In Search of Joshua Tree: The Endangered Jewel of the Mojave
To say there is no place on earth quite like Joshua Tree National Park is no exaggeration. The trees grow only in the Mojave Desert (itself a peculiar space) and the park in which they are found (which is only an hour’s drive east from Palm Springs) feels remote, far from the commotion of mass civilization.
Approximately 1.5 million Joshua trees grow on the park’s 789, 760 acres, and their dominant presence–the trees can grow up to forty feet and live up to 150 years–makes it seem as if visitors have intruded on some private gathering.
Some scientists believe that Joshua Tree is a relic from a different era– one that is slowly disappearing from the face of the earth.
More than any one emotion, Joshua Tree National Park conjures a mood, as if somehow written in a different language, with its vast expanse of crooked trees arranged like a jagged fractal. Even the rocks–unevenly sized and irregularly shaped–are stacked on one another in ways that seem to scorn the laws of physics. There is an enduring quality to Joshua Tree, as if it moves according to its own pace, on a scale of time much larger than our own.
The primordial, languid atmosphere that permeates Joshua Tree is corroborated by the creature responsible for its origins: the giant ground sloth. Until 13,000 years ago when they went extinct, the giant ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastense) drifted across Southern California, through the south of Nevada and parts in the west of Arizona. These placid creatures would eat the fruit of the Joshua Tree and disperse the seeds through their dung as they moved across the landscape. Since the extinction of the giant ground sloth, no other species has evolved to assume the mantel and to continue the dispersal of Joshua Tree seeds, leading some scientists to believe that Joshua Tree park is a relic from a different era–one that is slowly disappearing from the face of the earth.
Though its current status remains in question, the Joshua Tree (which is technically a form of yucca) has long been a symbol of survival and an important facet of its ecosystem. Long before Manifest Destiny brought settlers West, the Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla tribes occupied different areas of what is today the state park, utilizing the Joshua tree leaves in baskets and sandals, and consuming its flower buds and seeds as nutritious snacks. While there is often a stereotype of the desert as a desolate wasteland incapable of supporting life (save the occasional tumbleweed), Native Americans took advantage of acorns, mesquite pods, pinyon nuts, seeds, berries, and cactus fruits to eat, as well as a variety of other plants used to make bows, arrows, mats, and medicine. In addition, many animals– desert night lizards, the yucca moth– make their homes in the Joshua tree, at all different stages of its life.
Over the course of history, not everyone appreciated the beauty and usefulness of the Joshua tree, however. John C. Fremont, one of the first white explorers to reach what is now designated as Joshua Tree National Park, derided the trees as “repulsive” upon first encountering them. A U.S. Railroad survey, meanwhile, reported that the area was “barren” and “an exceedingly-difficult country to explore”.
Yet the trees’ magic was not completely lost on newer colonists. According to legend, the tree was first given its name by Mormon settlers, who likened the Joshua tree’s elongated, reaching branches to Joshua guiding the Israelite tribes onward after the death of Moses– only now it was the promise of American West they journeyed towards.
Today, the park is protected under federal law and is recognized as unique feature of the American panorama, one that drew a staggering 1.6 million visitors in 2014. Ideal times of the year to visit are in late fall, winter, or spring, before it becomes oppressively hot in the summer. The trees typically bloom between February and April–but not every tree blooms each year (it is unusual for a tree to bloom two years in a row). Some years pass with nearly no flowers, while others are marked by almost every tree blooming, transforming the landscape with lush white flowers.
The dual presence of Mojave and Colorado deserts also makes Joshua Tree a unique destination, as it is able to support more species than uniform deserts can. The Joshua trees grow only in the Mojave section of the park, which is identified by its higher elevation, while the Colorado portions, located towards the East, are characterized by the presence of shrubs and brush. The two parts of the park are unified, however, by the peculiar rock formations that draw climbers from all over the world.
Joshua Tree’s rock formations evolved over many hundreds of millions of years. Molten rock rose to just below the surface, cooled, and eventually developed a system of horizontal and rectangular joints from erosion. These joints created rectangular blocks, like those seen today at the Jumbo Rocks region of the park. With time, groundwater permeated the joints, transforming minerals and giving the rocks a rounded shape, surrounded by soft clay, while still underground. The changing climate of our recent era brought with it flash floods, which easily eroded this soft clay, in turn revealing impressive towers of rocks settled on top of one another.
Joshua Tree’s strength comes from its eccentricity. Many homesteaders believed they could conquer Joshua Tree, bending it to their purposes, and transforming it into viable farmland. But eventually they found the weather too extreme, the plants too unfriendly, and left for more promising lands (only one family survived). Then and now, Joshua Tree is not an easy place to live, nor is it a place whose climate should be underestimated.
Joshua Tree faces threats from all sides: energy developments planned around the park, ozone pollution, vandalism, climate change, disappearing habitat, and the incursion of non-native species.
Still, the park–as constant, bewitching, and endless as it may seem–is not invulnerable. Joshua Tree faces threats from all sides: energy developments planned around the park, ozone pollution, vandalism, climate change, disappearing habitat, and the incursion of non-native species.
The University of California, Riverside and the Earthwatch Institute have put together a team of professional and citizen scientists to collect data on Joshua Tree’s changing landscape. Their goal is to better inform conservation efforts, so that the tree might continue to exist in the wild for future generations. Amateur enthusiasts are welcomed on programs of intense field work that build a body of data (through field notes and catch and release programs), which contribute directly to understanding and preserving the fragile balance of the desert. In this way, Joshua Tree National Park becomes a little more familiar–or at least, more vulnerable and finite, which makes it all the more worth saving for generations to come.