Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Mojave - an arid forest

I'm examining the word "desert" in relation to the Mojave Desert. The word "desert" comes from the Latin desertum meaning to abandon or forsake. A common synonym for the desert is "wasteland," and the desert is often described as "barren," "desolate," "abandoned," and "lifeless," all related to the word "desert" or "deserted."

The thing is that the Mojave Desert is full of life, both flora and fauna, and it was inhabited and tended by indigenous peoples. It was far from a wasteland, barren, abandoned, or desolate. It was and is a thriving ecosystem full of life, some of which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.

The Mojave was considered deserted from the point of view of settler colonialism - newcomers who displaced and replaced indigenous peoples permanently. The Mojave Desert could not be farmed with the same ease as the river valleys of the Midwest. There was little in the Mojave that one could exploit, except perhaps by mining. Today, though, corporations are taking another look and exploiting and destroying the land for wind and solar farms, continuing to create centralized, rather than distributed, power putting riches into the hands of the privileged few. And their eyeballs are turning to dollar signs as they search for ways to get their hands on, to sell, the ancient underground aquifers. How much of this is because these oligarchs consider the Mojave "deserted," with no one to object to their sacking and pillaging?

Read about the man who wants to make millions selling the aquifer to Los Angeles:
Can Water Under the Mojave Desert Help Quench California?

Looking at Joshua Tree, Twenty-nine Palms and Wonder Valley through the lens of Google Earth, and from driving around the area, I am struck by how people use the desert as a private dump. There is trash everywhere. How much of this is because people consider the Mojave Desert a deserted "wasteland"?

Newcomers blade and fence tracts of five acres and more, dislodging sand and topsoil that the wind strips from the land and redeposits for miles and miles, choking the desert crust and the delicate life forms trying to keep their toehold. How much of this is because people associate the word "lifeless" with the word "desert"?

Another problematic term is "creosote bush" - the common name for Larrea Tridentata. Creosote does not come from creosote bushes. Creosote is the toxic byproduct of the distillation of tar. Someone thought the the two smelled similar and so christened the Larrea "creosote" and the name stuck.

We are quick to revere the giant redwoods and sequoia and the old growth forests but because of the way we've named and described the Mojave we've failed to recognize its similar grandeur. Larrea are some of the oldest life on Earth and one Larrea in the Mojave has been calculated at around 12,000 years old, far older that the oldest redwoods or sequoias or even the bristle cone pines.

See also: How to Appreciate Old-Growth Desert, by Chris Clarke

This year we planted eight trees: two jojobas, two desert peach, two desert willow, one soapberry tree and one mystery tree. None of these will grow very tall and most will retain the aspect of a bush, very similar to the size and shape of the Larrea. Yet they are called trees.

I suggest we stop calling the Larrea a creasote bush and call it what is - a Larrea tree. The land would then no longer be best described as a desert, but as an arid forest. We must jettison the words "wasteland," "lifeless," "abandoned," "desolate," and most of all, "desert" or "deserted." Re-imagining the Mojave as an arid forest would have a profound and direct impact on the land, the flora and fauna, and the people who live here and those who enjoy coming here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fancy shmancy

Another slightly overwhelming weekend, probably best to recount chronologically.

I'll start with the rest stop before the turn off to "Other Desert Cities" at the base of Mount San Jacinto (10,834 feet and the 2nd highest range in SoCal). Snow clouds were feathering their way over the top, snagging on the rocks and evaporating as they were touched by the sun.

Random Saturday Cloudscape
Please understand that I have spent the last 14 years living in a canyon, deprived of sunrises and sunsets, and more than that, I live in Los Angeles, where one rarely sees clouds. I love clouds. I am besotted with clouds. I cannot stop taking photographs of them. Please indulge me (or change your settings to omit anything with the word "cloud" in it).

After we arrived at the cabin and settled in we drove over to the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center for the monthly potluck. It was a very cheery affair, well attended with lots of fab food. Here's Ken putting out the bread we brought.

We chatted with neighbors Gloria and Kip, learned about cargo containers, and met new friends. My 3-bean salad was awful - I forgot to taste it and adjust the seasoning. The bread was good, though.

We said goodbye to our friends at CMMCC and drove to Wonder Valley to see the Sibleys at the Palms. Laura Sibley made a lovely ziti dinner ($5) but since I've sworn off 2nd dinners for the time being I passed and nursed a drink at the bar and listened to the opening act.

Ken asked James Sibley (bartender and drummer/singer/songwriter) when the Sibleys would be playing. James said, "When they're done," nodding toward the stage. Time. Time is different in the arid forest.

The Sibleys played a short set. Such fun songs - Can I Borrow Your Guillotine? is my favorite. Afterwards I ran into Annelies Kuiper, a local writer and volunteer at the CMMCC, and her friends and had a wonderful chat. We were home in bed by 9:00 p.m. and I was grateful that the music wasn't late and that many people here schedule their day on the rising and the setting of the sun.

On Sunday we chilled. Here's the sunrise. This is why I wake up at 4:30 a.m. - so I can see this from the first moment the sky starts to lighten.

I wish I were a better writer. The beauty of the arid forest leaves me speechless, able barely to choke out the words, "Here's another sunrise." Being a better reader than writer my lack of eloquence brings to mind this passage from Madame Bovary, by Flaubert,

"No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, his conceptions, or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.”

Here's Ken (and words fail me again) sitting in the shade of the north porch. You can see how we installed a second door, and see the very effectual breezeway we've created (feng shui be damned). i LOVE being able to see through the house - it's like we live outdoors and just duck in once in awhile to get a drink or take a nap. After last week's snake incident I did shop for security doors and I guess we will have to install them. =(

We went out for breakfast, to the Country Kitchen. Then we did a Home Depot run and stopped at the swap meet in Yucca Valley at the old Sky Village drive in theater. I snapped this gorgeous ocotillo from above. Always something to see at the swap meet.

On the way home we passed this sign at Winters and Sunever, "Road Not Maintained." I felt a pang of envy, Fancy shmancy, THEY have a "Road Not Maintained" sign. OUR neighborhood is so out there that we don't have upscale accessories like "Road Not Maintained" signs. We just have to figure out on our own that our roads are not maintained - usually by the creosote growing in the middle of the street or the pile of tires in the intersections. Maybe someday we'll join the elite of Joshua Tree and get a sign.

Time is distorted in the arid forest, and this bonsai-ed white bursage I found on Sunday epitomizes the distortion. This twisted stem, nurse to the Larrea on the left, has nearly died countless times and yet it successfully sprouts enough green this spring to keep its toehold on life.

The wind was wild this week. We missed it but I could see the signs everywhere - the saddest being that the nest of baby house finches was blown down and the babies eaten. Nature is a bitch when see from culture. I miss the house finch family that would sit on the wires and sing to us, even if it WAS a song to please leave the land to animals.

Here's Ken as we left the property, standing between the two split rail fences he built to delineate the drive way and keep  ORVs and ATVs off the desert floor. Damn, I love that split rail fence. It makes it look like we really live ther, but it doesn't interfere with the passing through of any wild creatures.

Have a great week everyone.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Best weekend EVER!

Last weekend at our cabin in Far North Joshua Tree was the best weekend EVER.

On Saturday night we had our first barbecue, cooking steaks outside on the hibachi. Delicious. It was great to not go out, to stay in the cabin and cook. Our neighbor Michael dropped by to say hello.

Sunday morning we drove to the Palms in Wonder Valley and had breakfast and chatted with Mary and her daughter Laura, of the Sibleys. Love us some Sibleys.

Later on Sunday we saw Tenariwen from Mali at Pappy and Harriett's in Pioneer Town. The four miles to get there was incredible - with some of the most wonderful rock formations I've ever seen. (Sorry for all the hyperbole.)

While there I saw a meteor, from the Lyrid shower. It looks like a plane on fire speeding through the night sky - all orange. I thought a meteor shower, never having seen one before, was the same thing as shooting stars and NOT meteors burning up in OUR atmosphere!

While cooking breakfast outside (bacon and pancakes) the next morning our neighbor Kip came by in his vintage sports car, just to check out the cabin and shoot the shit. After breakfast our neighbor Jack came over bringing sodas and energy bars. I like Jack and I like neighbors that drop by.

While Jack and my husband Ken and I were outside talking I noticed a big shadow move over us. I looked up and saw a big black bird with white under its wings flying over. I said, "What kind of bird is that?" thinking it might just be a really big raven. Jack said it was a hawk. I said, "I've never seen a hawk like that." I'm thinking it may have been some kind of vulture.

After Jack left I finished making cages for our tender-leaved trees. We were warned critters would turn to them and denude them as the weather warms. After that I took a nap. I left both the doors open. Ken was out front putting in a split rail fence. After awhile I decided to get up and opened my eyes. There was a big brown snake wound up a the door, its head up, starting to come in. I jumped up, ran to the back door and yelled for Ken. I took a second look and realized the snake was too thin and too long to be a rattlesnake, though the markings were similar. It's head was too tiny and it had no rattle. The day before I'd seen snake tracks in the wash and in the driveway and looked up king and gopher snakes so was prepared to tell the difference. I took this video as it moved across our south porch. It spent some time under some tiles in the yard and then moved on to the larrea trees.

While we were packing up to leave I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, looked out the window and saw this huge prop plane banking around our cabin. Ken and I ran outside to watch it circle us, almost on one wing, low to the ground, tip back up and fly off toward the base. Ken is certain it was an KC-130 gunship. It had four propellers and was so big and close, more so than in this video that I shot.

You can't really tell how HUGE this plane is from the video and how strange it was to see this flying almost perpendicular to the ground and as low as it was. Check the picture below for size.

After the air show we packed up to leave, stopping to visit friends on the way out of town. They had sand food (pholisma sonorae) growing on their property and I really wanted to see it. Our friend was kind enough to place his hand in the photo for scale. Sand food is a parasite, growing on the roots of white bursage. It doesn't seem to harm the bursage in any way.

Sand food is so other worldly. I expected them to split open and emit a colorful cloud of gas that would alter us in some way. They're really beautiful, a deep purple, and bees love them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Community Pancake Breakfast

We drove over the Joshua Tree last Friday night - our third night in our cabin - so that we could get up early and go to the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center pancake breakfast. It was a lot of fun and we met a lot of new people and got to know others better.

The work on the interior of our cabin is mostly complete. 400 square feet with 5 windows, 2 doors and pristine antique white walls. Boring, yes, but considering the shape it was in before, this is beautiful. It's a blank palette.

Next week they'll seal the concrete floor and install the overhead light and then we can move in, instead of schlepping our things back and forth each week. Even with the schlepping it's a vast improvement over the hotels we'd been staying in.

Ken discovered that if you stand between and back from these two windows you can see two mountains - San Gorgonio out the left window and San Jacinto out the right. At night, from anywhere in the cabin, you can see the stars.

The first thing I wanted in this cabin was a second door and I asked for it across from the original door, making the cabin itself a breezeway between the front and back porches. With both doors open the breeze whips through the cabin and seeing through it is a delight for me, though my friends into feng shui have offered me stern yet vague warnings.

I found this explanation online,
Also Chi moves too fast where you can see through the house from the front door to the back door. Fast moving Chi from the front to the back of the house is often associated with losing wealth (money coming in but going straight out again).
Maybe there's something to feng shui, but once all the construction is done I expect the money will slow down.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The dark side of our desert

I was reading up on the Marine Base at 29 Palms, the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command (MCAGCC), and read that there have been more deaths ON the base than in the same period for those actually deployed. Sixty service members from 29 Palms have died in the Middle East since 2007. Sixty-four have died here.Twenty-eight died in off-duty vehicle accidents (12 on Highway 62), and 15 have committed suicide.

I have a lot of respect for Marines and other service people. It's hard to think of them living under the kind of stress and duress that would make them take these kinds of risks, and take their own life. What are we doing to (and for) our sons and daughters?

Part 1: Desert base, deadly highway
Since 2007, more marines from the twentynine palms marine base have died back home than in the war-torn middle east

Part 2: Ending it all by their own hand
Corps probes marine suicides, hoping to halt a 'trajectory toward death'

Part 3: Battling the shock of war
As troops return from war, twentynine palms base sees new wave of post-traumatic stress disorder patients, spurring efforts for better treatment