Monday, June 15, 2015


By Doug Dolde, public 
domain, Wikimedia
Although I'm fond of California, eight years passed before I finally made a trip west to visit my daughter in the high desert of Palmdale, California last week. I've missed my annual week of revivification in the warm, dry climate that clears up allergies, arthritis, and other maladies endemic to the Deep South. When I was eleven, I developed a liking for the climate and landscape of the desert during our sojourn in "Diddy Wah Diddy," my father's name for California.

I was shocked to see the skeletal-looking Joshua trees (my favorite species of desert trees) on the landscape, but shouldn't have been as the high desert in California is experiencing severe drought—the region has averaged only about four inches of rain in several years.

The Joshua tree has been called the "cultural signature of California's desert landscape," and grows only in the Mohave Desert. The seedlings of these picturesque trees are shriveling up and dying before they can put down roots, and scientists say that the trees may lose up to 90 percent of their range in the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park by the end of this century if the drought persists.

My daughter lives in the Antelope Valley where water usage has been limited due to the drought, and water agencies have begun planning for more storage facilities to capture water available during wet seasons—some have even suggested building a Bay-Delta twin tunnel project and to limit the amount of water being diverted to protect the Delta smelt. Currently, my daughter is abiding by the mandate to limit outdoor water use, and her once-green yard reflects that limitation. She's considering graveling the entire expanse of front and side yards.

Big Bear Lake, CA
We also visited Big Bear Lake (elevation 6743 feet!) while traveling in Diddy Wah Diddy and found that a four-year drought has resulted in the lake being eleven feet down from full. For the last three years, this area has experienced a drought condition that resulted in fifty percent less than the average amount of inflow into the Lake.

But back to the Joshua tree, a succulent known as Yucca brevifolia. The tree grows up to forty feet high and lives more than 200 years, sporadically putting out yellow and white bell-shaped blossoms. Unfortunately, during the 1980's when Palmdale and Lancaster, aka the Antelope Valley area, were booming, 200,000 Joshua trees were replaced by housing tracts and shopping centers (my daughter lives on one of the housing tracts!). Then, during the 1990's, exotic grasses began to grow among the trees because of conditions triggered by El Nino, and the grasses caused the forests of Joshua trees to become vulnerable to brush fires.

As we drove through the Mohave, I kept lamenting about the stricken forests of trees and consoled myself with the fact that because the Joshua trees grow for about 200 years, I wouldn't witness large-scale die-offs during my lifetime, but I hated to see the demise of any of these desert beauties.

Mormons named the Joshua tree after the biblical character Joshua. They were traveling through the Cajon Pass to Utah in 1857, and it is said that they envisioned the trees as prophets and that their outstretched arms pointed the way to the promised land.

While traveling from Lake Tahoe back to Palmdale one summer, I scribbled twenty poems that included a brief notation about sighting a Joshua tree, a snippet entitled "Near Cartago, California: Population 75:"

Salt flats,
fields of uncommon snow,
blush at the edges
where brine shrimp wriggle;
and not a mile away
at the turn-off to Death Valley
Joshua trees suddenly jut up,
old men with arms linked
standing too close to each other
grumbling to the sun.

And if you want to read more about these dying desert attractions, there's a "tome" online entitled Joshua, My Love. The book was written by Mary Austin, a woman who fell in love with Joshua trees when she moved to Antelope Valley in 1937.  

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