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Joshua Trees and Family Trees, A Remembrance

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Building a good fire is a matter of balance. Bright flames are cheerful, but if your intent is to keep one side of you tolerably warm, your fire must neither be too efficient nor too wasteful. You must stack your firewood loosely enough that air can flow through freely, but not too loosely. Each burning log heats the burning logs nearest it. Too much space between them and the fire will slacken. Too little and the fuel keeps its heat to itself. On a desert night like this, a cold one in March 2005, you want to coax the fire to share every bit of warmth it can.

For the tenth time I poke at my little campfire and think about my father.

A cold drop of water hits the back of my neck, runs down inside my jacket. I turn. I scan the sky. It takes a moment of looking away from the fire for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, for the night sky to resolve into view behind the ghostly, fire-lit Joshua tree blooms. The Moon hangs low above the western horizon, a thin crescent not quite bright enough to wash out the stars. Above me is a small dark hole in the sky moving eastward. It's a raincloud, a tiny one, that has hurled a droplet with uncanny accuracy at the spot on me most guaranteed to raise shivers. Another minute and it passes out of sight behind Kessler Peak. I turn back to the fire, nudge a blazing log abstractly with my hatchet, remember watching my father do the same.

It rained a little last night. I slept out, and though it never rained hard enough to rouse me I awoke before dawn to find half a dozen plugs of ice in my hair where rain had hit and then frozen. Tonight the sky is clearer. The desert is colder. By sunset, a little after six, I'd already put on a thermal shirt and jacket. Now I sit close to the fire. My knees are too warm. The nape of my neck is too cold. According to the law of averages, I tell myself, I am therefore completely comfortable. Sadly, I do not find my argument persuasive.

Perhaps a little exercise will warm me, stoke my inner fires a bit and get the air flowing through them. I hoist myself out of my folding camp chair and trudge over to regard a Joshua tree covered in bloom. Its flowers seem to shimmer against the wind.

I'm glad it's not raining. The desert has been drenched the last few months. The experts are already calling the rainy season of 2004-2005 the wettest in Southern California history. In August a flash flood roared down Furnace Creek in Death Valley, killing two people and ripping out the road, which has not yet been reopened. At Zabriskie Point the flood lifted two concrete outbuildings, each weighing 24 tons, and moved them 200 feet downhill. That was merely a dramatic summer prequel to the season just now ended, in which the Mojave got five times its usual ration of winter rain. Underground rivers and washes burbled with water. Dry lakes filled. In January I stood at Badwater in Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest spot in North America, and a gigantic sheet of water lay before me. It was a ghost of Pleistocene Lake Manly, two feet deep across miles of valley floor. I stood at the bottom of Death Valley, one of the driest, hottest places in the world, and cursed myself for not having had the forethought to bring my kayak.

The lakes have shrunk in the two months since, the land around them now mantled in pale green. Here on Cima Dome the soil, usually bare between the clumps of blackbrush and menodora, grows a garden of flowers-in-the-making, green leaves gathering sunlight to make new generations of themselves. The desert here already looks improbably lush, a month before the usual beginning of desert bloom season. Soon the desert will blaze with color.

Rains and freezing temperatures in January and February spur Joshua trees to bloom in March. Stalks emerge from the whorls of sharp leaves at the end of the trees' branches, looking vaguely like fat asparagus spears about a foot and a half long. From the sides of these stalks emerge short subsidiary stems, some branched. At the end of each stem is a fat bud that will open into a pale white flower about two inches wide. The flowers make a solid mass the length of the inflorescence. At first glance each blossom resembles an orchid, three petals and three sepals -- six "tepals" -- opening only at the ends of the flower. Their flesh is thick and waxy, its slight soapy flavor only a slight hindrance to edibility. You can batter and fry the blooms. Joshua trees are monoecious, which means that an individual tree will produce both male and female blossoms. On occasion a single Joshua tree flower will possess both male and female parts, a condition botanists refer to as "perfect," which is certainly rather enlightened of them.

Small moths flit back and forth between the open flowers. It is far too dark to see them clearly, and if I went to fetch the flashlight out of the truck to see them better the white light would spook them. They don't mind red light, and serious lepidopterists thus cover their moth-viewing torches with red cellophane, which basic camping essential I have once again neglected to pack. No matter: I know what the moths look like, and my mind fills in a few of the murky details. They are Joshua tree moths. On Cima Dome they'd be the eastern species Tegeticula antithetica as opposed to the Tegeticula synthetica found closer to Los Angeles. They are whitish, overall. Their wings somewhat resemble those of dragonflies, two pairs of elongated ovals with a wingspan of under an inch. The rearward margins of those wings bear a fringe of tiny hairs. The moths crawl into and out of the flowers with what looks like purposeful determination. Sometimes they leave one flower, crawl into an adjacent one. Sometimes they come to the lip of a flower, then fly out of range of my night vision.

The top log on the fire collapses, its strength burned away. Yellow flame flares briefly, then dies down. My little fire turns red, deepens. Twenty feet away I flip my collar up against the breeze. I shiver.

I wonder if I should just let it go out. I'm ambivalent about night fires. They warm the body, and on a night like this that's no small favor. But they keep my eyes and hands busy. They blind me to the stars. They make a circle of not-night in the desert and imprison my mind in it. The fact that we use fire distinguishes us from all the rest of nature, and it separates us as well. Out here with my fire dying down, I feel the night seeping into me. The stars grow in brilliance as the moon arcs toward Teutonia Peak. Out in the open desert somewhere between me and the moon, a coyote yodels its traditional folksong at the stars. Another, a half mile behind me or so, responds in kind. And then a third. For a long moment the desert night is filled with song.

And then the moment is over. I wait a long time for an encore. When it becomes clear, long after the moon has set, that none is coming, I walk back to my dying fire, place more wood on it out of an old sense of duty. In ten seconds it is ablaze.

I wasn't born a desert rat. I grew up in the wet country east of the Great Lakes, where summers brought rain that hit the ground, then rose back up into the air as humidity and mosquitoes. I spent my first two decades living among pin oaks and silver maples, every untended plot of land a green wall, the forest soil a spongy sodden mass shot through with moss and fungal threads and salamanders, the view in every direction blocked by a rococo profusion of leaf and branch. Now and then someone would cut down one of those trees, saw it into cordwood, and offer the wood to my father, who would then set it on fire.

Tonight my fire is of pinyon and juniper, their clean-scented smoke smudging my mind like burning sage. Back then, as I studied my father placing each new log on the half-burnt remnants of its companions, the smoke that followed me around the fire was deeper, its secrets better hidden. Even then the Upstate New York landscape seemed claustrophobic to me, forests turned inward and brooding. My father's campfires put out a moist smoke tanged with fungal woodland notes that hinted at old, unremembered pain, quiet questions I soon knew better than to ask.

I left New York at 22 and hitchhiked west. I awoke one morning in northern Nevada. The emptiness of the desert landscape completely unnerved me. The landscape seemed unadorned and ugly, and yet I could not tear my eyes off the far hills. Everything was out in the open there. Any secrets the sagebrush might have held were small and subtle. In time the northeast seemed stultifying, seemed overgrown and choked. My allegiance had shifted. I had adapted to the West's open terrain.

Still, put a western campfire in front of me and I am transported back into a cloud of that older smoke, sitting once again by older fires back east. My father would poke at the fire in resolute wordlessness, adjusting the fuel placement by increment. For the first fifteen years of my life I started fireside conversations that went nowhere. My father met each question, each querulous statement either with a dismissive-sounding sentence or with complete silence, leaving me feeling that I'd just said something stupid. Eventually I began to feel as though my saying anything was a disappointment of his expectations of silence.

These days I know his silence masked old hurt, that it really had nothing to do with me. I realize now how well he meant, how adrift he felt in a talkative world, his eldest son and campfire apprentice growing out of his paternal worship, his marriage to my mother slowly crumbling. I am much older now than he was then: now, I get it. Back then I blamed myself for the awkward silences. They made my heart shrivel. I never doubted his love for me; just his respect. One afternoon on a bluff above the Saint Lawrence River my father gathered kindling for that night's fire. I was nine or ten years old. I found a path leading beguilingly into the woods, and -- not looking forward to the next hours of silence -- announced I was going for a walk. My father brought me up short with some anger. I wasn't going anywhere, he said. The woods were dangerous for unchaperoned children. He told me a story, vague and seemingly half-remembered, about two boys who had gone out for a walk in the woods near his father's farm. "They got lost," he told me, "and when they were found they were dead."

The story, no more than five sentences long, had an immediate and permanent effect on me. Of course, that effect was the exact opposite of the one my father had intended. I was persuaded that the forest was a thrilling place. I gave my father twenty minutes to lose interest in what I was doing and walked nonchalantly up the path into the woods. I've spent the subsequent three and a half decades doing the same thing, hoping that my old life would end and a new one begin among the trees.

Once pollinated, a Joshua tree's flower slowly becomes fruit. The process is a matter of balance. A Joshua tree will shed a flower if the moth has laid too many eggs in it, or if the moth hasn't packed enough pollen into the stigma, or if too much of that pollen came from the same tree, which increases the risk of inbred seedlings.

If not for developing Joshua tree fruit, the new generation of moths would have nothing to eat. If not for moths to pollinate its flowers, no new Joshua trees would be born. One by one, each generation makes its way into the forest. Each generation in turn cedes to the one that follows, fades into the past, a link in a braided chain stretching back to the dawn of life.

And each generation bears the mark of those that came before. More talkative than my father by an order of magnitude, I still inherit from him his tolerance of days-long silences, his ability to let important things go unsaid. I fight it in myself. I conscientiously tell people that I love them, I try to return friends' phone calls within a few weeks, I deliberately strike up conversations with complete strangers, and still I find I am not fully at ease until I need not talk to anyone, until I am sitting alone for long dark hours among the Joshua trees. The forest calls me and I am unsettled until I answer it, until I head toward yet another little fire like tonight's, driven to it like a moth to... well, you know.

Dawn will break in a few hours, and I look forward to another day of walking in the Joshua tree forest. The desert floor fills more each day with green, plants sprouted from seed lain dormant in the soil for years. Some I have not seen here before in a decade of visits. I am already looking past the end of this visit and planning the next one. Two weeks from now? A month? With all the winter's rain, this will certainly be a killer year for desert botanizing. I am here and already impatient for the next visit.

Call it unfinished business if you like. Call it wish fulfillment. It's the basic lesson of modern biology, all of evolutionary theory summarized. Trace any two organisms' lines of ancestry back far enough and you find a common ancestor. The eastern and western Joshua tree moths share an ancestor perhaps 15 thousand years back. That line diverged from my own 590 million years ago. Go back an additional 400 million years and the Joshua tree's line of ancestry converges with ours. When I speak of the kinship of all life I do not intend metaphor. The moths, the coyotes, the packrat now eyeing me from across the fire, the owl swifting past on silent wings, the trees presiding quietly above it all; we are related. We are kin.

It is the family I've always longed for and I cherish my place in it, sitting among them in quiet contentment, now and then posing the Joshua trees questions they do not answer.

[An excerpt from a chapter on my forthcoming book on Joshua trees.]

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