Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Hot Dry Places
THE MOHAVE ENCOMPASSES TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND square miles of southern California and adja-
cent states, threatening to bake anyone who dares enter. By June it's an oven and in
August, even after dark, a merciless furnace. Scramble up a boulder on a breezy April
morning, though—say, on a flank of the Granite Mountains—and you'll bask in sumptuous
austerity. Snow-capped San Jacinto pierces azure sky a hundred miles to the southwest,
ten thousand feet above the Los Angeles Basin's smoggy border. Joshua trees dominate
nearby rocky slopes. Purple flowers carpet the flats. A friend's boots crunch with metro-
nomic cadence from an arroyo below, and the buzzing of a pesky fly feels like starlight,
crisp but vanishingly small. Everything is weathered. The air tastes clean. As afternoon
shadows deepen, distant ranges turn flat lavender gray. Creatures that perish here dry
quickly, minus the tariffs of scavengers, and drift of on the wind.
Like other deserts—Great Basin, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan in North America; Sahara,
Taklimakan, and so forth elsewhere—the Mohave is defined by climate. From overhead
in a jet it looks like elephant skin, etched with dry washes that merge into empty river-
beds, their fractal tendrils dotted with shrubs and occasional trees. On the ground, out
walking, questions come to mind for which answers involve water, wind, and sun: Why
are these leaves leathery? Why are so few mammals out during the day? Nowhere else is
our molten yellow ball so omnipotent, or moisture so precious. And surely no other night
skies so captivate us. Deserts feel cosmic, so it's not surprising that religions spring up in
them, that they inspired Rumi's mystical poetry and Camus's spare philosophical prose.
Arid lands were Henry Fitch's favorite habitat too, because, as he told me with charac-
teristic economy, “They're open and full of interesting plants and animals.”
For now, a giant Mohave succulent and two small creatures with almost identical
names can underscore why herpetologists are drawn to deserts. Joshua trees are actually
yuccas and, like agaves, palms, and other monocots, don't make wood or bark. They often
occur in clusters of fibrous trunks, upwards of fifteen feet tall and variously bent, as if
a troupe of gangly dancers with Afro hairdos froze in mid-routine; their tough, dagger-
like leaves blast out in eighteen-inch rosettes, collectively resembling the crowns of real
trees and adorned by creamy-white, moth-pollinated flowers that smell like gorgonzola
cheese. Fallen Joshua trees foster a moist duff favored by our quarry, though searching
requires caution—their trunks and branches are covered with sharp leaf scars, their un-
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