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.

It''s that time of year again

It hasn't been 120, that I know of, but our neighbor said it was 117 at his place last week. It been over 110 for some time and the humidity has made the heat deadly. It's the unrelenting nature of the heat that gets to me. It's between six and eight weeks around July through September. August is the worst.

We have air conditioning in one large room but I still feel imprisoned. The curtains are drawn because even with double pane E3 windows, the sun beats through. I tire of the ceaseless hum of the AC and the fans, my dry eyes and mouth, the dehydration headaches, drinking liter after liter of water.

Monday was nice in the morning. It wasn't cool, but it wasn't hot yet either and there was a breeze. It made me sense that fall was right around the corner and I immediately started inventorying the tasks I'd work on when the weather broke.

This is the tail end of yesterday's sunrise. It was all florid oranges and reds a few minutes before but I preferred this in its silvery blues.

So, anyway, my posting may be a little spotty for awhile until the heat subsides. I do the best I can but sometimes it's just too hot to do much.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

More about washes

Mammatus clouds forming over the Mojave Desert
We've lived in the Mojave Desert going on two years now and have spent the time observing the natural processes around us. This involved a lot of sitting on the porch, and often beer. Now that we've been through two large rain events, here's what we've pieced together regarding washes.

Washes run to the roads.
All washes run to the roads. Most roads have been overgraded and so are lower than the roads. The only place I've seen roads at the same level as the desert is far out in Wonder Valley. Because of this the roads become flood channels. Instead of staying on the desert, water is diverted to flood channels and, I guess, eventually the ocean.

The water coursing in the middle is our driveway and the water is congregating there and running to the street.
Washes go wherever the hell they want to go.
You can doctor your washes: adding swales, one-rock dams, gabions, zuni ponds, whatever, but when that heavy rain comes, it's going to laugh at you. A flash flood may take a previous route, or cut a brand new route. It will wreak havoc with your permaculture designs.

Water pooling before it begins traveling in a wash.
To divert water away from this porch you might put a berm where the split rail fence is.
Rain and washes mound the plants.
As water cuts through the desert it cuts away the sand around plants, leaving the root ball and the sand it holds. Over time, more sand blows up against this and the plant looks like it grows on a mound.

Mounding has many causes: erosion from water and wind, sand drifting around plants, and displacement of earth under the plant from animals digging shelters.

The plant in the middle of the picture has had the sand washed away around its roots.
When this wash begins to flatten out, due to more wind and rain, the plant will remain on a mound.
Washes can be diverted, to a degree.
Rocks and berms will divert flooding to a degree, but it may be just the degree you need. Determine which direction the water comes to your cabin and gently angle the water away with a row of the biggest rocks you can find. Or you can rent a backhoe and build the biggest berm you can across from your cabin. This will not last forever as water laughs at sand.

We cut a swale to the left of this wash. The last storm filled it with sand, making it disappear entirely.
Washes are called washes because they wash stuff away. This seems obvious, right? I see plants on the sides of washes and plants IN washes. You can plant in washes but you might lose your plants. We did not lose the plants we planted in the washes, but they were hanging on for dear life and most lost their cages which is an easy fix. We'll see if they do any better for the placement.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An interview with Suzanne "Mumsie" Buckley

I haven't posted lately because I've been working on an interview for The Raven, a new quarterly being launched in Joshua Tree on a date yet to be decided.

Suzanne "Mumsie" Buckley, 81, was the subject of my interview. I spent the morning with her a couple of weeks ago at her house in Joshua Tree, and we had a wonderful time.

Suzanne "Mumsie" Buckley and her hippie van
What I didn't write about was how much the two of us had in common. We were both born in Idaho. I was born in Moscow, where she worked for the University of Idaho. She was born in Burley, in Southern Idaho. That's just 20 miles north of Oakley, where my family first landed in Idaho.

Both our families started out with the LDS church - the Mormons. Suzanne's family was from Denmark. Mine was from Sweden.

Suzanne and I both lived and worked in Ketchum, Idaho.

I worked at the Traveleze Trailer Factory my first summer out of high school, and Suzanne has a Traveleze Trailer on her property. (Now it's starting to sound like that embarrassing scene in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.")

And last but not least, we both have an abiding love and respect for the creosote tree.

Look for my interview of Suzanne in the inaugural issue of  The Raven, and if you'd like to throw a little cash their way to help The Raven get off the ground, you can do so at GoFundMe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Our house is built on sand

Flood damage in far North Joshua Tree. See the rocks on the surface of the sand.
My neighbor calls them desert mushrooms.
These are the first tire tracks across brand new virgin desert. That was a driveway.

A heavy storm laid waste to far north Joshua Tree last Wednesday dumping rain and hail for most of the day. Wind ripped roofs off carports. A neighbor told me flash floods lasted for two hours - it was the worst he had seen in 15 years. Tons of sand were pushed onto the road, making passage nearly impossible. Scores of  residents were stuck and needed to be towed out - mostly by other dear neighbors with trucks and chains. It's the desert way. Dogs were lost and dogs were found, fences having been ripped up and undermined.

Tons of new sand were deposited on our driveway. Our street is a literal sandbox. One end is impassable, a flash flood carved into the roadbed and replaced it with 8-12" of sand. We speed and fishtail through sand as deep as eight inches in our little rice burner. White knuckle driving and the smiles of the gods have prevented us from being stuck so far. We did pick up at least one nail in the sand and survived a blowout on the freeway. We made it to the shoulder and waited for AAA as cars sped past us at 80 mph rocking our car in their wakes.

The power of the storm is mind blowing. The landscape on our property is completely different. I'm not sure where to begin. The plants and trees are all still there but the water berms are all gone. Some cages are missing. Some washes are gone. New, deeper washes have appeared. My swales are gone - all filled up. I'm glad I didn't put too much effort into that.

A turbulent flash flood carved deep pools into the wash at my neighbor's house. This wash used to be flat.
All the trash that marred our portion of the desert is blown away, so now I'm glad I didn't pick it up. It's been replaced with new trash from other areas of the desert. What do they say? "A change is as good as a rest?"

I love living in a place where nature laughs at you.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Breakfast at the Palms

Most every Sunday we go to the Palms in Wonder Valley for breakfast. It is the high point of my week, and for others as well. Some people fondly call it church and there is gospel/honky tonk singing, too with our beloved piano player Sister/Miss Ida Lane and her Noir Gospel Heathenettes.

Every week I get to see people that I've come to love and meet wonderful new people. The circle just keeps expanding.

From left to right: my better half, Ken (legs akimbo) is sitting with the local artist Jill Reinig. Behind Ken is Steak House and Tania Hamidi (whom I just met) talking with Chris Carraher and Beth Shefield at the table. Along the table on the right are educator Roberta Meyer from Joshua Tree and writer/healer Annalies Kuiper from the Copper Mountain Mesa. Jerry sits next to her and Sister Ida's better half (or evil twin, depending) Stewart. Kip Fjeld, in white shirt, is waiting tables. Sister Ida is at the piano with Bob Tellefson (the most interesting man in Wonder Valley), and many others are hanging out in the bar.

This is such a friendly group. People more from table to table and room to room and out onto the patio. Strangers are welcomed.

It may be that many of us spend a large part of the week in solitude, so when Sunday rolls around we're ready to be social.

This is the view on the long drive home after breakfast. Of course, the view is different every week, but it's always spectacular and the feeling is always a blend of deja vu and nostalgia, as if I've always been here and always will be here.

If this calls to you, join us at the Palms on Sundays. Breakfast starts at 9 a.m. and the last stragglers leave sometime between 1 and 2 p,m. A basic breakfast is $3.50 and a well bloody Mary is $1.50. They take credit cards.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cabin in the sky

Our friend Benjamin Gould took this picture of our cabin with a camera that cost more than my car! I'm not given to spending a lot on cars, so it's probably not that shocking of an amount.

I love this, though: how the creosote in the foreground looks like giant trees; the shooting star in the left of the frame; the Milky Way; and especially how the cabin looks like a charm on a charm bracelet. You can see Joshua Tree National Park in the left of the frame, about 30 minutes away.

Photo journal

These are photographs taken over the last two weeks.

Jimmy Marquez Fisher
Ken and I stopped on the frontage road to the 110 freeway near Cabazon to look for the memorial for Jimmy Marquez Fisher. I saw him lying on the highway the night he was struck twice and killed. See Friday Night Lights. Ken is sending me some of the other photos we took as my camera was acting up. The notes attached to the makeshift cross are from his sister.

This is the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center in North Joshua Tree. Copper Mountain Mesa is actually its own county service area, CSA, and Mary Helen Tuttle is the MAC (Morongo Basin Municipal Advisory Council) representative. She is also the angel of the CMMCC.

After serving breakfast at the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center's First Saturday breakfast we drove to our house in Wonder Valley. This is one of the roads we take. People ask me why we bought a house out here. This is one of the reasons. It's even more remote. Once you get bit by the "remoteness" bug you just want more.

This is another reason we love Wonder Valley: the Palms Restaurant, Mary Sibley (zipping by in a blur) and Laura and James Sibley who make up The Sibleys, the bar band. Great bar. Great people. Great food. Great prices. Great live music. You get the picture.

This is looking at the north of Amboy neighborhood from Highway 62. It's nestled at the base of the Bullion Mountains. There's a sun shower on the left. I hadn't noticed this when I took the picture but I think those are two funnel clouds forming to the right of the shower. A tornado touched down that day and destroyed some fencing and tore up some roofs, though there were no reports of injuries.

Best bathroom in Joshua Tree

I've seen this work at the swap meet in Yucca Valley. Stunning. The artists uses dishes: bowls, plates, and cups, which makes the work three-dimensional.

We were having a slice at Pie for the People in Joshua Tree and I snapped this in the bathroom off the patio that all the businesses there share. One of the best public restrooms ever!

Mojave Night

We pulled the rollaways onto the porch around 11:00 p.m. It was hot, over 100 degrees yet, and humid, but worse than that, it was still. The clouds above were thick and heavy and promised rain, but broke their promise with an obstinate shrug.

 A full moon failed to punch through the clouds, but its light shown as if behind a thick curtain and the sky looked bruised and the light looked soiled. We tried to sleep.

At 1:00 a.m. I woke to the sound of all-terrain vehicles tearing up the dirt roads near us. They stopped at the corner. About ten minutes later a truck drove up the dirt road and stopped at the same corner. I’d heard the truck from two miles away, from where the pavement ends and the dirt road begins and the washboard rattles up through your bones and you think to part your teeth in your mouth because it feels like if you don’t your teeth might break. From two miles away I could hear the tools, or the metal scrap, or both, clanging around inside the truck bed.

A car travels down a dirt road on a clear night, with a long exposure. By Ben Gould.
Sound carries at night in the desert. I’ve listened hard to conversations a quarter mile away and heard snippets of things I should not have been privy to. I know more about coyotes than I’m sure they want me to know.

Why people drive out to that particular corner so close to a great nothing, I have no idea. It only makes sense in some logic of despair, some logic that depends on a lifetime of careless losses, and unpredictability, perhaps made personal with a festering grudge, a despair that can only be broken out of with violence of one sort or another.

I watched the vehicles from the cover of my porch until they drove off and I lay down again. A breeze passed through as if it were lost or scared. I wanted it to stay so badly that my lips were moving. I heard tiny taps on the metal roof. They continued. I stepped off the concrete porch into the sand but didn’t feel anything. Could rain fall on the roof but evaporate by the time it got to me two feet below?

I slept awhile.

When I opened my eyes again it was still dark. The moon sat directly overhead behind the thinnest veil of clouds. Then it broke through and the sand brightened white and glittered like snow, reflecting light back up to the sky. I looked across to our native plantings, brave and stoic inside their cages. They looked like abandoned suitcases on the tiled floor a train station, out of place and self-conscious.

The  moon, that night.
A young mesquite tree stood alone at the end of the porch, its two slender trunks rising to a feathery canopy, looking much like a ballerina en pointe, spotlighted under the moon.

A few hours later I felt chilled and tugged at my sheet, trying to cover my shoulder. Half-awake I closed my eyes tighter against the dawn and savored the pocket of cold air that the rising sun pushes forward before it takes over the day shift. I tried to memorize the chill because I knew I’d need that memory later when the heat and humidity made me panic and consider fleeing this place for the summer, like other people with more means and sense.

Every day in the desert heat is lived singly and no one person on any one day can say decisively what will happen next, or may draw a moral from it. In the heat of the day we listen to each other with a little more patience, and overlook the forgotten words and names, the delays, the repetitions, and sometimes we just stop talking altogether, being in the same boat and all, sunbeaten, and just wait out the heat.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Graffiti in the area

Of all the "two kinds of people" in the world, I seem to be among the group that craves a certain amount of disorder. This has been much to my mother's dismay. She equates order and balance with beauty and good. Manicured and perfectly landscaped environments make her happy and make me itch. Too much landscaping can lead me to despair. When I start seeing weeds growing up through cracked pavement, corn growing in the parkways, and street chickens I begin to breath easier, to relax. It feels like I belong there, like humans belong there.

Beautiful and imaginative graffiti in Silver Lake, painted over by the City.
So even though there was a general hue and cry over graffiti in the Monument, and rightly so, good, old-fashioned graffiti on seemingly abandoned buildings brings me great joy and optimism. I'm not very good at explaining why. I'll have to think on it, but I believe it has to do with truly free speech.

If you have the chance, watch the documentary Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression. The documentary makes a case for graffiti, and most law-and-order types will grudgingly admit to beauty in some of it - that some of it is art. But Vigilante Vigilante lobbies for taggers and defends tagging, and though I can't exactly remember why, my own take has been that there really are no public venues for youth to express themselves. All over they see the tags of corporations, city government, and private land holders marking the environment they live in. Tagging is a way of saying, "Hey, I live here, too." Instead of acknowledging that the city has failed our youth, city officials equate tagging with gangs and murders and put the youths that they catch in the murky dungeon of the State of California's Gang Database.

Maybe one of the most beautiful things about graffiti is that it's not allowed. If by observing something we change it, governmental and corporate approval generally seems to change things for the worse. The change is never unnoticed.

Cathy Allen, an art instructor at the Copper Mountain College, today posted about new murals that popped up in Wonder Valley. After conferring with a friend wise to the works of graffiti artists I located a video of the process and the finished work. The artists are Mear One, Cyrcle and Vyle One.

This is lovely work and so fitting in its environment. In a landscape where the hand of man has left destruction these artists brought unexpected beauty.

Mear One,  aka Kalen Ockerman, responded to Andre Saraiva's tagging a rock in the Joshua Tree National Park in an article in the LA Times.
"Graffiti art is the honest voice of the dissatisfied soul — it's a political act," Ockerman said. Then he added, "All Andre did was smear a work of art by mother nature with industrial chemicals to celebrate his own ego."
The work above reminded me of another piece I'd seen in Joshua Tree last spring, and I researched the artist who painted it.

This is across from the VFW in Joshua Tree and is the work of artist Jules Muck. How sweet it was to turn and be greeted by eyes as bright as the small tufts of grass that briefly sprouted up this spring! It's additionally fresh that the artist is a woman.

These are the kinds of disorder that salve the soul that must face the probable eventuality of yet another Dollar General in the Morongo Basin, in the anti-corporate Joshua Tree no less, wage-slaving our population, literally poisoning our youth with lead gew gaws from China, and grudgingly selling milk and eggs so it can take all it probably wanted in the first place: SNAP money. And yet, that building will be the epitome of order. Trees and bushes will be neat and trimmed and weeds and bugs will be poisoned out of existence.

Here's a video antidote to my rant.

If I've been a downer today, dear reader, please forgive me. Enjoy the beauty of the human spirit, which continues to pop up in the desert like shaggy mushrooms in a wasteland of corporate order.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The morning news

We’d been away for a few days, and rolled in long after midnight. We were weary from the drive so went straight to bed.

When we first moved to the Mojave a year ago we were dumbstruck. First, we had that new homebuyer’s daze, “My God, what have we done?” But there was something else, on top of that. We were overwhelmed by the beauty and the space. Every morning I’d awaken around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. I’d throw a blanket around my shoulders and walk down the driveway, the sand crunching beneath my feet. There’s a point in the driveway where a creosote bush obscures the single light burning across Highway 62. At that point there is only dark, pure dark, and I can imagine what it was like to live in the 1880s or the 1620s when people lived more gently on the land, when people expected there to be land to live on, when people weren’t scrapping for the crumbs of tiny houses, and small lots, mixed use, urban infill developments on high density transit corridors.

I awakened before dawn for a year, getting up and walking down the driveway before the sun came up. Now I sleep until the sun crests the tiny guest dome east of the house. It bursts into our bedroom like that frog in Bugs Bunny, the one that sings show tunes. It’s enthusiastic and loud and hectors me relentlessly until I rise.

The morning after the long drive the sun woke me up. I made coffee and with cup in hand walked slowly down the driveway. The sun hit the sand and cast long shadows, easy to read. I scanned the patch in front of me. In that sand I could see the traces of several creatures: the chain stitch of a quail, and perhaps baby quails; a long, thin, continuous wave, perhaps a snake? I looked for footprints along the side that might indicate a lizard, but seeing none, think yes, perhaps a snake. I tease apart a tangle of bird footprints and find a larger deeper track. Could it be a roadrunner? I see tracks of a heavier bird, three toes in front, one in the back. It’s not as big as a raven, but if one of the toes was obscured you could mistake the track for that of a roadrunner. I note the larger bird. I see another track that I believe is a roadrunner; the distinctive ‘X,’ italicized as if the track itself is in a rush. My heart beats a little faster. A roadrunner seems like a good omen. If a roadrunner makes your land its home, you’re doing something right.

I walk farther down the driveway. I see fingertip-sized depressions in the road. The sand looks like the top of a focaccia, dimpled and browned. These are the prints of cottontail rabbits. They are tiny and light. I see a heavier track marked with back feet about four inches long: a jackrabbit.

I walk on. I see my husband’s footprints from days before: the complicated cross-hatching that could represent the corporate structure of a company that makes athletic shoes, and strives to give the illusion of horizontal, egalitarian management structure while maintaining an iron-fisted and hierarchical feudal governance. The wind the past days has softened the prints and they’re on their way to disappearing altogether.

I walk to the road. No one has turned into the driveway in the last few days. No one has been on the road at all. That’s good. I slowly turn, raising my gaze to take in the mountains, the trees, the humanless expanse before me. I feel that this is how people should live, with plenty of space. I breathe, slowly and deeply, and I feel sorry that as people we bought the promise of big families instead of big close communities, and I’m sorry that the world is overpopulated and people are forced to live on top of each other.

Somehow I’ve escaped, to a different place and time, a place where a woman can wake up in the morning, have a good, strong cup of coffee, and read her driveway in peace.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pony season

It was 104 degrees on Saturday, which in the desert is nothing much to write about, but it was humid, too, and that makes it difficult to bear. In the morning I shut the windows, the blinds, the curtains and the doors. With the fans on it stayed around 90-95 inside. Tolable. At four the heat began to break and the wind picked up. I threw everything open again, because even though it was still hot, fresh air makes the heat easier to weather.

Wonder Valley sunset 
Later we drove to Wonder Valley to have dinner with friends. Wonder Valley seemed hotter though the temperature was the same. At times it was so hot it was hard to catch my breath. Nevertheless I stayed outside as the sun set and took these pictures.

Ken and I become more like Ma and Pa Kettle every day.  I watched the Kettles in the early 60s with my grandmother, in glorious black and white. The Kettles were hicks clashing with modernity. The down to earth common sense of Ma and Pa K. took the wind out of the sails of manufactured need, and hilarity ensued.

Yesterday our neighbors came by and when they heard we didn’t have network television they relayed to us how cheap and easy it would be to get 12 channels, more than enough by desert standards. We listened politely but blankly. Why would we want television when there’s a perfectly good sunset outside? That’s not to say that we’re complete Luddites. We are saving up for a Crosley portable record player. We can take that out on the porch and listen to records during the sunset, and we can pick up used records for a song.

At 104 it’s too hot to use the blow dryer anymore. I won’t wear my hair down again until October. I don’t care for the heat. Hair on my face, neck or shoulders holds enough warmth to push me toward panic. I’m sporting a low pony for the rest of the summer – high enough to keep it neat, but low enough to wear a hat. Yep, it's pony season.

Makeup is out, too. It just melts off. Summer is when you learn to love yourself for who you really are – not coiffed and styled, but without pants and glowing like a horse.  You learn to love yourself in motion, the way everyone else sees you, not surgically perfected or frozen in selfies, arrested in the moment.

“Why would you want to stop yourself in time?“ Ma Kettle asked.

“It’s like a little death,” I said, “like a pre-death. You avoid the wait.”

The desert is indifferent to humans, hell, the whole planet is, but when the environment is easier we can imagine the Earth exists just for us. To the desert you’re just one more living/dying blip on the wind. The desert doesn’t care if you’re body conscious or beach ready. That freedom to be who and what you are in space and time is why I’m here. Heat is the price of the ticket.

The humid weather makes for beautiful clouds and incredible sunsets, the payoff for the day’s discomfort. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Smith Ranch Drive-in

Smith Ranch Drive-In Theater
The credits were rolling about 12:45 a.m. when I woke up, and the waning moon was rising. We were parked at Smith Ranch Drive-In Theater in Twentynine Palms.

Our friend Kip, or "Rudyard" as he is known in some circles, joined us. Ken and Kip sat in front of the car and dutifully watched San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road. We were parked next to a truckload of Marines. They were parked backwards, sitting on the tail gate. The one closest to me sat board straight and jogged nervously in place through the entire first feature. He 'bout drove me nuts, bless his heart, so I moved to the car, and about halfway through Mad Max I fell asleep.

To be fair, I'd seen both movies before and it had been a very long day.

My favorite part about going to the drive in is the wildlife. While we waited outside the gates to pay, scores of lesser nighthawks crisscrossed the skies catching bugs in the gloaming. Skyscraper palms and fully laden pomegranate trees lined the road to the theater.

Once the movies started I could see bats darting through the movie light looking for snacks and I could hear a coyote singing nearby.

Where else can you go these days, for $5.00 each and get such a slice of life?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

13 security tips for weekenders and other desert dwellers

At last night's Morongo Basin Municipal Advisory Council (for the 9 unincorporated communities) the Sheriff's Department addressed the recent rash of burglaries in the area. These 13 tips should help. (I'm linking some of these things to my Amazon affiliate account. I hope you don't mind. They're not paying bloggers like they used to and a girl's got to buy lipstick, right?)

1. Facebook and social media
Keep your city and desert social media accounts separate. Do not announce vacations or side trips. Post about them after the fact. People following you on social media should be under the impression that you’re at your property 24/7. Vary your schedule. Try to come out in the week sometimes.

2. Know your neighbors
I know. You bought your desert cabin to get away, to get you some peace and solitude. Still, take some time and get to know your neighbors. Most of them want peace and solitude, too. You may only ever talk to them once, but because they know who you are they’ll probably keep an eye on your place.

3. Don’t antagonize your neighbors
Keep a low profile until you know your neighbors well.  Keep the loud music, parties, OHV-riding, pot smoking and nudity on the down low. Be a jerk and your neighbors may turn a blind eye when the scrappers come by.

4. No trespassing signs
Post “No Trespassing” signs on your property – some say every 150’. You may also want to post signs for “No Hunting” and “No OHVs” (Off Highway Vehicles).

5. Steel doors
If you have a rickety wooden door, or some shabby chic glass panel vintage door, replace it with a steel door and casing, and a deadbolt. Apply a faux finish if you must.

6. Timers
Use static and random timers on your lights and radios. Just let your neighbors know you’re doing this so they don’t call the sheriff because a light is on and you’re not there.

7. Motion detectors
Leaving an outdoor light on may seem like a good idea but desert dwellers like their dark skies. Install motion detector flood lights at key points on your property. Do this before you buy your cowboy bathtub and you may get to keep your cowboy bathtub.

8. Lay tracks
If you’re not going to be around much, ask friends to drive by and “lay tracks.” Make it look like people are there on a regular basis.

9. Decoys
Consider leaving a broken down car near your house. (Remember though, you will have to get rid of it eventually.) Buy extra large work boots at a thrift store and leave them outside your door. Put a rock in each one so they don’t blow away. A dog house with an anchor and a thick chain attached can be intimidating. On the other hand, don't advertise what may be inside your cabin. Don't leave vodka bottles in the trash, rolling papers in the ashtray, or boxes for electronics behind the trash can. Especially pick up your shell casings. Lawbreakers like to steal guns and that could be a tragedy.

10. Be smart. Lock everything up all the time.
Get window locks and dowels so you can leave your windows and sliding doors open a bit at night when you’re using your swamp cooler.

11. Keep your inventory in the cloud
Take pictures, record serial numbers, of your belongings. Keep these in the cloud (like google drive). They won’t do much good if they’re on the hard drive of your stolen computer.

12. Get a club and a locking gas cap
Auto crime is up. Be a hard target, and for pete’s sake, don’t leave your laptop, tablet or cell phone in your car. I read about this all the time. Peoples, don’t be stupid! If a lawbreaker doesn't get it the heat will probably kill it.

13. Alarms
If you have WIFI consider installing an alarm system. Some systems will call you on your smart phone if they’re tripped. You can check your place through the cameras and can call the sheriff if you see a crime in progress. Don't forget to lock your electrical box or the lawbreakers could just shut you down.

Your best line of defense is your neighbors. Get to know them. Look out for them. Take notes and call the sheriff if you see something suspicious. Do not confront a possible burglar.