I’ve been trying too hard to be eloquent. Maybe it’s the paradox of trying to speak about a land that keeps a lot of secrets and tells its stories subtly. It might also be that after talking to hundreds of visitors over a few days, tapping my knowledgebase and feeble attempts at wit, my narrative well has run dry. Here I can look across hundreds of square miles and know that there is not so much open water that one could even submerge their big toe. A charming trio of young Japanese men walked up to the desk with big smiles and asked, “We would like to know where we could go swimming?” I had to chuckle apologetically and suggest “The Colorado River? The Holiday Inn Vegas?” Either one a couple hours drive. This new knowledge of just what kind of exotic landscape they had found themselves in seemed to ameliorate their disappointment and they left as enthusiastically as they had come in. Inspiration, I could hope, was not about quantity and is not a reservoir of limited capacity. That perhaps like so much of the biota around me though constrained by blunt realities, imagination has rich and varied forms.
The desert might insist that we learn a few things. Willful ignorance is the dominant theme of the pioneer history in the Mojave from the Death Valley ‘49ers suffering across the one of the most difficult landscapes in the world unwilling to follow the humanitarian assistance of people who had been able to live there for generations, to today’s Vegas politicians saying with a straight face that shoving a longer straw into the diminishing punch bowl of Lake Mead can somehow allow the continued expansion of the city with the highest per-capita water consumption in the country. Our largest Southwest river can’t slake our bourgeoning thirst, grow melons in the desert, fill all those swimming pools on The Strip and still make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez. Some or all of these things will have to give. One of them regularly does.
The mythology of an empty place to relieve us of our burdens still overpowers the truth that solitude, like water, is a finite resource that has yet to be given its full value. Perhaps we will eventually know that there are no empty spaces; that all the puzzle pieces were in place long before we got here and that we are simply replacing them haphazardly and generally making places poorer for it. The fiction of a “useless” wasteland to dump in as the companion to the myth that the Earth’s bounty will provide without restraint. I’ve encountered a new mode of travel out here “in the middle of nowhere”. Daily I meet people who, as if they jumped into their car with a kidnapper’s hood over their head, made their way out to the desert and now that their telephone mysteriously doesn’t work they quite literally don’t know where they are. Captive to their own willful ignorance of place and navigation, dumped on the side of the highway with no memory of the twists and turns that got them here or how to find their way further. I don’t believe this behavior existed 5 years ago, definitely not 10. This particular ignorance is not a luxury afforded to those who have lived in this challenging environment.
The Desert Tortoise has lived in the Southwest of North America for a couple million years. It has been the creature we recognize through untold changes in the landscape. Mountains have folded upward, then spread apart opening vast basins separated by layered outcrops, forests have carpeted the hills then receded into cool canyons and high peaks sheltered from the desiccating heat of surrounding bajadas. Wetter times have filled long valley lowlands with sprawling lakes supplied by rivers that in these dryer times vanish underneath sandy flats occasionally resurfacing for short stretches at rifts in the land. Dry lakebeds and sandy washes still mark the ancient hydrology that sporadically gets revived in sudden downpours, the desert still shaped by water sometime violent, sometimes subtle.
You can see it somehow in their eyes. I wouldn’t know if it is wisdom but a purposeful clarity is communicated as if it knows what kind of emotional mess we humans find of ourselves and the tortoise can only hope we can come to know ourselves as well as it does. Here’s our Desert Tortoise Video.
It possesses a form of patience seemingly beyond our comprehension. A tortoise might have to settle for just a few months when there is enough plant matter that it can eat, its metabolism slow enough to allow dormancy for up 6 months of the year. Part of that in the winter, hibernating, the other part when heat and lack of food force them to wait for better conditions. The Mojave Desert itself follows this pulse. The twiggy brush and denned up animals of winter flourishing into spring in a fecund display of green plants and progression of colorful flowers. By mid summer that land is stilled again as weeks of cloudless sky heat and dry the land. If lucky the chance scattershot of monsoonal downpours could liven the landscape again before the year finishes and the days shorten. These limits on productivity are expressed as a kind of patience. When you can only afford to have leaves for a few months of the year, or can only open your stomata and acquire CO2 at night it may take a decade to get to full size. That Catsclaw Acacia or California Barrel Cactus is probably much older than you’d guess.
Perhaps we could be the beneficiaries of this patience. In this parable our Tortoise will eventually outlast the frenetic Jack Rabbit of our insatiable desires. In a receding tide of tract homes and big box stores we can build a tumbledown castaway’s shack from the flotsam and jetsam of all this culture. We’ll look up from our now useless screens and maybe we’d notice that all this sparseness holds more than we ever swept into all our landfills.