Promise and Peril
A California desert garden reminds me life ever lives on the brink.
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We became bi-coastal in this the year I turned sixty. Two houses, two gardens on completely different scales.
The Pennsylvania garden, as frequent readers know, involves sixteen acres of woods, meadows, ponds, lawn, and planting beds we call Puddock Hill. The California garden is infinitely more modest—more appropriately measured in square feet than acres. Unless you count the name of the 800-house development where we’ve planted our flag, it doesn’t have a moniker.
Something else: Our patch of California, in a densely packed valley, occupies a fraction of the Colorado Desert—itself a part of the greater Sonoran Desert that stretches into Arizona and Mexico. Five inches of precipitation fall here per year versus forty-nine inches in Eastern Pennsylvania.
This difference in rainfall of course presents a material data point to the decision-making of a backyard steward or any gardener. Average temperature and relative humidity are other limiting factors when choosing and caring for plants, and together these three variables add up to climate.
It’s arid in the Southwest, of course, but plants and animals must contend with other aspects of this challenging landscape as well.
All around us are signs of evolving geographic features, and not just because of anthropogenic climate change. The Coachella Valley is a rift valley that lies between two faults, the San Jacinto Fault to our west and the famous San Andreas Fault to our east. The earth quakes daily, although we can rarely feel it.
A paleolake called Lake Cahuilla (eponymous with the name of the local native American tribe) filled all or part of the valley until as late as 1580, when its last remnants evaporated or filtered into the aquifer. Its lowest point, the Salton Sea, only began holding water again after a sequence of human errors and massive rainfall in 1905 that redirected the flow of the Colorado River into the valley for two years.
The nearby San Bernardino Mountains are still growing. By contrast, the closest mountain range to Puddock Hill is the Appalachians, of which the Poconos are a part, and these older mountains are shrinking. Either way, change happens. In response to geological and climate changes, the ecology is never static.
In the distance here this time of year snow covers nearby Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, which feature alpine forests, but the hills in the foreground are brown and growing drier. The greenness of the valley floor almost completely depends upon irrigation water pulled from aquifers or piped from the Colorado River.
And yet, the valley’s human population grows. The desert seduces. It hypnotizes. It serves up mirages. I plead guilty to falling under its spell.
Among the charms that the desert deploys is its very starkness, the extremeness of its impediment to life, which magnifies my awareness to the resilience of all living things. There is fragility all around us in the desert, a world away from the Piedmont—the physiographic province where Puddock Hill resides. Yet is it really that different?
Life is fragile everywhere, including in seemingly more welcoming landscapes. Just last month in Pennsylvania and much of the east, arthropods, birds, amphibians, and wild mammals faced plunges in temperature of forty degrees from a polar vortex. They regularly experience deluges and gusting winds. Their antagonists—as everywhere—are habitat destruction, pesticides, herbicides, and the increasing extremes of weather that the Anthropocene has ushered in.
So the particulars may differ from coast to coast, but commonalities lie in the fundamentals. Life is hard. Furthermore, all living things compete for resources. To quote Frank Bidart’s poem “The Third Hour of the Night,”
All life exists at the expense of other life Because you have eaten and eat as eat you must.
(I used this quote as the epigram to my horror novel, The Prisoner of Hell Gate, written under the pen name Dana I. Wolff.)
To extend this metaphor, humankind have eaten more than our fill—not so much only what we must but whatever we could, it seems. Our hand is as manifest in the American Southwest as anywhere, but it is truly everywhere, there to see if we pay attention, blatant in the forests our ancestors felled, latent in the water courses that miss the beavers we slaughtered, the sterility of prairies that miss the buffalo we exterminated, the monocultures with which we supplanted so much diversity, and on and on.
No matter which coast we inhabit, the actions we take as stewards can exacerbate the difficulties other life forms face or mitigate them, begin to compensate for our past transgressions or exacerbate them. In the illusory infinity of western opportunity we see this but also in the stolid persistence of the Eastern gardener. All our decisions follow in the wake of decisions made by others.
As winter lays over our Pennsylvania landscape, I will occasionally report on its California counterpart, so starkly different and yet so full of life in its own way.
Native barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp.) thrives in our California yard:
Many citrus trees grow in the valley. Here is a very much non-native grapefruit tree in our yard: