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?
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.
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