Letter From The Desert: Other places

This Letter From The Desert is a bit later than usual for the relatively straightforward reason that I spent much of the time since I sent the last Letter outside the desert, in the environs of Seattle.

It was a good trip, with wildflower contemplation in the Cascades, eating of three different Paccific salmon species on the same plate at an absurdly picturesque location (Ivar's in Fremont, with the view), and quiet observation of a northern harrier family in the foothills of the Olympics as they hazed an injured coyote away from what was likely their nest, in a field of cattails that stretched at least a mile. (Coyote looked at us a trifle impatiently as if to say, "WHAT?")

Spruces and firs, pines and head-high salal, young nettle leaves folded carefully needle-side in and popped into our mouths, and everywhere the overwhelming green and the unnatural wet, water laying around on the ground and still being there the next day in some sort of unearthly nonevaporative mode, and in short it was as different a setting from the Mojave as one is likely to find without using scuba gear, and yet all I could see were commonalities.

On the most superficial level it's all about the constraints, whether lack of water or lack of sunlight, and lack is what shapes all of us; animals, plants, ecosystems. There are only so many strategies an organism can use to contend with its environment, and what some use to defend against cold others use to defend against heat. How much difference is there between nettle and prickly pear, devil's club and cholla, limping Olympic coyote and trotting Mojave coyote?

But I kept seeing something deeper.

The desert is dry because water is kept from it. A chain of mountains keeps Pacific storms from heading eastward. A strong jet stream keeps Arctic storms from heading southward. Instead, those storms dump their rain to the west, to the north. It's not so much that the Pacific Northwest is wet because the deserts are dry, or vice versa: it's that the same simple things caused both of them.

Flying home I watched Mt. Hood, then the Three Sisters and Crater Lake, then Shasta, then Lassen recede in turn into the distance. I watched the wall of the Sierra Nevada grow and then itself recede. I watched the green transform in steps to tan, to brown, to red. I felt, somehow, as though every piece of the West held within it the explanations for every other piece.

Happy Interdependence Day.


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