Monday, August 2, 2010

DESERT AFIRE

For many years I visited my daughter Elizabeth’s home in Antelope Valley, California, situated in the middle of the Mohave Desert, a place of extreme temperatures in the summer. Additionally, the city in which she lives is perched atop the San Andreas fault! Although that description wouldn’t lure anyone to visit, I found the desert to be incredibly refreshing and loved going there during dry, hot summers when the Santa Ana winds sometimes blew into the area. Two of the areas suffering from capricious wind currents that fanned wildfires recently, Palmdale and Tehachapi, are on my list of favorites in the Mohave Desert area.

I have numerous poems written about the Mohave Desert, including those written about its fragile plant life, and I was amazed to see how many plant communities thrive there. Of the 2,000 species of plants growing in this desert, my favorite is the Joshua Tree, many of which jut up in open spaces near Palmdale and Lancaster, California. The plant is sometimes referred to as “the canteen of the desert,” but global warming threatens to make them extinct. Rangers in the Joshua Tree National Park predict that they will die off during the next 50-100 years.

Like many areas in California, mountains (the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges) and desert meet in the region of Antelope Valley. One Spring I visited Palmdale during the blooming of poppies where, at every turn, brilliant red flowers covered patches of the desert. I was reminded of the quatrain in the Rubaiiyat, “lighting a little hour or two, then are gone,” for their time on the desert landscape is short. Unfortunately, the poppy center near Palmdale was closed, but I didn’t have too many regrets because rattlesnake danger signs were posted everywhere at the entrance to the park. Views from the car satisfied my interest in this desert plant.

My appreciation for the desert landscape has been captured in a poem I’ll publish here and can also be read in my chapbook, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA.

It was composed from the passenger seat of a car speeding from Tahoe to Palmdale:

NEAR CARTAGO, CA: POPULATION, 75
Salt flats, fields of uncommon snow,
blush at the edges,
brine shrimp wriggling pinkly.
Not a mile from the turn-off to Death Valley
Joshua trees suddenly jut up,
old men with arms linked,
standing too close to each other,
grumbling in the sun.

This one was composed Saturday when the wildfires threatened to burn the home of my daughter Elizabeth:

CONSOLATIONS OF DESERT FIRE
An inferno in the high desert
gobbles sagebrush, creosote bush,
leaps into the outstretched arms
of obdurate Joshua trees.
Antelope Valley burns brightly,
my daughter surviving on shifting winds.
Windmills, turning in Santa Ana gusts,
look out at the orange flames,
smoke pluming behind them,
watching fire jump the aqueduct
moving toward a backyard fence
to threaten my daughter’s roses,
faces upturned to catch the rain
falling from airtanks above.
Burning chaparral is an inconsolable sight,
Crown fire, an unquenchable king.
but Susan writes:
it will bring wildflowers in the Spring.

The climate here at Sewanee is much cooler in the summer, and I love the woods on the Cumberland Plateau. However, come July, I always suffer twinges of nostalgia for the desert, especially the cool nights when you can eat outside without being plagued by mosquitoes and other insects. The Mohave always reminded me of my sojourn in the desert community of Ahwaz, Iran where I lived for two years in the 70’s. It was there that I became serious about becoming a published author. The desert inspires!
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