Monday, March 31, 2014

Another clonal ring?

I've seen clonal rings with creosote and ephedra, but it looks like this is one made of big galleta grass, hilaria rigida. I can't find any anything online about this and may have hit one of those rare walls where nothing has been written on a topic. Cloning is a successful method of reproduction in the high desert so I'm not surprised to see it replicated in different species.

If this is a clonal ring this organism could be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. We don't know very much about the desert, popularly - in the realm where our decisions are made. We may be blading and scraping away our legacy and not know it.

See also:
Walking Among 2,000-Year-Old Plants in the Mojave, by Chris Clarke
Chris Clarke on the Old Growth Desert, Cynthia's High Desert Blog

I saw a bird fly backwards

It was gorgeous yesterday morning, stunning until the wind came up and shredded all the lovely clouds.

The wind was so strong it was difficult to stand still or walk, the dust kicked up on the horizon and I literally saw a bird fly backwards.

The little house finches that built a nest under our roof had difficulties reaching their chicks. If they'd flown with the wind they would have been smashed against the inside lip of the roof. Instead they dove down to about ten feet away from their nest and then flew as hard as they could away from their nest into the wind. With this method the wind slowly and safely pushed them to their nest. The were flying - backwards.


A visitor on an off road vehicle left these tracks on the off edge of our driveway. They did not see the tiny desert lupine struggling to keep a toehold here. A couple of its leaves were broken, but it is coming back. The wind storm yesterday did nothing to erase these tracks. Maybe next week I'll come out with my Chinese broom and sweep the record from the desert floor. We'll also have to think of a way to delineate the areas humans are safe to leave their mark without harming the gentle desert. In the meantime we hope this loud and little flag will serve to warn the humans that something is living here.

Larrea young and old

This is a young larrea tridentata, center. The larrrea tridentata is commonly known by the derogative term creosote, a term testifying to a lack of imagination in the American pioneer/industrialist who saw the desert first and foremost as a wasteland, and its fruits a waste product.

You can tell that this larrea is young as it has no hips, it grows straight from the desert floor. There are no other larrea nearby so it may have grown from seed, which is fairly rare as complicated circumstances must conspire to coax a seed to life before it is consumed by quail or finch.

No animals have built burrows between the safety of its roots, pushing up dirt for it to grown on. No droppings or litter feed it. No branches carve out seats in the earth for water to rest on its rare and hurried visits.

This larrea may succeed, in time.

Or it may fail and mark its time with horns left for the elements to sculpt, still too beautiful to be called creosote.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tinariwen, from the Sahara to the Mojave

The group Tinariwen, a band of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert, will be performing April 20 at Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneer Town, CA. We bought our tickets. Have you bought yours?

My favorite song starts at about 54:00 minutes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

From Los Angeles to Joshua Tree

We were looking around our backyard at some of the things that grow really well here and wondered if we could transplant some of them to the desert. It looks like our intuition was good, as it is promised that the following plants will survive, and maybe thrive, on our desert property.

Candelabra tree - Euphorbia ingens
Cuban Oregano - Plectranthus amboinicus
African Basil - Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'
Jerusalem Artichokes - Helianthus tuberosus
Prickley pear cactus - opuntia
Century Plant - Agave americana

I'm not certain about Baja Spurge - Euphorbia xanti - but it's worth a try. It could be a great vertical obstruction for off road and all terrain vehicles.

So one weekend we'll have to stay home and pot these for the move.

I'm particularly happy about African Basil as it's an attractive bee forage which also seems to have a pacifying affect on bees.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Goodbye, Second Chance Homestead

I was sad to hear of the death of Timothy Andrew Hane, the author of Second Chance Homestead, over in my "Links" section. We never met, but we corresponded. We went to the same church (at different times) and were both active in LGBTQ organizing and knew each other through projects we both worked on.

Later, when we were looking for a place in Joshua Tree I was excited to hear he lived there and read his entire blog in one sitting.

This is my favorite post of his:

So much of it resonates with me, and with why we're building a home in Joshua Tree. He writes,
Going forward I want to plant a tree. Maybe one I should have planted a long time ago.
I want it to take root in the desert soil and in the same light of the Southern California sun that formed me. And I want to be an integral part of the life sustaining process — to recover my sanity by living, breathing and working the land.
I want to begin and nurture a sustainable life, challenging the way I live, act and think about myself and the world around me.
Here's his memorial page, if you want to check in with friends, or leave your thoughts.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The windmills on the way to "Other Desert Cities."

Trying to imagine this without the power line, the fence and the windmills. Every time we drive by I wonder if this government subsidized program is really "green" energy or just a means of transferring wealth from the taxpayer to the corporation.

Larrea Tridentata - (Creosote)

Today I harvested 282 grams of larrea tridenta from bushes on our property. I selected small, dense branches from the lower and shadier side of the plants. I chose new growth without buds or flowers. My reasons for doing this are twofold.

1. Animals that browse on larrea tridentata prefer to eat the older leaves with less chemical strength. (Creosotebush resin contains over 80 percent flavonoids and nordihydroguaiaretic acid as well as waxes and other phenolic compounds.)

2. Bees forage on larrea tridentata flowers and house finches eat the seeds and I did not want to reduce their forage. 21 species of bees feed solely on larrea tridentata, and more than 120 native bees forage on the plant across its entire range. (1)

I also took less than 1% of any given plant and only harvested from thriving, dense plants that were not stressed.

The branches and leaves fit into a 2 pound ziplock bag that I left open to the air on the ride home. Once home I rinsed the branches and leaves in cold water to remove dust and debris, but not the protective oils. I was surprised to find the branches forming foam. Another quick rinse and a shake removed this. I read up and found that larrea tridentata does contain saponins, or soaps, and this is what caused the foaming.

In addition, the leaves had become very sticky to the touch since cutting and stained the ends of my fingers green.

I arranged the branches on baking racks on the patio to air dry.

I am interested in making a tea and a salve, but have been warned about kidney and liver damage with chaparral - the inaccurately named processed and powdered version of larrea tridentata. I looked through numberous documents on larrea at the National Institute of Health, and found the one below that suggests care, using low doses of the plant while avoiding the processed versions.

The safety of low-dose Larrea tridentata (DC) Coville (creosote bush or chaparral): a retrospective clinical study.

More on this amazing plant in coming posts.

I'm now making the larrea infused oil. I chopped up 75 grams of the larrea I harvested and put it in my new mini crockpot and covered it with 600 grams (about 3 cups) of high quality olive oil. I'm putting the crockpot on the warm setting (at 10:00 a.m.) and will let it sit through most of the day. This was before I added the final 100 grams of oil, so the plant matter is submerged in oil.

This is the process I'm using - DIY Herbal Salves
1. Complex responses within a desert bee guild (Hymenoptera: Apiformes) to urban habitat fragmentation.

Can I Borrow Your Guillotine

We stayed at one of the Sibley's vacation rentals last night. We stopped at the Palms in Wonder Valley to say hey to Laura and her mom Mary, to drop off a check and leave them a loaf of bread. Laura turned me onto this - a catchy, cute and local little tune.


Thursday, March 13, 2014


This is what I make.

Three ingredients: Central Milling Artists Bakers Craft (ABC) Organic flour, distilled water, sea salt. (The wild yeast starter I use is made with ABC flour and distilled water.)

The bread is fermented for about 8 hours, then retarded in the refrigerator over night to develop the natural sour dough flavor. The long processing of the dough reduces the glutin and frees minerals for use by the body - breaking down the phytic acid.

I want to make and sell this in Joshua Tree. I want to bake it in my own wood fired brick oven that I've yet to build. This is my dream.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A perfect weekend

It was a wonderful weekend, which explains why I came home to write five new posts. We started off exhausted with two events Saturday prior to driving to north Joshua Tree to meet our contractors. They never arrived so we just sat and watched a spectacular sunset.
Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe & EcoMarket which was celebrating 2nd Saturday - when shops stay open late to exhibit local artists. Ken showed me a bar of soap - crafted by Doug McKern, of La Larria. He calls it larria, rather than creosote (an unfortunate name) and the label makes crazy claims that I have no doubt could become true if everyone washed with it.

Anti herpes, pro happiness, aphrodesiac, anti viral, girl magnetic, promotes domestic tranquility, antibacterial, boy magnet..., impotency, ineptitude, warts, extremism...
I was kind of bummed to see that someone was already making this soap and salves as this was my plan. I'll just have to build on the shoulders of these giants and create something a little different. I can do it.

After that we walked over to Crossroads Cafe (where I once took a selfie with Bryan Cranston) and we split a grass fed burger and each downed a delicious hanger. Their burger rivals that of the famed Pie 'n' Burger of Pasadena.

On Sunday morning we ate at the Country Kitchen, where I always get the mini breakfast, but will one day order a Cambodian salad or bowl of noodles.

These two restaurants are so perfect that we've narrowed our choices to just these, though next week we'll be making a trek to the "Secret Restaurant" in Wonder Valley.

As we left the Country Kitchen we stopped by a vacant lot full of wildflowers.

Eureka Dunes evening primrose,
Oenothera californica ssp. eurekensis
Desert DandelionMalacothrix glabrata A. Gray

Desert Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa  and Desert Marigold, Baileya multiradiata

It was a perfect weekend and I have the aches and pains, from working at the cabin, to prove it.

Oh, and here's an insanely beautiful picture of clouds on Sunday.

Trees, trees, and more trees

Ken planted 8 trees on Sunday - two desert soapberries, two desert peaches, two jojobas and two desert willows. (Latin names here.)

Today Ken pointed me to Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, by J.Russell Smith. It's a bracing and polemical diatribe with much to recommend it. Smith favors the planting of trees over tilling the soil and he tells you why. The book is free to read online. My favorite line in the article is this:
After the man the desert.
It reminds me that Los Angeles, with its deep, verdant, and possibly temporary greenery, is also a desert. It is made NOT a desert not by careful stewardship and conservancy but by stealing from rivers, and that by the mining and burning of coal.

I was warned by friends that I would not be able to garden in the desert, that the heat and wind and lack of water would make that impossible. I think gardening in the desert requires a different mindset, learning a different way of valuing, and a different way of measuring time. We'll see.

Sea Buckthorn - Hippophae
Still on my tree list:
  • Mesquite
  • Manzanita
  • Palo Verde
  • Ironwood
  • Pistachio
  • Mullberry
  • Jujube
  • Pomegranate
  • Sea Buckthorn
  • Goji


Our plans to remodel the outside of the cabin - replace the rotting fascia and trim, and apply a white rubber roof covering - have been delayed due to a pair of house finches that have built a nest in the soffit. The contractors think they'll be finished fledging their young in two months. We'll try to relocate the nest afterwords and will try to redeem ourselves by creating more places for them to nest when we're finished.

See the little finch flying up to its nest?
In the meantime the contractors will gut the interior, rewire, reinsulate, replace the door and add a second door, replace the windows with double paned, gas filled windows, etc. That all sounds like a lot, but remember, there are only 4 windows and the total square footage is less than 400. We're hoping it will be cherried out in a month and we can start staying there instead of hotels and AirBNBs.

Take one last look at our "before" cabin.

Here's the "after," added May 10, 2014. It might not look that different but it sure smells different. There was mold on the walls in the kitchen area and we had to remove the walls to get rid of the smell.

Cleaning the desert

Deserts are associated with wastelands, and so are thought to be suitable for human endeavors that no city or countryside would tolerate - garbage dumps, test grounds for military bombing, nuclear waste facilities, and target ranges. They are not treated like the delicate and ecologically diverse ecosystems that they are.

On a micro level I'm grieved by the garbage on our property, in particular the broken glass that seems to be everywhere.

The sun shines on it here in our driveway. I had thought of trying to scoop up the sand to sift out the glass, but there are pebbles of similar size so that makes that plan unfeasible. So yesterday I spent about an hour bending over and picking up every piece by hand. 

I felt very much like I was living in Mark Tansy's painting, Robbe-Grillet Cleansing Every Object in Sight.

Though it was a stupid and thankless task I felt so relieved to look down the driveway and not see glass shining on the sand. It was like taking a gaudy rhinestone necklace off of a great beauty.

Later I was looking up "broken glass" in the "desert" and came across a link to Restoring Land to Protect Joshua Tree National Park, and discovered the happy concept of "vertical mulch."
"Our teams planted 'vertical mulch' — dead branches and tree trunks that mimic native vegetation. Vertical mulch creates microclimates, areas which trap moisture and help native desert seeds germinate while discouraging future incursions from off-road vehicles. Volunteers then raked away off-road vehicle tracks, which crisscrossed the sandy desert soil. We also removed what seemed like a dumpster load of old clay pigeons, broken glass, relic electronics, plastic, paper, and other debris from canyons and hillsides."
Here's a photograph from a Bureau of Land Managment project:

We also bought and brought to Joshua Tree three Chinese brooms to sweep the tracks of "off road" or "all terrain" vehicles which criss cross our land. 

Strategic placement of vertical mulch and one rock dams should discourage motorized travelers (though some rocks may be bigger than advised - at least as big as an axle). What's MORE needed still is a way to teach people about the delicate nature of the desert and all it has to offer, so that we all become stewards of it.

Larrea digs its own swale

Did I tell you that creosote (larrea tridentata) is amazing?

We were checking the larrea around our property on Saturday and found these strange gouges around the outside of the plant. At first we thought it was critters, but as we sat on the porch the wind kicked up and we noticed the lower branches of the larrea were whipped back and forth over the ground digging what, for all practical purposes, are swales, or water harvesting depressions. When it rains here again, water will pool here and be delivered to the surface roots of the larrea. How cool is that?!

Never cut the low hanging branches of larrea tridentata, whether living or dead.

The swales may be why the larrea with a more horizonal growth aspect, with swale-digging branches closer to the ground,  is greener and denser than the larrea with a more vertical growth aspect which is thinner and lacier. In addition, the more horizontal growth collects more detritus - old leaves and branches, animal droppings, and topsoil that the wind blows in, providing more nitrogen to the plant.

There must be a reason for the more vertical growth. Perhaps the more vertical plants thrived in wetter years and provide biodiversity for changes in climate, or served as nurse plants to the more horizontal larrea under/next to them. Whatever the reason, these are amazing, old growth desert woodlands plants that should be afforded respect and protected, and to an extent, they are.

California Desert Native Plants Act 
The California Desert Native Plants Act was passed in 1981 to protect non-listed California desert native plants from unlawful harvesting on both public and privately owned lands. Harvest, transport, sale, or possession of specific native desert plants is prohibited unless a person has a valid permit. The following plants are under the protection of the California Desert Native Plants Act:
- Creosote Rings, ten feet in diameter or greater

We have several creosote (larrea) rings on our property. You have to be careful about determining these, though, as sometimes only a portion of a ring survives, but the curve of the circle could still extrapolate to ten feet or more, making the plants on the curve hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Cutting them down would be like felling a giant redwood or sequoia.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

From Theodore Payne native nursery

Going in next Saturday or Sunday:

2 Sapindus Drummondi (soap berry tree, front with yellow tag and one next to it), 2 Encelia Farinosa (brittle bush, to the left - the substantial looking plant), 2 Chilopsis Linearis (desert willow, the two dormant "trees" to the front right in the picture), 2 Fallugia Paradoxa (Apache plume, next to the brittle bush), 2 Prunus Andersonii (desert peach, to the right behind the willows), 2 Sunnibdusua Chinensis (jojoba trees, the olive-looking leaves in the center), and 1 Vitis Girdiana (desert grape).

I gave Ken a list to choose from and he bought the entire list - yay!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The light forgives, the distances forget

Mancala, 34.464429, -116.223896
"But the light forgives, the distances forget, and this great crystal of silence, whose base is as large as Europe and whose height, for all practical purposes, is infinite, can coexist with things of a far higher order of discrepancy than canned sentiment or vicarious sport. Jet planes, for example - the stillness is so massive that it can absorb even jet planes."
Aldous Huxley, The Desert Boundlessness and emptiness
Down To Earth: Experimental Aircraft Crash Sites of the Mojave

Longing to be there

I've been away from the desert for two weeks now, blindsided by the flu. There's a storm there now and I know it must be very dramatic and I'm missing it. Being there has become such a part of my life that not being there for a length of time makes me walk differently, like there's a stone in my shoe. I become cranky.

So today I was looking for any little crumb on the Internet that might sustain me and I found this, which is perfect.

“Early Christian monks went out to live in the desert in order to find emptiness. Modern life is becoming so full that we need our own ways of going to the desert to be relieved of our plenty. Our heads are crammed with information, our lives busy with activities, our cities stuffed with automobiles, our imaginations bloated on pictures and images, our relationships heavy with advice, our jobs burdened with endless new skills, our homes cluttered with gadgets and conveniences. We honor productivity to such an extent that the unproductive person or day seems a failure. Monks are experts at doing nothing and tending the culture of that emptiness.” 
Thomas Moore, Meditations