The Mojave Cross Returns

The Mojave Cross covered during the lawsuit | Photo: Florian Boyd/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Warmth comes only slowly with the November desert dawn. Few animals stir as the line of cars creeps along Cima Road toward the summit. Only a few intrepid cactus wrens are abroad, a few quail that have so far escaped the hunt. Cima Dome's Joshua trees sway slightly in the morning's wind. Their roots swell slightly with the traces of past rains. Atop Sunrise Rock the preparations have been made, metal drilled into the tough granitic boulder. The nation's finest legal minds have parceled out an acre of desert surrounding the rock. The Mojave Cross has returned.

The latest in a series of crosses that have marked Sunrise Rock since the 1930s, the Mojave Cross was recovered this month two years after it was stolen, a theft that earned global publicity. The theft occurred after the Supreme Court declared that giving Sunrise Rock to a private veteran's group didn't violate the U.S. Constitution, a narrow decision that capped off a convoluted legal process, a lawsuit, and a series of Congressional actions that few commenting on the case seemed to truly comprehend. A bit of land surrounding Sunrise Rock now belongs to someone other than the National Park Service, a one-acre loophole in the Constitution the war dead thought they were fighting to defend.

When John Riley Bembry placed the original wooden cross atop Sunrise Rock in 1934, he was just 20 years removed from the deaths he sought to commemorate. A medic during the Great War, Bembry was one of hundreds of veterans who sought solace in the Mojave, its dark night skies soothing shell-shocked memories, its clear clean air easy on gas-scarred lungs. Bembry's mining camp still stands, maintained by his friends, three decades after he last walked it.

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It's hard to imagine what Bembry might have thought had he known that the simple memorial he built in 1934 would become a cause celebre for the most conservative elements in our society 75 years later. The original lawsuit challenging the cross' presence in a National Park was called an affront to Christianity and to God and an insult to veterans. The cross was described as a self-evidently secular, non-Christian symbol of remembrance and a tribute to the Christian messiah. Cima Dome was called a barren sandy waste no one ever visited, Sunrise Rock a stunning likeness of a soldier -- descriptions that could only be made by someone who had neither been there nor bothered to look for a photograph of the place.

And how many of the Cross's media defenders in the last decade could have told what the men Bembry sought to commemorate died for? That horrific war, that meatgrinder of a war, 9 million dead in the mud and poison gas and dysentery, an entire generation of boys thrown into a pointless bloodbath that only set the stage for further conflict? How many of the Cross's defenders could tell you what the Zimmermann Telegram was? How long the Battle of Verdun lasted?

How many of them looked even a little ways past the sloganeering? How many of them took time to breathe the desert air that helped restore those long-ago wounded? How many looked to the desert surround and thanked it for the seven decades of healing it granted Bembry? A few, perhaps.

The Cross derives its symbolism from a life Christians say ended almost 2,000 years ago. There are things within sight of Sunrise Rock that have lived longer than that. Long after that line of cars rolls back down toward the Interstate, long after the paint flakes off the Cross's welded steel pipes and the rust consumes it, the cactus wrens will still sound their cold morning reveille. Long after all the dead of all our wars are forgotten, and the grief of those who loved them consigned to dead script on ancient paper, the juniper will still shed fruit to roll across the Dome's gray granite.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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