Sunday, December 28, 2014

Urban foraging

Ken and I stayed in Los Angeles this weekend and joined Pascal Baudar’s Winter Edible Plant Walk in the Hahamonga State Park. There were about 20 people attending. It was cold, but sunny and with the recent rains the place was relatively green. The site is an oak forest and we gathered some of the litter to put at the base of our new little Quercus (coastal oak) at Saturn.

Ken blends right in with his Fleckerlteppich or Austrian Erbsenmuster ('pea pattern') camouflage.
Pascal, of Urban Outdoor Skills, walked us through basic identifications: chickweed (Stellaria media) and how to distinguish it from petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus); nettles (Urtica dioica); feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium); horehound (Marrubium vulgare); curly dock (Rumex crispus); evening primrose (Oenothera elata); wild radish (Raphanus sativus); mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana); and California white sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Pascal also taught us how to avoid  water hemlock (Cicuta) which is one of the most poisonous plants around.

Pascal identifying sprouts of water hemlock and teaching how to avoid during foraging. I learned about the
beautiful water hemlock when I was a child in the forests of Idaho so it's very familiar to me.
Ken and I gathered four plants and I tinctured three once home: nettles, horehound and mugwort. The fourth plant we gathered was white sagebrush simply because I’m mad about the scent which is intoxicating. I’d forgotten how amazing it was and how much I loved it.

Jim Robertson of Aboriginal Skills was present and talked about wrapping some in a handkerchief and sleeping with it on his pillow, along with California mugwort which is known to produce extremely vivid dreams for some. I can testify to that. Nance Klehm gave me a bottle which I left on my nightstand. Just having it near me caused me to have one of the most vivid and terrifying dreams I’d ever had. Though terrifying it taught me much about life and death and alleviated my fears.

Wildcrafted mugwort, horehound and nettle tinctures.
At the end of the walk Pascal made us a big salad of foraged greens and a fresh cold infusion made of the following: white fir, pine, juniper berry, toyon and manzanita berries, lemons, grass, turkey tail mushrooms, yarrow and a bit of honey. It was delicious and refreshing.

Pascal prepping a salad of chickpea, nasturtium and other foraged greens.
Cold infusion of white fir, pine, juniper berry, toyon and manzanita berries, lemons,
grass, turkey tail mushrooms, yarrow and a bit of honey.
Pascal was featured in Los Angeles Magazine, November 10,2014 issue, described as a "master forager, wild food adviser, and author" whose "locally found wild ingredients have made their way into the kitchens of such star chefs as Ludo Lefebvre and C.J. Jacobson."
Pascal Baudar featured in Los Angeles Magazine November 2014 issue.
And Pascal is only half the story. I was sorry his lovely girlfriend Mia Wasilevich, of Transitional Gastronomy, wasn’t there today. She is a master chef in her own right and makes magic with the ingredients that Pascal brings home – food that no one has ever heard of: blood orange and foraged black sage Japanese-style cheesecakes, lambsquarter seed cakes, nettle, lambsquarter, dock and veronica soup with a rich roasted garlic and potato base, buttery mini-puff pastry with Pascal's mind-blowing, intensely flavored, homemade duck prosciutto made with wild sagebrush and sages..., you get the picture.

Pascal and Mia are working on a cookbook and I predict that once that hits the stands they’ll be famous and you’ll wish you were able to say, “I went on a wild food walk with them once (or twice, or however many times you can manage).” So make going on one of their walks your first New Years resolution.

Of course, I asked him when they would be coming out to the desert to do a forage there. Pickings are pretty slim compared to the dense vegetation around Los Angeles, but there are still aromatics, edibles and medicinals to be had. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Making It Do

We have WIFI - kinda - at the cabin in Joshua Tree, but we got nothing at the house in Wonder Valley. We missed it for a minute. Screens don't matter as much when you have spectacles like this out your front door.

But once the sun sets there are fewer distractions and I've found myself longing for a movie. We haven't bought a TV for either location but last week I jury rigged my PC, an external CD drive and a small portable projector to screen a movie on the wall.

It was wonderful. Showing is Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, about oil prospecting and damaged human relationships around 1911. This was so much better than a wide screen television, and when I turn it off there's nothing hanging around on the wall taking up space.

Solutions like this remind me of the old saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." Where that statement used to seem tea-stained with morality, it now sounds purely practical.

A Honky Tonk Christmas

I'm not overexposed to carols the way that most people are: I don't really shop, and cannot bear radio with all its pledge drives and commercials, So every year I like to stop in at Tam O'Shanters in Los Angeles and listen to the Victorian carolers sing table side. I'm also not a very sentimental person but once a year I like to let the carols make me cry.

This year, however, I couldn't even get into the bar at Tam O'Shanters. It was packed, and so with heavy heart I returned home.

On Sunday we went to the Palms in Wonder Valley for breakfast. Someone was in the back room playing Christmas carols on the piano. A couple of us got up and went back to listen.

The playing was done in honky tonk style and fit the atmosphere of the Palms perfectly, as you can see by the shape of this piano.

Later I asked the player if it was honky tonk because of the piano (slightly out of tune) or if it was a style she played. She said it was her style and something she'd studied for years.

She also told me about her graduate studies in which she was following the voyage of one particular American ship on its travels.

She is Miss Ida Lane.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, here's a little scene I snapped. If you live in the desert or are a regular reader of this blog, you may be able to identify this, it's something that I've snapped before. If you think you've got it, leave me a comment. (Leave me a comment, anyway - it's awfully quiet in here!)

Thank you, Santa!

It was a great Yule. Santa brought me a pink BB gun. Isn't it gorgeous? My son and I practiced knocking beer cans off the fence at 20 feet and we were both surprisingly good. Elliott said his prowess comes from playing video games. I have no idea where mine comes from but I'm happy about it.

We were at the house in Wonder Valley long enough to have to do laundry. I walked a load out to the garage, about 100 feet from the house, put it in the washing machine and walked back. I added another trip checking to make sure everything was working right and nothing was leaking. At that point I looked at my bike and decided, "Why, not?" I road the bike back to the house, then down the driveway, around the corner to my neighbor's driveway, up that and back to our house. It was so fun. There were no cars on the road, nothing to watch out for except patches of deep sand.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Art collecting in Wonder Valley

I missed posting on the week of December 6. Time got away from me. That Saturday was the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center First Saturday Community Pancake Breakfast. I'm the hostess and my husband Ken is the egg man. We're all volunteers. We served 56 breakfasts and carved out a little time to hobnob with our neighbors and other desert rats. I bought a radiator heater in the thrift shop to take the chill off the cabin and it has worked nicely, a good investment of $5.00.

Later we drove to the Glass Outhouse in Wonder Valley for the Morongo Valley High School Student Art Show. The Valley definitely has its own flavor, heavy on books and arts. Yucca Valley - Joshua Tree - Twentynine Palms - Wonder Valley are home to four or five used book stores, and many, many art galleries, a few of which are accessible to new artists. There was food at the reception and live music and a respectable crowd looking to buy.

As I wandered through the various rooms of the gallery two paintings caught my eye. One, which I named in my head "How did I get here?", was of a red suburban house styled like a barn with a car pulling into the garage. It reminded me of the song by the Talking Heads. It was vibrant and garish as are all suburban dreams, especially those trying to reference our agrarian past. I considered buying it for the simple reason that it was $17.00 and where would I ever find another piece of art for $17.00? I admire any artist that uses charm pricing.

In another room I found myself standing in front of a black and white study, a little bit cubist, a little bit surreal, but with a definite 50s-in-America feel. Ken was a room behind me and I thought of pointing it out to him, but moved on. Later, when I looked back, he was transfixed, standing in front of the same painting. We bought it for $10.00.

Ken pointed out another paining he liked, a road that should have disappeared into the distance, but defied perspective while everything else obeyed. It evoked for me the American habit of never fading into the distance but trodding along with five- and ten-year plans, plastic surgery to preserve youth, comebacks and second acts and the perverted promise of eternal youth and life. We bought it for $15.00.

I showed him "How did I get here?" We returned the next day with a $20 and told the curator to let the artist keep the change.

It did not surprise us that these three pieces were all painted by the same talented artist, Christina Galdoard. I hope that she continues to paint with the same exuberance long into her career and we're proud to own these three pieces.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Earth's Shadow and the Belt of Venus

I just knew there had to be a name for it.

There are so many spectacular sunrises and sunsets in the desert that sometime you just have to turn away, and if you do, this is what you'll often see, opposite the sunrise or the sunset, a band of blue bleeding into a band of pink.

The band of blue is actually the shadow of the earth in the atmosphere as the sun rises or sets. The pink is called the "belt of Venus" or the "anti-twilight arch." At daybreak the shadow of the earth sets and at day's end it rises into darkness.

Small surprises

Last Saturday High Desert Test Sites hosted an event at the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center. Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, the authors of Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest gave a slide show presentation to a packed house.

Believing a curse accompanied pieces of petrified wood purloined from the park, tourists returned the rocks with letters of remorse, recounting the bad luck that had befallen them since making off with the rocks. The letters range from touching to tender to ridiculous, and afforded the authors the opportunity to shed light on different generations of conservation practices.

It was wonderful to see so many cars lined up outside the Center, and more than 50 people inside. Kudos to CMMCA board member Kip Fjelt for helping host this event and for the vision to reach out to High Desert Test Sites.

We left that night for the house in Wonder Valley and stopped for take-out at Passion Desert Chinese Restaurant on Two Mile Road and Adobe. Looking around at this cozy little boho commercial enclave I got the feeling that this might be the site of Bagley's store, which I was reading about in the book Sand in my Shoes, by Helen Bagley. I thought it had been on the highway but I later found out my intuition was right.

The larger building with the dark roof was the Bagley's store. Passion in the Desert Chinese Food is in the corner building and there are now buildings across the parking lot. There's an art supply store, a florist, a knick knack shop and a game shop. I'm going to have to go back again to scope out this place.

The next morning we went to the The Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley for breakfast and ran into friends. New Jimmy (I called him "New Jimmy" as the Palms has a plethora of Jameses and Jimmys and this gentleman was new to me and New Jimmy sounds better than Jimmy in the green hat.) had bought property off of Amboy Road and we all went over to see it. It had beautiful views but needed lots of hauling as so much of the previous owner's belongings had been abandoned. Near an old trailer I found a beautiful leaded glass candlestick, turned purple from the rays of the sun. Jimmy told me to take it and so I did.

A friend reminded me that the purple color is a defect and makes the glass worthless. Maybe, but not to me. It's the first piece of sun-colored glass I've collected and it makes me feel just a little bit more like I live here. I've got around 11 months to look at it before the Twentynine Palms Annual Weed Show to which I promised to submit a piece next year.

Out front I stumbled into a pet cemetery. The sun was so bright that I had to guess at the framing of the shot as I couldn't see the screen. I apologize for missing most of the row of neatly laid out graves.

There were 6-8 graves lined up. The dog Scooby Doo seemed to be either the best loved or last dead as his was the only name that remained. I could feel the ghosts of the children carefully arranging the stones as they tried not to cry.

Scooby Doo 2004-2008, Best Dog Ever.
Mesquite resin
Later in the afternoon I visited my neighbor, Glenda, across the street. Glenda and I walked her property looking for mesquite resin. They'd been forced by the insurance company to trim the mesquite trees growing too close to their house and I'd seen lots of resin at the wounds. She tasted the resin at my urging, but didn't seem to care for it. Mesquite resin is water soluble and melts in your mouth like a lifesaver. There is a hint of sweetness and a hint of postage stamps, for those who remember when you had to lick a postage stamp to stick it to a letter (a paper message sent IRL (in real life) by postal mail). One has to suspend both their technological and colonial imagination to fully appreciate the flavor of mesquite resin.

This gentle matind watched us pull the mesquite resin from the ends of the cut branches.
The outhouse has been moved off the Wonder Valley property and is now over at Saturn where it blocks, for the most part, a large modern-style house that marred our view. I suppose you could say that the outhouse now mars our view, but somehow an old timey outhouse is less disruptive than a modern house. With this little building gone the Wonder Valley homestead looks more like a proper desert farm, sans animals and agriculture for the time being.

The little out building in its new location. A sink and shower will be installed on the left of the building, which will drain to the depression to the left. I plan to install a small native garden there with a couple of shade trees.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Into the Pintos

The day after Thanksgiving, when we should have been battling crowds for a deeply discounted flat screen TV, or at least picketing such, we instead joined our neighbor Bob for a day trip through the Pinto Mountains in Wonder Valley. 

The photo below is looking from the road that leads to the Pintos toward Sheep Hole Pass across the valley. The horizontal whitish stripe in the middle is the old dry lake and the salt works.

It was a beautiful day, high 70s/low 80s, sunny. Bob's truck was equipped for the roads and he was a careful and experienced driver. At times I was certain we would become stuck and once we all got out to see how deep a washed out road was and to determine if the truck could make it. It did.

After visiting the abandoned iron mine on Iron Age Road, and an old abandoned gold mine after that, we drove to a wash marked with an old bullet-ridden Buick. (Find the Buick in Google maps.) We stopped and had turkey sandwiches left over from the previous day's dinner.

The wash was filled with desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi) which was courted by countless bees and butterflies - brush footed queens (see inset).

The mines were horrible. New mountains of tailings and "overburden" were created next to the pits. "Prospects," trial mines, dotted the mountains and washes. At one point in the past it seemed that anyone could go into these mountains and destroy to their heart's content in an effort to squeeze out a little ore to make a living.

The first mine above is the iron mine. That's not a canyon, it's a mine. The second is thought to be a gold mine. The green arrow points to a full grown tree at the bottom.

As remote as this road was the scars of man's presence were everywhere: broken glass, garbage, ATV tracks, abandoned garbage dumps, alongside all the damage done by mining. At the same time it was quiet and peaceful and I could imagine spending the night out there in a leave-no-trace sense.

It was a wonderful trip and I had finally ventured into the Pintos. I'd spent months watching them from our driveway and was absolutely delighted to get to broach the horizon and drive around among them.

Nettle-leaved Goose Foot

I found this weed growing in the turnout at Border and Winters Road in Joshua Tree:

There's a lot of this plant in this disturbed area and it's all heavily seeded. The seed pods are stickery. The leaves that you see in the picture above are the leaves of the datura growing beneath and around this plant. The photo below shows some of this plant's leaves, though it's the end of the season and they're withered.

Note: More research has suggested this may be epazote. December 15, 2014.


After a bit of sleuthing I believe this is Chenopodium murale, nettle-leaved goose foot, or lambs quarter. According to Plants for a Future, this plant and its seeds are edible, though moderation is cautioned as constituents include oxalic acid and saponins.

Read more:
Plants for a Future
Chenopodiaceae of California, US, different goose foots in California

Monday, November 17, 2014

Check dams and erosion control

We were fortunate enough last summer to be at Saturn Sands during an epic rain storm. The land there is flat and being greenhorns we hadn't been able to tell which way the washes and stringers ran. Now we know, of course, that they all run to the roads. 

The dirt/sand roads, after a time become rutted and washboarded and need to be graded. Grading lowers the road a bit each time so the roads are as deep as a foot below the desert floor in some places. They make perfect channels for rainwater, washing out roads and depriving the desert of the sitting/standing water that the flora and fauna need.

Swales might work here, but berms will not. Water cuts through them like a hot knife through butter. A check dam, however, paired with swales, may work.

From what I understand a check dam, made of brush in these instances, is not to stop the water, but to slow it. Slowing the water allows for infiltration and diversion. Swales, channels and pools can provide enough water for desert plants to survive and thrive.

Any water that is prevented from channeling to the road slows erosion, desertification and flooding. We'll be bringing brush from our Wonder Valley property to Saturn. It's mostly athol pine so we'll use brush that has been weathered for many years, to prevent the brush from sprouting.

Another benefit of check dams, channels and swales is that they make it difficult for off road vehicles to tear up the delicate surface of the desert.

The first place we'll do this is on the west side of the house where we've planted desert elderberry (which I'm not certain is any different than regular elderberry) and manzanita on the banks of the shallow wash that runs to our driveway. Photos to come as the work progresses.

More on erosion control:
Erosion Control Field Guide

More on desertification:
How to fight desertification and reverse climate change

Monday, November 3, 2014

Through a child's eyes

Our son would resent being called a child because he's a 19-year-old man, but he'll always be my child and I'll always love seeing the world through his eyes. I watched him walk across the parking lot of the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center in north Joshua Tree shortly after 6:00 a.m. He couldn't hide his wonder at the beauty of the sunrise. That's the old fire house in the distance.

We were there to work the monthly pancake breakfast. It was great fun - so many different people to visit with, so many different people working together. It doesn't matter here if you're a liberal or a conservative, or in my case a radical. Every person knows the value of their opinion (close to nothing) and seems to skip past all of that to the meat of a person - the humor, the compassion, the courage and creativity.

I took this picture of our son at our house in Wonder Valley looking for rocks to do landscaping. He had been averse to even traveling to the desert for a weekend. He thought it would be boring and depressing, especially without wifi, but this time the desert seemed to fire his imagination and in no time he had a list of future projects.

Later that day I ran into our neighbor, Glenda and her dog Shiloh. They just arrived last week, being smart enough to winter here and not to attempt living here year round. We are the only houses on our block, both set far back for privacy. Glenda filled me in on the local gossip and gave me tips about the wells and the roads - which were public, and which, if we took them, might get us shot at.

We stood and watched the shadows lengthen and the horizon turn to gold. More than ever I felt bit by the desert bug, perhaps because my son for the first time considered living here and moving here permanently didn't carry the possibility of breaking up our family.

On Sunday we drove back to Saturn and we sat on the north porch watching the clouds cast deep blue shadows on the mountains.. I told my son it was my favorite place to sit and I thought I could sit there forever.

He asked me if it made me lonely. I said no, it made me calm. And so he sat beside me and I hoped he might re-imagine loneliness as something inherent in the expectations of a city, and the big empty as a place of possibility.

Leaving the city for the desert is fraught with existential issues. We would be losing many privileges, and because of our age there would probably be no turning back. The losses lead the possibility, which is probably advantageous as the benefits are overwhelming and seductive.

The next book for Kip's book club is William L. Fox's The Void, Grid & Sign, Traversing the Great Basin. The description of the book resonated with my sense that our identities are half about who we are and half about where we are. To move here permanently would be a massive gamble on different possibilities of life but perhaps massive gambles are the only way that those kinds of possibilities can exist.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014

Zane Grey

"The lure of the sea is some strange magic that makes men love what they fear. The solitude of the desert is more intimate than that of the sea. Death on the shifting barren sands seems less insupportable to the imagination than death out on the boundless ocean, in the awful, windy emptiness. Man’s bones yearn for dust."
For a couple of years we boogie boarded in the ocean, at Manhattan Beach, and I loved the blue green water and the way the light played through it. The ocean felt like a mother or father who would throw you up into the air and when your feet touched the ground you'd cry, "Do it again. Do it again," all day long, until you were too exhausted to move.

I did it until my knees were too disabled to spring from the sand before the next wave smashed me down again.

Far North Joshua Tree, Summer Storm (This image is not photoshopped.)
I thought I'd lost that feeling until we moved to the desert and I realized we were living on the bottom of an ancient ocean - the panthallasic sea. The sky in the desert is so vast and overpowering, the colors so deep and shifting and ocean-like. I can easily see how Zane Grey could easily compare the two.

For any who might start at his statement, "Man’s bones yearn for dust," let me tell you what this means to me. In the ocean or in the desert I've felt such completeness that the idea of death ceases to have any meaning to me. Survival is a different issue, but death loses its hold. The beauty in the ocean or the desert holds a promise that one day you'll be pulled into its bosom and held there, to become one with it. It's not morbid. It's a bracing and loving promise.


I've heard a lot about black brush (Coleogyne ramosissima) but I'm not sure I've ever seen it, though every time I see rhatany (Krameria grayii) I think this must be it as the stems are so black and dead looking. But I've learned that this is rhatany.

The fact that there's a creosote (Larrea tridentata) growing out of the center of these verifies that I've made the right ID as rhatany is a parasite on creosote. You can see the yellow green branch of creosote growing out of the top left hand bush. I know in the spring this plant has the most beautiful purple flowers. I've seen them in the monument. The root is used in herbal medicines.

I'm embarrassed to say I may not be able to tell a true black brush from a creosote and in the spring will make a point to count the petals on the blossoms that each plants bears. The creosote has five petals while black brush has only  four.

Far North Joshua Tree Crime Report

There had been a row of five (5) local campaign signs lined up across the road from the parking lot of the community center. Sometime between late Friday night (October 24, 2014) and Sunday afternoon (October 26, 2014) a person or persons unknown went on a rampage and pulled up all the signs, flinging two of them into the road and leaving the rest lying helter skelter on the ground.

If anyone knows the whereabouts of these vandals please contact me as I would like to reward them.

Burro Bill and Me

This is the sign Kip made for his roving book club. The club will meet next Monday (Nov 3, 2014) at the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center. I can't make it but Ken got the book, Burro Bill and Me, out of the library and I'm half way through it. It's an amazing little book about this married couple who trek across the west with a string of burros just before and during the depression. So many great stories, lots of laughs, and very heart felt. If you have the chance and want a romping good read, check out Burro Bill and Me.

UPDATE: Wow! I just finished the book and I think we'll have to cancel our Monday so we can go to this book club meeting. This is the best autobiography I've read since Malcolm X.

"Nevada?" [Bill] murmured, "Why, it's just like all the West -- where no man fences his neighbors out, nor himself in. It's a land of deserts and bare hills, of skies and stars -- millions of stars -- and the moon is so bright you can see to pick up a pin. You can walk for days and never meet a soul."

I know I've mentioned this before, but what really resonates with me in the desert is the darkness. When you can look to the horizon and see no artificial lights whatsoever and the sky runs into the ground like water color, I feel safe and complete and completely at rest.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wild Geese

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

- Mary Oliver

A piece of Wild Geese was dropped in my lap by herbalist Darcey Blue of Shamana Flora. It reminded me of a quote by James Baldwin, also having to do with place and being,

"It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here."
- James Baldwin (Collected Essays)