Tag Archives: Public Lands

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

Ironwood

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.

Protect Gold Butte

Most of you have never heard of it, but northeast of Las Vegas, in one of the least-visited parts of the continental United States, a desert treasure in Nevada needs your support.

I visited Gold Butte for the first time in 1997. I was just passing through, heading for a tiny outpost in the Arizona Strip called Pakoon Springs, which later became part of the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. A fire there had damaged a Joshua tree forest some years before, and I wanted to take a look at the recovery so far. My old truck carried me up over the slopes of Virgin Peak and across the state line, where I took some photos that turned out to be abysmally fuzzy. Joshua tree near Pakoon Springs, AZ (The fire had burned patches of the landscape, but not all of it. Much of it looked intact. In this shot, taken facing eastward into the Arizona Strip, the long ridge in the background is the Grand Wash Cliffs escarpment. The notch in the Cliffs toward the right? That’s the downstream end of a rather famous natural landscape feature. )

My old truck was a four-cylinder 2WD, so my relief at not getting stuck in the Pakoon’s washes was considerable, and I headed back across the line into Gold Butte to explore the Whitney Pockets area for a little while. I’ve always meant to get back to Virgin Peak and do some hiking, like these folks did:

It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. It’s wild, wide, open, and spacious. Gold Butte is a botanical, geological, and archaeological treasure. It’s priceless habitat for desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. It’s also within a couple hours’ drive from two fast-growing cities — the metastasopolis of Las Vegas, and the smaller but even more enthusiastically desert-defacing St. George, Utah — and the almost-city of Mesquite NV. As a result, those who use the desert as a blank slate across which to scratch their grubby fingernails pose a significant and increasing threat to the landscape:

And unlike the Pakoon and other adjacent lands across the Arizona line in the Parashant NM, Gold Butte is essentially unprotected.

Nevada environmentalists and land managers are working with local elected officials to change that. Last year Representative Shelley Berkley introduced HR 7132, a bill that would have given Gold Butte National Conservation Area status, like the Red Rock Canyon area on the other side of Las Vegas. The NCA would have covered 362,177 acres, with 200,000 more acres of BLM and Park Service lands in the area declared wilderness. The bill did not pass, and must be reintroduced in this theoretically more receptive Congress.

The Nevada Wilderness Project has an action site where you can find ways to help them protect Gold Butte, from writing letters to sharing your hard-earned cash.  The Friends of Gold Butte has a website and a companion blog where you can stay informed, and if you’re in the area, there are events listed in which you can take part.

And if you’re not a local, you can still let people know Gold Butte exists. It’s one of the last best places, a forgotten puzzle piece in the Grand Canyon biome, and it deserves protection.

1,000-mile OHV atrocity in Nevada: more info

Basin and Range Watch has the authoritative description of just how destructive the so-called “Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno Off-Highway Race.

Talk about your insult to injury, with that title. These yahoos wouldn’t know the best of the desert if it pitched them off their motorized phallus replacements and into a patch of cholla.

At Grand Canyon, water battle rages anew

Via Lee Allison, a relatively thorough story in the Arizona Republic about the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam, and science and the environment being disregarded for considerations of political and electrical power.

Nearly a year after the federal government flooded the Grand Canyon in a test of resource restoration, questions persist about whether the agency in charge watered down the experiment to protect power providers and ignored high-level critics of the operation.

The allegations resurfaced with a January memo written by the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, who accused his bosses of disregarding science in preparing for the flood designed to reverse some of the damaging effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the canyon and on the Colorado River. He also described the environmental review of the experiment as one of the worst he’s seen.

Conservation groups say the Interior Department tailored the experiment, a four-day flush of water from Lake Powell down the Colorado River, to appease providers whose power is generated by Glen Canyon Dam. The providers have long complained about the money lost whenever changes are made in the way water is released from the dam.

The episode further feeds a long-simmering feud between environmentalists and power interests and raises the issue yet again of whether a dam and a fragile riparian ecosystem can coexist.

Read the rest: it’s good. Then check out the Grand Canyon Trust’s website for background.

A thousand-mile swath of destruction?

The ORV boosters are pushing an event that could be more destructive than the infamous Barstow to Vegas Race, banned a dozen years ago.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Tonopah Field Office, will conduct an environmental review and hold two public meetings to gather public comments on a proposed off-highway race.

The race, planned for August 20-22, 2009, is called the “Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno Off-Highway Race” and covers 1,000 miles of Nevada’s high desert. It begins north of Pahrump and runs through Beatty, Tonopah and Hawthorne before finishing southeast of Dayton.

The Best in the Desert Racing Association, which is seeking a special recreation permit from the BLM to conduct the race, bills it as the “greatest long-distance, off-road event in this decade on U.S. soil.”

As many as 350 vehicles could be entered, including motorcycles, ATVs, dune buggies, high clearance SUVs and 4×4 trucks. The race route uses a combination of existing smooth and rough dirt roads on public lands in Nye, Esmeralda, Mineral, Lyon, and Douglas counties.

The full press release, from the pro-ORV Blue Ribbon Coalition, is below the fold. Some of the proposed route would apparently follow the Amargosa River, under consideration for Wild and Scenic status.

Kinda gives the lie to the whining from the ORV set about how they’re being squeezed off our public lands. Apparently they want every square inch.

Continue reading

Keep ORVs out of NV wilderness areas

image

Yes, this is Nevada. Castle Lakes in the Ruby Mountains Wilderness.

From our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity. The link on “please submit your comments” goes to one of those automated letter-sending sites. It’ll take less than two minutes of your time. (But feel free to take more and customize the letter.)

     

  The northeastern part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is nothing short of spectacular, with rocky peaks soaring over 11,000 feet that contain stands of white-bark pine and limber pine, pristine wet meadows, and springs. The lower elevations harbor piñon and juniper forests and diverse sagebrush meadows.

        All this could change if off-road vehicles are allowed to rip up the landscape.

        Your voice is needed: More than 1.1 million acres of national forest lands in northern Nevada are threatened by off-road vehicle abuse. The Jarbridge, Mountain City, and Ruby Mountain ranger districts are conducting travel management planning to decide where off-road vehicles will be allowed to roam. There are three designated Wildernesses in these districts -the Jarbridge, East Humboldt, and Ruby Mountain -and they are among the most wild and least visited in the Wilderness system. Abutting and protecting the character of these Wildernesses are dozens of Inventoried Roadless Areas, at risk of being destroyed and degraded by the decisions made in this planning effort.

        Please take action now by telling the Forest Service that you are one of many who care about protecting our national forests and reducing the number of roads in the Humboldt-Toiyabe. A sample letter is below [below the fold-CC], and we urge you to add a personal story, example, or concern to your message so that the Forest Service is compelled to listen. Please submit your comments by February 20.

 

Continue reading

Desert Pavement

lava desert pavement

This wind is a tide. Plant your footsoles on the earth: the wind will scour the sand out from underneath, send you toppling backward into the holes it digs beneath your heels. It is relentless. It is patient. Sandgrain after wind-driven sandgrain blasts the surface, wearing down rock, dislodging in turn other grains of sand.

Outside the desert, plants hold the soil in place with a net of roots. Atop this lava flow only the most resolute of plants survive, the red-spined Ferocactus and gray Atriplex hymenelytra, Mojave yuccas a few decades old and wizened. They stay far apart. Between them the surface of the earth is bare, a few wisps of annual grasses the only adornment, and those blown away nearly as readily as the sand.

The tide-wind digs out holes beneath each rock. Each pebble, each fist-sized crag of basalt moves in the wind. A little to the left; the wind carries away sand beneath it to the right. The rock tilts into the new-dug hole, and the wind scours the open sand on the other side. Each rock grinds itself into the soil. The wind works hardest on those that still rise above their neighbors. Sand smooths away the sharp lines, the corners and apices.

Each year or two the rains come and spend themselves against the earth. Where rain hits sand it flings it upward, roughens the soil so that the wind can work it. Where rain hits rock the rock absorbs the blow.

Wind and rain favor the rock. At length the desert paves itself, a tight and fragile skin, small rocks interlocking each one with its neighbors. All else is stripped away. Anything the wind can scour, anything the rain can drown is stripped away.

Last week I stood serene atop an old lava flow in the company of Atriplex and Ferocactus. I envied them their tenure. I envied them their tenacity. I would have stayed there with them permanently, were it possible: stayed to watch the winters pass into springs, to watch the rocks smooth and dwindle under the stream of sand.

It struck me then that for all their armor, for all their bristling spines and thorns and bitter saponin glycosides, the plants were vulnerable. Had my feet grown roots into the lava, had I sunk taps into the desert to sip a quart a month and watch the sun, I would have been as vulnerable. I would have watched helpless as the Sahara mustard filled the spaces between the yuccas, dried and caught fire. I would have watched the brome tinge the earth a deeper red. I would have watched ten thousand sunsets and a storm of new industry scathing the desert wilderness. Though I cannot stay here with them I can at least move to defend them, I thought, and then there in that desiccated place came a sodden realization: because I can, I must.

Bit by bit it gets stripped away, all of it. All that I was stripped slow away by the tide wind, and what is left? This desert and my obligation to it, our only armor the coals of old fires long ago gone cold and black, a paved and broken skin to parry the wind.

Tortoise alert: letters needed

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

Last year, the Army moved more than 750 tortoises off of pristine desert lands in order to expand its Fort Irwin army base in California’s Mojave desert. Not all tortoises were monitored, but of those that were, more than 90 of them died—many eaten by starving coyotes who had lost their typical prey base of squirrels and rabbits due to epic desert drought. Also, the Army moved healthy tortoises into populations known to have the often-deadly upper respiratory tract disease, against the recommendations of epidemiologists. Because of the high tortoise death toll and legal action by the Center, the Army temporarily suspended the translocation of tortoises in 2008.

Now, the Army and the Bureau of Land Management are rushing to move more tortoises in 2009 in order to rid the expanded Army base of more of their tortoises. The federally threatened desert tortoise population cannot withstand yet another ill-conceived and hastily implemented translocation. Please write to the Army and Bureau of Land Management today asking that they implement a full environmental review process based on a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

The accelerated comment period is a joke. It was announced by press release on the weekend of February 7, set for February 18 — eleven days’ notice.

Take action here.

Ken Salazar gets off to a good start

From the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance:

More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness will be protected from oil and gas drilling after the Department of Interior announced today that it will cancel 77 leases issued under the Bush administration. This is among the first actions taken by the Obama administration to protect America’s wild lands. Since December, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society have been working to protect these public lands. In December, the coalition filed suit to stop the leasing, and, in January, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases.

In Hagen Canyon

It makes no sound. If it did the wind would mask it, keening through the sere canyon. Look the wrong way and your mouth fills with dust, with flecks of gravel. It is constant, the wind, and it raises whistles across the crenellated canyon walls. One must almost shout to be heard above the wind.

It does not shout. It does not whisper.

It does have a voice. There are times that voice is the loudest thing around. The skies open up, they glower, and a sheen grows on the cliffs. The whole valley gathers it and it rages, drowns the canyon floor, drowns the wind. It carves the rock like clay slip under a knife. It churns up bones, the remains of monsters dead 13 million years, and scatters them down toward the dry lake. Sometimes its voice is the world ending.

Today is a bright dry day in March, and the Hagen Canyon watershed is mute. Rain has not fallen for some weeks.

Hiking in the canyon is not as deadly as a few timid souls would claim:

How many of you desert riders have ever seen a hiker anywhere????  If you are on foot, you are going to die out there!

…but it is thirsty work. The sand in the bone-dry wash shifts beneath your feet, and walking uphill is strenuous enough as it is. The wash is braided, the ghosts of floods long past marked in old scours, fossil plunge pools.

It flows silent, unseen, an unremembered dream beneath the desert’s harsh waking surface.

Once the rock here flowed like water. It seared the grassland, incinerated the old river delta, killed everything in its path. It cooled and the earth healed over, built new lake above the old. Basalt is harder than the lakebed sediments. Its outcrops run for miles across the desert, cliffs of dark rock exposed as their mantling sediment is washed away. A basalt outcrop cuts this canyon in two, a sheer hundred-foot wall and narrow chokepoint separating lower canyon from upper.

basalt.jpg

Basalt is impervious to water. The chokepoint is a dam across the dry wash, and the Hagen Canyon Watershed—unseen, untasted save by those that live beneath two meters of sand—is forced to the surface. It finds the lowest point in the wall of basalt, a niche in the clifftop above a precarious sandy shelf.

seep.jpg

It flows over the wall, one drop per minute.

drip.jpg

Stand there long enough and you will see it carve the canyon deeper, the seep’s slow rasp and the flash flood’s scour in turn. Ten thousand years should do it.

The management of Red Rock State Park is weighing the possibility of opening more of its lands to those timid souls, like the one quoted above, who fear meeting the desert on its own terms, who cannot venture out into it without their gas-powered security blankets. Whether or not Hagen Canyon is open to them legally, they would come here. One would need to strain to hear the constant wind over their din. Their exhaust stench would mask the fragrance of sun-warmed basalt, the wind-driven smell of baking rabbitbrush fringing the wash at the base of this dry fall, stretching downhill and east toward the dry lake.

lowercyn.jpg

[To do something about it: go to Larry Hogue’s post here.]