Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Plantin' time!

It's that time of year again. The Theodore Payne Foundation for for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sunland, CA has its new shipment of desert native plants.

I drove there today with list in hand. Last year, March 4, we bought a hodge podge of hopefuls, many of whom bit the dust over the ensuing year. I'm still hoping the desert peach and desert lavender are just dormant and not dead. Cross your fingers for me.

This year I knew exactly what I wanted. In the front are 2 artemesia tridentata (Great Basin sagebrush), 4 hyptis emoryi (desert lavender),  1 forestiera pubescens (desert olive - dormant, back, right), 1 atriplex lentiformis (quail (salt)bush - back, left), and 1 yucca brevifolia (Joshua Tree). I passed on another simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) and they were out of hesperoyucca (Yucca) whipplei (Our Lord's Candle).

We have no Joshua Trees on either of our properties. Now we will have one. I was reminded, as I bought it, of the saying,
A society grows great when old (wo)men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. - Greek Proverb
Even though the Joshua Tree is not truly a tree, and the shade it offers is meager, the idea holds. This tree will be for our children, and all the children coming forward.  But I can imagine it and one day my ashes may feed it as I rest at its feet.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Noel Coward at Las Vegas

We're bringing our record collection to the desert. This says more about our age than our hiptitude. Some of our albums we bought new at the time. I bought my first album, Nancy Sinatra's Boots, at Falks ID department store, in Boise, Idaho, in the late 60s.

Charlie, our visitor from LA, brought Ken this lovely copy of Noel Coward at Las Vegas. Ken took this photo out in our driveway. Thanks, Charlie!

Turpentine broom

I learned a new plant on our walk through the park, thamnosma Montana, or turpentine broom or bush. I had read in Seven Incredibly Old Mojave Desert Plants, by Chris Clarke, that there was a plant that looks like ephedra that should be avoided. On questioning he mentioned "turpentine plant." When I looked it up I found the yellow-flowered Ericameria laricifolia and felt confident that I would not mistake if for ephedra.

On our walk through the park I found a plant that looked very much like ephedra but with small, deep blue flowers. I knew ephedra did not flower. I picked a bud and crushed a stem and noted a very strong scent, not so much like turpentine, but disagreeable. On this basis I searched for the plant and found that it was indeed turpentine bush.

Please forgive the horrible pictures below. My viewfinder is completely black on a bright day and I'm  usually only guessing at the location of the thing I'm photographing.

Thamnosma Montana (left) and ephedra (right)
I need to return to the park to take better pictures. Ephedra is a gymnosperm, so will not have flowers. The open cones look something like a yellow flower. The stems are jointed and you can sometimes locate small "pine" cones. I have never seem thamnosma montana outside of the park, that I know of.

Turpentine bush should be avoided. It seems native tribes used it for a purgative. Ephedra funerea, named after people living in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley, has lower levels of ephedrine than does its Chinese cousin, Ephedra sinica, or ma huang. It seems Ephedra funerea was widely used in desert communities and by those passing through, as a mildly stimulant tea.

Please do not forage in the park or on private land, and please forage sustainably.

Beauty, all around

Sunrise, Saturday, Copper Mountain Mesa
Friday night we went to the Black Rock Lecture Series, "San Bernardino County Renewable Energy Development Codes Updates," a rather uninspiring name for a very important talk on state and national plans for energy creation in the California desert.

Frazier Haney, of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, gave an informative overview of policies affecting the desert. David Lanfrom, of the National Parks Conservation Association, then gave a poetic interpretation of what the policies mean to the future of our country and where our visions of the future fall into shortsightedness and a lack of imagination. James Ramos, Supervisor, San Bernardino County, talked about moratoriums used to scale back large scale energy development poised at the gates of the desert like an impending gold rush.

I learned enough to write a semi-intelligible public comment on the DRECP (Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan – due today. If you haven’t already, send your comments to: or

The scrub - burrobush, big galleta grass and creosote, once so bland and colorless to me, now look unimaginably beautiful.
A Joshua Tree in bloom on our neighbor's property.
On Saturday night there was a benefit at the Palms in Wonder Valley for the artist, Heather L. Johnson. Her project, "In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful," begins again in March with a motorcycle trip to South America. Heather has completely won the hearts of everyone in Wonder Valley and the house was packed. Live music included the Sibleys, son of the velvet rat, the Renderers (pictured below), BATT and Reverend Screaming Fingers (aka Luci Lightning).

I enjoyed some of the music, but missed son of the velvet rat as I volunteered to help tend bar, take orders and deliver food. I did so for about an hour and had a blast. I hope I have a chance to do it again. As I've mentioned before, I was a bartender/food server/restaurant manager for almost 20 years. If it weren't for my old bones I'd probably be doing it still. It was my favorite job ever. To be able to dip my toe in that pool was such a treat.

The Renderers - loved them!
Sunday morning came a little earlier than usual. Laurel and Frank, from the Glass Outhouse Gallery, were, as always, already there. Frank gave me a couple of past issues of Ratany, "a [Wonder Valley] community newsletter that investigates the arts and artists and odd news." More on that later.

My friend Charlie came to visit from Los Angeles and ran into his two friends Laurel and Steak who are relocating to the area. We introduced them around. Pictured below, from left to right, Laurel Frank, Laurel and Frank. Serendipity, no?

Honorable mention to Leslie Mariah Andrews who painted the portrait of Laura Sibley and Pumpkin hanging over Laurel's head.

Laural Frank, Laurel Seidl and Frank Mezget
Two of our friends were celebrating their 13th anniversary with a walk in Joshua Tree National Park. Charlie and I tagged along. It was my second trip to the park and pretty much my first time out of the car. It was cold, which was a surprise because it's been in the 80s and 90s for a couple of weeks now.

The clouds rolled in and the lighting on the landscape shifted dramatically. Our of our friends had been a park ranger and was adept at taking us on the gentlest routes while pointing out various plants and budding wild flowers. It was so quiet and peaceful and beautiful. I know now what I must do. I must get a park pass and come here regularly. Walking just 100 or 200 feet away from the parking lot takes you to an otherworldly landscape that delights and expands. 

Thank you, my friends, for bringing us here and sharing this beauty of the desert with us, on this most auspicious of anniversaries!

Clouds rolled in in the afternoon bringing much needed rain.
Looking across the Marine Air Ground Combat Training Center from Copper Mountain Mesa.
It was a beautiful weekend in Joshua Tree and the all the gateway towns. Wish you were here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ugly tire pile

Ken and I went on a tour of the Marine Base with the lovely young people from High Desert Test Sites a week ago. I mentioned to Mike King, our tour guide, about the existence of a tire circle out between the base and the container village. He was certain I was wrong so I sent him the coordinates - 34°21'09.9"N 116°16'38.0"W.

I got this note back from him,
I have forwarded your information to our NREA section and they will be getting with our Operations and Training elements to see how fast we can get out there.
So, in the words of Marge Simpson, "I guess one person really can make a difference, but most of the time, they probably shouldn't." Yes, I'm having second thoughts. This 400' tire circle is awful and it is ugly but there may be life within the tires now. These tires may be sheltering small creatures and the act of removing them may be more scarring to the desert them letting them sit. It IS a powerful comment on the presence of the military in the desert, and in contradiction to the messages that we heard on the tour, messages of conservation and recycling.

We were told there are two reasons military training exercises would stop - one, if someone were sick or injured, and two, if there was a tortoise present. In that case a trained person is called to carefully move the tortoise following very specific tortoise-friendly guidelines. This is a nice thought but I find it incredible.

One of the positive things about the military presence is that they do preserve most of the desert that they are on, and there is true zero (0) tolerance for off-roaders.

We'll have to wait until Google Maps updates the satellite image of the area to see if the tire circle is actually removed, but I don't think there is much incentive for Google to do so. I believe you still have still time to go paint a big black peace sign or smiley face on your marshmallow roof.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Plant life

There's NOTHING in the world like the smell of the desert after a rain. It will knock your boots off. That enigmatic smell of geosmin and petrichor is probably impossible to replicate, but when a friend expressed a desire to capture it in incense, I heard a challenge.

Part of the rain smell is an accumulation of plant resins in the sand activated by water. Some of the smell must be due in part to the cyanobacteria in the crypto-biotic soil crust. But then there are the plants - sun-baked and fragrant, just waiting for moisture to open their leaves and release their scent. 

Last weekend I gathered leaves - the tiniest bits since there aren't many yet. I gathered brittle bush (encelia farinosa, or what the Spanish called incensio) and burrobush (ambrosia dumosa or white bursage). This was the most fragrant and will be the most dear as the leaves are tiny and few and you may only gather the tiniest amount before imperiling the health of the plant. I also gathered desert lavendar (hyptis emoryi), white sage (which I omitted as it is overpowering) and creosote (larrea tridentata or in the Pima language shogoi).

I chopped this and mixed it with sand (for geosmin) and mesquite gum, spread it on a plate and left it in the sun to dry.

The mesquite gum worked perfectly as a binder. I haven't burned it yet. It feels really special and I don't want to do it alone in an experimental sense. It seems like it should be shared.

If this works, I'll start working on more combinations and sources for domesticated plant materials so I don't stress the fragile environment of the arid forest by foraging.

So what was I drinking while cauldroning? An elderberry oxymel - a sipping vinegar I made and mixed with club soda. We planted an elderberry at the cabin and if it takes off I will be in seventh heaven as I love every part of the elderberry plant.

If you want the adult feel of a cocktail, but want to avoid alcohol and the cloying sweetness of soda, an oxymel might be the drink for you. Cheers, to all my plant companions!

Dragon Ranch

When we went to church (The Palms Restaurant) on Sunday,  Frank Mezget, from the Glass Outhouse, greeted me with this incredible painting he did of our little cabin in Far North Joshua Tree.

Frank painted it on a slate tile. I love Frank's paintings and they never remain in the gallery long enough for me to buy one, so I commissioned him to paint this for us. He got lost the first time he drove out. I drew another map. I told him he just hadn't gone far enough and at the edge of the map I drew the Marine Training Center with a serpent and the phrase, "Thar be dragons."

Frank incorporated the dragon into the painting (I love how the claws and the shadow of the dragon break the frame) and christened our cabin "Dragon Ranch."

Now I can't stop thinking of this tire art I saw.

Thanks, Frank! i LOVE it!
Sunday breakfast: Miss Ida Lane is at the piano and I'm taking the picture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

And then...

It was an unusually busy weekend, all the more seeming so as I was a little under the weather and not in top form. Saturday started bright and early with the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center First Saturday breakfast.  Ken is the egg man so I drive him over at 6:00 a.m. and then I moseyed over around 7:30 a.m. I have to be there early to test the biscuits and gravy to make sure the gravy isn’t lumpy. Someone has to do it. The biscuits are always delicious as Mary Helen makes them and they wouldn’t dare be anything but delicious.

I am the hostess so I set up the tickets, the sign in sheet and the cash drawer and welcome everyone in. I’ve been doing this for about six months now and guess I know about half the people. Annelies Kuiper, who serves, was home ill so poor Patrick, the other server, was run ragged. Kelly Gazley came to train to be the hostess at 9:00 and picked it all up so thoroughly and so fast that I was able to step away and serve breakfasts.  I used to be a waitress and it was my all-time favorite job, but hard on my knees so I don’t do it anymore. Hosting/serving one Saturday a month is all I get now but I really love it and am happy to get the chance to dabble in it.

Recent rains brought new life to the Ocotillo.
After breakfast we went back to the cabin where we’re working on a native garden.  The trees we ordered arrived last week so we brought them up to plant – 4 sea buckthorns, olive and a Kashmir pomegranate, all basically non-native but desert-loving. We got the pomegranate in the ground and had to stop so we could make it to the opening at the Glass Outhouse Gallery. Once there we were happy to look at the art and then sit in the shade of a beautiful desert day, chat with Frank, and listen to the live music. Later we drove back to the cabin, had a little dinner on the patio and then fell into a deeply needed sleep.

We drove to the Palms for breakfast. Such a simple sentence for a very complex recurring event. We meet our neighbors for breakfast at the Palms each Sunday and we hang out for several hours catching up, sharing a meal, and lately – singing.

After that we dashed home to set up for an afternoon fundraiser for the artist Heather L. Johnson. She’s the author of In Search of the Frightening and Beautiful and is raising funds to begin her travels again, this time to South American, on a motorcycle. Everyone was eager to give and be part of, in some small way, her travels and her project. If you’d like to take part, come to the Palms on Saturday, February 21. GREAT musical lineup: The Sibleys, The Renderers, son of the velvet rat, the Reverend Screaming Fingers (aka Luci Lightning) and BATT. Heather will be selling art books and T-shirts and all the best people will be there (except you, if you can’t make it).

After saying goodbye to our last guests we cleaned up and moved back to the cabin.

The yard, at night, in Wonder Valley. (Sorry about the tilt shift - I couldn't resist.)
Another early start. Kip came over shortly after 7:00 a.m. to carpool with us to the Marine Base for a tour with artists from High Desert Test Sites.  It was a six-hour tour and it was hot – in the high 80s.
I have a fondness/fetish for military social life, having visited cousins on their bases in Europe and having once dated a major at the Presidio in San Francisco. There’s something restful about black and white thinking, something relaxing about certainty, especially when it’s hot out and the drinks are very cold. But certainty is an illusion, so while I enjoyed the stories and apocrypha they had mostly turned to sand by the time Ken and I arrived back at the cabin.

The Marine Base, the cleanest place in the desert.

Spent shells at the Base recycling center. Good to know that this stuff isn't left in the desert.

Bales of concertina wire ready to be recycled.

This was the center of a simulated Iraqi village (34.247974, -116.023614, travel right and down until you see the town roundabout). This is a bread oven, complete with dings from bullets. We were told these are not decorations, but "atmospherics," designed to acclimate Marines to the Iraqi culture. A quick google review of Iraqi bread ovens does not affirm that this atmospheric is accurate in any way. (Shade, please?)
The coup de grace for my Marine fantasies was the red and gold sign, in a series of signs honoring various Marine ventures along the main roadway in and out of the base, dedicated to the Banana Wars. I felt a sinking feeling in my heart as I recalled what I’d learned about the United Fruit Company and the writings of Marine Major General Smedley Butler. So while I enjoyed the tour, the tour guide, and learned a lot, it was not a lark.

The Base insignia is a scorpion, which makes sense, but when I saw it the first thing
I saw was the face of a surprised, tulip-eyed kitty with lots of whiskers. Nice kitty!
At the end of the six hours I was spent. But we still had trees to plant. Ken set me up on the porch in the shade and I constructed cages out of chicken wire to protect our new trees. By 6:00 p.m. we were finished, took a short nap, righted up the cabin and drove back to Los Angeles.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sheriff's Call: honesty not as valued as it once was

1000 block of Geronimo Trail, 12:21 p.m. (Tuesday)

"A deputy saw a spoon used to prepare meth in plain view. The suspect, a caregiver for the homeowner, admitted it was his spoon and said he had used meth four days ago. A field test indicated he had used more recently. The suspect showed the deputy a meth pipe he had in his medical bag to prove how honest he was. He was arrested."

Hi-Desert Star, Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wonder Valley Weekend

A couple of months ago I read Sand in My Shoe, a great Morongo Basin historical primer, by Helen Bagley. The Bagleys started the first store in the area, both living and working in the garage pictured below.

After visiting the Historic Plaza, at Adobe and Two Mile Roads,a month or so ago, I was quite certain that the original store still stood and planned to return to verify, We did so on Saturday, and I'm more certain than ever that this is the same building in the earlier photo. The only thing causing me to doubt is how shabbily it is being treated. Surely it deserves historical status and conservation.

The City Council recently voted against lifting the ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, which, if allowed might easily fund such a project, and probably more, as well as alleviating needless suffering, 

Built in 1927, Bagley's original store, is left to the elements.
These are the doors to the building next door to the second store the Bagleys built. I believe this may have been Grahams Cafe. The new store still operates today.

After visiting the Historic Plaza we joined friends for dinner, at their house on Stoner Road. Of course, there is no road sign. As quick as one is installed it is stolen again. The right person could make a small roadside business out of this lemon.Hmm...

My dinner had to cool for a minute as I ran out to snap the sunset. This photo looks northeast to the Bullion Mountains, those grand purple sentinels of our valley. It was a lovely dinner. Everyone brought something and there was talk of making Saturday night potlucks a regular event.

The next morning we all met again at the Palms, which we all refer to as "church." My new friend Miss Ida Lane played the piano. I had practiced the song Angel Band and sang with her. I'm no singer, so though I had practiced, the accompaniment threw me, but I did my best and look forward to trying again.

Next week I'll print word sheets so others can join in on the fun.