Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Panamint Live-Forever

Reading John Soennichsen's "Live! From Death Valley: Dispatches from America's Lowest Point," I came across this cactus flower's evocative name. It's not that pretty, as this photo (C) taken by Br. Albert Broussard at St. Mary's College in Moraga, indicates, but still, it's a splendid taxonomical identification. I guess it's hardy enough to earn its title, as part of the Dudleya saxosa family of succulents.

CalFlora tells us: "Common names: Panamint dudleya [Hrusa 2001], Panamint liveforever [PLANTS 2001], Rock Live Forever [Hrusa 2001]. Communities: Creosote Bush Scrub, Pinyon-Juniper Woodland, Chaparral. Elevation: between 787 and 7218 feet [Calflora 2004 (m)]. Dudleya saxosa, a dicot in the family Crassulaceae, is a perennial herb that is native to California and is endemic (limited) to California alone [Lum/Walker]."

I don't live high enough to see it even though part of L.A. County's included in its range, but then again my native county contains an enormous amount of botanic diversity, if much of it around me crushed into the cracks of the pavement, given the relentless real estate development that obliterates chaparral into heat-trapping concrete. We hasten our own urban warming as we conquer the stubborn desert. I like the name maybe better than the plant, but then I've always liked the place "Panamint" for its tribal iambs too, even though so far Soennichsen's lively narrative's the closest I've come to visiting the actual "low point." That may change, at least when the weather drops-- already we're heading into the wrong time of year. I realize from reading how I have no worthy vehicle let alone enough money for $4/gallon gas, and a better map than the book provides that also will tell me how to navigate the Owlshead Mountains, another range to the south-west of the melodiously monikered if fatally formidable Panamints, the range that guards in turn the south-west entrance into the diabolic desert declivity.

The weekend a couple hundred miles closer to Mexico, far beyond the Owlsheads, near the Sonoran-Mojave meeting place, north of Pinto Mountain on its eponymous road, a month ago still captivates me. It proved my first meeting with a true inland panorama of dirt and scrub where I could finally hear, for minutes at least, the sounds of air without motors, radios, or tweets. I realize how little I know even of a realm three hours away.

For all its emptiness, the Pinto Basin, as I searched Google Maps, compared as I'd reckoned on our drive across it about the same size as the San Fernando Valley. But, with nobody rather than 1.7 million people filling its spaces. I thought when I saw the Pinto Basin of how to the Spanish in 1769 as they sought a site for their mission that this was what, more or less, the S.F. Valley also looked like in its immensity of scrub and sand. Today, by the satellite maps, you can swirl back and forth from the colors of we urbanites to the shades of near-wilderness over the 150-mile span on the wide computer screen, and you sense the relentless push no longer westward but easterly back into the Mojave for those of us unable to afford those cooler coasts.

Pinto towered thousands of feet, and its alluvial plain fanned out in greens and tans that must have given it its name. I was astonished to learn later that a century ago, in three separate moves that followed the ore findings, the Dale Mining District lured 3,000 residents into this bleak if lovely in its haughty disdain for frippery like verdant groves of trees, lapping lakeshores, or trilling birdsong. This enormous vista hypnotizes by its lack of immediate change.

Google's aerial views, however, show you more color from the rocks washed down in the flash floods that fill the skirts at the bottom of the ridges. Used to more variety, my senses were thrown off by the subtler textures beneath the initial monotony from a terrain that to me seemed devoid of any tree beyond a stick or two my height. The silence and the desolation, that attracted to Joshua Tree Keith Richards and Gram Parsons, to Death Valley Charles Manson and Tex Watson, that creates fanatic messiahs and also consumes them, certainly provides a terrifying as well as comforting answer to our eternal longings. In such, maybe the enduring bristlecone and creosote over thousands of years attest to the Panamint Live Forever's own wistful nomenclature, and our admiration at the hardiness of flora opposed to our own mortal frailty.

Ironic to me, who hates the sun, that I have always loved to pore over maps of the Mojave. A perfect armchair traveller, today I wondered as I looked up at the sandstone and drying bursts of gold in the dying wild mustard, clearing tumbleweeds from around the driveway and knowing that a rare cactus or coyote lurked even within walking distance, of how close the boundary remains between our shrivelling dirt patches that hint of the desert beyond and the city whose towers I can view if I scramble up the closest hill, only three miles away.

I grew up for a few years on the edge of the Mojave, if at its farthest fringe that no longer can be trekked as easily, on the extreme eastern edge of L.A. County above Claremont, and for its hardscrabble rocky expanse, such gravel and brush remains endearing to me for all its forlorn dustiness. My school was called Chaparral. I spent the happiest times of my childhood roaming such plain places, before the tract homes and the 210 Freeway demolished the quiet and felled the orchards.

I know it's risky to romanticize the Southern Californian landscapes-- they turn too quickly into mini-malls, red-tiled roofs, and sodium lit-sprawl. My life here's been disappointed by constantly increasing congestion and concurrently dispiriting construction. But, even if those bird-inspired-- or are they curvily shaped?-- Owl-headed hills likely will be no less bleak and more austere than any around me now, and the appeal of a name may be as whimsical as many that have been given to fanciful formations of Devil's Golf Course, the Racetrack, Badwater, Artist's Palette, or Dante's View, there's an enduring if atavistic fascination of such a disdainful and dangerous area. It reminds us of our limits. As Soennichsen concludes his book, he links existentialism to the place he chronicles. The results are both terrifying and humbling. The emptiness of such a locale brings out primal fear as well as wonder, and in such hideaways the sound of another's footsteps can stimulate solace or threat. He finds this in what's fittingly named Surprise Canyon one night.

The names we bestow on the plants and formations we find in these towers of sand and plains of salt witness our own record of encounters with the numinous and the strange. Out of such exchanges with nature, we try to control them as Adam did nature, by naming it to tame it. Death Valley, no less than Joshua Tree, attests to our human need to tell stories, three millennia after the Jews mythically wandered for forty years, about the stones and flowers gathered and glowing around us.

1 comment:

Chris said...

John...if only Calflora had someone to write about all the various flora the way you have this Dudleya!