Desert Dispatches | SENTINEL OF THE DESERT

SENTINEL OF THE DESERT

July 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

First Day of Summer 2014

The Joshua tree is the sentinel of the Mojave Desert. It stands alone or shoulder-to-shoulder with other yucca trees in the primeval forest, waiting and watching, decade after decade. The Joshua’s true nature, origin and thousand-year life cycle are veiled in the mysteries of eons past. The human emotional response to an encounter with this tree creates layers of imaginative expectation. It is a sentinel. They dream, waiting and watching.

The twisted shapes and handicapped limbs raised high, as if in praise, invite personification. The branches wear wooly coats of dried blades from last year’s growth. The porcupine armor it dons is that of a fierce spirit. At the end of most branches are dried flower plumes, now stripped of seedpods. These symmetrical stems are not weapons to ward off predators, but landmarks of the passing maturity that signals where next year’s new branching will occur.

 

Overlooking Yucca Valley - 2011Overlooking Yucca Valley - 2011 Overlooking Yucca Valley, CA - 2011

 

The seedpods explode and spread the potential of new plants across the ground. Few will germinate in this arid land. Even fewer seeds will ever take permanent root. They must fall within a nurse plant like a creosote or spiny hop sage. A tough perennial bush will repel predator herbivores by the bitterness of the protective plant. Most new Joshuas will be clones grown off of rhizomes that root out from the clump.

This Joshua tree is old and grizzled, covered by spine-like leaves of the past, sharpened to a biting edge by desiccation. They lie flat on the surface of the limbs and swollen trunks of the tree. The first sunbeams slice mechanically over the stone hills to the east, announcing that the hot long summer days are now upon the desert. The coolness, captured within its four bulky trunks of the tree, struggles to survive in the shadows. A northern flicker suddenly takes to wing and is gone.

At the bottom of the multiple trunks are smaller trunks of clones that use the protection of the tree’s trunk clump. All too soon these determined children turn to the defeat of their mother source in the competition for nutrients and water. Beyond the shrinking shade of the tree’s canopy, additional baby clones collect in groups like kindergartners on the playground during recess. Still further from the tree are the dead bodies of those children that have not made it, rolled about in the changing winds. Some of the rhizomes that have been growing for decades are now thick and peeling dried flesh.

The bark that is not really bark starts a few feet above the ground and embraces the trunks down to the sandy hillock which the wind has built around the roots. This is the third year of another drought. The tips of their limbs remain green, but all else on the trees are pastel brown. This ancient survivor tree is patient always. In the face of another hot summer of drought it is ready to standby and sit tight. This tree survives through perseverance. Drought insists the survivors be tenacious and indefatigable. As it is with Joshua trees, so it is with people of the desert as well. They must exhibit a dogged persistence and day in and day out be resolute in the determination to make it through the heat to the coolness after dark.

 

Paved Road #1 - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011Paved Road #1 - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011Infrared Exposure

Paved Road #1 - Infrared Exposure - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011

 

This tree is a sentinel, a guard. Just east rests an abandoned concrete block building that probably was once a gas station and garage along the highway. The silence of the day is now syncopated by the whine of speeding cars on their way to somewhere else. Between our Joshua and the building rests a large pile of soda ash, left there by some derelict truck needing repair in the long past. There are piled cement block chunks from who knows what.

The back wall of the grey brick garage has windows with metal frames where shards of vandalized window glass still cling. Our tree is a soldier defending the workshop that smells of heavy lubricating oil. Inside glisten black bodied beasts, shiny in the reflected light of new day. There is an older ATV, a VW bug and two very new and beautiful motorcycles, stored there in an area protected by the tree as much as by the heavy lock on the door in front.

Today there is no threat, no criminal set on ravaging the building. The tree is a resolute sentinel none-the-less. It watches guard on its little piece of desert, the abandoned building full of new motorcycles and old equipment, and the highway beyond. Like Poe’s purloined letter, these treasures are hidden in nearly plain sight within the ruins of the old service station on the highway full of flashing cars and trucks on their way to somewhere else. The sentinel stands by, mute, enduring every challenge nature throws at it. Life in the desert takes a great amount of time and waiting.

The motorcycles come from a consumable society. They are treasured while the Joshua tree is devalued, unnoticed and nearly invisible to passersby. In fifty years the motorcycles will be abandoned, rusting piles of junk. If no one has knocked down this aged plant, this Sentinel of the Desert will continue with some growth, imperturbably watching the slowly changing scene.

C.L.

 

Lone Tree - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011Lone Tree - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011Infrared Exposure

Lone Tree - Infrared Exposure - Joshua Tree National Park - 2011

 

 


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