Letter From the Desert: Flight of the Hesperocallis

I should say a few things about where we live now. We moved only 15 miles or so from the last place, but we are now in almost a completely different biome. There we were at about 2,600 feet above mean sea level, on the broad front of a bajada being shed by the Little San Bernardino Mountains just south of us. Now, we’re at 1,800 feet, essentially on the floor of a broad valley, though not at the bottom. The bottom of the valley lies 18 miles east of us. It is occupied by Dale Lake, approximately 2,200 acres of salt flat at an elevation roughly 600 feet lower than our place.

You can drive the distance between our place and Dale Lake without really noticing the drop in elevation. That’s because the floor of the valley between is corrugated. One is forever driving down into gullies and back up out of them. There are hills in the middle of the valley, chief among them Valley Mountain, an excellent name. There’s another one close to our place, which for privacy’s sake I will leave unnamed, that offers a 300-foot climb about a mile from our front door. It is a pressure ridge: a bulge of earth squeegeed up by active earthquake faults. I walk up it in the late afternoons when I need to get my blood moving, or my imagination, or even just my feet.

Scattered hills and other topography notwithstanding, we live near the bottom of a desert valley surrounded by desert mountains. Some of those mountains, like Queen Mountain, rise 4,000 feet or more higher than the valley. They catch winter storms coming in from the Pacific, or summer monsoons from the Gulf, and they host flash floods in their canyons. People drown; we cluck our tongues at the shame of it all. As flash floods come out of the canyons they slow down a little, dropping the largest suspended particles of rock they’re carrying. Even a moderate flash flood will move basketball-sized rocks; some very large floods are capable of carrying off rocks the size of a 1968 Karmann Ghia coupe. But the largest flood will slow as it gets farther from the canyons that gave it birth. That’s what builds the alluvial fan you have to climb up to get to the mouth of a canyon: first huge, then large, then middle-sized rock getting dropped in turn as the flood slows.

The chocolate-brown alluvial fan built by floods coming out of Coffin Canyon, Death Valley National Park. Google Maps satellite view

When the canyon mouths in a desert range are close enough together that their alluvial fans merge to form a skirt of talus along the base of the mountains, that is called a bajada, literally “descent” or “slope” in Spanish. It’s more romantic if you don’t translate it. Bajadas can be as prone to flash floods as slot canyons. They are built by flash floods carrying bits of mountain off toward the valley floor, dropping boulders and forcing subsequent floods to go a different way, slowly building up the slope. Floods carve deep channels in their bajadas, then fill them, then carve new ones.

As the flood leaves the bajada and gets down to the valley floor, most of what it’s still carrying is sand and silt and even smaller particles that wouldn’t settle out of the water quickly if the water had been stock still since Tuesday.

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As it happens, there is such a flood course near our house. A dry wash, they’re called around here, because they are, except when they aren’t. This particular wash arises mostly on Queen Mountain’s northern slopes, funnels down through a few canyons including the one holding the Fortynine Palms oasis, then slips into town camouflaged as a smoketree forest. An important feature of this wash is that for around four miles it runs through Twentynine Palms; past the fast food joints and muffler shops and eternal going out of business sales, past its confluence with a major braided tributary wash that flows out of the National Park through a modest neighborhood, and into an Army Corps of Engineers flood control channel. Then it emerges from that flood control channel and flows out across the floor of our valley, not all that far from our house.

This means two things. One is that anything lost, blown away, or illegally disposed of in the city of Twentynine Palms is likely to be washed into our neighborhood. We have plastic bottles, jar lids, couch cushions, small unidentifiable pieces of plastic, bedsheets and blankets, styrofoam coolers, large unidentifiable pieces of plastic, containers that used to hold things that themselves are probably to be found farther down the wash, fiberglass car parts, tents and sleeping bags, and other miscellany.

The second thing: we also have, here on the valley floor, whatever sizes of rock the flash floods are still carrying by the time they make it this far. There are plenty of pebbles and fist-sized rocks, sometimes collected all together in a one-time bend in the wash channel, or covering the top of a small pediment as a mature desert pavement. A deposit of small rocks may span geologic time in its assemblage. Softball-sized fragments of 1.4 billion-year-old Pinto gneiss, dark and light layers folding in upon one another, commingle with bright pieces of White Tank monzogranite a mere 80 million years old. There are garnets from the Oasis batholith and pyrite from the Bullions. Each of the surrounding mountains sheds parts of itself into the mixture of sediments. Over eons those sediments will deepen, the sheer weight of them fusing the lower strata into solid rock. Geologists a million years from now will struggle to piece together the origins of that rock. I imagine them as descended from today’s ravens, bright black eyes readily discerning small variations in mineral composition, geologists’ symposia even more noisily chaotic than those of the present day.

Mostly, though, what reaches the valley floor here is sand.

Easily swept along where the floods rush down steeper grades, sand falls out of the current here in the flats and piles up in the lees of eddies, on the outside of meanders, on flood plains bracketing incised wash channels. It builds up across the plain, then washes away as each successive storm cuts new channels. Where a shrub’s nest of roots, or a pile of larger rocks, or an upended layer of caliche offers some armor against the current, the sand behind will remain. The flood is diverted. New cutbanks appear. To follow a desert wash is to forswear straight lines. channels braid and diverge and merge and split. You can follow a wash for a mile, then follow it back again, then do it all over again, and never set foot in the same place twice. Eventually, over the decades and centuries, the whole valley floor gets covered with fine-grained mineral soil, sometimes hundreds of feet thick. Sometimes thousands. At the surface, compacted sand lies under a thin protective layer of stones.

That’s the kind of soil desert lilies like to grow in.

These plague weeks have played hell with my psyche. I know I am not alone in this. I make it to mid-afternoon with only a few hundred steps under my belt. Before, I was up each hour leaving my desk and walking a mile down to the crossroads and back, or over to the post office, then back to my desk, and then out again in another hour or two. Now, the hill across the road beckons mutely. Dirt bikes grind up its face in inadvisable hill climbs, their engines droning like the world’s most swat-deserving fly. Here, the inexorable insistence of a pair of faults has reached down into the wash’s tidy layers of sediment, pulled a couple million years’ worth up into the light. Each new rain unearths stones that last saw light before humans evolved.

This hill has disgorged fossils. Mammals from Rancholabrean times once walked my neighborhood. Sabre-tooths, dwarf pronghorn, camels and mastodons, Shasta ground sloths. I imagine that one of the rocks I stub my toe on, which I do multiple times per climb, will turn out to be a massive tooth or a shard of legbone. Some unimaginable span of time hence those raven geologists might argue over bits of my skull, if I play my cards right. I find the prospect reassuring.

The frank terror I felt a few weeks back has become less acute, more chronic. The rage at official ineptitude that accompanied the terror has likewise become an steadfast part of my inner landscape. This is probably inadvisable in the long run. Still: as a partial result of normalizing the irrational conditions we find ourselves in, I am noticing things in the outer landscape again. The desert is in bloom, our own human-centered worries notwithstanding. Desert dandelions have come up in the open desert, as well as in the cracks in our concrete here at home. Popcorn flower is a carpet. Bright purple Phacelia blossoms, which I usually think of as a plant that belongs on the bajada or the even rockier slopes above, eke out a short lifespan down here on the flats. Venus hangs brilliantly in the late afternoon sky and there are bright yellow wooly daisies beneath my feet, and Geum swaying like black-eyed susans beneath a west wind. Poppies are out: the big yellow-flowered ones that are either Eschscholzia glyptosperma or E. androuxii I can’t tell which, and the incomprehensibly tiny E. minutiflora:

And sand verbena and lupines and senna and bladderpod, ad infinitum to the horizon and beyond. It’s not a headline-grabbing bloom; not one of those spring efflorecences that’s been laden with the groan-inducing monicker “superbloom,” but certainly enough to bring an inconvenient number of trampling gawkers out from the cities if that weren’t, you know. Against the law now.

Oh, yes. And the desert lilies, scattered across the flats like a field of exclamation marks on a page.

The desert lily, Hesperocallis undulata, is pretty much restricted to deep, sandy soils. It does grow a few dozen feet up the slip face of our hill; otherwise, it sticks to the floodplains of washes above where the last few years of floods have reached. It’s a bulb plant, like an Easter lily or a daffodil, but that bulb grows as much as five feet below the windblown candy wrappers on the surface, then sends vegetative shoots up through a grave’s depth of topsoil. You need sandy or gravelly soil for that.

Up top, the plants consist of a loose rosette of languid, strappy leaves; out of the centers of these, flower stems usually grow to about 12 or 15 inches high, though they can reach twice that if they apply themselves. Waxy looking flower buds cover the upper surface of the stems. When they open, starting at the bottom, they one by one reveal green-striped white flowers about two inches across at the wide end, with butter-colored anthers coming out of the middle. They’re not, in other words, what one might typically call to mind when thinking about spring flowers in the desert. They look as though they belong in a moist hardwood forest growing with trillium and poison ivy. They seem transplanted out of the woods of upstate New York.

I can relate.

Desert lilies are not lilies. Our notion of what they are instead has gone through some change of late. Our ability to read genes is not without cost. One cost has to do with rendering books obsolete within months after they see print. Sometimes the changes in a plant’s identity are startling. The tuberose, that heady-scented Victorian-era aphrodisiacal flower, is known to centuries of gardeners as a somewhat finicky tender perennial bulb plant. Twenty years or so ago botanists decided that Polianthes tuberosa and all its sibling species were actually members of the genus Agave. The tuberose is now Agave amica. One of the benefits of paying attention to taxonomy is occasionally having the wind knocked out of you by a seemingly arcane fact. Or paying attention to anything, really. The world is endlessly and delightfully surprising in certain monetarily useless ways.

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Along those lines, Hesperocallis has likewise turned out to be a cousin of agaves, though not close enough kin to be declared an agave itself, or even added to the agave family, which anyway doesn’t exist anymore, depending on who’s talking. Instead, desert lilies are members of their own family, the Hesperocallidaceae, except that certain botanists have decided that’s not a real family either and have placed them in the asparagus family. However, as a concession to old-school botanists and possibly reality, the asparagus family (Asparagaceae, natch) has been broken up into a number of subfamilies, one of which, Agavoideae, includes agaves, and yuccas, and the garden plant Hosta, and — among more than 600 other plant species — desert lilies.

All this rearrangement is droll, and stems from an attempt to fit endless variation and endless degrees of kinship into a finite set of pigeonholes. It’s necessarily subjective. The objective part is that each species is closely related to some other species, and not as closely related to others, and we can tell by painstaking work which groups of living things form closely related groups with a relatively recent common ancestor.

Desert lilies and three other genera of plants are closer kin to one another than any of them are to anything else. Those three other genera of plants are Camassia, Chlorogalum, and Hastingsia, otherwise known more or less as camas, soaproot, and rush lilies, respectively. The physical resemblance among all of them is striking. The similarities do not extend to their chosen environmental settings. Hastingsia includes four species all restricted to the humid Klamath Mountains, in places where toxic serpentine soil keeps most other plants from growing. Camassia is six species of extremely common plants that grow profusely in wet meadows. Chlorogalum includes five species, four of them fairly rare, one ubiquitous in its broad range, all of them from moist parts of California, Baja, and an edge of Oregon. The most common one is essentially a weed in manicured gardens in coastal California. Its resemblance to desert lilies is profound, right down to the frowsy leaf rosette and striped petals.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum, wavy-leaved soap plant, showing off its family resemblance. Steven Thorsted photo.

The pandemic has entered my dreaming life. I make plans to meet friends in public places, then call back ashamed to cancel, I’d forgotten about the lockdown. I awake still embarrassed. There is no end of pleasing work to do here, and yet it has grown stale. I walk through the gate, heedless of masks. I should set a better example than this, but still. There will be no one within a thousand feet of me. The lilies have been through four days of near-freezing downpours and then three days of early-season heat and wind. They look none the worse. I surmount the hill, head down into an unfamiliar canyon on the far side. At some point soon I will have to think about snakes when I do this.

The wash winds past slopes cloaked in sunflower. Sand verbena is blooming here and there, and the modest flowers of big galleta grass wave atop newly green stems. Bottlewasher Camissonia has started to bloom in the last week. A field of pincushion flowers stretches from the south face of the hill toward the highway two miles south.

The scene resists photography, despite a few attempts. I suppose this view is for my eyes only. It probably would have been so even in those dimly remembered days when we moved around from place to place. Tourists do not exactly flock to this place. It has neither parking nor marked trails. It has no climbable boulders. There is a suburban housing tract a mile away. The landscape is shot through with off-road tracks like worm holes through an apple. You have to walk those tracks to get here with nary a signpost.

I feel an odd moment of gratitude for the off-roaders. It feels substantially like my delight the other day at seeing a starling. Incongruous and confusing, then welcome, then dissipated.

There are a dozen small canyons running down the south face of this hill, and I have explored most of them. Another unexamined canyon beckons before me, but for now I settle down in the gravel atop the rounded ridge dividing that canyon from the next one west. Tomorrow will suffice. Twenty feet east of my boots a desert lily nods in the evening breeze. For a moment I remember a night two decades back, sitting out at this time of day with the previous dog, watching in wonder as a soaproot in full bloom caught the last pink rays of setting sun. A pantoum of a life: themes repeated over and again, startling variation laid atop them like Joseph’s coat. It is enough. It is enough.

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