to be bad.

What happens to a land that’s been “desertified”?  Fairly often, long-lived plants tend to die out and annual weeds, and their short-lived perennial associates, take over. Weeds are opportunists: they’ll grow in a hurry when moisture is available, set abundant seed, then die. They leave behind dry cellulose: fuel. Fuel feeds fires. Fires kill the remaining long-lived plants, the trees and rhizomatous herbs and such, clearing the soil for a new generation of weed seedlings.

Erosion gets ramped up as well. Water, when and where it makes an appearance, tends to gouge gullies in the landscape. Where a day-long gentle rain would have quietly soaked into the root-bound earth before “desertification,” now there’s nothing to hold it. The topography colects the gentle rain and turns it into flash floods. When the rain ebbs, wind carries away loose soil.

“Desertification” is a global problem, the official environmentalists tell us. It decreases the food security of the world’s most vulnerable people. “Desertification” is an important factor in the crisis in Darfur, in the collapse of the Mexican economy and consequent mass migration of displaced farmers, and a host of other global social crises.

Here’s a photo of “desertified” land.

desertified land in Australia

Here’s another:

desertified land in Central Asia

And another:

desertified land in Darfur

Pretty bleak stuff.

Way bleaker than most actual deserts. Here’s a desert landscape:

Arthur J. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park

Here’s another:

Christmas Tree Pass 7

And another:

Tucson Mountain Park

There is a difference between land that has been “desertified” and an actual desert. 

You may point out that I’ve deliberately sought out beautiful, lush photos to represent deserts, to contrast them unfairly with the trashed land currently referred to as “desertified.” Fair enough. Here’s a lush, beautiful photo of some bonafide “desertified” land, in the long-overgrazed Rio Puerco drainage in Arizona:


Gorgeous, lush compared to some actual desert landscapes, nice pronghorn ready for his close-up. And “desertified” rather than a desert. The Rio Puerco basin gets enough precipitation to be considered steppe rather than desert, and yet look at the monoculture of invasive grass there. There is no diversity to speak of in this shot, except for the pronghorn who can trot off to a more diverse landscape 50 miles away and get there in an hour.

Some people working on “desertification” are beginning to point out this difference between “desertified” lands and deserts, pointing out that deserts are actually diverse and more or less stable habitats with their own values to wildlife and to people, but those same activists tend to call deserts something other than deserts. “Drylands” is common. The fact is, it’s “desertification” that should be called something else. Badlandification. Dustification. Parkinglotification. Burningmanification. If we could actually turn land into desert, there’d be a lot less argument over the sites of things like massive corporate solar concentrating facilities in creosote-tortoise habitat. I’d be thrilled if we could truly desertify some of the land around Bakersfield, for instance, to take the worn-out, selenium-poisoned, groundwater overdrafted subsidized cotton fields there and grow cryptobiotic soil crusts on them, get some rabbitbrush growing and some barrel cacti and some Mojave ground squirrels established.

The problem is that actual deserts are the lands most threatened by what environmentalists call “desertification”: invasive weeds are raging through the deserts like the wildfires they spawn, water diversions cause subsidence and old tree death, and dust storms are more common in the Mojave now than they were during the Dust Bowl. To call this sterilizing of land “desertification” is to reinforce the notion that deserts are worthless, damaged things to be avoided, mended or improved upon, and certainly not places worth preserving when the alternative is cozying up to Big Green Energy.

Most chillingly, the remedy for “desertified” lands is usually referred to as “reclamation.” “Reclaiming the desert,” they call it.

Here is a photo of a reclaimed desert landscape:

waterskiier on Lake Powell

Here’s another:

Phoenix, Arizona

And another:

Bellagio and Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Tree Deaths Double in West

From the US Geological Survey:

Tree death rates have more than doubled over the last few decades in old-growth forests of the western United States, and the most probable cause of the worrisome trend is regional warming, according to a U.S. Geological Survey-led (USGS) study published in Science on January 23.

The study found that the increase in dying trees has been pervasive. Tree death rates have increased across a wide variety of forest types, at all elevations, in trees of all sizes, and in pines, firs, hemlocks, and other kinds of trees.

Regardless of the cause, higher tree death rates ultimately could lead to substantial changes in western forests, said Phil van Mantgem, a USGS scientist and co-leader of the research team.  Such changes, the team noted, can have cascading effects, such as by changing forest suitability for wildlife species. Additionally, increasing tree mortality rates mean that western forests could become net sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further speeding up the pace of global warming.

Genetically Modified Organisms: A Non-Knee-Jerk Primer

[This post was at first a comment on the Vilsack thread, and after a couple requests to promote it to post status I am doing just that, after correcting a couple of typos. Hope someone finds it useful.]

Unlike a lot of environmentalists I don’t have an across the board objection to the notion of altering an organism’s genome. There is a lot of uninformed and alarmist commentary on GMOs, and it can be hard to separate out objections to the current implementations of GMO technology from more non-specific gut-level opposition.

My objection to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven.

Probably the best-known example is that of Roundup-Ready crops, developed by Monsanto to withstand applications of Monsanto’s patented herbicide Roundup. Theoretical benefits to the farmer include the ability to grow crops without tilling the soil to control weeds. In actuality, weeds develop resistance to Roundup and yields have been shown not to exceed conventional crops reliably. In the meantime, Monsanto not only gets more income from crop-driven sales of Roundup, but from sales of its proprietary seed, and the company protects its seed aggressively, going so far as to sue farmers whose non-GMO crops have been pollinated by wind drift from neighboring Roundup-Ready farms.

In the meantime, the gene conferring resistance to Roundup doesn’t just transfer into neighboring crops, but also into related weed plant species.

A lot of this trouble stems more from the notion of patenting living things than from the origin of those living things, GMO or not. For instance, without the ability to patent life forms, it’s unlikely that Monsanto would have bothered to come up with “Terminator” seed technology, a genetic modification that prevents the crops in question from setting fertile seed. The idea is that farmers wouldn’t be able to circumvent patent restrictions by saving seed. The reality is that the Terminator genes can migrate into non-patented crops as well, affecting farmers’ ability to save even heirloom, “public domain” seeds. Monsanto has pledged not to use Terminator technology after worldwide public outcry, but they’ve quietly broken that pledge as well, and a handful of other companies have developed equivalent technologies.

Bt corn is another very common GMO, bred with genes from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that secretes insecticidal compounds often used in organic gardening. The European corn borer -a moth larva -is a major pest of corn, and Bt is designed to include the gene from that bacterium responsible for making a lepidoptericidal substance. The larva eats Bt corn and dies, not reproducing, and thus suppressing the long-term pest population. It was thought for a while about ten years ago that pollen from Bt corn posed a threat to other butterflies and moths, especially monarch butterflies. There’s been evidence to suggest that might not be as big a problem as first thought, though many of the findings saying so come from the Bush administration’s USDA, and Bush’s interference with federal science to promote corporate welfare is well-documented. But the Bt gene does escape the patented corn, and prevalence of the gene in other crop populations — as well as wild plants — is a basic precondition for quick evolution of resistance to the insecticide.

The popular conception of genetics is that each trait has a gene that causes it, the unspoken assumption being that genes act in isolation from one another. But genomes are complex systems, and gene expression is affected not only by other genes but also by the environment in which the genome resides, inside the organism or out. Scientist Árpád Pusztai found that when he fed rats potatoes that had been modified to produce a plant toxin known as snowdrop lectin — generally shown to be harmless to mammals — the rats suffered intestinal damage that was not reproduced when he fed rats potatoes mixed with the same amount of snowdrop lectin. His conclusion was that the act of genetic modification itself, not necessarily the action of the implanted gene, had caused the potatoes to become toxic to rats. Making changes in complex systems guarantees unexpected results, and a sane regulatory framework for GMOs would take this into account, using the Precautionary Principle as its guideline.

For his part, Pusztai was attacked by the GMO industry: he was fired from the lab in which he worked and his materials and data destroyed, after the lab received a phone call from Monsanto. The editor of The Lancet, after deciding to run Pusztai’s peer-reviewed paper on the study, received what he described as a “threatening phone call” from a GMO-friendly member of the Royal Society, which had formed a Swift Boat-style “Rebuttal Unit” to counter criticisms of GMOs.

Which is very much reminiscent of the experience of UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela, who found GMO-drifted genes in theoretically GMO-free maize in Mexico. The GM industry and its partisans waged an unsuccessful “dirty-tricks” style campaign to keep Nature from publishing Chapela’s findings, and then eventually forced Nature to partially retract Chapela’s paper, the first time the journal had ever done such a thing, and based on the objection of a single reviewer.

Shorter me: I have some concerns about the safety of GMOs, based on our rudimentary understanding of how gene expression may be affected by change in a single gene, but not enough to make me want to ban research or completely rule out use of GMOs in daily life altogether.  But add the profit motive and the ability to patent lifeforms and you get attempts by individual corporations to corner the worldwide market in one species after another, which is bad for farmers and consumers, and you also get thuggish attempts to subvert independent research, which is bad for science.

Yucca jaegeriana

A kind reader sent me the article I asked for in this post, and I’ve filed it away in the database. Most of the writing I do as regards the paper will be for the book, but it’s relatively big news and I just have to engage in the sobersided, serious botanist version of a squee.

Taxonomists are forever arguing over whether certain closely related groups of organisms actually belong to the same species, or genus, or family, or name your taxon. The received wisdom is that these taxonomists tend to settle out into two roughly delineated groups, called “lumpers” and “splitters.”  In reality, there are taxonomists who maintain that there are several distinct kinds of both lumpers and splitters. Other taxonomists maintain that as few researchers advocate either splitting or combining all taxa, but rather make deliberate choices to lump or split based on the facts of the individual cases, that in reality “lumpers” and “splitters” should properly be considered members of their parent clade, “taxonomists,” and the split between “lumpers” and “splitters” be deemed obsolete.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah: Joshua trees. These matters are rarely settled easily. I would imagine that there may be significant argument among Yucca experts as to whether the paper referenced above is authoritative. There’s plenty of room for further study. Olle Pellmyr’s work on the two species of moths that each pollinate their own distinct population of Joshua tree, and the differences in both insect and floral morphology that have arisen between the two populations, suggest the possibility of reproductive isolation. But the jury’s still out, and the jury likes a good argument.

I can’t help it, though. This is so cool.


Lee Lenz, in the paper I asked for, posits that there are two species of Joshua tree. One Yucca brevifolia, grows in the west and north of Joshua tree country, near Los Angeles and up towards the White Mountains. The other, which grows east of Barstow, on Cima Dome, in half the tree’s range in Nevada and on into Utah and Arizona, Lenz has split into its own species: Yucca jaegeriana.