Letter From The Desert: Landscapes lost and not lost

On the possibility of happy endings

There comes the cacophonous ploink of another email coming into my work account, and I glance at the subject line. I am immediately distracted.

Rice Solar Energy Facility Closure Plan

An hour and change east of here, there would have been a 650-foot tower surrounded by two square miles of mirrors, all of it fenced off against trespass by tortoises and botanists, the blinding white boiler atop the tower visible as far away as Quartzsite, Arizona. It didn’t happen. The project proponent now quibbles with the state of California about whether to revegetate the land it disturbed.

Sun warmed my back this morning, and the dog stared, head cocked, at one of the fat iguanas now swarming the neighborhood. The middle of June and there is still snow on San Gorgonio’s north face. I walked and thought of landscapes that were not so lucky as the one near Rice.

There was, for instance, that little notch in the granite where I slept in September 2010, a pincushion cactus inches from my eyes when I woke. I had stayed up late, sitting up in my sleeping bag and staring twenty miles across the valley, trying hard to memorize everything and largely failing. It was tortoise country, yucca country, and I could not imagine it otherwise.

A year later I walked wincingly across ancient desert pavement toward a broad wash, the shade of centuries-old palos verdes beckoning in the middle distance. A security guard hailed me. “I’m just taking a walk,” I said. He smiled and nodded. “Beautiful day for it. Sorry to bother you. MWD has us out here because they’re worried someone will do something to the aqueduct on the anniversary.” The date was September 11, 2011. He waved me off and a few minutes later I was reclining in dry wash woodland shade.

Photo: Chuckwalla Valley wash September 11, 2011.

That first site is now occupied by the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the second by the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, ironically named given that the only actual farmers in the vicinity opposed it bitterly. Neither spot was wilderness in the strict legal sense, but both were wild places. Both are now industrial sites.

Rice isn’t wilderness either; evidence of the World War II-era military base abounds on the site. But the shrubs have grown back, some. The washes are full of trees. Relictual stubs of tourist architecture persist along Route 62, joyfully festooned with discarded shoes. Desert kit foxes burrow in the sandy soil, hiding from the persistent coyotes that are their main predator. The place is alive.

Why did no gigantic solar “farm” devastate this landscape? Was it because of the large population of crucifixion thorn, a rare native plant, discovered near the site by botanists Bell and Herskovits, that would almost certainly perish if the solar power plant pumped even a little groundwater? Was there significant regional opposition? Did government agency staff express reservations hidden from the public by non-disclosure agreements? Did the mounting bird mortality at the similarly designed Ivanpah site, exposed by some crusading underpaid journalist or other, chill investors’ interest? Each of these may have slowed the project some, long enough that the end of a federal tax rebate struck the killing blow.

These days I work to keep places like Bonanza Spring and Shavers Valley from being added to the list of lost landscapes. It is the most important work I have done in my life. It is easy to become bogged down in details and daily setbacks. It was good to be reminded that sometimes, as in the case of Rice, one can succeed.

Sitting in Shavers Valley trying to memorize every detail of the landscape, November 2018. Photo by Sant Khalsa.