"What Would Root"

The spectacular strangeness of California's High Desert

The High Desert of California moves me like nowhere else I have ever been. It’s not quite my favorite place—that’s my parents’ backyard in Canada, where I imagine I know the shoreline better than I know my own limbs—but it’s the place I find most enchanting, most transporting, most superlatively strange.

I visited for the first time last year, on vacation, and immediately felt rooted in a way I rarely do. I loved that the ground felt washed in muted tones (sepia, beige, tan, ivory, taupe) and seemed to stretch on forever. Everything looked a little taut and chapped, like skin pelted by too many years of wind and sun. The fluctuations are extreme, from snow to relentless, triple-digit heat, and it was all slightly brutal, in a way that made me even more impressed by the life that thrives there—the big, goofy copses of shaggy, Seussian Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), the jackrabbits and cottontails hopping around the cholla cacti, the bobcats stalking the outcrops, the coyotes and foxes roaming it all. The sky felt boundless, but also close—as though, on clear nights, you could practically prick a finger on a star. 

I loved that the land is flat, flat, flat, until suddenly, thrillingly, it isn’t. The geology is startling, cantilevered to the point of ridiculousness; it looks almost as though a boulder could topple any time the wind kicks up. The first time I pulled into Joshua Tree National Park, I was so distracted by the inselbergs—the rounded mounds of rock that seem plopped down on a flat plain, out of nowhere—I could have easily veered off the road.

At first, I was enamored with their strangeness: they’re smooth, bulbous, and huge. Once I learned to read the rocks, though, I was floored by the how the distant past snapped into focus. 

Here’s how the park geologists tell it: Some 100 million years ago, molten liquid “oozed upward” and then hardened before it reached the surface. This rock is known as monzogranite. Water seeped down and eventually fractured the rock into chunks; meanwhile, the ground eroded away above. Eventually, the rocks were exposed to the air, and essentially settled into each other, forming the towering heaps still visible today. (The National Park Service has a very cool animation of this process, which you can watch here.) Some of these formations are ribboned with smooth, thin veins or wider, more pebbly dikes, which occur when newer magma patches up existing gaps in a rock. If you hike up Ryan Mountain, you’ll also see Pinto gneiss, banded metamorphic rock that dates back 1.7 billion years. It looks a little like squashed, topsy-turvy tree rings.

I’ve been back once since that first trip, and was set to be camping there this week, flying home to Brooklyn tomorrow. I feel a tug toward the desert; I can’t imagine ever tiring of the rocks, and the way they crack prehistory wide open. The vastness of the landscape also encouraged me to wander around inside my head. It didn’t feel boxy and crowded in there the way it sometimes does in New York, as though there aren’t enough windows to open in my brain to invite cross-breeze to blow through. 

The vastness of the landscape also encouraged me to wander around inside my head.

The landscape soothed and unsettled me, and others have felt that same tension there. In the middle of the last century, a few men near Landers claimed to be in conversation with aliens from Venus, and one hosted enormous conventions that drew tens of thousands of people to fete the imminent newcomers around a boulder known as Giant Rock. I absolutely understand how, if you were inclined to believe that aliens might land on Earth, you’d expect that the High Desert would be where they’d choose to park. 

This week’s poem—“What Would Root,” by Katie Farris—isn’t about the High Desert, but it’s beautifully bizarre and reminds me of the inherent strangeness of the landscape, which tempts fact to slip into blurry fiction or crackling magic.

If you like Farris’s poem, you might want to pick up Karen Russell’s short story collection Orange World. The collection and poem feel kindred, and I’d suggest flipping right to “The Bad Graft,” about a splintering relationship and a tangled romance with a Joshua tree. (Here it is in the New Yorker in 2014.)

Thanks for listening. I can’t wait to return to the High Desert as soon as I can, and reach into the weird, receding past. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about the strangest landscape that has worked its magic on you. 

Yours,

Jess  


P.S. A few nice links:

Here’s a very affable essay from Dwight Garner—an ode to breakfast, “the most literary meal.” It manages to be charming and bratty in equal measure (e.g. “Like an unsolicited manuscript, a big biscuit can really punch a hole in your morning”) and, yes, includes an anecdote about Herman Melville sharing sardines with his cat. Next time you sit down to a breakfast of your own, tuck into this delicious Paris Review piece about how to quarantine like a 19th-century dandy. (You’ll need debauched proclivities, fussy houseplants, opulent-but-decrepit interiors, and all of the velvet smoking jackets you can find.) In other news, my friend Angela Chen, fellow steward of a quarantine herbarium, shared a lovely landscape whose colors are derived from the flowers and leaves of dandelions, lilacs, yarrow, and more. Also, the journalist Ferris Jabr made a very fun Twitter thread about the inner lives of birds, as narrated by their nests. (Among pigeons, for instance, “the only god is chaos.”) 

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Images: Chris Naka; Christopher Michel/CC by 2.0]