"The problem of dominion that has always complicated humanity's relationship with wild places is at the center of Rebecca Lawton's essay collection…her expertise is apparent, as is her enthusiasm."
—THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Water, the most critical fluid on the planet, is seen as savior, benefactor, and Holy Grail in these fifteen essays on natural and faux oases. Fluvial geologist and former Colorado River guide Rebecca Lawton follows species both human and wild to their watery roots—in warming deserts, near rising Pacific tides, on endangered, tapped-out rivers, and in growing urban ecosystems. Lawton thoroughly and eloquently explores human attitudes toward water in the West, from Twentynine Palms, California, to Sitka, Alaska. A lifelong immersion in all things water forms the author's deep thinking about living with this critical compound and sometimes dying in it, on it, with too much of it, or for lack of it. The Oasis This Time, the inaugural Waterston Desert Writing Prize winner, is a call for us to evolve toward a sustainable and even spiritual connection to water.
REBECCA LAWTON grew up exploring rivers and deserts throughout the American West. Her writing on water, climate, and wild and human nature has been honored with a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, the Ellen Meloy Award for Desert Writers, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, a WILLA for original softcover fiction, Pushcart Prize nominations in prose and poetry, and residencies at Hedgebrook, PLAYA, and The Island Institute. She lives with guitarist Paul Christopulos in Summer Lake, Oregon, where she directs PLAYA's residency program for writers, artists, and scientists.
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Chapter 7: The Sentinels
The Marine–base town of Twentynine Palms, California, is as hushed as a morgue. There are no families in the shops and cafes, no moms holding kids by the hand, just a dead main street with traffic that's only passing through. Chairs sit empty in barbershops advertising Marine haircuts for ten bucks. In the Mojave Desert wind, yellow ribbons stream from lightpoles, street signs, storefronts. They remind us of a faithful promise to endure, a popular song once played to death on the radio, although their faded color says the waiting has gone on too long. Stubby stands of sage and creosote reach to the horizon past houses with drapes drawn to the intense sun. Inside are those still holding vigil, still believing in the inevitable return of the warrior.
Lured by the call of anything alive or wet, I check into the first motel I see. In the chill of an air–conditioned room, I pull on my bathing suit, wrap up in a big white towel, and wander out the back door in search of the pool.
Beside the hot tub, a young Marine greets me. He's a junior officer, probably just a few years older than my own teenaged daughter. His handsome face reveals no guile, especially when he smiles. Assigned to an advanced course in communications, he's stuck in this California desert town while others in his unit have been sent to Iraq. "The base is dead quiet," he says. "Everyone’s overseas." Although the pool is lovely and inviting, the officer has his back to the water—he's in uniform, at a table, with a textbook spread before him. When he's done with his course, he'll ship out, too. The communications reading doesn’t bother him, except that it requires "too much math." He says it in all earnestness, without a hint of irony. The numbers are just one more barrier to getting to fight.
When I say that I'm visiting from the northern part of the state, he asks if I've heard about a tank crew lost near Nasiriyah, Iraq. After a bit of back and forth, I realize that I have: the gunner, a Scottish–born newlywed, is from my county north of San Francisco. The papers have carried reports of his going missing. His wife is expecting a first child any day.
"It's an M1A1 Abrams crew," the communications officer says. "They're based here, in Twentynine Palms."
That's news to me. I ask if he's heard updates.
He tells me that the remaining members of the First Tank Battalion have no clue to the missing crew's whereabouts. The last radio contact from the Abrams came in before midnight Tuesday, when the tank was patrolling without headlights west of the Euphrates River. Today is Thursday. Desert sandstorms and near–zero visibility have made search efforts impossible. Blowing sand has confined the rest of the First Tank Battalion to their quarters. They're praying. Photographs in the paper show the men standing together in a dimly lit building.
"Doesn't it scare you?" I ask. "That an entire tank and its crew can disappear?"
He frowns and shakes his head. "Going MIA is one risk you take. And casualties are part of combat."
My heart beats so hard I wonder if he can hear it. Apparently not, as he goes back to his books with the calm of a Zen priest. But what more can I expect of him? Or of myself? Should I pray? Make a wish? Some months ago a friend taught me a method for wishing: fix your gaze on the nearest natural object and compose an eight–syllable blessing. Looking toward a row of palm trees in the motel garden, I count out syllables on both hands. Please. Find the crew. Alive and well. I settle into the hot tub, checking on the officer occasionally from the corner of my eye. He's not worried, or doesn't reveal that he is, as he works textbook problems on his calculator. He's only eager about his assignment. How can he be so calm? The years I've spent working among veterans of other wars tell me he's headed for some kind of fresh hell when he ships out. Today, my friends who went to fight in southeast Asia could no more consider going there again than they could walk on water.
When the hot–tub jets time out, the officer says, "Don't get up. I’ll take care of it." He speaks with dignity, as if he's assuming a torch of responsibility for his mother or favorite aunt. It's another important mission he's been assigned.
I let him handle it for me.
I've come to the desert for the waters: specifically, oases. Fertile, moist refuges in arid regions, oases have long been places of solace and rest. Twentynine Palms is named for the Oasis of Mara, a cluster of California fan palms in adjacent Joshua Tree National Park. Mara's palms, of the genus and species Washingtonia filifera, have drawn humans for centuries. According to legend, beginning around 1500 A.D., indigenous women of the Mojave who wanted to give birth to male children made Mara a sort of Mecca, where aspiring mothers of sons were directed by spiritual advisors. Mara, greener than the surrounding desert due to near–surface water, possessed supernatural attributes. Want to give birth? Go to Mara, the fertility clinic of the ancient world. The women's migrations to the oasis must have succeeded. The legends say that, in the first year alone, the mothers who visited Mara were delivered of twenty–nine male children. They celebrated by planting one palm at the site for each infant boy. The trees they sowed grew tall, guideposts one could see from miles away. Not a single one of the mothers, I'll wager, could have foreseen the place becoming a stronghold of warriors training for battle in foreign deserts. Despite the name of the town, today there are no longer exactly twenty–nine palms in city limits. The total count of Washingtonia has fluctuated through the years, both thinned by fire in some places and expanded by the growth of new palm–pups in others. Their frond skirts whisper. They summon visitors, passing on veiled secrets from the original enclave of native mothers. We want sons, they might be saying. Bring us sons.
Centuries after those first oasis–migrants, outsiders wore the native footpaths deeper to Mara. The shade and open water drew miners, homesteaders, cattlemen, and the stage line, gradually becoming the village of Twentynine Palms. No longer the sacred destination for mothers desiring to make sons, it drew the sons themselves. Most men arriving there had either just returned from war or were about to go. Veterans of World War I who'd suffered lung problems due to the gassing in France came to the clean, dry air to regain their ability to breathe.
Long horizons, unbroken sunlight, winds that came from the Pacific Ocean over basins of rock and sand: all of that, a world away from the mud and gloom of trench warfare and the dark, northern forests of Europe. A return from the dark side of the moon.
When World War II loomed, the U.S. Army found the open skies of Twentynine Palms ideal for glider instruction. On some timeline determined by the fighting overseas and the needs of the military, the base transferred to the Navy and then to the Marine Corps. Since 1954, the Marines have trained at the base with no hiatus. There's been no rest for the warrior in times that try our souls.
The morning after my arrival in Twentynine Palms, I leave my motel to find the storied Oasis of Mara. A paved path near the visitor center—maybe an asphalted–over vestige of the fertility trails—threads among National Park Service interpretive signs at a well–tended stand of Washingtonia. First I'm surprised to find that the oasis consists mostly of sand and gravel. Where's the water you always see in the movies, the liquid that desperate, thirst–crazed travelers plunge into head first? The signs tell me that an oasis really consists mostly of land. At the heart of the oasis may be a hydric zone, or pool of open water, generally dwarfed by the other, surrounding zones. Around the pool lies a patch of dry ground, encircled by palms, called the oasis proper. Around that dry patch, where it's easy to picture camels kneeling and silk–swathed sheikhs resting beside them, is the desert–oasis ecotone. The hardier plants of the ecotone transition from water dependent species closer in to thick–skinned varieties farther out. The ecotone plants must be able to take the heat and utter lack of water of the surrounding desert, a cruel master. The path at Mara winds through the diverse species of the ecotone, unique and eccentric shrubs with spikes and claws—clearly not the willows and sedges one would see poolside along some rivers and lakes. The ecotone has as little in common with the oasis proper as sleepy surburbs have with a glittering downtown.
Moving along I come to a view over a handrail barrier, from the ecotone, past the sandy oasis proper, into the hydric zone. Peering in, I don't see a pool. What gives? It's not wet. Where's the famous Oasis of Mara?
Another sign provides immediate answers. Declines in groundwater have resulted in the springs feeding the oasis drying up more than three decades ago—hence no pool. In the forty years following the opening of the military base, the water table dropped more than fifteen feet. Between 1939 and 2013, water–level declines of seventy feet and more beneath Twentynine Palms showed up in monitoring well data available from the California Department of Water Resources. With over 140,000 annual visitors to the oasis, demands on water resources did nothing but intensify after the old days when only those who could walk the footpaths came here.
No matter how inviting the sand ground among the palms, no visitors are allowed there. Even without water, it beckons, but the weight of our trespasses would damage the trees' root systems. Washingtonia has a mass of pencillate rootlets just inches underground that radiate as far as twenty feet from the trunk in search of shallow groundwater. Too many visitors, no matter how appreciative their hearts, would trample and compress the soil around the vulnerable, absorbent network. At Mara, although the roots of the palms are protected by barriers, warnings, and threats of fine, the palms fail in their quest for moisture. To keep the oasis alive, National Park Service staff regularly apply water directly to its palm roots.
Washingtonia, imperative to life in the Mojave, has its doppelganger in the genus Phoenix in the Persian Gulf. Like the California fan palm, the highly cultivated, date–bearing Phoenix needs full sun, heat, and scads of subsurface water. Phoenix has long brought wealth and status to its growers—own a palm, own the world—because there's no end to what you can do with the tree. You can cut its fronds for shelter. You can weave its mature leaves into mats, screens, baskets, and crates. You can strip its fruit clusters and use them as brooms; you can weave its fiber into skirts and sandals. The high–tannin date–fruit has cured everything from intestinal troubles to alcoholic intoxication through the ages.
By that, I wonder if they really mean that palm fruit cures hangover, which would truly make it a wonder drug.
To desert dwellers, the Phoenix tree of the Middle Eastern oasis stands for food, fiber, firewood. Survival. Ancient Mesopotamians encouraged Phoenix to grow at scattered hydric zones by planting and protecting its young. Communities came to depend on the palm they had fostered. Honored in myth and mirage and a thousand Arabian nights, the date palm stood from time unknown in the wedge of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Archeological evidence of cultivars has turned up there from as early as four thousand years before Christ. The abundance of fruit–bearing trees has been revered in the earliest bas–relief sculpture and exalted on the faces of antiquated coins.
Because the trees are so critical to life both in and out of the oasis, they are also perennial, strategic targets in times of war. In the Tigris–Euphrates, it's known that in the 1824 siege of Suckna, a station on the caravan route between Mesopotamia and Central Syria, the conqueror Abdel–Gelil cut down more than forty thousand trees to compel the town to surrender. It worked, and the scorched–palm tactic has been used over and over to dominate populations in conflicts ever since. For the Iraqi people, who in particular have been wise and hardworking stewards of the much–besieged Phoenix, it's become an Achilles heel. Iraq has long led the world in date production. Many of the most popular cultivars, including those bearing soft, sweet Halawy and Khadrawy fruits, were developed there. They are considered the very bread of life. Thus, standing tall, unable to hide in an exposed landscape, the generous trees fall in mute capitulation when the enemy comes to issue its fatal blows.
Iraq's forty million commercial trees, recorded before the 1980s Iraq–Iran war, had already slipped in that conflict. With the Gulf War that followed in 1991, tallies of palms noted just fifteen million trees. Decimation continued when Allied forces responded to September 11, 2001, albeit many months later: U.S. and British air strikes that began on March 20, 2003, and continued for three weeks coincided with and interrupted palm fertilization in Iraq's remaining trees, at that point down to ten million. Little has been written in Western news about the destruction of palms north of Baghdad in 2003, but news reports from the area noted invading armies bulldozing farmers' trees to extract information about guerrilla insurgents. In 2005, Iraq's annual output of dates, usually twenty to thirty tons, were so slim as to only meet children's needs and dessert for growers' guests. In 2006, any surviving trees were expected to be barren.
Exterminate the date palm, and you take a knife to the throats of those who cultivate it. Kill the tree that rims the oasis, and you help bring Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Egyptians, Arabians, Iranians, and Iraqis to their knees. Kill the trees in Twentynine Palms, and you'll find those who count them, caretake them, and ultimately mourn them. Still, the town, the people, and the sonic booms of test flights endure.
On Saturday I rise before dawn in my dark motel room to explore another oasis named for a given number of trees. Outside town, stands of Washingtonia still grow naturally in spring fed canyons and along fault lines where cracks in bedrock allow groundwater to wick near the surface. That's the case at Fortynine Palms, at 1.5–mile walk from a trailhead I reach at daybreak. The rising sun throws beams over the facing ridge. Granite boulders shine beside the trail as I start out; flakes of mica flash in the sand before my boots. Ridges along the flanks of mountains shed light, while alluvial fans throw shadows. It's a brilliant morning.
The oasis called Fortynine Palms is a narrow string of vegetation in a long, nearly dry canyon. Its hydric zone is just a trickle of water among horsetails, maidenhair fern, willow, and cottonwood. Even this small bit of flow is enough to fill tiny, clear pools, though, and they’re topped by a gaggle of water striders. A buzz fills the oasis; life stirs with the sun. Hummingbirds divebomb in mating dances and zoom into blossoms on scattered bits of globe mallow. Gnatcatchers and orioles call, and the sweet scent of things growing fills the air.
I find scat full of bones and palm seeds, then the dog–like prints of coyotes at the mud–rimmed pools. The pattern of their visit is a stippled cluster, for a pack that's come and gone. The California fan palm is not a date tree, but its small, black fruit still lures many wild creatures, including large mammals. Watch out, California and Gambel's quail—you could end up in the jaws of Canis latrans that fled when they heard my footsteps.
My bootprints fill with moisture from below. It's the life–giving aspect of these narrow canyons, that they contain water even if it's usually hidden at first glance. There are times, though, when water rips through here—high, fast, and sudden—during rare rainstorms somewhere up the drainage. Then the narrow, shotgun shape of the canyons is a source of danger. Flushing high and pushed on snouts of mud, flash–flooding is the leading killer of California fan palms in tight, rock–bound arroyos. Not death by drying, as one might think. Not the trampling of young palm pups under heavy hiking boots. Rather, it's the screaming, wild, rain fed runoff that upends elder palms and carries off seedlings, prying loose their shallow roots. Only the most sheltered and strongest survive these amorphous floods that rise out of nowhere, churn through without warning, leave muddy scars dozens of feet above ground on survivor trees.
Death by water in the desert: one of nature's greatest ironies.
With the day's mounting heat, the music of birds fades. Insect drone takes over as bees of all sizes work the willow catkins. Turning to hike back, I glimpse two pair of quail picking at creosote and bobbing their way upcanyon. I creep onto a boulder to let them pass. Three quail rely for safety on a fourth bird who takes his place as sentry on a pile of stones. Barely daring to breathe, I watch the quails' jerky, searching movements until all of the birds turn without warning and are nearly at my right foot. When one quail reaches my boot, the sentry cries, and all four scatter like tossed dice.
I look at the boot that scared them off. My gaze goes past it to the pink granite gravel under my feet. Something shines there—a single rifle shell, spent and empty on the gravel–bottomed wash. I stand with the metal skin of the shell between my toes as, overhead, a jet fighter roars and is gone.
Returning to town, I yearn for more hot–tub time and maybe even an umbrella drink beside the swimming pool. I pass through the motel lobby, forgetting that I've ever had a care, until I catch sight of a headline on a newspaper in the media rack. I buy a paper and detour to a plush chair in the lobby. TANK CREW FOUND, says the headline, in a font size usually reserved for presidential–election upsets.
When the Abrams was finally located, it was by Navy divers in twenty feet of Euphrates River water. Somehow disoriented even after the sandstorm cleared, the driver missed a turn and plunged off the end of an unfinished bridge. The tank flipped, its turret and escape hatch shoving into soft river mud. Trapped inside the Abrams, all four crew members drowned.
The Scotsman's pregnant wife is brave as she faces the reporters. "He loved his job," she says of her deceased husband. "It totally fit him." She's able to do much better in this situation than I can imagine doing myself. There are no hints about risk. Nothing about the irony of losing her beloved to a river in a desert. Reading her words, I want nothing more than to find the communications officer. I rush to the swimming pool to discover he's still at his post. He looks up from his math with a quick smile. His face fills with the light of recognition. I asked if he's heard about the tank crew. He has, and his expression turns solemn. The news has only firmed his resolve to join his unit.
"I want to go soon," he says. "I don’t want to be like a prizefighter who trains day in and day out for two years and never gets to go in the ring." I think of his young brain, still maturing, still growing its ability to reason. Only when he's lived to the ripe old age of twenty–six, I've read, will his nervous system be considered adult, with more warning lights flashing than a Volkswagen dashboard. Risky behavior is especially attractive to a certain demographic, specifically Caucasian males under the age of twenty–five with high–school educations or less. This young officer may qualify on all three counts, but that's something I won't ask. Instead I'll just recall the research I've seen: in today's volunteer military, lower socioeconomic classes are represented in higher numbers than in times of conscription.
The officer is not about to bring it up. I'm not thrilled to think about him as a prizefighter, either in or out of the ring, but I try not to let my face show it. We fall into the silence of those who know, on some level, that they could talk for days and never agree. I don't say something else, too: that I have an urge to enfold him in a protective embrace. It's a fool's desire to think that he might keep his wide–eyed, shining look. Should I pray? Or make another wish? With my gaze on the motel palms again, I compose another eight–syllable blessing: Please. Survive fire and water.
He keeps his vigil with his books. A few other swimmers come and go. The water shimmers on the face of the pool. Groundwater, Mara–sustaining liquid, pumped to the surface. Water in the desert. Life—you're supposed to give us life.
Taking my place in the hot tub, within the hydric zone in this otherwise arid garden, I hold a vigil of my own.