Letter From the Desert: Hot

At some point you’ll look back at your life and regret not doing more to address this crisis. What is that “more”? And can you start doing it now?

First things first: My new desert protection podcast 90 Miles From Needles is launching January 2022. From our explanatory text:

The North American desert is split by county, state, and national borders. It holds a diverse range of ecosystems, landscapes, cultures, languages and people. But the California desert, for instance, has more in common with the desert elsewhere than it does with many parts of California. You can say much the same about deserts in Nevada, Texas, Sonora and Baja California. Arid lands face the same issues in ecological, cultural and political senses. The American desert is a discrete entity that is too seldom respected, or even recognized as something that deserves to exist on its own terms.

Ninety Miles from Needles, a podcast to launch in January 2022, will interpret and explain the desert, its living things, its people and our cultures in a clear and compelling fashion. Our main focus is on the desert environment: what it is, what threats it faces, and what people are doing to counter those threats. The environment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. In fact, the desert is a place where people can’t pretend they aren’t affected by the non-human world. So we will cover environment through the lenses of not just science and recreation, but culture, history, the arts, and politics as well.

You can listen to the first trailer here, and if you want to help us cover expenses like wireless lavalier mics and recording studio time and web hosting, you can sign up on our Patreon and kick in any monthly amount you like. Levels from $5 per month on up will get you some merch, like stickers with our beautiful if a little too on-the-nose logo by Martin Mancha:

Joining me in this endeavor, along with the many desert activists and elders and experts whose work we will be featuring, is my hiking pal and general co-conspirator and now co-host Alicia Pike, who I am reasonably certain will end up being the actual star of the podcast. An upcoming trailer (part of our “Season Zero” content) will explain how we know each other. Spoiler: our friendship started in about as Mojave Desert a fashion as possible. You will adore her. (That’s an order.) Help us get this thing off the ground.

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And what better time to create a new and somewhat hopeful project than in a month when the entire planet seems to be running a fever in an attempt to rid itself of a plague of something? Ironic that the desert may turn out to be a place where life goes on somewhat more uninterrupted than it does in other places. One need only receive so many screenshots of weather reports pointing out that the Pacific Northwest is hotter than the Mojave before beginning to conclude that at least in the short term, we have it pretty good here. 108°F at 10:30 a.m.? Been there, done that, called it “sweater weather”.

When I first decided to leave the East Coast, 450 years ago if I remember right, I thought Portland was the place I ought to head for. I knew less than nothing about the West back then. A series of political and relationship events intervened and I landed in Berkeley instead, which inexorably resulted in moving to the Mojave 26 years later. Imagine if I’d reached Portland as intended, somehow managed to secure an economic foothold in that town, perhaps even buying a house and learnng to complain about the ongoing influx of Californians? I can only imagine the despair I would feel as my cool and coniferous adopted home began to reach temperatures more typical of the Sonoran Desert, and worrying that it was only a matter of time before the book stacks at Powells began to spontaneously combust.


Meanwhile, here in a part of the Mojave that reaches Sonoran Desert temps about one day in seven, what I feel instead is… well, it’s still despair. But a different flavor. The heat wave of the last month killed most of my carefully tended native tree seedlings. I have not hiked in weeks, instead dragging myself to a air conditioned gym where I work on machines that show me a video of a hike through the Alabama Hills. It’s like being thirsty and being shown a video of running water.

Also, there’s this:

Did I say life in the desert is going on uninterrupted? The photo shows a piece of the Chuckwalla Valley that for the last several thousand years has been quietly sequestering perhaps five metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. Naturally, the Bureau of Land Management is considering allowing a company to convert the land into an industrial solar power project, ending that natural carbon sequestration. Those mountains in the background are the Coxcombs, part of Joshua Tree National Park. This project’s owners want a partial exemption from many of the regulations we just spent four years defending from D*nald Tr*mp during his assault on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a.k.a. DRECP. In particular, the company wants to encroach on desert dry wash woodland more than the regulations allow. Why? Because the bankers want the project to make more money than it would without that encroachment.

That’s what the project representative told a few of us enviros this week, at any rate, in between explaining that the dry wash woodland they would destroy wasn’t very important and that the site’s inclusion in desert tortoise critical habitat was essentially a mapmakers’ mistake. All this in a month in which the state of California wants to make it far harder to install solar on rooftops.

That’s just one of the solar projects looming in the desert right now. There are dozens, along with wind projects and lithium mines and new freeways and new suburbs and new water mining proposals and who knows what else. There are three proposed solar projects up around Beatty, NV that I’ll be checking out this week, each of which by itself would pose an unacceptable threat to Death Valley National Park’s desert ecosystem. All three together? Triply Unacceptable. And parenthetically, what a life this is in which one has perfectly sound and sane reasons to head to Death Valley in the middle of a record-setting summer. (I expect to record some stuff for the first episode of the podcast at Badwater, that salt flat at -282 feet below Mean Sea Level, on Wednesday. Working title: The Desert Is Hot.)

Meanwhile, hundreds of people died from the heat this past week in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. We have three months of summer ahead of us, and then three more of autumn, and a continent full of trees waiting to explode, aside from the ones that already have. That’s just here in North America.

But the election broke our way last year! We were supposed to be able to go to sleep until the next one. It isn’t fair.

I remember a time when I thought the last three or four decades of my life would be spent living essentially outdoors, a scrawny old guy in work clothes with a rust bucket pickup and a cabover camper tucked away in some national forest 17 miles off the pavement, seeking solitude and then talking the ears off of any hapless passersby. Though my choice of imagined venue changed and I veered markedly away from (and then belatedly back toward) scrawny I still always had that in mind as a personal denouement.

I never once thought there was a chance I would outlive the woods.

It puts one’s personal goals in perspective, it does. The planet is spiraling toward uninhabitability, but look at my excellent credit rating! Look at all these positive LinkedIn reviews! I finally paid off my houseboat! Too bad the water is on fire.

Speaking of fire, there was another one on Cima Dome this month. It was smaller than last year’s Dome Fire, contained in a few hours, and it mainly burned an area that had burned before. For a minute I took that as good news, not as disheartening confirmation of the grass-fire cycle that is the future of Cima Dome, with a fire on every square mile every few years.

The good news is that people are taking action to stem this horrid tide. The bad news is that it’s mostly the wrong people: The utilities and the energy companies and others who stand to enrich themselves from minor modifications to the status quo are taking definitive action to protect their interests. I see people online saying that it’s the corporations who created most of this mess and that therefore individual action is beside the point and it’s the corporations’ responsibility to fix things, ignoring the facts that the corporations are already working to fix things in the wrong direction and that all we have left is individual action, including individual action to stop the corporations.

The downside is that that leaves less time for complaining at people on Twitter.

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I guess what I’m asking in this unballasted, sloppy diatribe is this: what more can you do? I’m not looking for an answer from you. I can only answer that for myself. I’m just hoping you’ll ask yourself the question. What actions can you take now that you haven’t been? At some point you’ll be looking back at your life through this period, seeing how bad it’s gotten in the world since, and you’ll regret not doing something more instead of hoping you could get by doing the usual amount. What is that “more”? Can you start doing it now?

And I’m not necessarily counting helping with the podcast as one of those things. Though I won’t tell you it won’t be a good thing for the desert if you do. That is, after all, our goal.

All content Copyright 2021 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Senitas and Sacrifices

It’s a completely reasonable 99°F at 3:00 pm, but I’m still sweating. I am preoccupied. I am keeping company with three species of column cacti. The long drive across the Tohono O’odham Reservation from Tucson required extra caffeine, and I am not fully in the moment. Cactus wrens sing from the rocks. A Gila woodpecker lands on the saguaro nearest the car, unleashes a cacophony. It is beautiful.

I cannot stop thinking about the Wall.

Aside from the saguaros, which are this year confusing people by sprouting flower buds from their sides rather than their tops as required by law, I am also in the company of organ pipe and senita cacti, Stenocereus thurberi and and Lophocereus schottii, respectively, and also respectively tcutcuis (Tohono O’odham) and hasahcápoj (Seri), both of which species grow wild in the United States only within a few miles of where I stand, sweating and distracted. They each are far more prevalent in the state of Sonora, south of here, south of the border, which is about five miles away.

The Wall is about five miles away.

The last time I was here, the Wall was merely a tall and flimsy fence that stretched a few hundred yards along the border on either side of the port of entry at Lukeville. Beyond that distance, there was a bollard and rail fence of heavy iron intended to keep people from driving across the desert: reasonable enough even without considering the border, given busy Highway 2 a literal stone’s throw away from the southern boundary of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. (I checked, once, long ago, after making sure no one was nearby that could possibly have been hit by my thrown stone.) That barrier was otherwise completely porous to most wildlife, as well as to people heading in either direction. (Again, I checked.)

Before that, before the Clinton administration set the most recent series of border policy atrocities in motion, the frontier was marked by a barbed wire fence, which in many places was actually not so much a fence as a series of barbed wire strands running ten inches apart on the ground.

Now, a barrier almost as flimsy as the 2006-era Lukeville fence but three stories tall runs the length of the Monument’s border with Mexico. A football-field-wide buffer has been bulldozed, scraped clear of any apparent living thing. In case any living thing decides to sneak into the dead zone under cover of darkness, a miles-long row of 40-foot floodlights ensures there will be no darkness. Here and there a line of transplanted saguaros forms a final gauntlet welcoming wall climbers to the United States of America.

The Wall poses only a little more obstacle to northward passage than does the widely spaced row of saguaros. Almost as soon as the first sections of wall went up, videos made the rounds of young people climbing the bollards as if they were ladders. For those would-be migrants without the upper body strength to pull themselves over the wall, a few minutes’ work with a reciprocating saw turned out to allow the bottom end of a cut bollard to be pushed to one side, allowing passage. This would be followed by a hasty Border Patrol repair of the cut bollard, which would then necessitate cutting of a new, nearby bollard, and so forth. I understand that the coyotes are now prominently marking the bollards they have sawed through as a way of taunting the Border Patrol.

The real barrier is what lies north of the Wall. Depending on where a person crosses between here and the Colorado River, she faces between 40 and 70 miles of plodding through extremely hot desert before getting to Interstate 8, where — with luck — a contact will pick her up and speed into Phoenix, or Tucson, or Los Angeles. Not everyone gets that far. Today, it is a completely reasonable 99°F, and I have hiking boots and a way to carry several gallons of water in only moderate discomfort and I have hiked around 200 miles in similar heat so far this year, and I would hesitate before hiking the 5.78 miles over to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and then back again, much less seven times that total distance to Sentinel or Gila Bend. So far in 2021, as of this writing, seven bodies have been found just inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Across southern Arizona from the New Mexico line to Yuma, 64 bodies have been found. So far this year. The toll since records have been kept somewhat methodically is terrifying: 3,658 deaths listed by the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants. No one knows how many deaths have gone unreported. Perhaps 11,000 along the entirety of the border.

Each one of those red dots is a dead human being that has actually been found and formally recorded. The closest red dot to where I stand, admiring the senitas and organ pipes and saguaros, memorializes Olvin Galindo Romero, who died sometime in July 2018 not 100 feet from this spot. Five years earlier and a quarter mile south, someone found the remains of 27-year-old Albaro Valente Garcia in the wash.

Those of us who grew up fed horror stories about the privations of American pioneers, who sweated and froze and drowned and hauled unwilling livestock across rivers and canyons, who on occasion ate each other’s remains as a last resort, might wonder why we hear so little — why we think so seldom — of the people making this trip. Some Border Patrol estimates have it that only one in ten migrants making the attempt makes it through the desert. Those that aren’t apprehended, or rescued, or something in between end up as a red dot in some database-driven map. Or they end up as a whirlwind of unresolved grief and longing in the hearts of their families. If they have ever ended up in any school’s fourth grade curriculum, I have not heard of it.

Several people have told me over the years that I am too suggestible. In time, I came to agree with them. And so I must admit that the wording of a National Park Service warning sign, one placed at regular intervals throughout Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, has my nerves on edge. One of them is a few feet from where I parked. It reads:

Smuggling and illegal immigration are common in this area due to the proximity to the international border. Please be aware of your surroundings at all times and do not travel alone to remote areas. Dial 911 to report suspicious activity.

Out of detached curiosity, I pull out first my personal phone and then my work phone to see if either one offers the capability of making the call suggested by the sign. The first has no signal. The other has a new text message on it. It reads:

I put both phones back in my pocket.

I find myself simultaneously offended by the sign and made wary by it. The majority of people coming across the border not only mean me no harm, they would take extreme measures to avoid having me even know they were anywhere nearby. The minority, for instance the armed smugglers of drugs or migrants who might reasonably be expected to pose a greater threat? Even barring any character judgements? Desperate conditions make for desperate acts. Here I am standing around innocently and alone with an all wheel drive vehicle nearby full of gas and drinking water. A simple target of opportunity. Still, objectively speaking, there is nothing to worry about. I probably ran more of a risk of being assaulted by strangers in downtown Phoenix the other day.

Logic and common sense don’t make the hairs on the back of my neck relax. Nor does indignant offense at being told not to travel alone in remote areas. Do they even know me? What would I do instead, watch television?

I turn away from the sign and look at the senitas.

They are beautiful. How tempting it is to focus on them alone, to ignore the Wall entirely. How tempting to think about anything other than the agony Olvin Galindo must have felt just a short distance from here, how his skin must have blackened and his lips fissured, how he must have felt fear and then panic and then dull confusion and grinding pain and fever dreams as he succumbed to thirst and hyperthermia.

It would be interesting, I think, to craft an essay composed entirely of other people’s rigorously cited words, a series of warring quotations, lyrical evocations of desert magic and purpling twilight sky and white people’s inspiration interspersed with surviving migrants’ first-hand accounts of their jornadas, their excruciating journeys across the desert, the loved ones they abandoned to the vultures, running out of water 30 miles from a point where a confederate might be there with a van. Stories of ice water in insulated stainless steel thermoses interspersed with stories of drinking urine out of a gallon plastic jug. It would be a ham-handed and unsubtle piece of writing, to be sure. Here I am instead, writing a field guide to the spring wildflowers of the Warsaw ghetto circa 1942.


The Gila woodpeckers are still chattering. The temperature crosses the 100°F line without seeking permission from the authorities. An interesting thing about senitas: the story people usually tell about how they got their common name seems not to be based on anything real. The common story is that “senita” is the Spanish for “old woman,” which I guess it could be, technically, if you ignore every Spanish-speaking country’s actual usage over the last couple centuries, and that the tufts of gray hairs at the ends of the plants’ older stems look like old people’s whiskers, and therefore. A more likely explanation is that a local indigenous word for the cacti is “sina,” which was mispronounced in Spanish and then even more so in English. One can find people correcting the spelling to “sinita” in some sources.

So much is lost in translation. Desert writing is an established genre now, and yet the number of desert writers who pay any attention to the decades-long, completely avoidable atrocity on the southern border can be counted on the stiff-curled, blackened fingers of Olvin Galindo’s left hand. Our collective blindness is staggering here. Along with the desert’s original sin — the removal of most of the place’s original inhabitants by successive waves of colonizers, still in progress to this day — our disregard for the welfare of migrants in the desert is a blind spot the size of the big red one on Jupiter.

One might reasonably point out that the migrants are violating the law by entering the country over the Wall. This is true. Base jumping is also illegal, at least in national parks, and the death of one base jumper in Yosemite in 1999 spurred national conversation. If a dozen base jumpers a year were dying in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, would the illegality of their actions be the main thing we’d be talking about? Especially if those deaths were part of more than 200 annually throughout southern Arizona? And if it seems blithe to compare migration across the desert to an extreme sport, all I can ask is what would you call hiking across 70 miles of desert in blistering heat with two gallons of water, and insufficient shoes? Maybe if Americans started thinking of the migrants as athletes we’d offer them more compassion.

Besides which, the only reason people are coming here to the Arizona-Sonora border is that the obvious points of entry — San Diego, Nogales, El Paso — were deliberately closed off in the 1990s. The fact that the only alternative not mired in bureaucracy is a perilous trek through the desert is not mere chance. The idea was that the crossing, especially during the first weeks of harvest season, when most migrants arrive, would be so damn dangerous that no one would do it. That policy has been spectacularly not working for thirty years now, even as we’ve doubled down on it more than twice.

And the migrants persist for what? For the promise of sub-minimum wage jobs picking crops, cleaning homes, mowing lawns. They trudge miles across this desert to clean up the sweat after Anglos put in a few air-conditioned miles on gym treadmills. Who deserves more to be here? Who has sacrificed more to join the community of people in our country? Those who risk becoming that eternal skeletal gape at wheeling desert stars in order to work among us, or others born here who whine at a jury duty summons?

Senitas, which bloom at night, are pollinated by Senita moths, Upiga virescens, centimeter-long night fliers whose closest moth relatives are mainly pests of cereal crops. The female moths will gather pollen deliberately by rubbing a scaly abdominal brush on the flowers’ stamens, then transferring that pollen to the stigmas of another flower. The moths lay an egg in each flower, which then develops a fruit. Most of the larvae don’t survive, and those fruit produce seeds to keep the cactus population going. Enough larvae do survive, and consume the seeds in their host fruit, to keep the moth population going. Thus the senita and its moth are in a partnership ecologists describe as “obligate pollination with seed consumption,” a rather exclusive club of which the only other members are figs (with fig wasps) and yuccas (with yucca moths). Though senitas do occasionally enjoy successful pollination from native bees, suggesting that the partnership with senita moths is still evolving.

I’m standing in a forest of trees with an exclusive (almost) partnership with moths, whose common name’s origin everyone gets wrong, and I suddenly feel right at home.

It lasts a full four minutes. Then I remember the Wall. I have gotten too far from the car for my liking, what with the sign-inspired wariness. I return, get in, and drive to the oasis at Quitobaquito Spring.

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I’ve been worried about Quitobaquito Spring since reports of Homeland Security drawing down the aquifer to make concrete for the Wall raised questions as to the viability of the wetland. The spring is important habitat for endangered Quitobaquito pupfish, the Quitobaquito spring snail, the Sonoyta mud turtle, and the desert caper plant and its associated caper butterfly. On my first visit to the spring, back before the gates were figuratively welded shut in San Diego and El Paso, it was affected by its proximity to the border mainly in that local kids would sneak across the line to go swimming. Now, the Wall overshadows the spring. I walk to the shore, and am relieved to see what appears to be an unimpaired pond. I am no hydrologist, and it may be that damage from construction has yet to manifest. But it looks good.

Frustratingly mindful of the warning on the ubiquitous signs, I decide that I have left my car out of view long enough. And there is a six-hour drive home to think about. I start the engine and head eastward along Puerto Blanco Road. The road sweeps north around a low hill and away from the Wall for a mile or so. Then it turns south again to rejoin the Wall.

A pair of green and white Border Patrol SUVs are parked against the Wall, their lights flashing, their doors open. Two Border Patrol agents slouch, bored, against one of the vehicles. There are three people with them not in uniform. Two are women, maybe five feet tall with long, straight black hair, carrying garbage bags that look full of sweaters and afghans and such. They might be in their twenties, though they look much younger. The third is a somewhat taller young man, wavy dark brown hair cropped a few inches long, with the beginnings of a mustache. He looks 15 or 16. I slow a little so as not to choke them all with dust. The young man notices me, makes eye contact, grins. The women move their bags of belongings into one of the SUVs.

I feel a wash of embarrassment. So these are the threatening people the signs had me fretting about. The only threat any of them seem to pose is the threat of making me want to feed them soup. In a better world I might stop, tell the Border Patrol I’d make sure they got where they’re headed safely, buy them shakes at Dateland. In the real world that would get me arrested, cost me the car for aiding and abetting.

I drive on. Most of the way back to the pavement, I pass a Border Patrol van heading toward the group. At least they will have water to drink tonight.

Three thousand, six hundred fifty eight dead who have actually been found in Arizona. Likely double that number as yet unfound, people who simply vanished, people who no one knows to they need to look for. We regard graveyards as sacred land. Sites of slaughter in battle are hallowed ground. This Sonoran Desert has been sanctified by too many sacrifices. At some point we will need to honor this landscape in appropriate fashion.

But first we need to open the borders to those who merely seek honest work, or to join their families. Let them walk through the gates in San Diego and El Paso. Let them go back home as they see fit. Let us become neighbors. Let the unnecessary desert deaths come to an end.

The group Border Angels is one of several doing concrete work to reduce the danger to migrants entering the United States from Mexico. Support them, or find a group closer to home.

All content Copyright 2021 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Joshua Forest Parkway

The first time I saw them they seemed bright blue. Or perhaps not so much bright blue as bright and blue, that waxy, whitish intermediate between blue and green that the botanists call “glaucous.” It may have been the light. The sun had only just risen, and was playing hide and seek behind the Bradshaw Mountains. That almost certainly affected the color of the leaves. That rising sun had also shone into the eyes of my friend behind the wheel, prompting her to close them in her extreme fatigue, with the expected resulting screech of brake and thud of impact. The fact that said impact had been limited to the left front fender and a flimsy reflector pole, and that all three of us in the car were preposterously uninjured, made the desert sparkle a little bit more than usual.

There is also the fact that this all took place in the summer of 1984, allowing me plenty of time to edit and embellish the color in my memory. Subsequent visits failed to factcheck that memory. I have second-guessed the memories of those visits as well.

I was last here 15 years ago, and facing down a series of life changes that preoccupied me enough that I failed to notice the color of the leaves on these most southeastern of Joshua trees.

Today they looked glaucous.

Joshua trees are the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, in much the same way that saguaros are the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. If you see the plant in question, you can be pretty sure that you are in that plant’s . corresponding desert. Never mind that these bluish Joshua trees grow among saguaros. Who needs complications like that? Certainly we can't be standing in two places at once. These plants must just be confused. They must have forgotten to consult a field guide.

The odd juxtaposition of inappropriate plant companions shows itself best along Alamo Road a few miles west of here, near a mesquite - filled seasonal watercourse called Bullard Wash. It is a place that deserves to be better known. Aside from the two trees in question,— for what is a saguaro if not a tree? — Bullard Wash is also awash in spring annuals, beavertail and barrel cacti, snakes, desert kit foxes, eagles and cactus wrens, Number 5 tin cans full of bullet holes, creosote and acacia, stranded minivans bearing the skeletons of unlucky families, Palo Verde trees and the dens of desert wood rats, and that’s just what you can see if you never bother to get out of the car.

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A place like Bullard Wash deserves to be protected for its own sake. And so of course the federal government once considered the notion of tearing it all down and replacing it with solar panels. It would’ve been known as the Bullard Wash Solar Energy Zone, par of the 2012 Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Six Western States, aka the Solar PEIS.

Since I knew the place a bit, I was quite worried. This was during a time when one amazing, beautiful and precious desert place after another was being slated for destruction so that utility companies could generate more renewable power. I hated to see it happen, all these potential landscapes sacrificed, and a few other people felt the same way.

I went to DC in 2010 with many of those places in mind. It was a lobbying trip with a group called Solar Done Right, which advocated for putting renewable Energy in places where it actually made sense: on rooftops, over parking lots, and otherwise not on intact and thriving habitat.

(This is commonly accepted as sensible these days. Back then the idea was treated by many green groups about as if we'd advocated dumping used motor oil in the community garden. That is a story for another time.)

During that 2010 trip, I had a chance to meet with Ray Brady, who was running the renewable energy program for the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM was essentially in charge of the Solar PEIS, at least on the land management side of things.. Brady sat with me and my friend Janine Blaeloch in the BLM building and we had a cordial discussion.

"One last thing," 1 said, “before we end here. There is one proposed Solar Energy Zone on the list in the Draft PEIS that needs to be protected from development. It's of immense conservation value. It's really a national monument quality landscape."

"Iron Mountain?" asked Brady.


The Iron Mountain SEZ would have been disastrous, would have killed the largest imaginable stand of desert dry wash woodland, and I was glad he was paying attention to it.

"No," I said, "though that's a good one. I'm talking about Bullard Wash." I mentioned the ecological oddness of Joshua trees and saguaros growing together. I mentioned the likelihood that these Joshua trees were better adapted to heat and drought evolving in such a place, a quality that could prove useful in a warming desert. I mentioned the odd beauty of the place. He listened.

Two years later, when the final draft of the Solar PEIS came out, Bullard Wash was nowhere mentioned as a candidate for energy development. (Neither was Iron Mountain.)

I'm not claiming it was that 2010 meeting that resulted in the 2012 FEIS beng released without a Bullard Wash SEZ. I'm just saying those two events happened, and in that order. A large group of environmental organizations had campaigned to remove Iron Mountain from the document. If anyone campaigned to protect Bullard Wash, I didn’t hear about it. If you did, let me know. I’d like to thank you.

I had best leave it at that for now. This is a bit shorter than your usual Letter From the Desert, but I am writing this in a hotel room in Tucson without a keyboard. More when I don’t have to argue with my iPads voice recognition software, which sometimes Mrs. My Particulate cheese of Frazier. As a result, I hope you’ll forgive what is likely a higher percentage of typos than usual. More soon. Thanks for reading.

All content Copyright 2021 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Is Joshua Tree Over?

okay, this is long.

Some of us knew there was trouble when people first started painting their houses black. You don’t do that in the desert. Don’t take that the wrong way. We are remarkably tolerant of different colors of house paint. Paint your exterior walls light brown to match the surrounding mountains, or deep red or terra cotta to provide a spark of color that complements the surround, or green because there isn’t much here and you miss it, or rainbow stripes. You’ll see it all out here, and we don’t care. Most of us who weren’t actually born here came here to get away from things like HOAs or neighborhood design codes or approved palettes. Some of us actually had experience painting previous urban houses in colors that didn’t meet the approval of the neighbors. Live and let live is a popular sentiment around here. It’s one of the reasons so many eccentric, creative types have made their homes here.

But there’s something every newly minted desert dweller learns when they pull out their goth-inspired urban previous-life wardrobe and wear their black everything out into the sunshine. Namely: that shit absorbs some heat. Painting your desert house black signifies one of two things. One, that you don’t yet realize how important a cool retreat becomes in summer, when the entire world is sizzling around you. Or two, that you are not the person who pays the place’s utility bills.

One black house in a neighborhood was a head-scratching oddity. Two on the same block was evidence of something disturbing. People building new houses specifically to paint them black? That’s where we are now, and it is lunacy.

I jest. Somewhat. People here mostly still don’t care if you paint your desert house black to cohere with some distant esthete’s sense of fast fashion as it applies to home improvement. The scraping is another matter. It is, I suppose, a blessing that fewer people are killing Joshua trees when they buy houses, what with that being at least temporarily illegal. But scraping away every other living thing on an acre of property to show off your stylish black house as if it were thoughtfully placed in a zen garden remains an ecological crime. Personally, I’d even look the other way if all a person did was remove the chollas. I love chollas. I love my dog. She loves chollas a bit too much. I get it. But it’s not just chollas being bladed out of existence. New landowners are taking out beavertails, big galleta grass, centuries-old creosotes and millennia-old Mojave yuccas, cheesebush and indigo bush, senna and milkweed, packrat middens and kit fox warrens, all for a bit more euclidean geometry imposed on a decidedly non-Euclidean desert. And all the beautiful unprepossessing organisms that do the actual work of tying the desert together, the globemallows and tarantulas and dodder and mycorrhizal fungi, lose another place to live.

It is as if, having gone to the trouble of buying some real estate in the desert, the new owners set about removing any hint of actual desert from the property. They want “desert,” not desert. The image will be more than enough. Anything real is unwanted.

A scant few of these newly blackened, denuded properties may be intended as long-term homes for deserving people. About them all I can say is that it took me a while to learn, as well. I’m still doing it. Five or six years ago a Wintu ethnobotanist friend asked me how long I’d lived in the desert. I moved to the desert in 2008, I said. I’d been visiting for two decades before that. “Ah,” she said. “So the plants haven’t really started talking to you yet.” I fought back a spasm of defensiveness, but she’d hit it on the nose. Twice as long in the desert now and they’ve only just started. Not everyone gets this place, not all at once. Not everyone lasts here. The person I moved to Joshua Tree with lasted 18 months before packing her black clothing and going, as the bumper sticker puts it, back to LA. Those that last eventually figure things out, or die, or both. As I think I’ve written before, the desert will take you apart. It’ll then reassemble you, but there will be an odd part or two left on the workshop floor.

However. Chances are these new black houses won’t see anyone living in them for more than a month.

Joshua Tree had just over 7,400 full-time residents in 2019, living in 3,089 households. At this writing, there are 1,052 active vacation rentals in Joshua Tree. Most seem to charge upwards of $150 a night, with some positively stratospheric offerings setting guests back well above $750 per. Twenty-six percent of Joshua Tree residents live below the poverty line: $12,880 per annum for a single person, $26,500 for a family of four. A theoretically sustainable rent for that family of four, a quarter of income, would be a scoche above $500 a month. Some vacation rental owners are charging that per night. And yes, some vacation rentals are offered by owners who are still living in them. That has become less common than it used to be, as county restrictions on short-term rentals have essentially chased mom-and-pop-style operators out of the business. Vacation rentals in Joshua Tree are no longer about providing locals with a helpful secondary source of income to make ends meet. They are an aqueduct by which outside speculators siphon off the economic well-being of Joshua Tree. The desert is in this year, or at least a pallid, superficial and poorly understood simulacrum of the desert is in this year, and the absentee speculators see yet another goldmine to plunder.

This is not good for the aforementioned creative artsy eccentrics, who generally rely on inexpensive places to live in order to pursue their personal arcs. It’s not good for the self-described “dirtbag” climbers who are to Joshua Tree what the ski bums used to be to Park City, or potato farmers to the Hamptons. It’s not good for National Park Service staff, who often find themselves living in vehicles during the course of their seasonal gigs.

And it’s especially not good for the born-and-bred locals, whose determination and smarts are the equal of people anywhere else in the country, but whose access to economic advancement usually comes in the form of jobs providing services to tourists, and who increasingly find themselves commuting across many miles of desert to their working class jobs.

Why Joshua Tree? We’re still trying to figure that out. It’s beautiful, of course, but so are ten thousand other places in Southern California. It’s too close to Los Angeles, but Ridgecrest is even closer, as is Trona. Barstow has better Mexican food, but Barstow has not, to my knowledge, had a mediocre Irish arena rock band name an album after it after never setting foot in the place. It’s probably a safe bet that the root cause of Joshua Tree’s terminal popularity is whatever brought the arts types here in the first place. Twenty or thirty years of a thriving arts community in an affordable town is bound to attract attention. From being a place where people go to be left alone to make beauty, we became a place where people go so that they could be thought of as the kind of people that go to a place like this.

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If it seems like I’m implying that the creatives bear some share of responsibility for creating this situation, all I can say is “hmm probably.” David James Duncan wrote once about his parents’ habit of moving to the extreme rural outskirts of one Pacific Northwest city or another, then watching suburbs grow up around them, and moving farther out, only to see the process repeat and then repeat again. His family saw themselves as escaping time after time from the advancing maw of suburbanization, wrote Duncan, and in was only much later in life that he realized they had actually been that maw’s advance guard.

I wonder whether the creative types, among whose number I will presume to include myself, are doomed always to be the tip of the spear, whether anarchically thriving communities of culture in beautiful places will, by some law of social thermodynamics akin to Entropy, inevitably become Indian Wells or Jackson Hole. (I ask this as a three-decades-long denizen of Berkeley, California and environs.) It’s not that the seeds of destruction by the elites weren’t there from the beginning: you need but ask your local friends of color how they feel about the old-school artistic community that finds itself being squeezed out. Chances are the answer will hold enough nuance to power a small city. For starters: didn’t we do an even more brutal job of displacing those who loved this place before we did? We aren’t being driven at gunpoint out into the desert and massacred like some members of the last displaced community around these parts were. So that’s a positive note.


I’m taking this more personally than usual these days, which is saying something. Friends and I have joked about moving to Trona, or Needles, or Kingman for some years now in response to the gentrivacation of Joshua Tree. ( I moved instead to Twentynine Palms, which combines the best aspects of all three towns.) This week I learned that one of those friends is considering calling all our bluffs and actually leaving. This is someone who has rather reliably been there for me when I needed someone over the last decade, as for example when the black clothes lady moved back to LA, or when there was a movie or a new restaurant that I didn’t want to enjoy solo, or when la mujer que amo and I needed a brilliant spark of a person to read poetry at our wedding. I want the people I love to be happy. I am on record as being in favor of headlong leaps into unknown future places. But seeing friends depart from a place we mutually love, even when it hasn’t definitely decided to happen yet, how you say. It summons the duende.

She is still here, as are most of the other friends who have made this place a place I love, and yet. And yet. One by one, the little, unprepossessing beings that tie this desert together: the poets, the globemallow, the interpreters of dreams and of ancient code and codices, the chollas and chefs and Coleogyne, the framers of kitchen cabinets and manifestos, the ancient humans and the ancient plants, the tortoises and the designers of tortoise t-shirts, the painters and proponents and protectors of this desert, one by one, we are in danger of being bladed away. And if history is any guide, the new residents of Joshua Tree will never know what’s missing.

All content Copyright 2021 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

Letter From the Desert: Wee Thump

It happens every time I’m here. I will be walking along, minding my own business, lost in my own thoughts, and then someone starts shouting at me. Or toward me. Or near me. Within earshot, anyway, the words clearly words but too muffled to make out. The intonations conveying excitement, or anger, or something else equally animated. Shouting.

It figures that someone noisy would be out here in the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness on the one day in years I’ve managed to get out here, I think to myself. My mood tightens one click of the emotional ratchet. I keep walking, straining to make out the source of the voice.

I fail. It sounds like a woman shouting, somewhere far enough away that her voice fades entirely when the breeze shifts. I’m caught. With a male voice, I’d be more likely to dismiss the shouting as hijinks. I’d be more likely to be able to ignore it. A female voice shouting in what might be alarm? I was raised on tales of Kitty Genovese told as morality play. I feel compelled to do something.


The something I do is that I keep listening. There are minutes of silence, or at least minutes chock-full of natural sounds and those of my boots crunching on sand and gravel but with no shouting. And then her voice returns, and I cease my footfalls for a moment, and I strain to hear.

There is no one here. I am as far along the dirt road ringing the wilderness as one can get before turning back toward the pavement. There were no vehicles along the way except the one I got here in. No cars or trucks at the sole trailhead parking lot. None parked along Nipton Road. The possibility that there is anyone else with me here today in Wee Thump is exceedingly slim. Aside from the Joshua trees, I mean, and the ravens and cactus wrens, the barrel cacti and chollas and desert woodrats. Aside from the usual suspects.

Minutes pass. There she is again. Something has changed in her timbre. The harmonics are simpler, almost as if autotuned. A wind through the transmission lines? Maybe. Did someone tune these transmission lines to a Phrygian scale?

I now have no idea what she is, but I know she is not human. I leave it at that.

It really has been a while since I’ve been here — perhaps three years ago, with the dog for an hour or two — and much longer since I’ve been here alone. So it takes me a while to remember that this has happened to me before: the persistent, distant shouting nagging at the back of my brain, my straining to make out the words, and then after some double-digit number of minutes the voice resolves into something non-human. A scolding cactus wren, in one case. The rusty creaking of the abandoned windmill toward the road.

It is a kind of apophenia, the layering of meaning onto more or less random events, in this case the sorts of events that cause air molecules to vibrate at somewhere between 300 and 500 times per second. I used to write off my hearing voices here as a psychological compensation for the sudden absolute solitude I had after divorce, after leaving my home of 26 years in the Bay Area, after moving to Nipton where one friend had flat out guaranteed I would lose my mind due to isolation. I in point of fact had found Nipton a trifle busy, but that explanation for the voices made sense.

But now? I’m no longer afflicted by loneliness. I urgently feel a lack of the hikers and gardeners and poets and crusaders and editors I feel closest to, but I have no lack of voices in my life, especially not of disembodied ones. If I was going to apophenia myself up something I miss with a pang these days, the Joshua trees and rocks and cacti would suddenly seem very much like a cheap breakfast place with bottomless coffee and one of the above-mentioned poets or editors or hikers across the table doing serious damage to a plate of biscuits and gravy.

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I suddenly remember, also not for the first time, lying prone on a sandbank on the Green River in Utah, shoulders and head hanging over a cutbank toward the river, watching wisps of dark suspended sand moving via current in the lighter, rippled sand of the riverbed. It seemed a form of calligraphy, writing in a language older than any humans use. I struggled to read the writing. Every time I felt like I might be starting to get the weakest glimmer of meaning, the water would move the darker sand still farther, wiping the slate clean.

Then, as now, I struggled to learn what the wilderness was trying to tell me.

I’m raising money for the Mojave Desert Land Trust this month. I’m hiking at least 75 miles by March 31 and hoping to raise $3,000 for MDLT thereby. So far I’m at 61.3 and $2,523, respectively. Check it out here: you can give any amount.

All content Copyright 2021 Chris Clarke, all rights reserved. Please feel free to share, but don't spam anyone. If you like what you see you can subscribe here.

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