Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert

Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert

by David Rains Wallace

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Described as “a writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and other self-educated seers” by the San Francisco Chronicle, David Rains Wallace turns his attention in this new book to another distinctive corner of California—its desert, the driest and hottest environment in North America. Drawing from his frequent forays to Death Valley, Red Rock Canyon, Kelso Dunes, and other locales, Wallace illuminates the desert’s intriguing flora and fauna as he explores a controversial, unresolved scientific debate about the origin and evolution of its unusual ecosystems. Eminent scientists and scholars appear throughout these pages, including maverick paleobiologist Daniel Axelrod, botanist Ledyard Stebbins, and naturalists Edmund Jaeger and Joseph Wood Krutch. Weaving together ecology, geology, natural history, and mythology in his characteristically eloquent voice, Wallace reveals that there is more to this starkly beautiful landscape than meets the eye.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520256163
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/05/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 9.08(w) x 6.30(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

David Rains Wallace is the author of seventeen books, including Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas; Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution, A New York Times Notable Book; and The Klamath Knot: Explorations of Myth and Evolution, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, winner of the John Burroughs Medal (all available from UC Press).

Read an Excerpt

Chuckwalla Land

The Riddle of California's Desert

By David Rains Wallace


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94866-2


A Sphinx in Arcady

The desert's stark reticence challenges comfortable notions that we humans occupy the apex of benign, reasonable processes that have unfolded especially to produce us. American pioneers saw California's forests and grasslands as an unspoiled Promised Land divinely created to usher in an Arcadian Golden Age for progressive civilization. They saw its desert as a strange ruined wasteland that needed "reclamation," with the implication that it somehow is not natural as forests and grasslands are, that it might be part of a contrary, hostile creation.

Early conservationists like John Muir did not necessarily share the public's biblical creationism (Muir had his own pantheist version), but they did share its faith in progress. Enthusiastic about preserving forest, they were less attached to desert and tended to accept the reclamation paradigm. Muir was a farmer, if a reluctant one, and expected that "the fertilizing waters of the rivers" would irrigate much of arid California "giving rise to prosperous towns, wealth, arts, etc." Even a desert enthusiast like Mary Austin put protecting Owens Valley irrigation water from thirsty Los Angeles before protecting desert flora and fauna. Herself a homesteader, she romanticized and empathized with the herders and miners she knew in the 1890s.

Joseph Smeaton Chase, an English writer who explored the desert on horseback during World War I, evoked the prevailing attitude in mythic terms:

The mountains, the sea, even the vast and changeful sky, have each some predominant genius for those who love the fair features of our earth. What sentiment does the desert yield by which it may be linked with human emotions? What analogy exists by which we may come in touch with it? The answer must be, There is none. At every point the desert meets us with a negative. Like the Sphinx, there is no answer to its riddle. It is in the fascination of the unknowable, in the challenge of some old, unbroken secret, that the charm of the desert consists. And the charm is undying, for the secret is—Secrecy.

Chase's metaphor of the desert as a Sphinx like the colossus before the Giza pyramids, "fixed in eternal reverie amid the immemorial sands of Egypt," might seem a cliché. It did arise partly from the mystique that effloresced in archaeological sensations like King Tut's tomb and in popular spin-offs like The Mummy, the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff as an ancient Egyptian priest who is dug up from the desert and resurrected by an ancient spell. Living in Palm Springs when Hollywood was starting to colonize it, Chase drew on and contributed to the mystique in California Desert Trails, his 1919 account of his adventures. He published another desert book promoting tourism with the distinctly clichéd title of Our Araby.

The Sphinx is a complicated monster, however, with a past almost as mysterious as the desert's. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, the Egyptian Sphinx was the son of the Creator, Ptah, represented as a shrouded, masked human mummy, and Sekhmet, the lion goddess of the desert sun's destructive potential. The human-headed, lion-bodied monster manifested Pharaoh's power over life and death and thus guarded royal tombs and, by extension, the stabilizing power of divine royalty. He also, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, presided over religious rites that involved riddles.

Around four thousand years ago, "through Egyptian influence" the Encyclopedia says, the Sphinx spread into the Levant, ancient Canaan and Phoenicia. There he underwent a sex change, acquiring a female face and breasts, and also wings. The significance of this is unclear, but the transsexual monster evidently retained her power. When she appeared among the emerging cities of Mycenaean Greece some five hundred years later, the Sphinx played a pivotal if enigmatic role in one of western civilization's central myths.

Legend says a Phoenician prince, Cadmus, founded Thebes, the Greek city where the myth takes place. The remains of its early structures do contain Middle Eastern artifacts. In the myth, a Theban king, Laius, orders that his infant son be exposed—hung by his pierced feet from a bush—because of an oracle's prophecy that he will kill his father. But the herdsman assigned to the job passes the infant to nearby Corinth's childless royal family, who adopt him. Named Oedipus, "swollen foot," by his foster parents, the boy grows up to enact an archetype of dislocation, the tragedy of a man who can't see where he is going because he doesn't know where he comes from. Ignorant of his true parentage, he flees Corinth when the Delphic oracle foretells that he will kill his father. On his travels, he collides with King Laius at a narrow crossroads and, in a fit of ancient road rage, kills him.

Oedipus goes to Thebes, where he encounters the Sphinx, represented in Greek art as a winged lion with a young woman's head and breasts. She is terrorizing the countryside by devouring young men who can't answer the riddle, "What goes on four legs at dawn, two at noon, three at dusk?" He gives the answer: "Man, who crawls in childhood, walks in maturity, and hobbles with a stick in old age," and the Sphinx throws herself off the cliff below her lair in chagrin. His reward is kingship of Thebes and unwitting marriage to his birth mother, Laius's widow Jocasta. He rules many years, until, as dramatized in Sophocles' classic plays, drought and plague expose his patricide and incest. Then he blinds himself and wanders until the earth finally engulfs him in a sacred grove near Athens.

So, because of its mysterious mythic origins, there are two Sphinxes. The Egyptian Sphinx crouches before the royal tombs, a threat, but also a guardian. If it poses riddles, the answers are meant to maintain order, to keep the lion-sun in its place. The Greek Sphinx ravages the land like a sun out of orbit. Its riddle licenses its destructiveness, and even the riddle's answer licenses its own apparent self-destruction, ironically exposing monarchy to pollution and disaster.

When Chase declared that there is no answer to a California desert Sphinx's riddle, he expressed not only progress-minded civilization's hostility to desert but also its fascinated, half-conscious ambiguity about it. If the desert was a Sphinx, was it the Egyptian one, a guardian of divinely sanctioned nature, or the Greek one, a parvenu trickster threatening progress? Would irrigation make the desert bloom as the rose—a kind of surprise present from the Creator—or would laboriously diverted water merely evaporate and sink into the sand? Or was the desert in some incalculable way both guardian and trickster? Thieves quickly looted the royal tombs that the Egyptian Sphinx supposedly guarded. The Greek Sphinx supposedly gave in to Oedipus by leaping off a cliff—but she had wings.

The twentieth century proved that irrigation can make the California desert bloom, if not as the rose, then as the golf course and other assets. As my initial freeway-view impression of it showed, it began to seem less consequential, less of an obstacle, than it had in the nineteenth. Not even the increasingly noisy creationist movement was interested anymore in the pioneers' notion that desert somehow had a more malign origin than pleasanter biomes. There was less talk of "reclamation" and more of "development," with its associations of "raw land" and "nothing there"—the desert not as wasteland but as nonland.

But then, away from the freeways, an impression of inconsequence could rapidly shift underfoot, as I found in 1983. Now, although mythic ambiguities might seem even more archaic to the twenty-first century's mainstream than they did to the twentieth century's, they have crept back into the discussion of postmodernities like global water shortage and climate change. As we continue to pump California's dwindling aquifers onto the desert's dusty face, we begin to talk less positively of progress and more propitiatingly of "sustainability," a kind of progressive stability or stabilized progress, if such things can be. We wonder what we will do, and what the desert will do, on a drying, warming planet. That brings us back to something like Oedipus's predicament. How can we tell where the desert is going if we don't know where it has been?

In our anxieties, we may be akin to ancient Californians, who also inhabited a drying, warming planet during the past ten to twenty thousand years. We know less about them than we do about ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Still, there is some faint lingering evidence of what they may have thought about the desert.


The Country of Dried Skin

One of the things that can make California desert look inconsequential from freeways is that much of it doesn't even support bushes and lizards. Wide basins of dirty white salts that fill most of the large valleys seem about as close as earthly nature can get to nonentity. Even a big hole in the ground has more character, more promise of life, than desert alkali flats. Their present vacuity makes it hard to credit the fact, proved by the bathtub rings of extinct beaches around them, that they were once freshwater lakes full of fish and waterfowl and surrounded by pine forests.

In the Mojave's center, archaeologists have found traces of the people who inhabited southeast California toward the end of the lakes' time. Fluted projectile points like those of the Clovis culture that appeared in the Southwest twelve thousand years ago suggest that their makers were hunting sizeable herds of large mammals. They lived around Lake Mohave, an immense body of water whose dried, salted corpse now stares at the sky along parts of I-15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. The age of the artifacts is unclear, but radiocarbon dating of mussel shells shows that the lake existed ten thousand years ago.

During the next three thousand years, as the lakes shrank and the landscape shifted from grasslands and pine woods to alkaline basins and thorny bushes, those people's descendants must have wondered about the changes. It's hard to imagine what they wondered, but the little we know of their distant successors' complex mythologies perhaps hints at their thoughts.

According to anthropologists Robert Heizer and William Wallace, the origin myths in California's drier areas differed in a fundamental way from those in the humid northwest, which "began with the assumption that the earth was already in existence and looked much as it did in aboriginal times." Since the northwest probably was forested when humans arrived, this suggests that those myths reflected a stable environment. Central and southern California origin myths "reflected a greater interest in the genesis of the world," suggesting that landscapes in those places were more volatile. The latter myths, in fact, have similarities to ones that arose with the spread of Middle Eastern deserts at about the same time.

Origin myths vary from place to place in the California desert, but they fall into two general categories. In the Great Basin and northern Mojave, a divine being created the world from a primeval flood. According to George Laird of the Chemehuevi tribe who lived from the Colorado River to the Tehachapi Mountains, Ocean Woman made the land by rubbing dried skin from her body and sprinkling it overboard while riding a basket boat on the Immortal Water. Two brothers, Mountain Lion and Coyote, helped her to stretch it out and survey its extent, bickering in the process. Mountain Lion, a modest, sensible, straightforward Creator, tried to do things properly but Coyote, a vain, foolish, devious one, kept making a mess of them.

In the southern Mojave and Sonoran deserts, two quarreling Creators also had a hand in making the world, although they emerged not from the Immortal Water but from an atmospheric void. According to Francisco Patencio of the Cahuillas, a tribe that lived from the San Bernardino Mountains to just west of the Colorado River, brothers who emerged from a floating egg made the world in the course of sibling rivalry. The Tupai-Ipai who lived south of the Cahuillas also told stories of bickering Creator brothers but thought they were the sons of older beings, an earthly mother and a celestial father. Sensible Mountain Lion and foolish Coyote also featured in southern desert myths although as culture heroes rather than Creators.

According to many Indian myths, Coyote was largely if ambiguously responsible for the creation of humans (in some stories, by defecating us), which seems realistic. One might expect him to be blamed for the problematic phenomenon of desert as well. But there seems to be no such myth. In fact, there seems not to be any Native American origin myth that features the desert as such. Many natural phenomena participate in origins, not only water, sky, and animals but celestial bodies, mountains, and plants. But I have seen no origin myth in which "the desert" takes an active part or is even mentioned.

It is not that ancient Californians lacked words for desert. On The Land of Little Rain's first page, Mary Austin declares: "Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian's is the better word." She doesn't say what Indians she means or what their word is, but they were probably the Paiutes she knew in Owens Valley. That word may have been like the Chemehuevis', who also spoke a Ute dialect. According to Laird, their word for desert, tiiravi, although "a concept of immense importance to Chemehuevi thought," was "never personified or treated as an active noun."

I've seen no explanation of this apparent failure to personify desert in highly anthropomorphic myths. One possibility might be that it was newer than other phenomena. The Immortal Water in many stories hints at the lakes that once existed, some recently. A lake caused by a change in the Colorado's course covered much of the Cahuillas' territory until soon before Europeans arrived. The spreading vacuity of desert might have evoked a more abstract way of thinking than older things. Laird said that tiiravi also means the space between one mountain range and another, so it is a unit of measurement as well as a descriptive noun. Austin's English translation of the "better word"—"the country of lost borders"—also seems abstract.

Maybe a reluctance to personify desert had a darker side as well. Prehistoric people often didn't speak of things they feared, like the dead. Of course, southeast California was their home. "To a white man, the desert is a wasteland," a Chemehuevi told Laird's Anglo wife, Carobeth. "To us it is a supermarket." But markets are tricky things, and most fatal accidents occur in or near the home. Folklore tells of people who, expecting water or food, find only dry springs or empty caches, for which misfortunes, as Austin wrote, there was "no help."

Austin's "country of lost borders" implies anxiety as well as abstraction. The Owens Valley Paiutes feared the "Shoshone Land" to the southeast of their borders. Laird thought that the Chemehuevis, who held territory on the reliable Colorado River, had a more relaxed attitude than "certain other tribes," who found the world a "dark and terrifying place." Anthropologists described the Cahuillas of the drier, hotter desert farther south as having an "all pervasive and intense feeling of apprehension ... toward the present and the future."

I can relate to that. It is curiously easy to get lost in desert—or simply to feel lost—because it is so open. The way looks clear but distances are deceptive and if the mind wanders during a morning's walk, it can suddenly seem not clear anymore. Then it is noon, and the sun is startlingly hot and there is no shade in sight. I have a recurrent dream of walking through a desert colored garnet, topaz, and beryl like Red Rock Canyon, although it isn't a picturesque badland, just flats, washes, foothills, and peaks. I have a destination but I'm not sure what it is. Sometimes, crossing a ridge, I think I'll reach it on the other side, but then the dream changes. Sometimes I decide to turn back but then I'm unsure of the way.

Mythological speculations are hazy, but I've encountered one material vestige of ancient California that seemed to evoke the Sphinx's ambiguities. Mitchell Caverns State Park in the eastern Mojave does have caves, although I was too absorbed with lizards and bushes on my first visit there to notice. During another trip I took the guided tour. The caves have beautiful limestone formations like nondesert caves except that the underground streams that formed them are dry. They share another feature with caves in more populated places such as Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. They contain a mummy.

As we climbed a metal stairway, the guide pointed to a deep recess and said that the shrouded body of a man left by ancient people lay there. It was the only one in the cave, and the reason for its presence was unknown. It might have been a shaman or other powerful individual placed there so the spirit would continue to preside. The guide speculated further that the man might have inhabited the cave while living, perhaps, like the Delphic oracles, kept there by an anxious society to enhance his prophetic gift.


Excerpted from Chuckwalla Land by David Rains Wallace. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Prologue. Bushes and Lizards xi

1 A Sphinx in Arcady 1

2 The Country of Dried Skin 6

3 A Cactus Heresy 11

4 The Creator's Dumping Ground 16

5 An Evolutionary Backwater 21

6 Anti-Darwinian Lacertilians 26

7 Descriptive Confusion 34

8 A Murderous Brood 40

9 Hopeful Monsters 50

10 An Old Earth-Feature 55

11 A Climatic Accident 61

12 An Evolutionary Frontier 69

13 A Neo-Darwinian Galapagos 75

14 Mexican Geneses 81

15 Desert Relicts 87

16 Madro-Tertiary Attitudes 95

17 A Friendly Land 100

18 Furry Paleontologists 109

19 Dawn Horses and Dinosaurs 117

20 Axelrod Antagonistes 122

21 The Midday Sun 129

22 Lacertilian Ambiguities 139

23 Xerothermic Invasions 146

24 Sand Swimmers 151

25 Axelrod Ascendant 156

26 An Evolutionary Museum 160

27 The Riddle of the Palms 165

28 Bushes and Camels 173

29 Axelrod Askew 180

30 Paradigms Postponed 187

31 The Falcon and the Shrikes 194

Epilogue. The Sphinx's Lair 203

Notes 211

Selected Bibliography 229

Index 241

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A fascinating account of the interesting theories that have been propounded about the California desert. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the desert's unique nature and of its geological and evolutionary past."—American Scientist

[An] erudite exploration of the "riddle" of the California desert. . . . Whether Wallace is examining competing scientific theories or the popular attitudes toward the desert throughout the ages, he simultaneously educates and delights. . . .Chuckwalla Land should finally retire the persistent myth of the desert as an environmental and intellectual wasteland."—Zyzzyva

"Wallace has succeeded in making the academic entertaining and accessible. . . . A knowing and poetic look at the desert."—Santa Barbara News-Press

"Frankly, it is just a darn good read for anyone who enjoys natural history. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

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