Desert

About 125 miles east of L.A.,  a harsh but delicate desert land has been preserved as a national park. It’s called Joshua Tree, after the odd, tree-like yuccas that grow there.

Rock, wood, leaf, spine, flower, lizard, vulture –

the adaptations of form and function to place

seem more than one can begin to understand.

On my first day at Joshua Tree I explored the northern end of the park.

The next day I traced the main road – all 60-odd miles of it, to the southern entrance.

It was a slow journey of many stops, and as I neared the park’s southern border I was hot, thirsty and hungry.

More important, water and gas were running low.

There are no stores or gas stations in the sprawling park, so I left in search of gas, water and food.

And then re-entered.

Heading back north, I drove the long, sloping and winding two lane road with one eye – OK, often two eyes – out for the subtle colors and striking shapes I had quickly come to associate with Joshua Tree.

I stopped frequently.

I took photographs.

Eyes.

Open.

Wide.

Pulling over and stepping down a well worn, boulder-strew path sheltered by gnarled branches felt like climbing straight into a fairy tale. My gaze switched back and forth between the big picture – those fantastic rocks, the distant vistas, the big trees – and the close at hand – a lizard disappearing into shadow, a barb on a cactus, sunlight playing on flower petals.

The strange Smoke Tree (Dalea spinosa), whose twigs can photosynthesize (!) made a soft haze of palest gray green from afar. It leafs out only for a few weeks of the year.

And the pretty Desert Bluebells (Phaecelia campanularia)  was difficult to photograph in the blazing, harsh sunlight, but I couldn’t resist that blue!

Twisted textures of ancient oak bark

invited lingering.

A cactus, warmed by late day sunlight:

Opuntia basilaris.

The name’s rhythm tripping a staccato

ping, ping, ping  –

like the tiny barbs that march

across its surface.

 

Everywhere, boulders were improbably piled and balanced on ancient weathered rock.

Another Opuntia cactus glowed cool blue-green in the shadows.  Named O. englemannii, after German immigrant George Englemann, a medical doctor who explored America’s western flora, its fruit was eaten by indigenous people. But the tiny spines on the fruits, called glochids, have to be removed first!  This attractive cactus was brought to Africa as an ornamental and is now a noxious weed in Kenya and South Africa.

It’s all about place, and geography!  What defines and integrates into one place may be a poor guest in another place.

 

Barker Dam, constructed over a hundred years ago by ranchers, beckoned. I will have to return another time to see the Bighorn Sheep that come here, and I didn’t see the petroglyphs either. But I was well satisfied by the magic.

There was just enough moisture

for willows.

Catkins gathered sunlight,

their glow drawing me from across the pond.

A little mud on my shoes? No problem!

 

The rocks were painted with sun-glow

as the sun slowly fell away

behind a ledge.

Tree gods

perched at the edges

of the circle of stones,

tying water

to sky.

 

Plunging sun

moved the colors around,

creating a new palette every few minutes.

And behind me,

a full moon.

Subtle light,

Gentle simplicity.

Satisfied and full of the impressions of the day,

I head back to the car

and out of the park.

The next morning I had to leave…

but there’s always another trip.

Desert Spring, Take Two

My first day at Joshua Tree National Park left me eager to go back and see more. I had a better idea of the lay of the land so I knew what I wanted to see but I would still leave plenty of time for serendipity. (Photographs from Day One are here).

It was Saturday, and the local Farmers Market was in town. But first I wanted to photograph the Jimson Weed (Datura) blooming beside an outbuilding in my host’s yard. It was so pretty in the morning sun, living up to one name – Angel’s Trumpet. But if I ate it I would likely experience another name for it – Devil’s Apple!

Joshau Tree may be a small town but the Farmers Market is choice. True to their reputation, the California-grown vegetables looked bigger than life and super fresh. Too bad I couldn’t bring some home with me, but they wouldn’t have survived the heat of the car.

 

The desert beckoned…

Desert Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa, a common flower on the sandy ground near the road.

The park’s northwestern side, where I entered, is Mojave desert habitat – Joshua trees, junipers, yuccas, cacti, and spectacular boulder formations dot the rolling landscape.  As you head south through the park along the two lane road, over the course of 60 miles the habitat gradually morphs into Colorado desert. With its lower elevations, it’s a spare-looking  landscape dotted with creosote bush and highly adapted plants like the spindly Ocotillo.

I wanted to see both habitats so I planned to spend the day slowly making my way south, returning on the same route, with a side trip to Barker Dam if I had the time.

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A tough Pinyon pine casts shadows over the sensuous monzogranite rocks. The crazy rock shapes are the result of millions of years of slow erosion.  Weather works its magic on old trees in the desert, too:

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Everywhere, flowers bloom against a backdrop of the skeletal remains of trees that spread pale, twisted branches  across the sandy ground. This is a type of Phacelia – its flowers bloom from tightly curled cymes.

This magnificent oak commands the landscape – the cars give you an idea of its size.

Deep blue desert skies behind the doughy shapes of boulder piles kept drawing me off the road. This rock has an inclusion of different rocks running right through it, allowing enough water to be retained in the crevass to allow wildflowers to take hold.

Another crevasse provided just enough water to grow a yucca, at least for awhile. Some rock faces are bright with assorted lichens.

It’s a very spare landscape, but life finds toeholds, and flourishes.

About half way through the park, an extensive patch of Jumping Cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia fulgida) draws the eye. Not only is it covered with spines, but each spine is covered with tiny barbs, making it very painful and difficult to remove. I saw a sweatshirt abandoned on a fence near the Cholla Garden – it was bunched up into a ball from a close encounter with one of these pretty but dangerous cacti.

Nearby, a bee worked its magic on a Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) flower.

Desert Bells (Phacelia campanularia) graced a dry ditch near the road.  (For the botanically inclined, notice the tightly curled cymes again, with bell-like flowers arising off them – diagnostic of the Phacelias).

The road had dropped down a series of long hills, bringing me to the Colorado desert habitat.   The boulders were mostly gone, as were the Joshua trees.  Now,  the Ocotillo’s (Fouquieria splendens)  spindly branches swaying in the desert breeze were the only large feature in the landscape, other than the distant mountains ranges. It’s brilliant red flowers are hummingbird magnets – how strange it was to see a hummer out here in this harsh environment. (Wish I could have reacted in time to photograph it!)

The road through the park has no services (and often, no cell phone reception).  I was running low on gas and water, and there were many miles ahead of me. The single ranger station at the south end of the park was a godsend – I pulled over, replenished my dwindling water supply, and asked where the nearest gas and food were. It was just about 5 miles out of the park – a truck stop, called Chiriaco Summit. The promise of gas, food and even a Foster’s Freeze (a local ice cream fav) sounded really, really good at this point!

After gassing up and standing in line for a fabulous thick chocolate milkshake, I wandered next door to a courtyard holding a shrine – an unexpected oasis. And strangely enough, a few steps further down there was an old airport. Built for General George Patton, it is now the General George Patton Museum.

So if you’re ever traveling between southern California and Arizona on Highway 10, Chiriaco Summit is the place to rest.

 

 

Speaking of rest, I think this is enough for one entry. Soon I will post more from Joshua Tree, including a lovely full moon that rose over the desert.

 

 

 

 

 

GOOGLE, ART, and the DESERT

I went to google today to do a search and came upon a field of pale stripes in place of the word “Google.”  Who are we honoring today, I wondered?  It’s Agnes Martin, a 20th century American desert-dwelling painter of sublime abstracts. Her 102nd birthday would have been today.

Agnes Martin’s work is hugely respected; though her very minimalist canvases aren’t to everyone’s taste, I’ve always liked her work. I clicked on her name floating over the wash of colored stripes, and then on the youtube video that came up.  Yes, I remembered watching that a few years back.   I clicked on Images on the search page which, being a visual person, I often do.  Martin’s work is compromised on the screen, I thought.  In person and close up, the pale washes of color and careful tracings of pencil line across the canvas are very sensual.

Close up of an Agnes Martin painting at Seattle Art Museum

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I just returned from a few days in the desert myself.  I stayed in Joshua Tree, California, just outside Joshua Tree National Park, and I spent most of my time exploring the park and taking pictures.

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I love how a google search can open up new paths to unseen realms.  This morning’s search meandered past Agnes Martin and stalled at an amusing detour through the odd world of Pataphysics.  I eventually settled in to an essay from the Brooklyn Rail (an excellent Arts journal) that I want to share.

It’s about the importance of eating culture.

What? Well, the essay ends with a Rumi poem titled “Eating Poetry” and focuses on what art is, art’s place in our lives, and whether it’s OK to like or dislike the art that you do like, or dislike.  The author, Phong Bui (publisher of the Brooklyn Rail) asks us to bring our “honest experience” to each work of art we confront.

As simple as that may sound, I think that an honest reaction stripped of the accumulated ideas we have absorbed from media and placed on top of our own heads can be elusive these days.  But it’s well worth the effort – as Agnes Martin said in a 1997 interview, you need to know exactly what you want:  “I paint with my back to the world” she explained.

The desert seems well suited to the act of turning away from the busy world and returning to one’s own honest experience.

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I will post more photos from the desert soon, including a number of pictures of Noah Purifoy’s fascinating outdoor sculpture installation in Joshua Tree.