Friday, February 21, 2014

Into desert trees

I was looking up the jujube tree today to see how it fares in the desert and found this lovely etching attached to this book, The Desert World, from 1869.


The three trees are, from left clockwise, jujube, tamarisk, and pistachio. (Embiggen.)

Yesterday I received a small soapberry tree (Sapindus drummondii) that I'd ordered from Forest Farm Plant Nursery. We bought the last one in stock.

Additional information on site:
Plant Uses: Basket-Making; Western Native; Butterfly Plants; Xeriscape Plants;
Plant Hardiness: Zone 6 (-10 to 0 F)A little more about Sapindus drummondii - Soaptree
"Soapberry makes a desirable shade tree [to a 50' rounded crown] & could be more extensively planted for ornament" (Vines); its fruits have been used for soap, jewelry, buttons, & medicine & its twigs for baskets. Sun/Med/GdDrain
 We have two soap NUT trees (sapindus mukorossi ) that we bought from Winnetka Farms, but these won't survive the desert frosts and will have to remain in Los Angeles.

What I love in particular about the soapberry tree, apart from the drought tolerance, is the gorgeous and translucent bright orange soap berries.


It's not that I believe switching to soap berries will save the world, but that this is a native tree that will add diversity to the life and beauty to our property. It will attract birds and birds bring seeds and seeds bring plants. My hope is that the desert can support our scrubby trees long after we're gone. It's so sad driving by the properties where the owners, in giddy optimism, planted Washington palms, fruit trees and other trees that could not and did not survive without regular watering.

If you want to see the direction in which my optimism wends, check this video.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Finding Ephedra

Our cabin is not ready to sleep in yet, so last weekend we stayed at a vacation rental about a mile from our cabin. I'd been looking for ephedra, which I was told grew everywhere in Joshua Tree. I'd never seen it except in photographs and I'd not seen anything that looked like it on our property.

When I stepped out of the car at the vacation property, however, I stumbled straight into a tangled bush that looked to me how I'd heard ephedra described, but not what I'd expected.




I found the same plants in the wash, only bigger and more developed, one with a tiny cone on it. Ken pointed out that one of the plants was growing in a circle and I remembered that I'd read ephedra grows in clonal rings, like creosote.


You can see the ring here, but you can also see it in the photo below. It's a brilliant reproductive strategy for plants growing in such a harsh environment.

I took a picture and sent it to my friend Nance Klehm, an extraordinary herbalist and wildcrafter. She confirmed that it was ephedra. I knew, though, that there must be another kind that was more familiar to everyone and as we drove out of town I saw what I suspected was a different kind of ephedra in a vacant lot. Ken stopped. I jumped out, took a picture and a cutting and jumped back into the car.


Nance later confirmed that both plants were ephedra.

The first ephedra I'd seen, the tangled desert bush, is Ephedra torreyana. It's February right now and the plant hasn't greened or flowered yet. It appears mostly white, or bluish-grey, segmented, kind of like horsetail, but with "cones" growing at the nodules. It's more closely related to pines, junipers, and spruces, and according to Cynthia Anderson it does grow in clonal rings. I can't wait to see how it develops over the coming weeks and what it looks like when it blooms.

The second kind I found was bright green, Ephedra viridis.

Both kinds do indeed grow in many places in the Morongo Valley, just not on our property. When we returned to our cabin I felt a little disheartened by the lack of biological diversity. We have mostly creosote and white bursage, a few beavertails, pencil and teddy bear chollas, and another plant I haven't identified yet. BUT, we also have desert lupines and apricot mallow which I have not seen on other properties so my hope is that in time we'll be able to diversify the flora and fauna.

I do have to say I'm coming to love the creosote bush. It grows in two aspects on our property. The first is tall, upright, sparse and lacy. The second is denser, shorter, practically horizontal. The two grow next to each other. They are so different I wasn't sure it was the same plant.

From a government publication,
Shrubs with shallower stem angles take on a more hemispherical shape as opposed to an inverted cone shape. Shrub canopy architecture also affects soil characteristics creating "islands of fertility." Shrubs with hemispherical shapes collect much more litter underneath, hence soil nitrogen is greater under hemispherical shrubs than under inverted cone shaped shrubs (Whitford 2002).

So it seems it's one plant. Our neighbor hates them and startled me when he talked of pulling them out. They are "old growth" desert, just as the redwoods are "old growth" forest. I found a creosote ring on our property about 20 feet across. It could be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. There's a clonal ring not far from Joshua tree, King Clone, that's 45 feet across and judged to be more than 11,000 years old - perhaps the oldest plant on earth.

I think one way to garner appreciation for the plant is to change its common name. I prefer "gobernadora," Spanish for governess, or nurse plant, and hediondilla, which rolls off the tongue a little easier though the meaning is "little stinker."

I'm going to make a salve, which might also be a way to raise the appreciation. In the meantime, maybe I can satisfy my neighbor by showing him that they can be shaped like a Phoenix beer keg:



Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Nurseries to Try Out

We want to plant trees while it's still cool - mesquite, willow, palo verde, smoke. I also want to plant ironwood but heard they don't grow in elevations over 2000 feet and we're at 2650. I love the bright green of the palo verde, hate the thorns - got two stuck in my foot this weekend - but hear they bear tasty pods of edible beans.

Mesquite Tree, Desert Willow, Palo Verde and Smoke Tree

Unique Landscape & Cactus Nursery
56637 29 Palms Highway Yucca Valley, CA 92284

Morning's Nursery
73474 Homestead Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

The Naming

We finally came up with a name for our north Joshua Tree homestead - Saturn Sands. It's two "blocks" from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC), and as we sit in the shade on the north side of the cabin we can hear what sounds like distant thunder - the Marines bombing in the desert far to the north. I've traveled over this area on Google Earth and seen bomb craters, an aerial target (34.403935, -116.377358), a tire dump (34.352757, -116.277209), a small city I've nicknamed "Little Baghdad" (34.407706, -116.273074), tent cities, canons, and troops on maneuvers. It's ironic as we moved out here for the peace and quiet.

Still, it's pretty darn quiet. Because our cabin isn't finished inside we stayed last weekend at a vacation rental in Wonder Valley. It was nice, but sandwiched between two highways - Amboy Road and Highway 62. A single car speeding through the night, a couple of miles away, sliced through the silence like a chainsaw. It made me appreciate the miles of bone-shaking dirt roads we travel to our cabin, roads that put us out of earshot of highway travel.

We walked over to an abandoned, adjacent property and poked around. A neighbor, Gloria, ambled over and introduced herself. She wore a multi-colored hat, faded by the sun. She's lived here for a year and told us about relocating a tarantula that had taken up residence in her home. 

On the way to the cabin on Saturday we stopped at the Farmer's Market and a local thrift store where we bought two comfy side chairs for $20 each. We've decided to start moving in, even though the inside isn't finished yet. We want to be here now. I'll set up a "kitchen" outside by the water spigot. Ken can set up the hibachi nearby.



We've already started planting - 2 desert brooms, a salt bush, a caliandra (fairy duster) and 4 apricot mallows. It seems the bunnies have gotten to the mallows, but missed the mature one in the wash. I gathered some wild datura seeds along the old Red Car Line in LA, soaked them in paper towels and planted them within the giant paisley-shaped driveway that surrounds our cabin. The seeds were starting to sprout so I'm very much looking forward to seeing them grow. The 2-1/2 acres our cabin sits on bears signs of being disturbed by humans and is peppered with garbage. It will be a big job to pick everything up. It will be a bigger job to diversify the plant life but it is something we very much want to do.

As far as wildlife, we've seen only crows, pigeons, house finches and kestrals. It's early February. I can't wait to see spiders and scorpions and snakes and lizards and rabbits and tortoises. All in due time.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Do We Really Need?

Our little cabin, of 400 square feet, has been pared down to the bare walls and floors. It's liberating, walking into this space, walking around in this space, and considering how we want to use it.

We've decided not to have a bathroom. We'll use a composting toilet* in an outdoor privy, or bath house. We want to save water and make soil, and it seems so civilized not to be shitting inside your house.

As for a kitchen, even though I bake I don't want heat-producing appliances in the house. A hot plate and hot pot might be enough to take care of our most basic needs - coffee, and an occasional can of chili. I'd like to build a wood-fired brick or cob oven outside, and Ken wants to build a smoker. I'd also like to try my hand at a rocket stove and a solar oven, and maybe just eating differently.

So do we really need a fridge? We need to keep the cream for our coffee cold, and maybe a few beers and sodas, but an ice chest will do for now. A small mini fridge will probably suffice in the long run.

Do we need a kitchen at all? Our realtor advised us to slap in an IKEA kitchen but I'm balking at the four-figure price of such a purchase and wonder if a couple of utility tables might not do just as well. We've been brainwashed into thinking that the heart of the home is a fully applianced, humming, built-in kitchen with granite countertops and down lights under the cabinets. I know at some point I'll want cabinets that close, to keep the dust off dishes and food, but I'll probably need fewer than I expect and will have plenty of time to shop for salvage.

We'll put a little wash stand on the front porch with a mirror, and move it to the back porch when the summer heats up. A table, a basin, a mirror, a towel, soap. Why did we think that belonged next to the place where we euphemize (the English and San Franciscans got that right with a separate WC or "water closet") and why did we think that running water while we straighten the parts in our hair was an improvement on a pitcher and a basin? My grand dad used to set a mirror in his roll top desk and shave there each morning. I imagine because the light was good.

What I do want is a bed and the bed will dominate the space. I'm considering a captain's bed with large drawers in which we can keep our clothes and belongings. A large comfortable bed, a fitting luxury that redefines the purpose of the house - shelter for sleeping, resting and relationship. Here is where we'll read when it's dark, with money- and electricity-saving LED lights, which put out very little heat.

There will be a table/desk and some chairs, I'm hoping little else. In all but the hottest times I want to live outside or in community - at the pool, the library, the market, visiting neighbors, sitting in the shade making plans, reading and writing books and pondering a world in which we pull back our hand from nature and live lightly.

I feel blessed to have this empty shell of a house before us and the chance to consider what things we truly need, to have the chance to carefully measure the water and power that we use and the strain we put on the planet and our society. How many times in your life do you get a chance like this?

* Emergency Zone - Honey Bucket Portable Toilet Seat Cover, Fits Standard 5 Gallon Pails

Monday, February 3, 2014

Buyer's Collapse

Desert lupine, growing in a stringer.
I can barely move today. Four cups of coffee, have yet to return me to the world of the living. Still, I have enough presence of mind to affirm that I am not sidelined with buyer's remorse, it would be more accurately described as buyer's collapse. The little cabin we we bought in north Joshua Tree closed last week.

We drove out to see our cabin this weekend, empty for the first time. We drove up the rutted dirt roads to our address on Saturn Street, or Brant's Crossroads, or Brant Crossing (not to be confused with Bryant's Crossing), or Labrum Crossing. Every street here has at least two names - ours has four that I know of. GPS doesn't really work out here. It's best to get directions from a local, especially if you don't have 4-wheel drive, or you don't want to get stuck in the sand. If it looks like you might not make it on a road, turn around if you can, or back up to the last intersection.

The first time we drove out here to look at cabins for sale I took a 2.5 gallon box of water, blankets, and a big piece of lime green sequined cloth for flagging down the rescue team that might be sent for us after we were discovered missing. After a few months driving around in the outback of Joshua Tree/Twenty-nine Palms/Wonder Valley I feel I know the place, and its landmarks well enough to dispense with the blankets, though it's always a good idea to keep water on hand and you never know when lime green sequined cloth will come in handy.

Our handyman and his wife met us at the cabin. He'd hauled seven loads of trash to the dump. The ground around the cabin still glitters with shards of broken glass, nails, desiccated and sun-rotted plastic chips, screws, pieces of metal, broken razors, and all kinds of tiny detritus that will need to be sifted from the sand, but the big stuff is gone. A disagreeable odor lingered and though Ken was wary about me removing two broken windows to send to town for repair, leaving the cabin secured with only nylon screens, a solid night of frigid desert air whipping through the open windows succeeded in exorcising the malodorous ghosts.


There wasn't much we could do that first day. We made it back to town just in time to snag the last available hotel room and we were sound asleep by 3:00 in the afternoon. It had been a rough week for both us. The purchase of property and the life-changing nature of that purchase took a psychic toll.

We're not wheeler dealers or flippers. It was a big damn deal when we bought our house in LA in 2000. Neither of us had imagined ever owning a house, and it's because we've done the math and realize we won't be able to afford to live in LA after we retire that we started casting about for more affordable alternatives. So though this is technically our "vacation home," it is also our escape plan. We want to live here permanently within the next five years.

Waking from our nap about 7:00 p.m. we decided to go to the movies. "Lone Survivor" was playing at the Smith's Ranch Drive-in in Twenty-nine Palms. We left about 8:30 p.m. The night was especially dark and clear, which was great for the star party we'd originally planned to attend but foregone because of the cold and the crowds. We drove in and parked our car and made our way to the snack bar. Where else can two people go to a movie AND get snacks, all for less than $20? This time we got two hot dogs, a medium popcorn, a medium lemonade and junior mints for $11.80 so, with the $10 already paid for tickets, that did push us slightly over our $20 budget.

There were points in the movie that I couldn't watch - the gaping injuries, seeping avulsions  and gushing bullet wounds, and when my justifying exclamations of "What are we doing in Afghanistan anyway?" failed to relieve my tension I leaned my head back and looked out the window.

Stars. Thousands of stars. Stars so bright that I could tell their colors - yellow, blue, orange, red. And they taunted me saying, "You've been here  forever and you'll be here forever. You have nothing to worry about."

And that's why I need to live here. I need to live somewhere where I am as insignificant and eternal as a piece of sand, where I can stand in the center of a creosote ring and know that my birth and death can be marked within it. Somehow I find that peace-inducing. I am contained here, a stereotropic creature sandwiched in time folded over on itself - between an ancient ocean floor below and a tangible firmament above.


We returned to the property on Sunday after a worker's breakfast at the Country Kitchen. We planted two desert brooms, a salt bush, a caliandra and four apricot mallows, carefully following the instructions given us at Theodore Payne. The sun beat on us and blinded us and the cold wind whipped us. My fingers were chilled and felt small and useless.

There's a lot of work to do, but how can we mind? We're submerged in beauty. The azures of the sky, the shifting clouds and light, surrounding us - it is like living on the bottom of the ocean.

We'll need bigger and better sunglasses and hats out here. It's a little like living on Mars, which coincidentally is one street over. Either Mars, or Hoover, or Papoose Trail - take your pick.