Cover image for Desert : the Mojave and Death Valley
Title:
Desert : the Mojave and Death Valley
Author:
Dykinga, Jack W.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Physical Description:
143 pages : color illustrations, color map ; 28 x 30 cm
Language:
English
Added Author:
ISBN:
9780810932388
Format :
Book

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QH105.C2 D95 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize
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Summary

Summary

The Mojave Desert occupies over 35,000 square miles. Within its boundaries thrive at least 100 species of rare plants and creatures. This photographic book captures its extraordinary blossoming desert plants, accompanied by text from botanist Emily Powers.


Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Covering large areas of Southern California and Nevada as well as portions of Arizona and Utah, the Mojave Desert (the smallest North American desert) and Death Valley remain a mystery to most Americans. This collection of large-format color photographs by Pulitzer-Prize winner Dykinga and accompanying text by nature writer/naturalist Bowers should help to demystify the area and demonstrate the stark beauty to be found there. The book's topics include mysterious moving rocks, singing sand dunes, desert flora and fauna, and the need for continued protection. Coinciding partly with an Arizona Highways traveling photography exhibition, this book is recommended for all regional and most public and academic collections. [BOMC selection.]ÄTim J. Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One Two years ago, after living in the middle of Tucson for almost twenty years, I moved to a bit of desert on the outskirts of town. My stated reason was to get away from sirens, helicopters, and traffic and to escape the leakage of other people's lives into my own--radios, car alarms, dogs, firecrackers, lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers. I needed silence and a little space around me. Unstated was my fear that living in towns for so long, I had become town-wise and desert-foolish. I knew where to buy real tomatoes, but not where to find spadefoot toads after the first drenching thunderstorm of summer. I could tell you how late my favorite bookstore stayed open, but not when the sun would rise the next morning or whether the moon was waxing or waning. More often than I care to admit, I was adrift in the seasons, telling myself in November that the days were surprisingly cool for May and thinking in July that April's migrating warblers should be arriving any day now.     I was tired of being a fool. I wanted to step outside at night and not be surprised by the moon. I wanted to see how much rain made desert washes run, and run hard. Most of all I wanted to insinuate myself somehow into the lives of wild animals. What form this would take, I hardly dared to plan. Henry David Thoreau's quiet communion with small animals came to mind--he reportedly summoned squirrels and songbirds with a whistle--but I was willing to be satisfied with much less.     At the end of October, I took possession of a house on an acre and a half of land. In January, my land took possession of me when I slid my pitchfork into the compost pile, lifted the dry thatch on top, and uncovered two baby cottontail rabbits in a nest. Bodies touching, they huddled rump to head, fitting together as neatly as figure and ground in an Escher drawing. Their gray ears lay back on gray-brown haunches. Neither one moved. I hardly breathed myself. This was why l had moved here. This was what l had wanted all along.     Shifting the center of my day by approximately twelve miles westward was like moving to another world. In my neighborhood, houses are like scattered islands in an inlet or sound, and the tide of desert rises and falls around them every day as animals come and go about their business. Watching Gambel's quail every morning and evening, I learned more about their habits in my first month at the new place than I had in thirty years of hiking through the desert. I came to recognize a couple of javelina who dropped by almost daily for a drink from the waterhole. I watched spadefoot toads call for mates as they floated across a mud puddle, and I raised some of their eggs into tiny toads the size of my thumbnail. I saw my first bobcat, and my first gray fox.     Now, more than ever, the Sonoran Desert is my home, and when I go to the Mojave Desert, I am keenly aware of being a tourist. Squeezing visits into one week here, another week there, cannot substitute for living in a place until you know it so well that its rhythms knit into your bones, until, say, the alarm call of a Gambel's quail--an anxious ticking that varies in volume, duration, and rate--conveys to you real information about what is out there (coyote? rattlesnake? cat?) and how much of a threat it poses. As a visitor, I cannot expect to acquire this level of intimacy. It is always time to move on. No time to hang around a patch of milkweeds while a monarch butterfly decides whether to dot the leaves with eggs; no time to keep an eye on a red-tailed hawk's nest until the nestlings have fledged. Of the million stories in the naked desert, I am fated not to know the end of a single one. My acquaintance with the Mojave Desert is rather recent. As a child in California, I lived within an hour or two of the desert's edge, and I must have seen it now and then, if only on family trips to Oklahoma where my aunt and uncle lived on a farm. I remember that on one such trip we ate a picnic lunch at a public park in Needles, California. There was nothing about the town to mark it in my mind as desert except perhaps for the wind. Strong gusts had scoured the streets of trash and dust, and as we drove along the main avenue, old-fashioned Christmas decorations--swags of red and green tinsel twisted into curlicues and wreaths--swayed overhead, and red plastic bells trembled soundlessly on lamp posts.     I also remember a trip to the ghost town of Calico, California with my Girl Scout troop. I wore my Kodak camera on a long, black strap around my neck and snapped pictures of my friends clowning on the porches of rickety wooden buildings. That once upon a time Calico had been a real place, not a faked-up Wild West for tourists, did not matter to me then, and that it existed within a larger framework called the Mojave Desert made no impression on my consciousness. Even then, in the 1950s, California's population was growing rapidly, but my memories do not reflect the boom. Towns were small and decently separated from one another by fields or vacant lots. The best strawberries in the world were grown by Nisei farmers in a narrow plot of land between our town and the next. My world did not seem crowded except at the Los Angeles County Fair, where you expected to see people and lots of them, and at the beach, which is one reason my family went to the mountains for summer vacations. We could have gone to the desert but for some reason did not; evidently the desert was a place you drove through, not to.     Things are different today: more people, more houses, more cars. As more land disappears under asphalt and concrete, the remainder suffers greater pressure for recreation and diversion. Four million people now live within a day's drive of the Mojave Desert, and when Sunset magazine or the Los Angeles Times tells them that wildflowers are spectacular in Death Valley this spring, half of them get in their cars to check it out, less because they love wildflowers or deserts than for something to do.     Sometimes I don't know which group worries me most: the millions who visit or the millions who stay away.     Among the millions who stay away there must be some who would not benefit from a visit, who indeed should be encouraged not to come. In this group I would put developers, cactus collectors, off-road-vehicle users, and anyone else who treats the desert as a consumer commodity. Others stay away from simple lack of interest, which is fine: the world would be a dull place if we all liked the same thing, as some wise soul has observed. When Lack of Interest casts (or fails to cast) its ballot on election day, however, the results can be devastating to those who really care.     The millions who visit the Mojave Desert cannot be accused of not caring. But, choosing to care in comfort, they have brought about a vast and expensive infrastructure to meet their needs for food, water, toilets, beds, showers, gasoline, film, newspapers, cigarettes, ice, sunscreen, decongestants, and videos, not to mention the ubiquitous souvenirs that could, given minimal alteration, just as well be sold on Cape Cod: decorative teaspoons, ash trays, coffee mugs, snowglobes, stuffed animals, and so forth. Some visitors bring enough water, food, and bedding to pretend that they are independent of infrastructure, at least for a few days; most of the rest are unprepared for even the simplest emergency, and if a radiator hose breaks, they would die if hot for the cell phone that summons a wrecker from two hundred miles away.     Whether prepared or not, visitors need paved roads and parking lots, motels and quick-marts, which is to say that they need vegetation to be bladed, dirt to be hauled, gravel to be laid, asphalt to be poured. They need trenches for pipelines, both water and natural gas, and borrow pits so that highways and railroads can be built on elevated beds. They need shade trees around parking lots to blunt the heat that rises from black asphalt.     All these needs and many others are met and paid for. The paying is essential, of course. Visitors pay out of pocket and through taxes for the infrastructure that supports their travels into the Mojave Desert and out again. It was in fact their willingness to pay that brought much of the infrastructure into existence.     But there are hidden costs for which no one pays. Animals are displaced when bulldozers arrive. Shade trees attract alien birds such as starlings and house sparrows, which aside from being noisy and messy, tear apart the nests of native birds to get nest sites for themselves. Weed seeds travel along roads, filter down washes, spread into untouched desert, crowding out native grasses and flowers and increasing the risk of wildfire. Pipelines are also corridors for weeds. Roads and railroads, in crossing vast plains between mountains, throw up a barrier to flowing water, depriving plants on the downstream side. Trash bins and landfills, a smorgasboard for ravens, support a many-fold increase in raven numbers, growth that works to the detriment of baby desert tortoises whose soft scutes make them vulnerable to those big, hard black beaks.     Over and above the generalized damage to which every visitor in some way contributes, there is the particular damage that individuals do from ignorance or malice. At the tackier gift shops you sometimes see tarantulas and scorpions embedded in clear plastic. There's malice for you. Those animals had to come from somewhere, and they did not, believe me, come from an arthropod ranch: they were trapped in numbers at bait stations. Contrary to popular myth, our desert tarantulas are not dangerous to humans, nor do scorpion stings threaten the lives of healthy adults. These are interesting and beneficial animals. If left unmolested, a female tarantula can live to be twenty-five years old. Desert scorpions quietly consume cockroaches and crickets, subduing them first with a venomous jolt. (No one, not even a scorpion, likes a meal that wiggles.)     "Wait a minute," you say, "I've never killed a tarantula in my life. I even swerve to avoid them on the highway." Well, try this on for size. Perhaps you have caught and kept a horned lizard or dug up a flowering cactus plant, telling yourself, "There are plenty more out here." Sorry to say, I have too, using that rationalization and others. The problem is that there are always plenty more until suddenly there are not. Ignorance is more pervasive than malice and far more damaging in the long run.     The first step in repairing ignorance is to stitch it up with a few strong facts. Here are some facts about the Mojave Desert. The smallest of the four deserts in North America, the Mojave Desert is about 35,000 square miles, roughly the size of Indiana or Maine. It is a place of rugged mountains, long valleys, and tip-tilted alluvial fans. Elevations range from 282 feet below sea level to about 4,000 feet above sea level. The Mojave Desert is home to a number of threatened animals, among them the desert tortoise and the desert horned lizard, and to about one hundred rare species of plants. Small sections of the desert--active dunes, for instance, and saline flats--are barren of plant life. Otherwise, the Mojave possesses a varied and wonderful flora, from groves of wild palm trees that depend on springs for sustenance to vast monocultures of creosote bush that can go for a year or longer without rain.     And sometimes they must. At low elevations, rain averages an inch or two per year. As elevation increases, so does rainfall; even so, few parts of the Mojave Desert receive more than eleven or twelve inches annually. At about 4,000 feet above sea level, precipitation is high enough that desert scrub gives way to an open woodland of piñon and juniper. As you might expect, the Mojave Desert can be hot in summer: temperatures of 120 [degrees] degrees F. are not uncommon. (The record, 134 [degrees] F., should be hot enough for anyone.) Freezing nights are frequent in winter, especially in valley bottoms where cold air collects, and at higher elevations.     Yet facts alone do not constitute knowledge; we also need interpretation. And, when it comes to deserts, which many people seem to hate on principle, we need sympathetic and informed interpretation. In 1894 an imaginative journalist informed readers of the New York World that Death Valley was "a pit of horrors--the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancorous nature and diabolically ugly." To me, these sound like the words of someone who never went near Death Valley. I suspect that the writer was inventing from a small base of scientific illustrations and travelers' tales. I also suspect that he was afraid of the desert: afraid of what it might contain, afraid of what could happen, afraid that he himself could not survive there.     The French have a saying: tout comprendre tout pardonner ; to understand everything is to forgive everything. In the desert, where much is strange to human eyes, a little understanding can ease one's natural fears. Many people are taken aback by their first sight of a chuckwalla, for example, and from an aesthetic point of view, there's no doubt that this large, ungainly lizard leaves something to be desired. Not only is it broad in the beam and rather flabby looking but it sheds its skin in patches, as if recovering from a bad sunburn. Unattractive, I'll grant you, but diabolically ugly? I think not. Nor is it the least bit ghoulish; in fact, the chuckwalla shuns meat and subsists solely on leaves, seeds, flowers, and fruits. Far from having a rancorous nature, the chuckwalla is a timid creature and when threatened by a predator is likely to back into a crevice and inflate its body to wedge itself in place.     What the chuckwalla needs--what the entire Mojave Desert needs--is a better press agent. That is in part the purpose of this book--to make new friends for the Mojave Desert, and to remind old friends that despite the changes they deplore, the desert still needs their good will. For that reason, you will find no harangues or tirades here, no bemoaning or bewailing. Our job, mine and Jack Dykinga's, is not to break your heart; our job is to show you why we love the Mojave Desert, and why you might love it, too. Copyright © 1999 Janice Emily Bowers. All rights reserved.