I first visited Joshua Tree Country on a Spring Break college road trip in 1990. Two buddies and I camped out for a few days in a tent, cooked our meals on a Coleman stove, and spent our days climbing the famous rock formations and our nights staring with wonder at the multitude of stars, making a game of picking out the satellites. No plant life caught my eye on this visit other than the iconic Joshua Tree itself which at the time we all associated with the recent U2 album of the same name. Though our journey had started in Northfield, Minnesota, and had exposed us to countless sights of beauty and wonder, the desert made the biggest impression on me.
Nearly a decade later, in 1999, I had not forgotten Joshua Tree Country and I returned on another road trip, this time with a girlfriend and from further away yet: Boston, Massachusetts. We camped for a couple days near the Cottonwood Springs entrance of what was then still Joshua Tree National Monument, again in a tent with a Coleman. As in 1990, the Joshua Trees were the only flora that got my attention.
Skip ahead to 2015 for visit number three, which turned into a stay of nearly four months. This time I was accompanied by my farming partner of the last few years and we stayed in a rambling house on the edge of the village of Joshua Tree. The large windows featured a grand view of the hills on the north side of what was now Joshua Tree National Park and of the Creosote Bush scrub rolling away to the east where it met a blurry seam of mountains on the horizon. Over the past ten years, I had been supporting myself as a farmer, herbalist, and seedsman, so on this visit all the plants seized my attention, not just the Joshua Tree.
As when one falls in love and is intrigued by every detail of a new lover’s body and being, I was entranced by the flora and fauna of Joshua Tree Country. I carried a camera wherever we went and took photos of every flower we saw. Because I have poor vision, digital photography is the best way for me to see all the details clearly; zooming in on the computer screen reveals a world of anthers, stamens, and styles, powdered with pollen or hiding tiny, wondrous insects. Compared to the lush, green Pacific Northwest, where I had spent most of the last 14 years, the flora of the desert was both exotic and unexpectedly varied. I soon found myself consumed by a desire to “collect them all.”
At first, all the picture-taking was just a hobby. But then, after posting a photo-essay to my blog about the rare flowers we had seen in the Pebble Plains, a unique ecosystem in the nearby San Bernadino Mountains, I realized I could “do something” with all the material I was amassing. My collection had quickly grown large enough to comprise an entire book. I had come to Joshua Tree for a self-directed writing retreat anyway, so it was merely a matter of setting aside my other projects to focus on this new one.
My other subjects were socio-political in nature so a wildflower guide seemed to be quite a contrast, at least at first. The intention was to celebrate beauty and point out detail rather than to explicate struggle and set forth analysis. It felt like I was composing a love letter.
But if to know is to love, it is through clear seeing that our heart is so inspired, and such perspicacity cannot long remain blind to the wider realm that our beloved inhabits. My research and observations revealed things I did not set out to explore but which I could not avoid: a past of vital human cultures now extirpated, a present marred by resource-extraction and a future threatened by Climate Change. So much for turning away from the socio-political!
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The name, “Joshua Tree,” was given by Mormon settlers and refers to a character in their mythology who famously raised his arms skyward in prayer, but that doesn’t mean much to people who are unfamiliar with the cast of characters of the Abrahamic religions. The Spanish, who entered the area before the Mormans, called the plant Izote de Desierto – “Desert Dagger” – which, though illustrative rather than allusive, could also apply to other species of Yucca found in the area, so is lacking too. (Indeed, one of the common names for the related Mojave Yucca is “Spanish Dagger.”) The contemporary scientific name for the species, Yucca brevifolia, is an error paired with a narrowly contextual reference: Yucca is from the Carib name for the cassava, a tropical root vegetable, so its use here is an old misapplication that stuck; brevifolia is Latin for “short-leaved,” and describes the length of its foliage relative to other species in the Yucca genus which, if you don’t know them, doesn’t tell you a lot.
The Native Americans were obviously the first humans to meet these trees, and the Cahuilla tribe used the names, Hunuvat chiy’a and Humwichawa. I have been unable to find translations, if any, for these words, but to me the sounds of their syllables alone are evocative of the trees’ idiosyncratic forms and monumental presence. The Cahuilla ate the flowers and made sandals and nets from the fibers. The Kawaiisu utilized the pits of the fruit, which they roasted, mashed, dried and stored. They also brewed an alcoholic beverage from them. The Shoshone and Timbisha used the red inner roots in basket-making.
Of course, one cannot live on Humwichawa alone, and during the centuries and millennia of their inhabitation of Joshua Tree Country, Native Americans acquainted themselves with all of their relations there, and developed a plethora of uses for many of the plants, for food, medicine, crafts, construction and ceremony. Though most of these uses are no longer practiced – due to the near total annihilation of indigenous culture by the Europeans – learning about them is still instructive. For one thing, Europeans, historically and presently, have generally viewed the desert as lifeless. The ancient Greek word for “desert,” eremo, also meant “lonely.” But for the Native Americans who lived there, the environment was brimming with life, enough to provide them with an existence that was full, healthy, and happy. We contemporary people should be inspired by them since so few of us would describe our own lives with the same adjectives.
Another lesson apropos to our culture and time is how the Native Americans of Joshua Tree Country were able to live in cooperation with their ecosystem for so long without ruining it. Their example shows that destructiveness is not, as the misanthropes among us might argue, “human nature,” but only the nature of certain human cultures.
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Among the many species of plant that I saw and photographed in Joshua Tree Country are some that are called “invasive.” This label is usually applied disapproval, and often with great venom. I included some of these plants in my book anyway because visitors to the area are likely to see them and be curious about what they are.
The word “invasive” is problematic, to say the least. It is not a scientific term and has no official or technical definition, but is thrown around by professional and amateur botanists alike as if it did. However, if one desires to be concise, clear and accurate, the word should be avoided.
An excellent alternative was proposed in a scholarly paper in 2004: “A neutral terminology to define ‘invasive’ species”, by Robert I. Colautti and Hugh J. MacIsaac, published by the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Leave it to Canadians to have more nuance than their neighbors to the south. Colautti and MacIsaac observed that “the use of simple terms to articulate ecological concepts can confuse ideological debates and undermine management efforts” and that “subconscious associations with preconceived terms, particularly emotive ones, can also lead to divergent interpretations and a confusion of concepts and theory.” No kidding!
Colautti and MacIsaac put forward a system that is biogeographical (place-based) rather then taxonomic (species-based). The system describes possible stages of a new species entering a given area: I. Traveling, II. Introduced, III. Localized and numerically rare, IVa. Widespread but rare, IVb. Localized but dominant, and V. Widespread and dominant.
For example, in the yard of the house where we lived in Joshua Tree was a Tamarisk bush, a notorious “invasive” that in Colautti and MacIsaac’s system would be described as stage III: “localized and numerically rare.” The Lettuce we we planted in the garden never made it past stage I, “Introduced,” because it was eaten by rabbits. The Tumble Weed that lined Highway 62 through town but was absent a few steps away in the Creosote Bush scrub, was at stage IVb: “localized but dominant.” But that stage would also describe the turf grass at the 124 golf courses in the nearby Coachella Valley. Likewise, the fruit orchards of the Sacramento Valley are “widespread and dominant” where wetlands once provided habitat to migrating birds. Of course, the word “invasive” is never attached to the plant life in those kinds of locations, or to irrigated lawns at private residences.
If we had collective interest in a truly rational rather than overtly judgmental discussion about native and non-native plants, Colautti and MacIsaac’s terminology would be an excellent starting point. I’m not holding my breath.
Not to deny that non-native plants can have negative affects on native ecosystems. However, villainizing the plants themselves does not help. We must look deeper. How did they get here and why do they thrive? The answer to the first question is that they tagged along for a ride with the Europeans, who conducted a very real invasion that was the most severe calamity to strike the Americas since whenever it was that the last big meteor made impact. One could say that a European describing a non-native plant as “invasive” is the pot calling the kettle black.
The answer to the second question – why do “invasives” thrive? – is that they are “pioneer species;” that is, they thrive in disturbed areas. Although nature provides disturbances in the form of fire, flooding, mudslides, etc. there’s nothing quite like tractors, chainsaws and several million head of cattle to really chew a place up, to say nothing of the more localized assaults such as cities, mines, and bombing ranges. The non-native pioneer plants are simply following their own nature and taking advantage of the openings given to them. They did not make the disturbances. We did and we do.
The truth of the matter is that as long as the land is fragmented and continually disturbed, natives will be threatened by non-natives (and here I am not referring just to plants). At this stage in history, however, even if the social will could be mustered to throw off the system responsible for ecological destruction – i.e., industrialized agrarian capitalism – another factor makes the restoration of native habitats impossible at this point in time: Climate Change.
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The wildflower guides I checked out from the Joshua Tree public library showed fields solidly bright with riotous blossoms, but the landscapes I found were only sparsely dotted. An entry for a particular plant would define the distribution of a species as wide-ranging, but my searches would yield a mere handful of individuals. Plants whose growth-habits were described as dense and lush were in my observations spindly and straggly. The reason for these disparities was obvious: all the books I was using were one to two decades old (and the most comprehensive one was published in the middle of the last century). All were pre-drought and none mentioned Climate Change.
The effects of Climate Change in Joshua Tree Country are real and are being monitored by scientists and activists. The staff of Joshua Tree National Park now routinely mention Climate Change and give regular presentations on the topic at the visitor centers. Attentive locals notice the effects in their gardens. The lengthening and deepening drought has become impossible to ignore, and the issue of water is a topic of mainstream discussion.
The Joshua Trees themselves are showing stress and their range is projected to recede. Already there are places where every tree is middle-aged or older and there are no new trees to replace them. This is not just a response to the recent drought; the Joshua Tree’s slow growth and environmental sensitivity flags this lack of youngsters as a decades-old trend.
Local conditions everywhere in the world are shifting, some faster than others, but all with an inexorably building momentum that is no longer reversible within the short term. That which was here before will never be here again in the same way. In other words, even if non-native “invasive” plants were not in the picture, native plants would be endangered. Industrial society’s invasion of the atmosphere and oceans with carbon molecules has incurred a response that is running away on it own, and now we are all along for the ride together, people, plants and animals, whether native or not.
In the past, when the climate changed, it generally happened gradually enough that plant and animal populations could move with it; not so this time. If people want particular native plant species to survive, they will need to move them someplace else more hospitable and carefully nurture them. Will anyone besides a few eccentric individuals take on this task? Since this society has yet to take any serious action to save itself, that seems unlikely.
And so, sadly, the Joshua Tree Country that has existed since the end of the last glaciation period, 10-12,000 years ago, is entering another phase, one with less diversity, fewer natives, and more “invasives.” My reverie was muted by the awareness that I was witnessing a world that is slipping away. Perhaps a spring (or more than one) will come again when the desert is a flurry of flowers, but perhaps not. As I worked on finishing the book, back in Oregon, my eyes were often filled with tears as I perused my photos and read about the amazing webs of associations among all the plants and animals that I had come to appreciate so much. It started to feel like the love letter I was composing was being delivered in parting to a friend I had just met but who is not long for this world.
I close with a quotation from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Return of the King” that reminds me of how I felt about what I saw in Joshua Tree Country on this most recent visit. Here, Aragorn speaks of Lady Eowyn:
“It seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die?”
This essay is adapted from my book, “Wildflowers of Joshua Tree Country,” available for sale here.