The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.
Despite its current popularity with fashion photographers, Wonder Valley can feel godforsaken on a hot summer day. It was just such a day when Joe Barrett huddled beneath a shade canopy and sent his drone into the sky to take photos of an abandoned five-acre homestead.
The original shack was busted up; no one had lived there for decades. But a neighbor had noticed — while browsing Google Earth — that there appeared to be rows of stones arranged to form words. Big words.
The message was hard to make out from the ground so Barrett and his drone were enlisted to see what was there. As an image came into view on his small screen, he saw what looked like a huge mushroom etched with letters. "I could see it was something awesome," Barrett said.
Barrett had been needing something awesome. A veteran of the TV and film industry in L.A., he'd been diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, transverse myelitis, and had lost almost all his mobility. Like so many before him, he retreated to the desert to recover.
His rehabilitation was about to get a big assist from a mystical homesteader named Hazel who died in 2012. Once the drone came back to earth, Barrett drove home in a state of anticipation. As he photoshopped the images, what emerged was the secret garden of Hazel Iona Stiles (1913-2012), a hitherto unknown piece of land art. At 300 by 180 feet, it covers a bigger footprint than Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight's popular creation near Niland. Hazel, like Leonard, had created a visionary folk art monument.
"Holy cow, look at this!" Barrett said to himself.
None of Hazel's former neighbors knew the extent of the work as it's almost invisible from the ground. Neighbor Jim Wheeler used to see Hazel puttering around her primitive homestead alone, never with any visitors. She dressed "like a desert rat" swathed in a big hat and bandanas. "I thought she was just out decorating the yard," he said. "I don't think anybody ever knew anything about this."
Even Hazel's son, Jack Stiles, did not know what his mother was up to. When shown a drone photo of the artwork for the first time, the Castro Valley resident seemed bemused and said his mother was always one for hard work in the garden.
Hazel was gardening, but on a celestial, or possibly intergalactic, scale. She was born in Brownsville, Texas and later lived in Los Angeles where she worked as a conductor on streetcars and then as a Rosie the Riveter in an aircraft factory. She had three sons, Jack, Edward and Robert. Only Jack survives her today.
She moved out to remote Wonder Valley in the 1960s after a divorce. The thinly inhabited community ten miles east of Twentynine Palms was known then, as now, for its eccentric residents and tumble-down five-acre homesteads. In a photo taken around the time she first arrived, Hazel appears confident and somewhat playful despite the fact that home was a primitive cabin with no electricity and no water. "It was not livable, really," says Jack Stiles, who visited before the rock garden was in bloom. "It was a lonely place for her, I'm sure."
Hazel was a student of Christian Science, a metaphysical movement founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy. The faith emphasizes the equality of women and bestows the power of the ministry on everyone: no hierarchical leaders. Hazel took this as an invitation and began writing on spiritual themes. "She did a lot of writing, but I don't think it went anywhere," says Jack.
Looking for another way to get her message out, Hazel began sorting and stacking piles of rocks around her property. Some of her finds appear to be lava imported from the nearby Amboy Crater. She spray-painted some rocks and painted dots on others, beginning work on her stone garden in the early 1980s, the same time Leonard Knight was building his mountain in Niland.
Ken Sitz — who first discovered the work via Google Earth — observed that Hazel's work resembles a giant Dr. Bronner's bottle. Beneath the jumbo letters are what appears to be smaller text, but the words are unreadable, perhaps erased by wind or floods. Sitz, a veteran of the 1970s punk scene in New York City, speculates there may even be a secret code embedded in the dots.
Hazel must have made thousands of trips over many years — choosing stones and pacing back and forth under the brutal sun — to spell out the riot of messages that run together in one jubilant rush. This is not the work of a morose hermit but an ecstatic messenger telling us to Sing Dance Pray and Turn off TV.
Hazel's creation stands in sharp contrast to the current crop of land art in the desert. For Desert X and the Joshua Treenial and others, artists generally parachute into the desert from distant cities, making exhibits with little grounding in the place itself. Hazel's art, on the other hand, is rooted. Made from the land itself, it has aged and weathered into place. Hazel didn't need to look to art world trends because (as her rocks say): "Beneath thy feet/ Life's pearl is cast."
Placing stones one by one, Hazel also spelled lines from Shakespeare's "As You Like It:"
Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stone, and good in everything.
The verse is a clue to Hazel's philosophy: Nature offers all the wisdom we need, and there are secrets in the Wonder Valley stones if you take time to linger.
Peace and love are big themes for her, as well: Seek Peace Pursue Peace Work for Peace. Jack Stiles says his mother was always asking: "Why can't we all live together peacefully? Everybody's looking for the perfect world so why do bad things go on?"
Left behind in Hazel's decaying shack were piles and piles of books, evidence of the artist's seeking nature. It might have been in her eclectic reading that Hazel discovered the mushroom motif she used to frame her sculpture. The mushroom was a common symbol in early Christian art. English archeologist John Allegro said the early Christian cults ingested psychedelic mushrooms and the mushroom evolved into a symbol of God on earth. Whether Hazel knew any of this is speculation, but a mushroom is an unlikely frame for desert land art.
We also have to speculate on who Hazel might have been addressing. Her letters are so large that the manifesto can only be seen from the air. Hazel was making contact with something that hovers, floats or flies. The shack is on a major flyway into L.A. In her isolation — and given her background building airplanes — Hazel may have been watching the contrails and fashioning messages for air traffic. Or, given the UFO culture in the High Desert, it's possible she had an outer space audience in mind.
When asked who Hazel might have been talking to, her son said: "Sounds like she was talking to the world."
Another puzzle: How did Hazel map out her work on such a large scale that it could only be seen from space? As Joe Barrett says: "Some would say she was divinely guided."
The site has been divinely protected, as well, escaping vandalism due to its ground-level invisibility. The fading of the original paint adds protective coloration. Like an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, Hazel's Garden seems born to decompose. "The only reason it's still there is because nobody saw it," says Barrett.
Still, Wonder Valley is on everyone's list these days, and the rock garden is extremely fragile. Off-roaders have already left their tracks. One misplaced footfall can disrupt a quote from Shakespeare. The carefully-placed rocks are portable and at risk of being carted off by selfie-tourists.
Ken Sitz and his friends have made attempts to protect the site, posting signs meant to deter damage. "Ideally we can avoid this becoming another High Desert novelty," he says. He's assembled an informal preservation group — the Dale Basin Field Club — to do further research and conserve the remaining artwork, which is on private land.
Whatever happens next, for those who were at the unveiling it was a transformative moment. After seeing the drone images for the first time, Joe Barrett said: "I don't think I came down for three or four days. I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to duplicate the thrill of that day."
Photographer Joseph Barrett was born in Nashville and lived in Los Angeles for 37 years working in films, music videos and television. In 2013, Barrett was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition, transverse myelitis. In 2015, he relocated to the High Desert. He found there a supportive and creative community, whom he credits with his partial recovery.