Joshua Trees & the High Deserts

The only place Joshua trees grow is in parts of the Mojave Desert, on elevations from 2000-6000 feet, and their highest concentration is where they are protected in the Joshua Tree National Park. This is high desert and cooler than the Sonora Deserts lower down and farther south. You pass through the transition zone between these two biomes as you drive south across the park. From the north you cross a vast expanse of Joshua tree savanna.  

Joshua trees are a type of yucca. They don’t grow like ordinary trees, with rings marking each year’s growth, so it is hard to tell how old individuals are. They don’t get very tall. They look sort of like crazy people waving at you. This seems to confirm one of the stories about how they got their names. The story goes that early Mormon settlers thought the trees looked like Joshua welcoming them to the Promised Land.  They were also sometimes called desert oranges.  This story says that land sellers wanted to entice settlers to this barren land, so they not only implied that these were productive fruit trees, but even went around and tied some oranges to the trees near the roads. It evidently didn’t fool anybody.

The landscape is beautiful in that harsh sort of way, a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. We were seeing it at its best time. Spring rains have made it greener than usual.  The day was very windy, which I understand is fairly common. That is why they have all those windmills nearby.  It also explains the sculptured roundness of the rock outcroppings: natural sandblasting smooths off the rough edges.  

The Joshua trees dominate the open spaces, but in among the rock outcroppings you find pinion pine, California juniper and scrub oak. These communities are under some stress, however. The climate was wetter until the 1930s. The same hot and dry conditions that provoked the dust bowl affected the local climate. I couldn’t find out details about this, but evidently the previous relatively more verdant environment did not return. There are hot/dry and cool/moist cycles in climatic patterns and this could not have been anything new to the plant and animal communities. 

The difference may have been human development. Cattle grazing took out some of the natural cover and made it less resistant to the changes.  But the bigger problem seems to be invasive species, such as cheatgrass. These things deliver a double punch.   During wetter periods, they fill in below and among the pines and oak. In drier times, they die back, but don’t quickly decompose. This makes wildfires hotter and more destructive, which kills some of the trees that would have otherwise survived. When the area regenerates, these non-native grasses form a thick layer of turf that makes it harder for the pine and oak seedlings to get a roothold. This is not a very generous environment and there are not that many second chances.  

IMO, the native environment is better than what we will get if we let the invasive take over, but it will be sustainable only with a little human intervention and probably chemical warfare. BasF makes a good herbicide that can take out cheat-grass and its ilk, while leaving the oaks and pines intact.  This should probably be done periodically. I don’t know if it is. I would get more involved if I lived nearby.  This is certainly an environment worth saving. Doing nothing is not a good option.

Above – Joshua Tree NP is a favorite for rock climbers. Below is a lake made by ranchers for cattle by building a dam at a runoff point.

Below is the dam holding back the water. The little lake has become a major wildlife attraction, as one of the only steady water sources in this arid place.

What is Art

I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the most interesting part at the Palm Springs Art Museum.  The guard literally stopped me just before I pushed the button.  He claimed it was because the artist has not given permission and I can well understand why. If I produced art like that I also would not want to allow evidence.  It was a stack of black garbage bags.  I have seen such installations before, but never in a museum.  This guy evidently got paid for putting them there. Usually they only pay when somebody takes them away.

Some of the other art was very good, like the cowboy sculpture in the picture.  These places are nice to have in a town.  It adds a certain spiritual/artistic dimension.  But sometimes we suffer from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon.  Garbage bags are interesting, but they are not art.

Below is a statue of a chameleon at Marriott. This is nice art, but not considered “fine” since it is inexpensive and common.

Below is a street in Palm Springs.  Some of the stores and restaurants have some misting. In a dry climate, it really cools it down at street level. 

Below is real art. This is a man-made landscape set in nature’s valley. Very nice. Notice the way to clouds sit on the mountains. I think those are the Santa Rosa Mountains.  The moist air cannot make it over the summits, so on the one side it is wet, cooler and cloudy.  On the other side, it is dry, hot and clear deserts.

Windy Energy Alternatives

It has been very windy today and I can understand why they built all the windmills as we drove through the forests of them to get from the coast to Palm Springs. 

Wind power was the topic of NPR’s Science Friday a few weeks ago, this time from Oklahoma. If you read between the lines, you understand why alternative power is still alternative. When one of the producers of wind turbines was asked why he wasn’t selling more in windy Oklahoma, he honestly responded that electricity rates were too low. His turbines couldn’t compete with the stuff from the grid. There’s more.

I generally favor a diverse portfolio of energy. I am especially fond of biomass fuel, specifically wood chips. But I recognize that even with this simple and well-known fuel there are problems. The biggest challenge to almost all fuels is that they are not where you need them to be. I have acres of wood literally rotting away, but gathering it up and transporting it cost more than it is worth.

What annoys me about some of the alternative fuel advocates is their unjustifiably smug attitude that they have found some big thing and that the only reason it is not widely used is because everybody else is stupid or “big companies” are too greedy to allow it. Besides overlooking obvious drawbacks in the fuels themselves, they are almost always overlooking costs and troubles of transport and distribution. They sort of assume these are free or should be covered by someone else.

So let’s talk about wind power. Wind is free; capturing it is not and neither is getting it from where the wind is blowing to where the energy it produces will be used. A caller to the NPR program talked about getting off the grid with wind power. The guy who sells the turbines admitted that you really need the grid. Wind is unreliable and if you wanted to be off the grid, you would have to invest around $100,000 for all the back-up systems you would need to keep the lights on. The grid costs money to build and maintain. If you account only for the cost of the turbines, you are missing the biggest investments. It is like the kid who thinks he pays the whole cost of a car by filling up the gas tank on weekends.

Most people will not have their own wind turbines. That means that the turbines will be some distance from the consumers. The wind blows mostly on the plains and in the ocean, far away from cities and factories. So we need transmission lines. But we need more than the kinds of transmission lines we have already. Big power plants need transmission lines, but they are at least coming from the same place. Wind turbines are by necessity spread out. You need transmission lines from the wind farms to the cities, but you also need lines between and among the turbines.

Transmission lines are not free and they are not 100% ecologically benign. Each time you build transmission lines, you also cut through the environment, across streams and migration routes, to build roads to service the line and you build pylons every 100 yards. That’s a lot of rock, steel and concrete when you add it up over many of miles, not to mention lots of gas burned by crews building, checking and maintaining it all. So when anybody tells you that a wind farm takes up only a couple acres, recall the many miles of transmission lines. I personally have eight acres under power lines. I can’t grow trees there and while I think it is good to have it as edge community (it can be managed as excellent quail habitat) too many of these kinds things will fragment environments.

The fact is that we use carbon based fuels because they are cheaper, easier to move and more convenient to use than alternatives. When alternatives get to be cheaper, easier and more convenient, they stop being alternatives and just get to be mainstream. That is what it means to be a viable alternative. As long as earnest advocates have to try to convince skeptics about its virtues, it is not viable. Energy consumer really aren’t that dumb. When something really is cheaper and easier it won’t take earnest advocates; they try very hard to get more of it.

Wind, solar and other alternatives are indeed getting cheaper. When their time comes, there will be no stopping them.  (I assume that the wind turbines we passed make some money.)  Until that time artificially pumping them up won’t really make it happen. And we have to remember that no form of energy is trouble free. There are always trade-offs.

Parallel Lives

You can share the same country, the same physical space, with people and live in completely different environments. I focus on historical or natural scenes and I find them wherever I go.  So when I go to crowded California I find the empty beaches, forests and green vistas. That is what I look for, and that is what I find.

Not everybody sees the things the way I do. I see trees.  Maybe they see buildings or cars.  I saw signs for ethnic areas of LA – Korea town, Philippine Town, Little Armenia … We drove past these things at high speed and never experienced anything other than the signs.  Well, maybe not high speed.

Another thing I rarely experience is traffic.  I ride my bike or take the Metro to work, so traffic for me is sometimes a weekend choice.   I thought about this as we inched through the LA traffic – and this wasn’t even during rush hour and it was mostly moving.  This is a daily experience for many people.   The only time I got stuck in traffic regularly was when I lived in New Hampshire and commuted to Tufts University in Medford, MA.  I didn’t like it, although I listened to a lot of audio books.  I found that thoughts of traffic started to dominate my thinking.  Commuting can be an overwhelming experience,

I thought about how different life if you live in a beach community as we walked around our hotel in Ventura.  You can see Ventura just above.  The picture at the very top is Carlsbad. It is more or less a beachfront retirement community. It was founded in the 1880s as a spa and has some Euro-pretensions as a result. Ventura and Carlsbad are very different. 

Many of the houses near the beach in Ventura probably started out as shacks or weekend cottages and gradually evolved into homes.  My “baby-boom” generation was probably the pioneers here and many seem to have aged in place.  We saw a couple really old looking hippies.  It was probably really cool to hang out at the beach when they were young.  Add thirty years and thirty pounds and the picture changes. Look at the second picture down and you can see one of the “outdoorsmen” in his temporary camp on the park picnic table. Notice, he has brought along his fishing gear. There was a orderliness to his possessions that implied that he was out there as much by choice as by compulsion.

The next day we ended up in Palm Springs and another reality.  Palm Springs is an upscale community with lots of ties to celebrities.  We drove along Frank Sinatra Avenue, past streets named for Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford and Gene Autry.   I have never been here before, but it was familiar because of the sixties television.   If you lived here, you could probably play golf and go to shows and galleries every day. That would be another interesting reality.

Of course, last week I was on the Marine base at Camp Pendleton and we go back to Virginia on Friday.  These lives intersect only occasionally.  Usually they just run parallel. But in the meantime, Chrissy is still having fun with the rental car and I am enjoying the hot whirlpool below. Actually, it was a little too hot at first.  But this is something we haven’t done since the kids were little, when it still made a difference if I got my hair wet. Life is good for now.

Pea Soup, the Wisdom of Crows & Torrey Pines

I have a few odds and ends that are not enough for a whole post, but I don’t want to lose.

Wisdom of crows

Crows are among the most intelligent birds.  It is something you notice when you just walk around.  They have a sentry in the tallest trees and they caw differentially as you walk under.  If you are carrying a shotgun, they all fly off.  If you are unarmed, they just ignore you.

The job of eating food scraps around people eating lunch outside is usually the job of pigeons but at San Simeon the task belongs to crows.  The crows are scarier and not only because they are shiny black and raven-like.   Unlike pigeon, which are just stupidly annoying, you can see the calculating intelligent in the crows’ black eyes. The pigeons also are little fat-boys; crows look lean and mean.  You don’t want to mess with the crows, especially if you are driving a convertible.  You know that they will forget you never more and maybe come back to retaliate. BTW, Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds” up the coast.

Speaking of bird-brained intelligence, turkeys are really dumb. They used to be thought “elusive” but that was only because there were not many of them.   A couple of them wandered across the road on our farm.  They just stood there in front of the truck. I had to get out and toss stones in their general direction. I am pretty sure that I could have caught them with my bare hands. 

The turkey population has exploded over the past couple of decades and our scientific understanding of them has changed.  We used to think that turkeys needed large ranges and significant protection to survive.  Today we have learned that any decent sized clump of trees will do, whether it is next to a farm field or a suburban street.   We should probably encourage more hunting of these big birds, along with the now ubiquitous Canada geese.   Some people could probably save a lot on food bills.

Pea’s porridge hot

We stopped off at a Danish bakery and pea soup restaurant. The Andersen restaurant claimed to be selling pea soup since 1924. Pea soup was one of my father’s staple menu items (along with bean soup, polish sausage and green tomatoes) and I like pea soup. 

I don’t often make it because you have to make big pots of it at a time. The canned varieties just aren’t right, even Progresso, which usually produces good soups. Chrissy and I both got pea soup in a sourdough bread bowl. The bread mixed with the soup made it into pea’s porridge. It was good and worth the stop.

The world’s biggest Torrey pine

We stopped in Carpinteria to get gas. We didn’t, because the gas station (yes we passed only one) charged a $.45 “convenience fee” for using a credit card.  I can’t believe there is still a place that doesn’t have a pay at the pump, much less charging a “convenience fee.”  It was an Arco Station, which I thought was a major company.  

But it was worth the diversion. As we stopped looking for another gas station and decided to turn back to the highway, we noticed a very large pine tree. I got out to take a look and noticed the plaque that claimed that this was the largest Torrey pine in the world.

The Torrey pine is locally endangered in the wild of its own natural range, where few of the species get as big as the one we saw and most are slow-growing and picturesquely twisted. But it is grows fast, tall and straight when used in plantations in Australia and New Zealand. It just doesn’t like it at home.

I bet that if we looked hard enough, we would find that the largest Torrey pine in the world is in Australia or New Zealand – if not now, soon. I read that the tallest California redwoods will soon be the ones planted in New Zealand during the 19th Century. I saw some really beautiful sequoia trees at the Ambassador’s house in Geneva and a whole beautiful forest of redwoods growing on the hills near Sintra in Portugal. In fact, Sintra has a castle a lot like a smaller version of San Simeon.

What God Would Build … if He had the Money

William Randolph Hearst’s   father made big bucks from silver mining in Nevada’s Comstock Lode and then used some of the money to buy thousands of acres rancho along the California coast.  The land was really isolated back then and cheap.   It still is a bit isolated, but it is a fantastically beautiful place. 

William Randolph Hearst went with his mother on the grand tour of Europe and developed an appreciation for European art and culture.  After he made the big fortune he inherited even bigger, the project of his later life was to build this castle on the hill overlooking the Pacific.  George Bernard Shaw commented the castle at San Simeon was the kind of place God would build if he had the money.

I got my impressions of Hearst from “Citizen Kane” and his behavior during the Spanish American War.  Suffice to say that the picture is incomplete and inaccurate and I learned some history on this trip. I won’t bore you with the details, which you can easily find elsewhere.  I will contribute some pictures and comments.  

Above – you couldn’t stray off the path except at the point where the guide invited people to sit in the wicker chairs and feel for a few minutes what it is like to be rich.  Below is the indoor pool.  It is ten feet deep throughout the whole pool. The gold color you see is actually gold leaf. The man had the big bucks to spend.

Below is the outdoor Neptune pool. Many of the columns are actually from Roman ruins.  It is nice, but it reminds me of something you might find in Las Vegas.

San Simeon has a lot of bona-fide art. Hearst was able to buy much of it inexpensively after World War II.  You couldn’t do that today, both because of the prices. There are more rich people today and they have bid up the prices.  And there are also many more restrictions on export of art. 

The practical difference between rich and poor have actually decreased, despite ostensible greater income gaps. A century ago, only the rich could experience these things. Only the rich had telephones, electricity, refrigerator etc. There is a sort of threshold, when you have enough. The difference between refrigerator and having one is much greater than having a cheap version and the top-of-the-line.  Re telephones, everybody can afford phones with more features then they know how to use.

The castle is really cool, but it would have been a lot more impressive to people back then than it is now, at least to anybody who has visited Las Vegas.  We have seen reasonable copies, bigger pools etc.  Frankly, I liked the views and the gardens the most, as you might guess by my pictures. If I lived there, I would spend most of my time sitting outside or wandering the hills.  

El Camino Real

The Spanish established a road, El Camino Real or the royal road, from San Diego to San Francisco to connect and supply their missions and forts.  Today I-5 and U.S. 101 follow the route and we drove along both today on our way from San Diego to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The route is marked with bells suspended from question mark shaped pipes.  These are good promotion and the reason we noticed that we were on the route. 

I originally rented a Chevy Cobalt and I used it to drive up to the botanical garden mentioned in the last post, but it was such a crappy car that I took it back to Alamo before I picked up Chrissy.   Chrissy always said that she wanted to drive a convertible, so I splurged and surprised her with one.  It was fun to drive in the convertible on the coastal highway and we look forward to more fun when we drive inland to Joshua Tree National Park. 

Below is Chrissy with the car.

The coastal highway goes through some beautiful county.   The part I like the best is the oak savanna.  I think they call them oak woodlands out here.  The ones along the coast tend to feature California live oak.  They are similar to oak openings in the Midwest, but the California hills are more majestic, especially when set against the Pacific surf.  The park-like widely spaced oak forests make a truly pleasant environment.  They are maintained by frequent low-intensity fires and are endangered when fires are too carefully prevented by humans.

Above is an example of the oak savanna/oak woodland biome.  Below is the road ahead north of San Luis Obispo.

Conservation too Conservative becomes Pointless Preservation

Relationships long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.  Everything exists in a complex web of interrelationships and changing any part may bring unexpected systemic changes and unwelcome changes.  But everything is always in the process of becoming something else.  Change is constant and avoiding it is not an option.  The best we can do is work toward sustainable, predictable change.

I thought about change and continuity, as I walked through the Quail Botanical Gardens north of San Diego.   The Southern California environment most people know, love and want to preserve is largely man-made, as I wrote in an earlier post.   The local environment has a lot in common with some places in South Africa, the Mediterranean and Australia, so plants from those places tend to do well in Southern California. Below, however, is a familiar tree from Brazil. I never knew what it was called. It is a floss silk tree (weird name).

There is some emphasis on trying to reestablish native or nature ecosystems.  IMO, sustainable is important; natural or native really are not. The problem with natural is that the concept is too slippery and unrealistic.  As for native, it all depends. Native plants and animals might be well adapted to the local environment and fit in the overall environment, but sometimes non-native plants and animals can be as good, or better. I am glad that banana, oranges, apples, wheat, potatoes, horses, honeybees etc have spread beyond their narrow native regions … and improved in the process.  Sustainable, usually means a decent diversity and some non-native plants can become invasive, obliterating too much of the competition.  It is also possible that invasive species might have undesirable characteristics. But it requires judgment of the whole system.  There is no blanket native = good/non-native bad formula.  Some native species may have become un-viable because of other changes in the environment.   We cannot reestablish “pristine” environment and we have to resist the feeling that “what was, is good.”

With all the changes of the last century, and all that will come in this one, what used to be “natural” will no longer be sustainable.  That is why sustainable is better than natural.

Above is a grove of cork-oak. The bark can be harvested every ten years or so after they mature.  they live around 150 years.  Cork grows naturally in Spain, Portugal and parts of N. Africa. Below is an old world desert plant landscape.

Bugging Out

Our exercise is over. After a mob protested at the embassy and suicide bomber blew himself up, causing a mass casualty event. We evacuated the embassy. The role players did a really good job. The Marines responded well.  It was a good experience for all.

This was literally a “rent a mob”. Contractors hired these guys to play angry locals. The same thing happens in real life, both in the U.S. and abroad. Whenever you see “spontaneous” demonstration, you are probably seeing a rent a mob at least in the core.  The professionals do a better job in front of the cameras anyway.

I learned or relearned some lessons about roles.  It is interesting how people play and become the roles assigned them, even if the assignments are mostly arbitrary.  Of course, we did have a artificial environment, but it reminded me that we have to be careful not to become our jobs, because you want to have something left with the playacting is over – in real life too.

Below is the tank wash.  As the amphibious vehicle come out of the salt water, they get washed down.

Below is the Marine bar “Iron Mike’s”  Iron Mike was one of the “real Marines” revered by all. 

Below is the obstacle course on the way to the ocean. I walked the course – and AROUND the obstacles – on my way back and forth to the beach cottage.  I did leap over a few of the logs until i skinned my knee. Not as tough as I used to be. 

El Rancho Grande

The Spanish settled southern California with a network of missions and ranches. These ranches were self sufficient economic and political entities and were very large, the size of a county, with a wide variety of possibilities. Cattle and other livestock raising was the biggest activity, but the ranches were also industrial producers at least on a small scale. Above is the view from the rancho veranda and below show the thick adobe walls that keep temperatures constant.

The model of the rancho was the Roman latifundia. Like the rancho, the latifundia was set up as a type of colonization entity designed pacify the colonial area, produce valuable economic results and give the  rich and powerful but restive individuals something to do far away from the capital.  Spain was colonized in this way by the Romans and it made Spain one of the most important centers of Roman culture, in many ways more thoroughly imperial Roman than Italy itself. It is no surprise if the Spanish employed the system in their own colonies, even if not directly copying the system.  It was in their cultural DNA.  Besides, it fit well with their imperial needs and was well suited to the Mediterranean type environment found in California.

The ranch house immediately reminds you of a Roman villa.  It spreads out over a large area with veranda and a beautiful open garden area in the middle. It must have been a really great way of life … at least for the ranch owners.*  Large latifundia type setups in Latin America are sometimes blamed for the class structures and challenges of democracy there.

As in all empires, there was the element of oppression. The workers were not entirely volunteers.  This would include the indentured Iberian colonists and more directly the native Indians, who provided much of the labor as long as they lasted.  Native Californians were not technologically advanced and they were not numerous. California just did not support the kind of advanced societies found in Mexico and parts of the Southwest.

Southern California is an interesting natural environment. It is fantastically rich, but only when developed by human technologies. In its natural state, California provides neither the challenge nor the payoff that historians like Arnold Toynbee credits with stimulating civilization. In other words, it was fairly easy to survive at a low, generally nomadic, level of technical sophistication. But moving beyond that was difficult, requiring technologies that were a couple leaps too far to make it from low level to higher one. As the saying goes, you can’t jump a chasm in two hops.

The modern Southern California “natural environment” is largely a human creation, from the non-native crops and trees to the vast aqueduct system that brings water from many miles away. You can see the finely shaped, non-native date palm above as just one example. It goes down to the bug level.  Many of California’s most productive crops require pollination by honeybees imported from Europe or Asia. Left on its own, the place is really a semi-desert.

I will keep the rancho and the latifundia in mind when I go to Brazil. Brazil had a similar system of colonization and Portugal shared Spain’s Iberian-Roman heritage. In Brazil they were called fazenda, in much of the rest of Spanish America the system was known as hacienda.

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* This ranch paradigm in the Spanish colonial version is not like what we saw on the old Westerns. This is not the Ponderosa or even the Big Valley (which is in the California setting). If you watch the Cartwrights or the Barkleys, you see that the sons do almost all the work.  It would be amazing is a couple or three young guys could run something as big and complex as the ranch and still have so much time left over for all sorts of adventures.