Letter From the Desert: It conceals a multitude of flaws

There is no rushing this. There are no shortcuts. You take the time. Too much on the brush and the paint glissades down the wall, hardens like travertine cave formations. Cover too much real estate between trips to the roller tray and you consign yourself to third and fourth coats. And fifth. Which once-thoroughly-unionized profession strives to avoid holidays? Painters, because that’s what they call spots that miss getting painted. Or that’s what we call them. It’s been forty years, for me. Muscles strain to regain the necessary memories.

I remember learning that term. I remember being lost but nodding gamely until I figured out what the holidays were that my crew boss told me to take care of.

I don’t like thinking about him. I shudder. Revulsion.

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There is an art to drawing a straight edge along a bumpy plaster corner without taping. Taping is as likely to hide mistakes as to prevent them. Load an angled two-inch brush with a small amount of paint, place it on the wall just shy of the line you want to draw, then calmly and methodically asymptote your way up to the line you’re cutting in. “Cutting in” is what that’s called.

On this room, I started out imagining all four walls in a moderate terra cotta. The paint I brought along seemed terra cotta in daylight. Precious little daylight reaches this room. Under artificial light, the walls seemed something like a hybrid between peach and persimmon. Not precisely what I had in mind. Change of strategy. Two of the walls gained two more coats of a contrasting color: a deep red-brown, milk-chocolate in the can, that dried to roughly a mole poblano shade. I left a few holidays. I like the orange shining from underneath.

And a pale blue, like Kingman turquoise exposed to the desert sun, for the trim. I will have to take the doors off and paint those horizontally on saw horses out in the yard.

The one who taught me to paint might be the worst person I’ve ever known. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have qualified that statement, but there are so many different kinds of evil in the world. So many different ways to shatter lives. It was about 20 years before I could look at a drop cloth without seeing a shroud. I am ambivalent about the skills I gained back then, as arguably neutral as they may be. Or even useful.

The living room will use the terra cotta and mole as accent colors against something more like turmeric on the broad sweep of wall. The window seat may be that pale turquoise. I haven’t quite decided. I need to see how the yellow looks once it’s out of the can. Plans shift. One month you’re cutting in the muntins in school building windows, your crew boss chiding you for slopping too much forest green on the lites. The next you’re in the weeds on the shoulder of I-80 in Cheyenne, shivering in your thin sleeping bag and starting with every passing jake brake, and wondering what the hell just happened to your life.

February 18, 2020

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Letter From the Desert: This Little Desert House

In February, 2014, torrential rain hit Joshua Tree. The leak in the roof in the house I had been renting, that I had warned my then-landlord about for some months previous, blew open in a spray of wet plaster and fiberglass above my desk. It was time to move.

I hated the prospect, and not just because my relationship of record was disintegrating at the same time, and she had decided to move to Los Angeles. I complained on social media, and resigned myself to moving for something like the thirtieth time in my life, not counting bouts of nomadicism or couch surfing.

Things got better fast. An acquaintance in town, Eva, saw my online whining and offered me the chance to rent an 825-square-foot house she’d been managing as a vacation rental. I moved in in May 2014. I’m still here.

Living room
April 26, 2017

For the first few weeks I had my ex’s cat for company. Then he moved to Los Angeles as well, which was, if I’m honest, the only truly painful part of that breakup. I found solace in an unexpected new friend.

Good dog
December 12, 2017

Aside from a few months in Nipton immediately after my departure from the Bay Area in Ought-Eight, my first years in this little house constituted the first real solitude I’ve ever had. I went from living with parents to living with housemates to living with significant others. Living here — until I met someone I liked more than I liked being alone — was a luxury of quiet contemplation punctuated with occasional sublimely miserable loneliness.

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Not that I was ever truly alone, even discounting the cat and then the dog and then increasingly frequent visits from la mujer que amo. I used to exult for months over a single furtive coyote sighting when I lived in the Bay Area. Here they walk through my yard, in full view of my windows, at least three times a week. Coyote concerts happen nightly. No matter what I happen to be doing I stop and listen in gratitude. One morning I woke at 3:30 am to head off to a meeting somewhere. At 3:45 the coyotes began to sound off, and I was rapt, listening. A sudden blast from a nearby air horn shocked them into silence. Some tourist stupidly terrified of the desert, I judged. That may have been less than kind of me, but I was cranky from a bad case of coyotus interruptus.

It wasn’t just coyotes, as if coyotes could ever be just “just.” In my first weeks here I noticed roadrunners and jackrabbits, verdins and orioles, sharp-shinned hawks and hoary bats, scorpions and desert iguanas. They’re all still here, and the bobcats are coming back after someone with questionable life-choice-making abilities trapped them all out a few years ago. A ridge a half block away often sports a family of bighorn sheep. Sometimes a cold front parks itself over the mountains a half mile to the south, along the north edge of Joshua Tree National Park, and birds migrating up from the Sea of Cortez fall out of the sky and land in my driveway. I have met gopher snakes and rattlers and racers, the usual complement of little brown birds, owls of the barn and great horned varieties, and approximately four quadrillion white-tailed antelope squirrels that materialize every time I put a plant outside. Not that the place needs more plants. There is more native plant diversity here than in any other place in California I’ve lived.

And there are incredible skies, the Milky Way visible from the driveway most nights even with a moon, spectacular desert sunsets and even better sunrises, mountains in two national parks and two more national monuments in plain sight from my doorstep.

I gained a lot moving here, is what I’m saying. I also shed a few things in moving in, a continuation of a process that began when I left the Bay Area. In 2008 I gave away about three quarters of my books, then did the same again when I moved into a relatively cramped apartment in Palm Springs for 18 months, and I had thought surely this is the absolute bare-bones minimum to which I could ever pare my collection of books. Turns out no. More needed to go. I sold some to a friend who I think was really looking for a way to help me during a tough stretch without hurting my pride. I took more to the nearest used book store. I also shed my habit of drinking, which turned out to be useful, and shed a few pounds as the dog and I took advantage of the local network of long dirt roads.

Add to all that contemplation, loss of needless things, and productive change an owner who is really more big sister than landlord, and it all adds up to this little house being my favorite place I have lived in my entire life.

And then of course there came a day when la mujer que amo and I decided we had had enough of living 500 miles apart, and she moved in. We married. And while we fit both our lives into this house surprisingly well, with only a few spectacular arguments along the way speedily mended, two adults in this house is a bit of a critical mass. Abrupt change was inevitable.

Which is all to say that my time in this little house is coming to an end in a few weeks. We are closing on another house tomorrow. (Turns out that I was able to repair the bad credit rating Eva ignored when she let me move in back in 2014.) We are taking a relatively extended stretch of days to paint and prep and move, which la mujer que amo has done even more frequently than I, and in mid-March I will hand the keys back to Eva, possibly while tearing up.

When I first moved here a friend came out from a coastal city to visit, sat on my couch, looked around, then punched me in the upper arm rather harder than she needed to and complained “why do you get to live here?” I never figured out an answer, but I’m grateful anyway.

All content Copyright 2020 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share via forwarding, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Milestones

If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have bought that lifetime membership in the California Native Plant Society back when I was 27.

I turned 60 a few days ago, and I’ve been reflecting on a few things. F’rinstance, how unlikely I would once have thought that eventuality. So many people I’ve cared about failed to make it this far. My paternal grandfather. A handful of horticultural friends and colleagues lost to the plague back in the day. Beloveds and dear friends and colleagues lost to speeding cars, or cancer, or retroviruses.

Making it this far is a gift, and I intend not to waste that gift.

Helping out is the fact that as I pass this milestone, the age at which a man can no longer pretend not to be just bluntly old, my life is as good as it’s ever been. I recognize that saying so is not just tempting the fates but handing them an engraved invitation to a full formal dinner with dancing after. But it would be ungrateful of me not to acknowledge that I am extraordinarily lucky these days. Each day I fall just a bit further in love with la mujer que amo. We rhyme, mainly, and have compassionate and patient arguments, mostly, when those rhymes go slantwise. My job is what I would do with my time if I didn’t have to make a living. Due to a handful of unintended consequences of disparate life changes, I am healthier than I think I’ve ever been. Last doctor’s visit a few months back he said “whatever it is you’re doing keep doing it.”

All of which is worth appreciating, and all of which carries with it a nested set of obligations. My grandfather never had the chance to, say, backpack for two nights in Lithodendron Wash, so taking on that task is up to me. Similarly with camping in the Ruby Mountains or kayaking Topock Gorge. It is an overwhelming list of obligations I face, but I think I will bear up under the strain.

La mujer que amo and I have been visting friends in San Diego this weekend. Today, at Dog Beach, I watched the ocean as the lifeguard truck lights flashed. People and even some of the dogs on the beach faced the same way, watching. There was a rescue in progress. The swimmer in trouble was three or four rows of breakers away from the shore, and it was a little hard from my dry-shod vantage point to make out just what was happening, but a red-bikinied lifeguard was out there on a surfboard, and a first responder jetski circled them at a discreet distance, twenty yards or so. The lifeguard’s strong paddling against the rip current brought surfboard and rescued swimmer one layer of breakers closer, and then another, and there was a confusion of foam and spray, and then I could see the swimmer clearly: an ancient golden retriever mix who had chased a ball too far out and gotten overwhelmed. He had recovered enough to stand on the surfboard. That’s how he rode up to the shore. A few strong last shoves by the lifeguard and he was back on land, chasing his ball, which the lifeguard had also rescued.

October 21, 2019

Tomorrow it’s back to my desert dog after a couple of days away, and back into work, and anticipating some news on a house we hope to close on shortly, and on to the next chapter of life if that comes through.

So. Lithodendron Wash hike this year, and Ruby Mountains Trip probably this spring as I’ll be nearby for work, and at some point I need to find a willing victim for an 18-mile shuttle hike down the Fried Liver Wash Canyon, and my goal for the year is 500 hiking miles, toward which ambles with the dog on dirt roads will mostly not count.

And then more miles the year after that.

Letter From the Desert: Please Touch the Joshua Trees

The Elmer Tree was hard hit this week. An ancient Joshua tree near the Desert Queen mine named for a Joshua Tree National Monument ranger who used to rest under it during his lunch breaks, the Elmer Tree lost several large pieces of itself sometime during the night of December 26-27, victim of a heavy snowfall that even now is wreaking tourist-traffic-related havoc in the National Park.

This is how the Elmer Tree (or “Elmer’s Tree,” depending on who you ask) looked before this week in ten thousand annual Instagram photos:

And this, courtesy the Instagram account of Allison Dunkel, is how Elmer looked yesterday:

It’d be hard to find a better example of why my neighbors talk about Joshua trees being too brittle to hang hammocks from.

Thirty or forty pounds of extra snow was too much for some of Elmer’s limbs. Look at the points of fracture here: they snapped right off. There was no agonizing tearing of tree flesh here the way you might see with a hardwood, where a lost limb might peel away a several-foot-long strip of trunk along with it. Just a snap, and suddenly all those dagger-shaped leaves find themselves stuck into the ground with a hundred pounds of branch driving them in. Now picture you and your hammock between that falling limb and the ground.

Truth be told, the prospect of that kind of grisly injury isn’t what seems to propel most of the social media commentary about the fragility of Joshua trees. Of tourists there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply, after all. Otherhandwise, we have only just so many Joshua trees. An injury like that shown above strikes fear in the souls of the trees’ aficionados.

Elmer’s Tree might be about 300 years old, close to the absolute maximum age attainable by a single stem of Yucca brevifolia. The top-heavy fragility of an ancient J-tree’s limbs may be a contributor to mortality at that age. The wounds left by broken-off limbs provide routes for pests and pathogens to get into the tree’s innards.

Then again, if you take a look at that top pre-snowstorm photo again, there’s a scar near the base of the trunk on the right that was clearly left by a broken branch. That branch probably departed its trunk of origin some decades back, perhaps even before Mr. Elmer first laid eyes on his tree. There are many, many old Joshua trees in the Mojave that have lost large limbs and survived for years after. That’s a good thing, as fallen Joshua tree limbs provide habitat for native critters from night lizards to termites to desert woodrats. You could even argue that a Joshua tree, after shedding a limb or two, might be in better shape to face a drought because it’s got fewer leaves to keep supplied with water. Trees have deciduous leaves, why not deciduous limbs?

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Whether to shed limbs for water conservation is a decision best left up to the tree, not the random passing tourist with a hammock or a clothesline or a suspended anvil or what have you. And it’s never just one hammock. This article I wrote a couple of years ago shows how some individual Joshua trees suffer repeated abuse for the sake of memorable photos. Joshua Tree National Park had 3 million visitors in 2019. If just a tenth of one percent of those visitors hung on — or stood on — a Joshua tree during their visit, that’s 3,000 people stressing the trees, most likely the same handful of trees within 100 feet of a parking space.

So it’s a thing, and the number of my neighbors who have been saying something about it is growing, and perhaps Elmer will provide a stark example of the kind of damage that the trees can suffer while hopefully not interfering with its survival too much, and all that is good.

But — you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you — in the service of advocating for our beloved trees, some of my neighbors say things that are verifiably untrue, which is rarely a good strategy for effecting change. “Those Joshua trees are thousands of years old!” (Untrue: 350 years is probably about the maximum.) “Joshua trees are a protected species!” (Nope. See here for more.) “They are fragile because they aren’t really trees!” (Frustrated, strangled sounds emanate from yours truly.)

Good intentions count for a lot. But there’s one thing some of my neighbors have been telling people that I think needs to be dealt with firmly, to wit:

PLEASE know and inform anyone you see that touching, modifying and especially hanging from Joshua Trees is not only dangerous to the trees, but also ILLEGAL.

That example is from a Reddit post from a few years back, but you can find similar statements fairly often if you know where to look, usually on Instagram. It’s two thirds correct: modifying or hanging stuff, including yourself, off Joshua trees is indeed damaging to the trees and forbidden in national parks.

But: touching Joshua trees is not illegal, in or out of a national park. And by itself, it’s not damaging to the trees. Having thousands of people compressing the soil around a particularly photogenic and accessible tree so that they can each touch it might be a problem. Going off-trail across cryptobiotic soil crust to reach a distant Joshua tree for touching purposes? Hell yes, that’s bad. Putting your hand on a Joshua tree’s trunk is not.

I would argue, in fact, that not touching a Joshua tree is far more dangerous to the trees’ survival than touching them.

About three decades ago, give or take a week, I was traveling through the Mojave Desert with a young woman who would later become my ex-wife. We camped in Death Valley National Monument, then headed back to the Bay Area by that Triumvirate of Mojave B Towns: Baker, Barstow, Boron. It was her first visit to the desert, and only my second or third. At the westbound Route 58 rest area at Boron we stretched our legs. There was, and still is, a mature Joshua tree near the vending machines. After asking for some reason whether I thought it was okay, she walked up to the tree and placed her palm flat on the trunk. She closed her eyes.

For a Californian who had grown up observing the world through the windows of her parents’ car, it was a revelation. The desert was real. It was alive. One could just reach out and touch it. One could involve one’s self in the landscape.

The idea was only a little less new for me, and I likewise took my turn touching my frst Joshua tree. To this day, when I have occasion to stop at that prosaic rest stop, I find the tree and place my palm on the same spot.

Fifteen years or so later and a few hundred miles east, another Joshua tree survived my embrace while I grieved the dissolution of that marriage, my tears rolling slowly down the creases in the old bark.


I have known thousands of individual Joshua trees since that first. I have stroked their bark thoughtfully. I have given young trees a gentle shake to ease their burden of snow. I have felt beneath dead but still sharp leaves to trace the contours of the spot where branches join, mindful of possible hidden scorpions. On days when I was not sure whether this is all real, I have grasped the trees’ razor-edged leaves just firmly enough to draw blood. My own, I mean. I have met the needle-tip of Joshua tree leaves with my own fingertip, testing that sensate boundary between tree and human, knowing that the tree will always win if I push too hard. Is it the sharp point that stings, or the sharp reality of this wholly alien thing I have met? Every so often I forget and must remind myself.

There are plenty of things in the desert one must never touch. Petroglyphs, for example. Sidewinders. Desert dwellers in the absence of affirmative consent. Harley-Davidsons parked outside certain roadside bars. Pepsis wasps. Chollas, perhaps, though like Joshua trees I think chollas’ true nature is unknowable to those who have not made experimental contact with a cholla at least once. “Truth,” said the writer Ellen Meloy in a similar context, “is the horrid little bug sinking its thorny mandibles into your lotus-positioned butt.”

Petroglyphs of Joshua trees? Do not touch.

Anyway. Plenty of things not to touch, like I said. But telling visitors not to touch the Joshua trees? We might as well lock them in their cars, forever to view the lambent desert through the glass like deprived children. That might seem a reasonable visitor management strategy at first. But think it through. Would my favorite ex-wife have become as enamored with the desert if she’d hung back? Would I have devoted my life to its protection if that rest stop tree had stayed a museum exhibit in my mind?

The desert needs defenders. Mere observers rarely become defenders. Developing enough emotional involvement to defend the desert requires more than just observation. It requires participation. “Hands-on” isn’t just an adjective. It’s also an exhortation.

So yes, be mindful when you visit Joshua Tree National Park that 2,999,999 other people want to transgress the same way you’re tempted to, and be mindful that every step off-trail has three million followers, and be mindful that the desert can only bear so much appreciation from observers.

That said, by all means touch a Joshua tree if one presents itself. See how it feels. Imagine the uses to which the tree puts its platy bark, its finger-shredding leaves, its mammalian shroud of dead foliage. Be gentle, of course: don’t hang on the tree or use it as a parkour launchpad. (If you can’t touch a Joshua tree without hurting it, it’s time to take a good hard look at your life choices.)

Who knows? You might just find yourself working to combat climate change, or off-road vehicle abuse, or invasive exotic species, or inappropriate renewable energy development, or urban sprawl, or any of a number of other issues that pose a bigger threat to Joshua trees than do hammocks.

All content Copyright 2019 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share via forwarding, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Long Night

It’s the longest night of the year, ten days before the end of the calendar, and therefore the temptation here is to write one of those retrospective posts. Problem is, I don’t really know what to write about as an annual retrospective. Aside from buying a new car, having la mujer que amo formally move in, the two of us getting married, me losing something like 40 pounds, dealing death blows to two desert destroying projects, getting a promotion, having an offer accepted on a house with the negotiative details still pending, and now enjoying the last few days before I turn 60, not much really happened for me this year.

But tradition is tradition.


In 2019 the desert was cold, and then hotter, and then after that it got really hot but not quite so much as the year before. Subsequent to which things cooled down, then warmed up again, and then got quite cold, at least for here. In 2019 there was rain and snow, then a notable lack of either except on the mountains in the distance, and then rain, then more drought, and then both rain and snow again.

In 2019 I decided to take up playing the banjo. This goal has not yet been carried out to the point where I have actually acquired a banjo, or for that matter even held one. But I have talked more or less endlessly about it of late, with the word “banjo” popping up somewhat incongruously as for example when la mujer que amo informs me she’s running to the health food store and is there anything she should pick up for me.

In 2019 the Earth traveled around the sun at 30 kilometers per second, while at the same time the Earth and sun together circled the center of the galaxy at about seven times that speed, and meanwhile we and the galaxy and everything in it rushed at about 1,000 kilometers per second toward something called the Great Attractor.

March 24, 2019

In 2019 the dog made friends. In 2019: desert iguanas, phainopeplas, honey mesquite and mistletoe, flakes of muscovite and rust, a thousand cholla spines lodged and dislodged, desert rocks baked dark in ten thousand years of sun, rain that fell to within two hundred feet of the ground and then evaporated.

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In 2019 a good friend moved away and a couple died and I saw a few others when I was not expecting to. In 2019: arguments and reconciliations, rifts, agreements to disagree. In 2019 the annoying awareness that no one is evil but everyone is damaged. In 2019 increasing patience with everyone except myself.

In 2019 I laughed myself silly at remembered jokes I told in the late 1980s. In 2019 I mentally filed away hilarious rejoinders to questions there’s a million-to-one chance anyone would ever ask in my presence. In 2019 I laughed for no reason, cried for the wrong reasons.

Mentzelia up close and personal
March 27, 2019

In 2019 I understood myself better and it didn’t help much.

In 2019 the thin fibers on Mojave yuccas’ leaf margins twisted slightly in the wind off the monsoon south, and the desert ached toward the sky hoping for even a scant rain. In 2019 the big galleta grass awoke in October after a late summer storm. In 2019 a perennial stream flowed in the hottest, driest place on Earth.

Water running in Willow Canyon, Death Valley
March 11, 2019

In 2019 the California Legislature required that the Cadiz water mining project pass an environmental review it couldn’t pass by cheating, and since Cadiz can only win by cheating, the project is doomed. In 2019 the Riverside County Board of Supervisors told a suburb developer it needed better justification for building an economically infeasible development adjacent to dark sky wilderness in Joshua Tree National Park. In 2019 a federal court ruled that the current administration broke the law when it cut Cadiz a favor that prolonged the project’s life two years ago. In 2019 Congress added thousands of acres to desert national parks.

In 2019 I stood at Bonanza Spring and dreamed we would save it from Cadiz’s lies. In 2019 I stood in Shavers Valley and dreamed we would save it from developers’ avarice. In 2019 I stood on the banks of the incongruously flowing southernmost reaches of the Amargosa River and dreamed they would be folded into Death Valley National Park.

The Amargosa River flows through the “Bowling Alley,” a nearly 29,000-acre strip of land that will likely be added to Death Valley National Park this month.
March 5, 2019

May all your dreams come true in 2020.

All content Copyright 2019 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share via forwarding, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

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