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What Good Are Joshua Trees?

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Excerpted from the author's forthcoming book on Joshua trees.

I should probably say before we go any farther that I am what the literature people call an unreliable narrator. Relating information about Joshua trees in a neutral, dispassionate, objective fashion is not something I can honestly claim to do. I am biased in favor of the trees' existence. I am biased in favor of their presence within a few minutes' walk of wherever it is I happen to be standing. What I tell you about them will necessarily be colored by that favorable outlook.

This may seem a small thing, as trees are not often given to behavior that could be described as controversial. But we live in an age when the very existence of a tree, or a tortoise, or a mere untrammeled piece of space is often seen as an affront to progress or economic growth. To hold that a piece of land is better filled with Joshua trees than with pavement is to take a stand against a way of life that many people hold dear.

That doesn't just apply to Joshua trees, of course. Read the news long enough and you are likely to see false equivalences stated as if they were bald facts. For a while, up in the trees of the Pacific Northwest, it was "Jobs versus Owls." There was a pitched battle some years ago near Riverside in which, as the headlines had it, a rampaging fly threatened the existence of a poor beleaguered hospital. Never mind that a loss for the fly in that "battle" meant extinction, and a loss for the hospital meant moving 250 yards to the left.

Salmon versus farmers; tortoises versus army tanks; polar bears versus oil wells; tribal people versus logging companies; yada versus yada. Over and over again, we portray the continued existence of a species, a landscape, a way of life as less important than our convenience. Forests are cut down, landscapes changed forever, species wink out of existence so that we can keep a job six months longer than we might have otherwise. So that there's a place to ski an hour closer to downtown. So that the few remaining shares in our investment portfolio maybe go up a few cents each by closing.

And yet we do, most of us, appreciate the natural world we dismantle so casually. This creates a bit of cognitive dissonance, a bit of guilt. If I tell a reasonable person that I'd rather a strip mall developer not replace a Joshua tree forest with a chain drugstore, a coffee shop, and a taqueria, that person will very likely sympathize. On the one hand, this invented rhetorical straw person might think, it really is nice to have some open land around, a place where the sun shines slantward through the odd trees in the morning, and if you drive past with your window down you can hear the cactus wrens singing as you, and they, start the work day.

Then again, it would be nice to have yet another drive-thru coffee place to add to the dozens within a mile of your gated community.

Caught up on this horned dilemma, the typical person will see if there's some way to break the stalemate. Is there some way in which those Joshua trees will benefit them personally? Or if not, at least some inarguably useful thing they do for someone?

What good, after all, are Joshua trees? What purpose do they serve?

There isn't a pat answer to that question. Undammed rivers attract rafters and fishermen to spend money in town. Snowy forested peaks bring in the cross-country skiers. Clean, unspoiled beaches raise local real estate values. Redwood forests, if left standing, offer the possibility of construction material for future generations.

But Joshua trees? Their wood is not particularly useful. They grow too slowly to be used as pulp. They do not, to our knowledge, contain a cure for cancer. Their fruit is insipid; their flowers are ephemeral. As much as any other tree in North America, Joshua trees aren't Economically Important. And if they aren't Economically Important, they stand in the way of that which is.

If I seem to slip rather easily into environmental polemic here, there's a reason: I do it for a living. I've written about environmental issues for more than twenty years now, editing environmentalist publications for the majority of that time. Over the last two decades, my typical morning has involved waking up, drinking a cup of coffee, and then looking for the most recent collection of bad news so that I might, over the next production cycle, bring readers the worst of the bad news I can collect, carefully packaged and distilled.

The good news, perversely, is that this has been a very easy job.

The bad news is the toll the career can take. Some time ago a therapist asked me, in the course of one of our first few sessions, whether I'd ever felt a debilitating sense of hopelessness. "I'm an environmental journalist," I responded. He nodded, slowly, and then wrote something down on his pad.

I learned to take breaks. If I was going to risk burnout trying to get people to care about wild things, I was sure as hell going to get something in the way of payback from those wild things: relaxation, aesthetic pleasure, distance from the phone, surpassing quiet, occasional adventure. Loggers go to the woods to extract timber and miners to extract gold: I went to extract mental health... or at least something close. It became a routine. I would disappear for a few days after dropping the magazine off at the post office. People learned not to try to find me. I would throw a few things in the truck and head for the High Sierra, or for the redwoods, for the lava tubes of northeastern California, for the deserts. I would sit by myself for a few days, hike, watch campfires, and generally feel like I had just reemerged from the hellish dreamtime of an imagined workday existence into my real life in the wild.

The existential despair of my job continued to abrade my soul, but I would apply a poultice of tire tread and gasoline to the injuries, administer therapeutic doses of piñon firewood smoke Ad Libitum, and then I would get back to work. The regimen alleviated the acute symptoms. The chronic condition remained. After one particularly stressful production cycle I found myself on the long desert drive in which that National Park ranger idly suggested that someone ought to write a book about Joshua trees.

By the time I got back home I'd decided to leave my job and work on the book, though the decision took a few more months to implement.

I was married then: I am not married now. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area then: I do not now. The changes were slow to manifest at first. I began pulling away from my former life increment by tiny increment. None of it would have happened without the pull of desires I've felt my whole life, and picking out one catalytic event is a bit like choosing the most pivotal raindrop in a thunderstorm. But there is a moment that seems pivotal to me, a convenient and sensible threshold -- at least in retrospect.

By October 1997 I'd hired and trained my replacement and quit my job. I spent a few days relaxing with my wife Becky and our dog Zeke, then said goodbye to both and headed out to Joshua tree country, my pickup loaded with field guides, references, and a month's worth of dried and packaged food. After a few days of desultory wandering I got to the Mojave National Preserve. Remembering a brief visit a few years earlier, I headed for Cima Dome and its immense forest of Joshua trees.

Driving up Cima Road from the interstate that afternoon was a bit overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of Joshua trees grew on the dome, each one with its own character, its own personality. Wizened, shriveling patriarchs grew next to vigorous youngsters half again as high. Some trees were tall enough they seemed to try to seine passing clouds for moisture. Others hugged the ground with what almost seemed shyness. There was as much obvious variety in this forest as in any large crowd of people, and I felt a little like I was obliged to interview everyone there. The scope of the project I'd taken on began to register, a little, in the back of my mind. I got a little queasy. What have I gotten myself into?

There is a broad-shouldered pass between the Dome's summit and Kessler Peak to its east, about 5,000 feet above sea level at its lowest point. I pulled off the pavement there. There was a campsite near the road, sheltered by a weathered, riven and rounded granite boulder the size of a large house. (Technically, it's quartz monzonite, but calling it granite will do for now.) The truck pinging as it cooled, I stretched a bit, looking around, blinking at the desert sun glinting off the quartz crystals in the rock around me. I climbed the boulder -- Sunrise Rock -- and found I had a pretty good view once my eyes adapted to the light. Kessler Peak rose red and brooding a mile east, its summit a thousand feet above me. About the same distance away to the west was Teutonia Peak -- a pretty little ridge I've since explored rather thoroughly -- blocking my view of the Cima Dome's actual summit. A dozen miles south, twenty or so miles north: there were Joshua trees literally as far as the eye could see.

I'd better start working, I figured, and clambered back down to get the laptop out of the truck. I found a comfortable spot and started to try to record some of my first impressions of the place.

Following is the full and unexpurgated transcript of what I wrote that afternoon:

"Well, I'm here."

And then the writer's block set in.

By that evening, driven to distraction by that one car that had whooshed down the road past my base of operations, I'd decamped for the interior, finding a little site in the lee of another outcrop a quarter-mile from the pavement. The sun ambled down toward the north end of Teutonia Peak, then set. The stars came out. I started a fire with the juniper and piñon cordwood I'd brought with me, stared a while longer at the pale glow of the laptop screen, then saved my three-word day's output for the fifth time and put the damned computer away. I cracked a beer.

When that beer was gone, I opened another.

The little fire turned sulking red, I put my wire grill over it and got a steak out of the cooler. Food scent mixed with the piñon-juniper smoke. I seared one side of the steak, then flipped it.

Someone had camped in that spot before me. Remnants of their past fires were scattered here and there. A hand-width slice of Joshua tree trunk lay a few feet away.

Scavenging firewood on Cima Dome is forbidden by the National Park Service. My curiosity was hard to bear, though, and I hefted the cross-section of Joshua tree. It was surprisingly light, almost like balsa. I moved my grill to one side, and then -- in flagrant violation of Title 16 of the United States Code, as amended by the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 -- I put the Joshua tree slice into my fire.

An edge flared up briefly, then went out.

I stuck the little chip farther into the fire. Flames licked fleetingly up around its fibrous bark, then died out as suddenly. My curiosity was piqued. I grabbed the tongs, moved my steak to one side on the grill, and pulled the chip out of the fire. Away from the incandescence of the burning juniper and piñon, held against the raven sky, the edge of it that had flared up glowed an eerie orange. Its smoke smelled sweet, cloying, with notes like burning cornhusks or the Aztec incense copal, yet different, muskier.

There was a flat rock next to me, a shard of the outcrop that had fallen some time ago. I put the burning chip on it, watched as the smouldering orange patch grew over half an hour. The patch spread easily along the perimeter but penetrated the wood only slowly. The dot became a thin crescent. The crescent's tips joined at the end opposite the point of ignition. The ember was now a ring working its way slowly and patiently toward the heart. Its wisp of incense smoke followed me no matter where I put myself, burning my eyes, filling my lungs.

I no longer remember how long it took. Perhaps I should have taken notes. But I watched until that ring contracted to a point, held its color fiercely for a time, and then winked out. By the time the cactus wrens cajoled me out of my sleeping bag the next morning with their obnoxious alarum, the ash had blown away, leaving a patch of shiny brown resin on the rock, the accumulated toxic essence of decades of plant metabolism, secreted by the living tree and resistant to the low heat of that little fire. I touched my tongue to the resin. It tasted like the smoke had smelled.

I spend two more days there exploring on foot, watching, drinking it all in keying out the local cacti in one field guide or another. I moved on with some reluctance.

A few more weeks of exploration, communing with Joshua trees from Death Valley to Arizona, from the Sierra Nevada to Zion, and then I was back in the Bay Area. I pored through historical and scientific reference works, started talking to scientists, began -- tentatively -- to write a few scattered impressions. The bills started mounting. I took a new job, concatenating new bad news for a new audience.

And everything I did, I did while distracted. I worked, I read, I ate, I slept, all of it looking over a metaphorical shoulder at the desert. I measured my life by the days remaining until my next return to the Joshua trees.

The scent of smoke from that smouldering piece of Joshua tree lingered in my nostrils.

My appreciation for that smell would grow somewhat more nuanced. But in those first months the memory of scent was intoxicating. Walking across a supermarket parking lot, or in a crowded train car, or sitting by myself at home I would smell it, though it was never actually there, and I'd spend the next day or two suffused with longing. The trees had struck a spark on me that consumed me edge by edge, the fire slow-enveloping me, working inexorably toward my heart.

I was drawn back again and again like a salmon to its headwaters. Driving from the Bay Area to the Mojave Desert, which took five hours or so, I would feel weeks of accumulated unhappiness lift as the first Joshua trees came into view along Sand Canyon Road in the Tehachapis. I would feel my interrupted life take itself up again. I called it "field work," excused myself from my job for days on end with the excuse of "research," and that wasn't exactly a lie: I did learn a lot, by increment, on each visit. But it wasn't field work I was really after. It was communion. It was home.

Life in the city became harder, though at first I wasn't sure why. My temper flared. My stomach lining eroded. I began to feel as though I was spending a very large amount of time on things that mattered little. I didn't put the pieces together for an embarrassingly long time.

I talked about it with the shrink. He looked at me oddly. "So you're saying that the wilderness is your refuge. What's the big deal? A lot of people feel that way."

"Yeah," I said, "but it just seems so trite, ascribing some sort of holy power to a camping trip. And I'm surrounded by people who get all mystical and woo-woo about field sprites and devas and stuff, and it turns me off but good. What if it's just my needing to get away from people, and the wilderness is the only place I can do that? Why should I read any more into it than that?"

He opened my file, leafed through it. "Well, there's nothing wrong with needing to get away from people. But on our last visit you talked about the desert, and you seemed visibly lighter. A lot of people like to go camping, but it seems like it's something else for you as well.

"I'll tell you what I think, Chris. I think the desert is your cathedral. That's where you go to be reminded that there are things out there bigger than you."

"Where I don't matter," I ventured.

"Yeah, which means that the stuff that's troubling you doesn't really matter either. Not in the long run."

My center of gravity had shifted to the Mojave. It was obvious, in retrospect, that my life in the Bay Area would eventually fall to one tremor or another. Each visit shifted me a little more. Each return came a bit more reluctantly. I began, almost involuntarily, to picture shedding my Bay Area life as a Joshua tree sheds the old leaves at its base. I felt guilty at the images, this imagined abandoning of my life. Eventually I began to resent the guilt.

The break was inevitable. I visit my old life now in dreams, awaking to a life in proximity to the desert.

This has been the whole point of my life: traveling alone through the immense landscapes of the arid west. My mailing address doesn't matter. Whether there is someone waiting for me at home, or there is no one waiting for me at home, or I am already home, watching the far horizon recede through the dust-spattered windshield, the roadside Joshua trees looming in the glow of my low-beams, then fading. It doesn't matter. I don't matter. The whole point. I have been single, and I have been in love, and I have been somewhere in between, mired in relationship, and never happier than driving alone in the lands where rivers end their lives in sterile saline sumps, where the trees wave stiff-jointed, daggered fists in the wind.

Human companionship is a fine thing, and there's no better place for it than the desert. But traveling alone, my mind is untethered. Ideas float to the surface, pass through the conscious mind's veneer, are forgotten. Resolutions arise and dissipate. I have reached profound decisions, come to startling realizations, all of them left at roadside: the desert might as well be paved with my stony, discarded thoughts. They run in drifts beneath the surface, an alluvium of intellectual refuse. The Joshua trees bear witness.

My little campsite a quarter mile from Cima Road has been home longer than any house I've ever lived in. The trees within a half a mile are old friends, grown significantly since we met. I suppose I have too. They've borne silent witness to my unraveling, my joys and griefs. I bear witness to them as well. On a good day I lose track of myself in the process.

I do know more facts about the trees than I did that day in October 1997, about their anatomy and metabolism, their evolutionary ancestry, pests and diseases and growth patterns. All those things are important. But some things I've learned I value more. I've learned how it feels to spend days with no other company but the trees. I've learned how they smell when July sun bakes them, when snow wets their bark in February. I've learned the way they groan slightly as the wind sways them. I've learned the cool of the scant shade they cast in August. I've learned what it's like to wake beneath one at three in the morning, to watch the wheeling of the night sky pull Sirius just behind the sharp point of a spent, wind-battered, Joshua tree leaf, and how that starlight will, for a few seconds, illuminate the veins of that once-living leaf from within until Sirius re-emerges on the other side.

I have learned that I am not fully alive if there is not a Joshua tree in view.

What good, after all, are Joshua trees? What purpose do they serve? One might as well ask what purpose Chopin's "Ballade Number 1" serves, or chill water on a long hot day, or the trace of your lover's fingertips on the back of your neck. What good is a sunset over the ocean? The crack of monsoon lightning? What purpose is there behind the great vault of the October sky I watched that night long ago, transfixed by the smell of incense, not yet suspecting how my life would change as the winter constellations rose one after another past the tip of Kessler Peak?

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