Monday, March 7, 2016

Roadside Heart

Anonymous roadside heart spotted on the northeast corner of Winters and Cady, Copper Mountain Mesa.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Lessons from the Elderberries

The Los Angeles River near the Narrows is lined with wild elderberry trees. Though the sides of the river are buttressed with concrete, the bottom remains original riverbed. Natural springs bubbling up from beneath make the laying of concrete impossible. The middle of the river is slung with long, narrow islands pinned in place with tall trees and dense bushes.  People live on these islands, by necessity or by design, at least until the winter storms and floods sweep away their encampments, and them, if they do not temporarily relocate themselves.

Once I saw a couple walking two large dogs and a goat on the edge of the river bottom. Three tails wagged as the animals searched for movement in the green. Goats are not allowed in Los Angeles, nor are the roosters that run in a panic ahead of you on some city streets, nor is corn, growing up as enthusiastic as cheerleaders through cracks in the sidewalk. I love these things because they remind me that there is another world running parallel, and sometimes just beneath, the efforts of the City fathers to torture a river into compliance, to tame a street or a people with artificial and sterile, nearly penal, landscaping, hoping that this contrived green and defeated nature will shame us into being orderly, or into staying inside altogether.

It’s the wild in Los Angeles that intrigues me, and those of us who have found little pockets of it cherish it and share it only with our dearest friends. So it is with the elderberries that call at various times throughout the year. In the spring billows of creamy white blossoms, plate-sized umbels, bob heavy in the warming breeze. Who can resist burying their face in this pillow of tiny flowers, slightly licorice-scented, to breathe deeply and arise covered in pollen, like a child discovered by his mother’s face powder?

I take an umbel of flowers here and there, never many, as others know this spot and we need to leave enough to turn to berries in the fall, and enough for the birds who love them as much as we do. I lightly rinse the flowers, detach them from their stems, and add them to cakes and breads. Or I dry them for medicine. The flowers are dusted with their own natural yeast. Peasants used to make a light champagne with only elder flowers and water, and just before bottling they added a little sugar to make bubbles.[1]

It was with great joy that I found elderberries thriving in the Mojave, which I thought too harsh an environment for this tender green. Wild elderberry trees line the hills along Interstate 60 before it merges with the 10. It’s as if they are there to welcome you, to tell you that you are almost home. I planted an elderberry tree on the land out by the military base north of Joshua Tree, on the island on which we live, and it has suffered from the heat and cold and the ripping wind but it has endured. It wants to live there.

The Malki Museum, on the Morongo Indian reservation, has an old elderberry tree in its interpretive garden. They call the elderberry “hunqwuat.” When the elderberry shoots are three or four years old, native Cahilla and Kumeyaay men gathered them to make flutes and clapper sticks. Young women made dye from the berries to color the baskets they would weave. [2] The people also used the blossoms and the berries to treat colds and flus.[3]

In the fall, when the berries have turned dark and will no longer make you sick if you eat them, you may gather them as you would any sweet berry and make pies and pastries, or juice, or dry them for later.

Elderberries mature in the fall, in time for us to take advantage of their antiviral qualities.[4] There are scores of recipes for homemade elderberry syrups and liquors and it is a good habit to make use of these as the days shorten. I encourage you to experiment. I prefer a tart flavor and find the sweetness of the elderberry cloying, so I make oxymels with vinegar and honey; or elixirs, alcoholic tinctures sweetened to go down a little easier.

Europeans and early American colonists made sweet syrups out of elderberries. My favorite herbalists encourage people to incorporate herbs into their daily lives in ordinary ways, not as mysterious and arcane medicines, but as simply as pancake syrup, or a flavoring for homemade sodas. This is as it should be. Herbs want to be common. They want to live in our kitchens.

There is an abiding and wild world that calls to us and it is lined with elderberry, horehound, epazote, lamb’s quarter, and wild tobacco, unruly plants all, busting through the city sidewalks, as well as the desert floor. Life cannot be tamed, and it will come up again through any crack in the concrete, and if there is no crack, it will make a crack. It will rewild. For me, it’s not the making of medicine or the practice of herbalism that heals, it’s the joy in making friends with plants, the joy of bubbling up unrestrained, part and parcel with nature. The plant friends we make, the seeds we collect, the shoots we plant on our desert islands, the herbs we hang and dry, the potions we make and share, remind us that we too, were native and wild somewhere once.

[1] Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers | The Secret of Ancient Fermentation, Stephen Harrod Buhner
[2] Tending the Willd, Native Am Knowledge and the Management of Cal's Natural Resources, M. Kat Anderson
[3] Medicinal Plants Used by Native American Tribes In Southern California, Donna Largo, Daniel F. McCarthy, and Marcia Roper
[4] Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

10 essential gifts for the desert rat

The desert rat has different needs than the city dweller. Many are practical and specific to the terrain and lifestyle. If you're not sure what to get, these gifts are always appreciated. In terms of last minute shopping, many of these items can be picked up at any respectable truck stop.

#3: 50' of chicken wire
1. Bungie straps
High winds, bumpy roads, and ad hoc repairs require bungie straps. You can never have enough, and they don't last long out in the desert.

2. Prickly pear cactus
Keep your eye out for thriving specimens of cow’s tongue or pancake prickly pear. Classy people ask the owner before breaking off a hunk. Wrap loosely in many layers of newspaper to prevent accidents. They need to dry out at least a week before being planted so they won't be needing any water.

3. Chicken wire
If your loved one is a gardener they can never have enough chicken wire. Two feet tall will keep out most rabbits. A 50’ roll says you really care.

#4: OCD Magnet Rake
4. Magnet rake
Your OCD friends will never forget you. Magnet rakes are a delight for removing nails, screws, bolts, and other detritus from the sand in your driveway. Since these castoffs float to the surface of the sand over time this gift will keep on giving.

5. Folding directors chairsThese are folding chairs with little side tables that flip up. Spring for the one with the cupholder. They fold flat for easy transport to those desert nature events at which there are never enough chairs, let alone side tables.

6. A dozen wash cloths
Get them in dark colors. These are wonderful for dry cabins and camping trips. A thousand and one uses and they launder nicely.

7. BIG water bottle
Desert dwellers are horrible when it comes to disposable water bottles. We buy them by the case. A single liter-size SIG bottle will get a good laugh. A 5-gallon Coleman cooler will be truly appreciated, or spring for the Under Armour 64 Ounce Foam Insulated Hydration Bottle.

8. Collapsible entrenching shovel
Everyone knows they should have one for digging their car out of the sand, but no one I know has one. Remember to wipe for fingerprints after use.

9. Rocks
This may seem a little like selling coals in Newcastle, but desert dwellers have a strong affinity for rocks. Start collecting unusual or particularly beautiful rocks for gift giving and you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to part with any of them once you try.

10. Bug Vacuum and/or Fly Gun
Once you've been out in the Big Empty for awhile you'll stop caring so much about bugs, but these two gifts will keep visitors busy while you get back to doing nothing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It's that day

Sunrise, Wonder Valley, September 30, 2015
It's that day I've waited for. It's that day in September when I turn off the AC and open the windows and the cool night air tumbles in like a waterfall. The not-quite-closed bedroom door, heartened by the gentlest of desert breezes, kisses the lintel, again and again, as if a long lost friend.

A specter of sweet perfume wends through the room. I've been reading about war time spies Harriett Tubman and Josephine Baker and I imagine this scent to be what remained when they left a room: a scent of bravery, hope, and loveliness. It's an intoxicating scent and my mind flails about to identify any part of it. It's so lovely that I ask myself who the president is. The scent reminds me of an expensive French perfume; the 1960s before Kennedy was killed; optimism; and wealthy great aunts, and my room is infused with it. A rooster crows. I want to stay here all day, and the gods would not blame me.

The surfeit of cool air brings the promise of possibility without recriminations. It's been too hot to do much, and many friends have been away. The cool air means they'll come wandering back and our little desert family will be complete again. Abandoned tasks will be resumed. Trees will be trimmed, trash hauled, windows and doors repainted. We'll cook with heat again -  inside. The cold water tap will run with cold water.

I can cut my hair and wear it down again. No more ponytail headaches. No more looking like a wretched, broke down Palmer Girl.

I really cannot imagine what that smell is. There are only five plants here and none of them smell like that: creosote, mesquite, smoke tree, athel pine and salt bush. It has to be a ghost, there is no other explanation, and no mansplaining scientist will come out this far to prove me wrong. Much remains unexplained out here, species remain unnamed and uncategorized, phenomena remain unexamined. Ghosts and aliens act as seat fillers for absent, soft-bellied experts. Even gods are loathe to come here, and when they do, they don't stay long, preferring to cling to the coasts.

If this were San Francisco, this would be Opening Day on the Bay. We all raise our sails, fill our water ballons, fire up our blenders, and come home covered in salt. 

It's that day.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Singing Saguaros

Singing Cacti for proposed Mine Train Ride at Disneyland, by Marc Davis

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Best Saturday Community Breakfast (and I work the door!)

Saturday, September 5 from 8:00am - 11:00am
Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center
65336 Winters Road, Joshua Tree, CA 92252

INVITE SOMEONE who's never been. <3

Start the month off right with a hearty breakfast and a lot of local color. This all-volunteer monthly event is lovingly created by long-time (and short-time) locals cooking and serving a good homemade breakfast for just $5.00!

Bring a friend, bring several. CMMC First Saturday Pancake Breakfast is the hippest and happeningest place in North Joshua Tree. We're OUT there!

We have outdoor seating, so bring your vices and your dogs as long as you agree to bring your dirty dishes back to the kitchen.

The Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center was started in 1981 and is one of the only privately funded Community Centers in the area. Your breakfast helps the Center doors stay open and the services to the community flowing.

The THRIFT STORE will be open. Bring a bag for a cheap treasure hunt.

How you can tell that it rained

We were away during this last rain, visiting friends out of town, trying to get a little break from the summer heat. It was easy to tell that it had rained, though. It was also easy to tell that no one but us had been here.

I've heard many stories of people tracking their stolen goods to the home of the thieves that took them, and after showing said thieves their business card (a golf club), bringing all their belonging back home.

When it rains, the sand lifts up, and then it crunches back down when you step on it, compressing it again. The picture above is of my footprint. From father away, it's easier to see, like the tire tracks in the driveway. Either that, or I've just gotten much better at tracking.

Dr. Nicole Pietrasiak, of John Carrol University, an expert in soil crusts, told me this lifting after rain is probably due to air displacement. As the water soaks into the soil, air is displaced, bubbling to the surface, moving and lifting the pieces of sand.

There seems to be, however, a slight cohesion between the pieces of sand and I wonder if it is due to the briefest resurrection of blue-green algae in the soil. Wonder Valley is Aeolian, formed by wind, so the soil is not stable enough to build proper soil crusts.

Blue-green algae will form microbial communities under white quartz rocks. Dr Pietrasiak told me the water is trapped. Sun shines through the quartz creating a greenhouse. This is why you often find sediment clinging to the underside of white quartz in the desert. If you knock this off you'll often find green microbial material clinging to the quartz.

See: Why haven't I heard about this before - it's like I was born under a rock!

But, I digress.

A snake track across the sand. I believe the tracks to the right are jack rabbit, not necessarily concurrent.
The coolest thing is that the rain creates a sort of tabula rasa, a blank slate, and reading the desert becomes much easier. As I walked around the property I found this: a snake trail from my neighbor's' house (they have water available) to a creosote village near my garage. The track is about one inch wide so it is not a small snake.

This type of motion is rectilinear, and is favored by rattlesnakes, but also boas, gopher snakes, and other large-bodies snakes. I haven't seen a single snake this year, though I've kept a careful eye out.

This phenomena of the sand rising after a rain is exploited by people who want to find out if someone has been sneaking around their house or property. They get the hose out, spray the sand, and when it dries it's ready to record new foot prints. Conversely, weekenders and snowbirds often pay people to "lay tracks" after a storm so that their places look lived in and thieves stay away.