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In this issue of Desert Companion, science writer Alec Pridgeon takes a sweeping historical look at Southern Nevada’s many precious Indigenous rock writing sites, with an eye toward the threat posed to them by increased outdoor recreation, as well as vandalism. Also: Six local thought leaders in healthcare share what they’d do to improve healthcare if they were in charge; and 2023 Writer in Residence Meg Bernhard kicks off her six-part series of reported essays on people and climate change.

Writer in Residence: Refuge on Fire

Photo of Joshua trees burning in a wildfire
Ringo H.W. Chiu
Associated Press

Where do we turn when disaster destroys places that were supposed to be sanctuaries?

The fire started on a blazing, windy day. Lightning struck wilderness, and the desert erupted. “There’s no way you can stop a fire like that,” Mike Gauthier, Mojave National Preserve superintendent, says. The day after the fire started was his first on the job, August 16, 2020. He’d seen plenty of wildfires in his 35 years in the Park Service, but never anything like this. It was like a dragon breathing flames across the Mojave. Hot. Fast.

Firefighters ordered aircraft and additional crew from the state. Gauthier ordered retardant drops from the county, state, and federal government. Their requests were put on hold. Another lightning storm had struck in northern California, resulting in the August Complex Fire, which would become the largest recorded wildfire in state history. With so much of California burning simultaneously, most fire-fighting resources were diverted to cities and towns along the northern coast, where human life was at risk. Cima Dome, the gently sloping granite mound near the Nevada border where Gauthier’s fire started, was home to blackbrush and creosote and Joshua trees, but very few humans.

Before the Dome Fire was contained, more than 43,000 acres and a million Joshua trees burned.

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ON A COLD Saturday morning in March 2022, I visited the scorched woodland with a friend. We pulled onto a dirt road leading to an old cattle ranch, our destination. Miles off the interstate, I began to see the mark of the fire. The twisting, contorted Joshua trees were ashy white and black, as though made of newspaper, and the soil beneath them was, in some places, singed. The spectral forest extended as far as I could see, thousands of plants sapped of color. We parked next to a Subaru covered in national parks stickers and walked into the foyer of a creaky building, where a crowd of people bundled in thick jackets and beanies huddled against the cold and listened to Andrew Kaiser, a Mojave National Preserve botanist, yell over the wind. We were there to plant young Joshua trees, a National Park Service restoration project.

After the orientation, we grabbed gloves, a shovel, chicken wire, and two buckets, each containing six small Joshua trees wrapped in a waxy plastic covering. With a National Park botanist named Gabe, my friend and I hiked a mile though a wash. Trudging over rocks and sand, Gabe proffered tidbits about desert ecology. When Joshua trees freeze during cold winters, he told us, the damage stimulates flowering, and, in turn, more growth. Because the tree’s seeds are so large and difficult to disperse, the Shasta ground sloth was once, thousands of years ago, the tree’s primary means of reproduction.

We arrived at our patch of woodland. I took a shovel, the wind howling as blade hit rock. Gingerly, I lowered a tiny Joshua tree into the hole I’d dug, its dangling red roots brushing the soft soil. Kneeling, the three of us nudged dirt onto its roots, covering the plant until only its spiky fronds remained exposed.

The Park Service doesn’t usually intervene in natural events, but Kaiser argued that the fire wasn’t totally natural. Invasive grasses brought in by generations of cattle grazing proliferated in the soil, creating kindling. The hot temperatures and drought conditions in 2020 made for a more destructive fire, one powerful enough to create its own weather: Temperatures during the burn reached 115 degrees, compared to the area’s normal 90, and high wind created fire swirls known as firenados. Perennial plants aren’t adapted to drought and extreme heat, Kaiser said, and the preserve lost many such species. “One in particular never comes back,” he said: blackbrush. Joshua trees are often found growing next to the spindly shrubs because animals are repelled by their tannic and oily stems and leaves. One form of protection, gone.

All ecosystems have wildfires, but in the Mojave, hundreds of years could pass between major fires. The fire at Cima Dome was the second in 15.

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Joshua trees are keystone species, essential to maintaining the delicate equilibrium of their ecosystems. They provide long-term nesting for wrens and hunting perches for American Kestrels. Desert night lizards shelter around the trunk’s base, and yucca moths lay their eggs deep in the tree’s waxy, cream-colored flowers. There are two species of Joshua trees, the eastern and the western. The western, found primarily in Joshua Tree National Park, faces near total decimation from heat and drought. The future of the eastern had hinged on the very part of the Mojave National Preserve that burned, because Cima Dome was relatively high in elevation and cool in temperature, identified to serve as a “climate refugium” when other sites became untenable. Cima Dome was supposed to be a place where Joshua trees would survive.

IT IS STRANGE to know a place only in death, like conjuring a stranger from their grieving loved ones’ memories. Gauthier told me that the place was whimsical before the fire. Kaiser told me of the 10,000-year-old blackbrush stands that were lost. Chris Clarke, who works with the National Parks Conservation Association, wrote an obituary to the place, describing how he used to get lost in the dense Joshua trees, how Cima Dome was “home to me longer than any built house.”

I’ve only known the ghostly trees, the charred soil. I didn’t get the chance to see Cima Dome before it burned. This is one story of being young. People my age have grown up hearing stories from our parents about the worlds of their childhoods, bountiful marshlands and majestic redwood forests and lush desert, worlds we can never experience because they’re already gone.

A MONTH AND a half after planting Joshua trees, I drove around Lake Mead, its infamous bathtub ring alarmingly visible, the low water a glistening blue. Every time I visit Lake Mead, I joke that I’m looking at the face of the Western water crisis. It’s not a very funny joke. I’ve spent most of my life depending on water from the Colorado River. My parents depend on it, too, and lately they’ve talked about getting out of Southern California, going somewhere cooler and wetter, at least for the hot months. These discussions make me wonder if I’ll ever be able to live in the place where I grew up.

I was at Lake Mead to visit the Song Dog Native Plant Nursery, where government botanists and volunteers nurtured thousands of plants from seed. Kelly Wallace, the nursery manager, was wearing a bucket hat and sunglasses as she worked outside the greenhouse, fixing a leaky irrigation system. When she saw me, she led me to an uncovered area where dozens of plastic containers holding slender green spikes sat in the midday sun. Young Joshua trees. The nursery had directly planted them in containers outdoors, because they needed to grow accustomed to harsh desert conditions, Wallace said.

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As we walked through the greenhouses and office buildings, she pointed out various other projects and experiments. Outside the office sat a pile of soil made specifically for desert plants: a mixture of sand, cinder, and perlite good for water drainage. In one jam jar, Arizona Grape seeds were marinating in orange juice and a plant growth solution. Animals that eat the seed have low stomach pH, which allows the seed to germinate; the orange juice mixture was an attempt to mimic that chemistry, Wallace said. I asked about a green and pink succulent sitting in a corner. It was a Dudleya, Wallace told me, poached from the desert. The nursery was holding it as evidence in an ongoing restitution case.

We walked to the seed bank, a refrigerated room with countless jars stacked on shelves and countertops. In 2019, before the Dome Fire, Kaiser collected Joshua tree seeds from the Mojave National Preserve for a separate project, and now the nursery was using those seeds to grow 3,000 Joshua trees for post-fire restoration. Wallace pulled out a brown paper bag holding the seeds. They were the size of dimes, flat, and black, like unpolished obsidian. I turned over a few in my hand and considered how long it would take for them to grow from swatches of black to the tall, gangly figures dotting the eastern Mojave.

UNTIL RECENTLY, I didn’t have much personal history with Joshua trees or their habitats. Although I grew up just ninety minutes southwest, I first visited Joshua Tree National Park, with my family, in May 2020, a few months before the Dome Fire would burn 100 miles northeast. We woke up before sunrise and drove, skirting the base of the San Jacinto Mountains until the scraggly silhouettes emerged on the horizon. Gone was my familiar landscape of buckwheat and chaparral, replaced by cholla and creosote, plants for which I didn’t yet have names. We parked on the side of the road, so early in the morning that we were alone in the park. Leaning against the car watching the sky morph from black to purple to pink, I asked my mother why we’d never spent much time in the Mojave. “I never thought about it,” she said.

IN SEPTEMBER, I returned to Cima Dome with my partner. We followed the Teutonia Peak Trail to the top of the dome, where we could take in the scope of the fire’s devastation. Wide swaths of land were scarred black, but the few patches of earth that had been spared were green and lush, dense with Joshua trees. On our way back through the burned forest, we encountered a tarantula, a jackrabbit, and several strange and beautifully patterned beetles. If this was life after the fire, we said to each other, imagine what it had looked like before.

It’s thought that Joshua trees are gradually migrating north, toward cooler climes, an image that’s both tragic and moving. Slowly, Joshua trees will flee the hottest and driest parts of the Southwest to survive. I imagine people will, too. Φ

Meg Bernhard is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Her book on wine and power will be published by Bloomsbury in June.