Originally published in Desert Oracle No. 1 (Spring 2015)
“Letter From North Joshua Tree”
by Jay Babcock
November 11, 2014
I’m composing this missive from beneath our desert ash tree. Watering the Joshua tree, watching the male finches zip about, running Steve Gunn’s Way Out Weather on the house hi-fi out the open windows. That I’m outdoors mid-morning in November means that the warm autumn is continuing: little to no wind, daytime temperatures cycling 10 degrees north and south of 80F, blue skies and clear nights.
But yeah, I’m watering a 16-foot Joshua tree in November because there hasn’t been much rain here since Spring. That was enough to give us our our first wildflower season in years, albeit a mild one. Mildflowers. And grass, and more plants, which meant for everyone to feed on. The ants seemed to mobilize first and widest — black and reds alike, constructing chains of mounds wherever there was sand. Then during the summer months the ant-devourers were out en masse — we saw the greatest variety and quantity of our lizard friends since Stephanie and I set up housekeeping here (as my grandfather would say) five years ago: Desert Horneds, Desert Banded Geckos (!), Western Whiptails. All their real names, your honor. And the insects! I will also call them by their secular names: Thistledown Velvet Ants, Pallid Grasshoppers, Giant Redheaded Centipedes, Tarantula Hawk Wasps — the latter having larvae-nesting habits so hideous they may singlehandedly prove the case for the universe being fundamentally evil in the antinatalist sense.
Then there were the Giant Hairy Scorpions, pictured above: six-inch-long land lobsters with a mildly venomous sting, who were so plentiful in our outdoor raised bed garlic patch that I hand-relocated them by the dozen to an undisclosed location twice. (Amazingly, these ‘insects’ can live for 25 years. Can your dog?) More bats and butterflies (especially around the compost/manure operation) too. Friends down near Aberdeen Road saw a family of Ringtail cats several nights in a row in October.
And this past weekend, one of the migratory flocks of turkey vultures that we see here twice yearly roosted overnight in our neighbor Old Joe’s giant honey mesquite tree, 250 yards from our house, and in Miguel and Marta’s grove up the road. In the morning they sat on fence posts and at the trees’ apexes, with their three-foot wings extended, motionless for minutes on end sunning themselves, warming up for the day’s flight. “They look like wet umbrellas,” said a friend. Then they were off, in that funnel/cyclone formation they travel in.
Joe, our 78-year-old neighbor to the west: for about a month this summer it looked like he was going to move back to Oklahoma to live with extended family there. Even put his house on the market with a local realtor. The FOR SALE sign went up and came down in less than 24 hours. Joe had second, final thoughts and is staying put. “Too late to change now,” he says. In a sense, Joe is the counter-argument against antinatalism.
All of this heroic life, but almost no rain, not even during this year’s seven-week “monsoon season.” It’s years — actually: decades? — like this when you need to water the Joshua trees very carefully, so the roots aren’t overwhelmed. (By the way: Stephanie recently found what just might be the definitive text on the subject— The Joshua Tree by Gloria Hine Gossard, Yellow Rose Publications, 1992.) See, it’s easy to get back to the land when there’s already a few people there. They show you how to live wisely in the place where you are — what trees can stand greywater, why you should get a swamp cooler instead of a standard A/C, what month you need to wrap the water pipes, how you need to let the coyotes have a place to get water so they don’t chew your overground irrigation lines. We neglected the coyotes and now we have a couple water fountains flowing near our Jujube tree orchard every time we turn the water on at our farm.
The farm! Well, it’s a farm-to-be. We bought a 20-acre parcel at a county tax auction about a year ago for very little cash: scraped dirt for dirt-cheap. The previous owner had abandoned the property after clearing all plant life from 13 acres of pristine creosote forest and planting 900-plus Asian Pear fruit trees on a grid, which had since all died. At least that’s what we thought. Turned out this year that they didn’t all die, and they weren’t all Asian Pears. A dozen of them were Jujube trees, and they’d not just survived but were leafing and fruiting. Our friend Rudyard of Surprise Valley had guessed their identity correctly.
In the spring, we visited jujube guru Roger Meyer to learn the lore firsthand of this fabulous fruit, a staple of Chinese medicine and an official superfood that fruits forever, loves sand, prunes itself, and has no known serious pests or diseases. In other words: perfect for newcomers like us, and the only wise move by the previous owners.
What will we do with the rest of the 20 acres? I’ll just say that a few of the Asian Pears survived, Stephanie has been propagating natives like a madwoman, we’re newly inspired by the Findhorn Garden in Scotland, and we are determined to slowly, patiently bring this piece of land back to rich life, even if the struggle against rapacious industrial civilization is bound to fail. Because that’s the Real Work. As Gary Snyder put it so directly back in the ‘70s: “To take the struggle on without the least hope of doing any good. To check the destruction of the interesting and necessary diversity of life on the planet, so that the dance can go on a little better for a little longer.”
The second issue of the Desert Oracle is available now, with another column by me about life in North Joshua Tree. Subscribe: Desert Oracle
Article on Ken Layne and the Desert Oracle: “After leaving the political blogging fray, he now covers desert’s quiet weirdness” (Los Angeles Times: May 29, 2015)