The first time I saw Joshua trees they did not impress me. In 2015, my wife Claudia drove us through a forest of saguaro cacti in Arizona. The sun was low over hills covered with the majestic cacti. Long shadows of the approaching evening emphasised the grooves in their trunks.
‘There’s a Joshua tree, look,’ Claudia said excitedly a couple of times. She first saw these strange trees as she traveled along the boundary of the Joshua Tree National Park, many years ago. ‘I’ve wanted to go to see Joshua trees since I was a child,’ she told me. ‘I saw them in a book.’
The Joshua trees looked gangly and forlorn then, among the stately cacti.
Claudia didn’t stop wanting to see more Joshua trees. So, we took the opportunity to go to their place in the Mohave desert last week.
We had the time, a tank of fuel, a tub of fried rice and a couple of bananas. We had bottles of water, too and two pieces of plastic cutlery.
Claudia drove us out of Los Angeles into opening landscapes and broadening skies. You could choose your decade on the radio.
We drove past the turn off to the Sriracha factory with its fragrant mash of chili and garlic; past the many houses and the huge pits surrounding LA—concrete and marble quarries, sink holes and sewer ponds. We passed shopping malls that extend for miles, mile-high cholesterol corners and a huge brewery covered in nationalism.
Truck stops shouted to attract drivers who wanted to stop and gamble. Billboards promoted districts of cannabis shops. Further into the desert, wind farms of white robot trees towered, turning slowly along the valleys and up the mountainsides.
By early afternoon were well into the country of the Cahuilla Indians—they call themselves táxliswet. Streets in the valleys are named after tribes. Little stores selling crafts hint at their cultures.
At a Joshua Tree National Park visitors centre, I read educational displays while Claudia took a map from a friendly ranger. Claudia told her about some of the desert places we’ve visited and lived at in Australia. We’d arrived in a place where people had time to be personable.
The eponymous Joshua trees populate the village abutting the National Park, as well as filling up great plains and valleys within it.
Their poetic name may have come from the Mormons, who saw the prophet Joshua holding his arms up in exclamatory prayer in the strange shapes of the trees’ branches. I don’t know much about the Mormons, but I know they suffered attacks and massacres on their journey to the west.
Biblical Joshua would have appealed to them as a leader of the Israelites and a military man. (Moses made him a spy). The character also appears in Muslim and Jewish literature, so he’s one for a broad church.
Another writer says that it would have been Mormon Battalion soldiers returning to Salt Lake City from the Pacific Coast who saw and named the trees. The Mormon Battalion was the only explicitly religiously-based military unit in American history. They fought in the 1840’s in the American war against Mexico.
Southern California today often feels like this is still part of Mexico. The Americans won the war, but Mexico lives here, geographically and culturally, even economically. There are so many Mexican workers here, keeping the country great, often by taking jobs the Anglo-Americans can’t or won’t do.
Back out in the Mohave desert, the Joshua trees are striking. Each tree feels like it has its own personality, each has its own story to tell. People don’t know how old the Joshua trees are, but some are said to be hundreds, even a thousand years old. Old enough to see many battles and wars come and go.
The Park occupies parts of the Mohave and Colorado deserts. In the Mohave desert the landscape is dramatised by huge rounded boulders, many sculpted by eons of sun, wind and ice into intriguing shapes. There is the smell of sun on stone, the spectacle of outspread forests of the Joshua trees and smaller cacti and bushes, the occasional howl of a distant coyote. People surprise us as miniatures on top of the rocks or abseiling down them.
We stopped for a late lunch under between the weathered cliffs of some of the boulder formations. There was concrete lunch furniture, but it was too cold to sit on. Other, natural stones made more comfortable lounges and gave you a sense of history, sitting on them.
A brilliant bluejay came to visit, nervous or polite in contrast to the proprietary ravens. One of our friends, no longer with us, always loved the small blue birds. This one reminded us of him. Claudia left him a few grains of rice, but a cheeky raven got them.
The mature Joshua tree shelters little birds. It has a thick trunk of substantial wood. Its branches retain the solidity of the trunk and are covered with triangular spiked leaves, like brown, thorny scales. From a distance they look almost furry.
At the ends of the Joshua’s branches there are exclamations of bristling green leaves. On some trees these look like starbursts of energy, especially in the glow of late afternoon. Cahuilla people used the fibrous leaves to make things—baskets, shoes, roofs. There are saponins in them for washing, too.
The base of the tree is pale spreading wood. Many of the tree bases are covered by dead leaves, where desert rodents shelter in spiky mansions.
The young Joshua is a single arrow of hardy bright leaves, like a lethal bottle brush. The stem becomes the trunk and the trunks become branches. The tree only branches after it flowers. Or there’s an insect, a borer, that nibbles the trunk apex and makes it branch.
Joshua trees depend on a single moth for their reproduction, which visits their creamy annual flowers, and lays its eggs in them. The yucca moth mother deliberately takes pollen from a flower and puts it in the pistil of another, unfertilised, flower. Thus she ensures food for the young and perpetuates the tree.
The larvae eat the Joshua tree seeds when they hatch. Other fertilised seeds fall to the ground. If a moth has lain too many eggs in a flower, the tree tips the potentially greedy batch out onto the ground. Fair’s fair in a symbiotic relationship.
The relationship between the Joshua tree and the yucca moth is remarkable, but in the plants’ cells may be a distant memory of something bigger.
The Joshua tree is an evolutionary anachronism, the abandoned half of another commensal relationship. Thousands of years ago, in the Pleistocene period, there was a giant sloth, almost three metres long, with Wolverine-like claws, that distributed the tree’s seeds.
It’s said that the Shasta sloth was the key to the Joshua trees’ spread. Some sloths wandered over twenty kilometres before relocating the seeds in their dung, far from the tree whose fruit they ate.
If you’ve seen how a sloth moves, you can imagine how slowly all this happened.
The sloths became extinct about ten thousand years ago. Nowadays, the Joshua seeds are moved by the wood-rats that live at the bottom of the tree in their barbed nests. But they only take the seeds a little way.
Scientists learned about the relationship between the trees and the sloths in the 1930’s, when Gypsum Cave in Nevada was excavated. The ancient remains of sloth dung, full of Joshua tree seeds and fibres, told the story.
The globally warming climate is a threat to the existence of the trees. They need the winter chill of the desert to flower. With no sloths now to carry their seeds to higher, cooler places, some have suggested using genetic engineering to bring the sloth back. The tree’s habitat in the Mohave desert is getting squeezed by climate change.
On Friday the sky at Joshua Tree was overcast. As the sun moved low over the mountains we drove into the Colorado desert. At a lower altitude, the landscape, plants and animals are different. Joshua trees can’t grow there. The sun glowed white in a sky that looked like satin spar gypsum. We explored a field of cholla jumping cactus.
The cholla (pronounced ‘choya’) is said to jump because of the ease with which it attaches balls of its thickly-spined body to passing animals. Its needles are so dense and vicious, Park workers built a fence around part of the trail they made through the cholla patch.
The cholla is not magnificent like the Joshua, but has quirky shapes that grab your imagination. Like the Joshua tree, the new growth of the cholla grows over a trunk of dead wood.
It occurred to me that so much of life grows that way: coral on a reef or a shell spiralling or layering upon itself. We humans grow our bones on a trabecular network that looks just like the skeleton of a cholla.
We build our selves on an emotional skeleton of passed and dead drama, trauma, healing and learning, if we’re fortunate.
The botanists say that cactus spines are modified leaves. That’s extreme modification, a healthy response to an extreme climate. Humans who have grown their leaves into spikes have good reasons, too.
Some of the dead cholla trunks had holes surrounded by dead spines. They made nests for tiny birds that must be very safe in there. The holes, with light shining through the skeletal trunks, sometimes looked like the eyes and mouths of exclaiming brown beings.
In twilight the needles around other cacti seem to glow white. They looked soft. I wondered about such tender things, that need such fierce protection. Some of us are like the Joshua trees, needing spirals of spikes in our youth, able to grow up over hard-earned wood to show tender, creamy flowers and attract our special moth in the moonlight.
The Joshua trees still bear fruit, even without their grandly-clawed companion sloth to stretch up and feast on them. Perhaps it is so long since the sloth came that the trees wait now, rather than mourn.
Maybe they await the giant sloths genetically engineered come-back. ‘But you don’t know what you’ll get,’ says Claudia. ‘They might not be so slow. They might cut your head off with a casual swipe.’ She draws up her height, smiling, and waves her open fingers by me. It’s a gesture like Logan Wolverine, who has titanium claws and unstoppable healing power.
I’m glad she took us to that remarkable place, following tracks laid down in her imagination many moons ago when she read ‘Deserts of the World’ or some such marvellous book. She might have been nine years old.
She’s the wife of my dreams, this Claudia, travelling the world with me, introducing me to Old Man Saguaro and Lady Joshua tree. We build branches and occasionally flower and fruit alongside each other, each woman growing up and building over our own dead wood.
Thumbnail photo of sunrise at Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park by Jarek Tuszyński