Joshua Trees and America: Finding what we’re looking for and saving our great places?

Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park

“I started to see two Americas: the mythic America and the real America. There was a harsh reality to America as well as the dream. I wanted to describe this era of prosperity and Savings and Loans scandals as a spiritual drought. I started thinking about the desert.” – Bono, from the rock band, U2

There’s “a place, high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name,” a place marked by bizarre rock outcroppings and the almost magical forests of the crooked and spiky Joshua trees — a metaphor U2 adeptly used for America’s prosperity and greed of the 80s, as relevant then, as it is today. In December of 1986, the four members of U2 and photographer Anton Corbijn captured the rocky and mountainous terrain and a lonely Joshua tree, summoning us with their The Joshua Tree to call upon our inner spirit to come together for peace, harmony, and love.

Here we are today, more than twenty years later, where such a commitment for change is never more needed. Perhaps a little time in the desert might clear my mind, settle my soul, I thought. Perhaps I can muster the strength we need to move toward a more sustainable and just tomorrow. Located 140 miles east of Los Angeles and just north of Palm Springs and west of Death Valley, the 792,726-acre Joshua Tree National Park provides an escape from urban pressures, a place to experience solitude and wilderness, to reconnect with our hopes and dreams.

The photogenic Joshua trees are neither tree nor cactus; they’re a giant version of a species of yucca, belonging to the lily family, many living for hundreds of years.  Unfortunately, if the U.S. Geological Survey scientists are correct in their modeling, the Joshua trees may not be around in fifty to a hundred years from now thanks to climate change altering the fragile desert ecosystem, average temperatures, and precipitation patterns. The trees they need cool winters and freezing temperatures in order to produce flowers, release their seeds, and reproduce.

To experience the park, my family and I meandered but a few of the 191 miles of hiking trails for our own spiritual walkabout roughly the same time as President-elect Barack Obama was sworn into office. The desert foray was a dramatic ecotourism adventure — a safe one, so long as you bring lots of water with you.  There are also four visitor centers positioned to help guide your enjoyment of the park, depending on where you enter it. Many argue that the best time to visit is during the spring bloom of wildflowers and other plants.

My bet is that U2 never anticipated the global impacts of climate change, now calling into question the long term survival of the namesake Joshua Trees in the Joshua Tree National Park. That Joshua tree made famous by U2 is gone. Others will likely follow.  Besides climate change, invasive exotic species, increasing incidence of wildfires, and nitrogen deposition originating from emissions hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles are also impacting the trees, according to Alice Miller who is involved with on-going research in the park.  “There is no single cause of their decline,” says Miller.  “Everything is interconnected.”

That said, climate change may be one of the more challenging to deal with.  “Many of the effects of climate change have been happening faster than anybody expected, and all the parks are in some way experiencing them, whether it’s drought leading to wildfires or coastlines that are vulnerable to sea-level rise,” reported Mark Wenzler, the director of clean-air and climate programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, for an interview for AARP in October, 2008.

Two desert ecosystems merge within Joshua Tree National Park, creating unique associations of plants and animals. The Colorado Desert occupies the eastern half of the park where creosote bush, ocotillo, and palo verde dominate. The Mojave Desert spans the higher, western half of the park where it is slightly cooler and wetter. The Joshua tree is a critical component of the Mojave Desert ecosystem and provides habitat for birds, mammals, insects, and lizards. Five fan palm oases support vegetation and wildlife distinct from the species found in the rest of the park. For birders, the Joshua Tree National Park lies astride the Pacific flyway of migratory birds and is a rest stop for many; about 240 species, both migrants and residents, have been observed in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park was first established as a national monument in 1936 and then became a national park in 1994. The park was established to preserve an ecologically dynamic region of the California Desert, a transition zone between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. The park provides recreational opportunities to approximately 1.2 million visitors annually, and protects and preserves a rich array of natural and cultural resources.

During our stay, we took refuge at the Harmony Hotel in Twentynine Palms, savoring a soak in their hot tub under the stars after a long day of boulder hopping and hiking.  Room number 4 is where Bono slept during his album cover shoot for U2s The Joshua Tree in 1987. For the hard-core, try camping in one of the nine campgrounds in the park and be summoned to sleep by the calls of coyote.

If nothing else, Joshua Tree National Park and the loss of the Joshua tree photographed with U2 in 1987 rekindled the sense of believing in our dreams and taking responsibility to follow through with them. It also reinforced the need to change our actions to mitigate the impacts we have on climate change.

It’s time to save what we’ve been looking for, before it’s too late.

  1. Jessica Kositz

    This is sad. I do recommend the camping at Joshua Tree – and I don’t consider myself “hard-core.” It’s absolutely unreal to sleep under those desert stars and see the first glints of the purple sunrise.

  2. Joe

    Very interesting article, and a great correlation between the destinations in American history that are quickly disappearing due to lack of proper conservation efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *