Monday, March 30, 2015

Why haven't I heard of this before - it's like I was born under a rock!

I sent the photo below to Nicole Pietrasiak, a post-doctoral researcher at the John Carrol University. She also taught our class on Biological Soil Crusts at the Desert Institute.

She replied,
What a wonderful find! You found what we call hypolithic crust or hypolithic microbial communities. They are really cool. The green things you see are cyanobacteria and eukaryotic algae that can establish underneath light transmitting quartz (that rock type you found). It's so fascinating. The rock collects water underneath on the bottom side which is embedded in the soil. And this water can not evaporate because the rock acts as a barrier, so it's like a little green house under there! And algae love it!
So water is trapped under the rock, light shines through it, and voila! Life! Water and light. And soil. And bacteria. But basically, water and light! Yay!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hi-Desert Star for Saturday, March 28 - April 4

Every week when I put together the Joshua Tree column for the Saturday Hi-Desert Star, I'm amazed at the energy, creativity and commitment of the people of Joshua Tree. This is another blockbuster week with events at Beatnik Lounge, JT Trading Post, Art Queen, Joshua Basin Water District, Harrison House, the VFW, Joshua Tree National Park and the Community Methodist Church.You all rock my world!

A page from the LA Free Press 
PS Happy birthday, Art Kunkin, publisher of LA Free Press!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Identifying local mustards

On Saturday Ken and I took the class Native Plant Uses at Joshua Tree National Park's Desert Institute. The class was held at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and I was able to get clarity on something you all probably already know – the difference between these three mustards growing in the area: 
  • Sahara mustard
  • London rocket, and 
  • Western tansy mustard.
Sahara mustard seeds
The worst, first, all right? The infamous SAHARA MUSTARD (Brassica tournefortii) must be pulled whenever and wherever you can. I stopped roadside and grabbed the specimen below. Compared to the other two mustards, which resemble ordinary garden plants, Sahara mustard is on steroids. The leaves are dense and dry like cardboard, of dull color, and the stem is covered in stickers (you’d have to wear gloves, or be foolish, to pull it – guess which I was!). The seed pods are hard and bumpy, like a neglected dirt road or a bandolier. The plant is high in oxalic acid and may be toxic to desert herbivores. In no way could this plant be considered an edible.

Sahara mustard, brassica tournefortii 
Another exotic and invasive mustard is LONDON ROCKET (Sisymbrium irio). What it lacks in fierceness it makes up for in flavor. It is edible and depending on where it grows it can taste exceedingly hot, to pleasantly hot and sweet. This is the mustard I’ve found growing in my yard, the one I eat the tops off of when I’m walking around. It is invasive, and has taken over sections of the Morongo Preserve (see photo to the right, hikers hip high in mustard), but from reading the literature it seems that native plants have been able to take back some lost ground. London rocket is not as prolific or as damaging as Sahara mustard and on our property the sun seems to take care of anything I haven’t eaten or pulled.

London rocket sprouting. The tender greens and flowers are edible.
The third mustard featured today is WESTERN TANSY MUSTARD (Descurainia sophia). This plant is native to our area, not invasive and if you find it on your property you might want to cherish it with a little extra water. The leaves are grayish and feathery, the seed pods huddle close around the stem; it is orderly and not rangy like London rocket, It is delicate and unassuming, unlike the bullying Sahara mustard. The flavor is very mild, a little too mild for my tastes. It was a green utilized by native peoples.

If you do work with the angels and pull Sahara mustard where you find it, please place the plants in black plastic garbage bags and tie the tops. If you pull them and leave them on the side of the road the seed pods will dry and open and spread hundreds of seeds. Thanking you in advance for any pulling that you do.

Biological Soil Crusts - NOT BORING, seriously!

Last week Ken and I took a class on Biological Soil Crusts (BSC) from The Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park.

I’m a big fan of Paul Stamets and his work with funghi and mushrooms. I am fascinated with the giant Armillaria ostoyae, the largest organism on Earth, that occupies 2,384 acres in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. I’m fascinated with mycorrhizal and mycelial networks that act as a sort of Internet for plants. I thought these kinds of plant wonders were confined to lands with ample moisture and despaired that anything as cool as this could exist in the Mojave Desert. Until now.

It started when we were looking at a property out on the far edge of nowhere. The land was largely undisturbed and I noticed when I walked across it the surface sand collapsed in a tiny crunch that I didn’t notice on disturbed land. Later, when we had our own place I noticed this would happen after a rain.

Talking with locals I learned about soil crusts and campaigns to “Don’t bust the crust.” I learned about the class at the Desert Institute.

When I told the instructor of my experience she seemed unconvinced that this was the beginning of a biological soil crust. She told me it was more likely that the water from the rain displaced the air in the soil, which rose up to the surface, lifting the sand. That is a pretty cool explanation, but it deflated my hopes for biological networks in our soil.

To confirm that you have the beginning of a biological soil crust, you must be able to lift a chunk of soil with knife or spatula and see little “danglies”, which would consist of soil held together with bacteria and/or fungus.

See the "danglie," top right.
Yesterday I picked up a rock from the desert floor on our property and a chunk of sand stuck to it. I turned it and could see danglies, though they were very small and I had no idea what size danglies should be. I took it inside, shined a light on it and could see very easily that pieces of soil were hanging from the soil mass.

If this is biological soil crust, and I believe it is, then the soil is held together with cyanobacteria, or blue green algae, which lies dormant until activated by rain. At that point it swells and sends filaments through the soil, creating an environment conducive for other microflora (mosses and lichens) and later, plants.

See: Soil Crust 101

Soil crusts form at a microscopic level and are hella delicate so it is critical to avoid busting them by tramping through the desert or rolling through on ORVs. Biological soil crusts bind the soil and so help prevent erosion and dust. They also fix nitrogen and carbon which may ameliorate climate change.

See: Deserts Found To Be Major Carbon Dioxide Sink, Study Finds

So if you must walk across the desert, stick to roads, trails or washes. If you must cross, please return in your own footsteps. Happy trails.

See: Biocrusts (photographs)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet the artists who are Rummelsnuff - Roger Baptist and Maat Asbach. Wonder Valley artist Jill Reinig brought them to the Palms for breakfast. Their charm and talent earned them a Saturday night gig at the Palms - March 21 at 7:00 p.m. and I'm so happy that I'll get to see them.

Laura Sibley will be serving Bratwurst & Slaw for 3.50 and James Sibley will be serving a drink special The Drunk German 3.50. Such a deal!

Can anyone identify this place?

The Superstition Mountains

Ken and I traveled to visit our cousins in Apache Junction for their anniversary. It sounds much better to say "Superstition Mountains" than "Apache Junction," doesn't it? It's a marketing thing, I guess. Their house sits at the base of the Superstition Mountains. We hadn't visited there since moving to our own desert home.

When we first started visiting Joshua Tree I had a certain stock view I labeled "desert" and I applied it whenever I found myself anywhere called "desert." It took me some time to look at the desert around Joshua Tree and actually SEE it, to begin to distinguish the creosote from the cat's claw acacia and bladderpod, to notice the white bursage, alyssum, paper bag bush and ephedra. It was some time before my stock view of the desert was replaced with what was actually there.

I hadn't realized that I'd applied the same stock view to both the Sonora and Mojave Deserts, so when I saw the Sonora Desert again I fully expected it to look just like the Mojave. It didn't. It was practically lush with countless palo verde and ironwood trees and brittle bush and bursage sprouting from the ground like grass.

I took the opportunity to forage and was able to gather both encelia farinosa (brittle bush) and ephedra (Mormon tea) in a wash on my cousins' property. We cleaned it and tinctured it and then took this photo with the mountains behind.

Pretty, no?

We drove home to Wonder Valley via Highway 177, through Chuckwalla Valley, stopping in Desert Center and driving past the Desert Lily Preserve. We stopped briefly at the entrance to the Colorado Desert.

Road leading to the Palen/McCoy Wilderness Area
We then came back to Wonder Valley from the east, a first for me, having always approached Wonder Valley from the west.

I mentioned my one stock desert reference. Living here has replaced that with countless deserts, all with their own micro-climates.  North Joshua Tree is very different from Joshua Tree and both of those different from the monument and from Wonder Valley. Micro-climates here change very quickly, affected by distance, elevation and other conditions. There is not one desert. There are probably thousands of deserts. I'm glad to finally be developing eyes to see them.

Biological Soil Crusts at the Desert Institute

We really wanted to take the Biological Soil Crusts Class at the Desert Institute last year, but we weren't able to do so until this year. Biological soil crusts are awesome, as the teachers reminded us throughout the two-day course. The top layer of many soils are alive with micro-organisms: bacteria (cyanobacteria), lichens, mosses, diatomes, tardigrades and more. These bind together into a community that forms a crust on soils fixing carbon and nitrogen, slowing or preventing erosion, creating a habitat for plant life, and more. See for more information.

Nicole Pietrasiak (bacteria), Kerry Knudsen (lichens) and Theresa Clark (mosses) taught the class. Their enthusiasm for the subject matter was infectious.

The class went to Joshua Tree National Park for a field work component. Ken took this photo in the park.

Kerry Knudsen showed us "before" and "five years later" photos of a patch of lichen to illustrate how slowly they grow. I thought the concept of time was interesting in relation to lichens. Yes, they grow slowly in human terms, but really, there is no fast or slow in lichen terms. If we, as humans, can reconceptualize time outside of our own human limits it might affect the way we treat the planet and other living creatures for whom time has no meaning.

The desert seems to wreak havoc with the human concept of time - the extremes of heat and aridity speed up oxidation, and are certainly no friend to humans trying to slow the march of time, or who still cling to the hope of a dewy complexion. Being so close to nature in the desert shifts time, as well, and if you are so inclined, you might begin to see yourself as part of a huge spiral of time, rather than as a blip on a timeline.

We also worked with microscopes and tweezers and slide mounts and were able to see single cells in bacteria and mosses. That was a first for me and very exciting.

The moss below is syntrichia norvegica, common in the park. We learned about dessication tolerance, or the level of drying and dormancy an organism can experience before it dies. Now I have a phrase to apply to what I experienced personally last summer.

Syntrichia norvegica
During the break we took a walk around the grounds of the visitors center and found this, which is now cordoned off.

The nest of a hummingbird is secured in a jojoba bush. There are two tiny eggs inside.

Next week we're taking the Desert Institute's Native Plant Uses with Daniel McCarthy. I expect that class to be as fascinating as this one was.

Joshua Tree Street Art

I was checking the calendar at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) on Veterans Way in Joshua Tree. When I turned to go back to my car I saw this lovely example of street art.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everyone!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mojave Desert Art

We stopped by The Glass Outhouse Gallery yesterday to see Laurel Seidl and Frank Mezget. We heard a new show was being installed and hoped to get a preview.

Frank had new paintings hanging and Ken wanted another. You may remember that we recently bought a painting Frank had done of our cabin on the Copper Mountain Mesa. On his way to photograph the cabin Frank passed a tank house on Sunfair. We bought it.

I love how Frank breaks the border of his paintings. Again, please forgive my horrible photography.

We'd also had our eye on a little painting by Eric Saks and picked that one up as well. As I was writing out the check Eric happened in so I was able to hand it to him directly and say hey.

Lest you think we are seasoned art collectors with deep pockets, let me assure you that the prices in this gallery are very reasonable. We purchased each of these painting for less than the price of a lunch for two in Los Angeles. I'll gladly live on peanut butter for a day or two to own paintings by these talented and charming artists.

Cady and Mars

My realtor, Peter Spurr, automated my preferences, so once or twice a week I get an email from him with properties that match my specifications. Even though I'm no longer looking I can't help but peek and once in awhile I find a property that makes me pick up a lottery ticket and cross my fingers. This is one of those.

We've passed this cabin many times. It's at the corner of Cady and Mars on the Copper Mountain Mesa. It's one 400 square foot cabin, clean and in fair shape, and a little 200 square foot-ish cabin off to the side.

I've looked at this little wooden cabin many times and wanted to aquire it. It's just lovely, its wood aged to classic beauty. Oh, for a tractor and a complete lack of conscience!

The front door of the main cabin is just lovely. I'm not a fan of shabby chic but this is the chic-est shabby I've ever seen. How would you maintain this picture perfect door? How could you use it as an entrance and protect it from further damage from the elements? It would be such a shame to alter it in any way.

The views on this property are stunning and there are few neighbors within view. The property is flat, clean, and with the exception of one stunning cactus, without any striking vegetative features - easily remedied.


We drove to the end of Cady and noticed some civic-minded person posted a new street sign for Saturn. It was raining and so the bright red of the sign was muted. I was sorry to miss snapping photos of the "Alto" signs someone has posted in a few places where "Stop" signs should be.

Updated March 17, 2015
It's lovely living in an area where time, language and space all seem to slip. I'm sure someone with a stronger sense of propriety than I have will one day come out and at least remove the "Alto" signs. In the meantime they illustrate the independent spirit that thrives here in the Big Empty, the American Outback.

If you're interested in the Cady property, contact Peter Spurr at (760) 366-7795, tell him Teresa sent you. The asking price is $29 and of course it needs work. Remember, I'll take the little cabin off your hands. Just ask.

Rain in Wonder Valley

Wonder Valley is more than 1000' lower than the Copper Mountain Mesa, where our little cabin is located. That makes it about 10 degrees hotter in the summer (9 degrees if you're a man), and a little warmer in the winter, too. There's considerably less rain, but not yesterday. Generally the climate in Wonder Valley is harsh, arid, extreme, so it's a little like Christmas when it rains, and rains steady. I took these photographs yesterday at the Palms. This is in the back yard of the restaurant, looking toward the Pinto Mountains and Highway 62. You can just make out the mountains in the background.

The light yesterday was like nothing I'd ever seen in the area, soft and muted, close and confidential. The landscape offered itself up to our gaze.

Inside, Miss Ida Lane played piano. A tin bowl on top of the piano caught water dripping through the ceiling. Ken had printed song sheets so all of us together sang Wabash Cannonball, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Uncloudy Day, Angel Band and everyone's favorite, Waltzing Matilda.

I heard New Jimmie built the windmills below, or the facsimiles of windmills,  in the back of the Palms. Whatever they are they are haunting in this photo. Considering the behemoth wind turbines dominating the landscape far to the east these seem like the doing of cargo cults.

Rain or shine, Wonder Valley is a magical place, peopled with the most delightful humans.