See the California desert in a whole new way with art in the environment
Making your way to Carrizo Plain National Monument or Joshua Tree National Park for the unprecedented superbloom of wildflowers? Add this trip to your itinerary, and do it soon, before April 30th. Desert X is a free, playful, outdoor display by emerging and established artists that delights the senses as well as tackles tough issues. People are coming from all over the world to see it, and so you may make friends while you’re at it. Click here for information on how to visit the art, both on your own and with organized bus tours.
If you can’t make it in person, you’ll still enjoy these incredible images from my favorite desert rats Sue Pollock and Laura Crane. I invite you to become acquainted with the sacred, mysterious, funny, weird and sublime culture and environment of the California Desert. But first we need to get educated. Scientist Sophie Parker and renewable energy expert Erica Brand are here to help.
The California desert contains a variety of habitats, from sand dunes to palm oases, rock outcroppings to Joshua tree forests. The Coachella Valley is a unique part of the California desert because it lies at a crossroads – one can head to the higher, drier Mojave Desert, or to the lower and more plant-rich Sonoran Desert. But you can also get to the moister Mediterranean-type climate along California’s South Coast from here. Plants and animals from all three places have made their home in the Coachella Valley and some of them are found nowhere else on Earth.
Let’s go view a stunning work of art near a desert wash.
Wash My Cares Away
It does rain in the desert! When rain falls in the desert, something magical happens – desert washes come to life. What’s a wash? In some parts of the American Southwest, you’ll hear a wash called arroyo seco – which is Spanish for “dry stream.” In other places it’s a “gulch,” or a dry streambed. But by any name, a wash gives water a place to go. After a storm, a wash can deliver critical products in a way not too dissimilar to a cargo ship coming into Long Beach Harbor. But instead of automobiles from Japan, desert washes deliver pollen and seeds where they need to go. Even animals use the wash to get from the mountain to the desert floor. In this way, washes are nature’s highways for plants and animals.
On to the next stop, sand dunes.
Sand Dune Serenade
So what is a sand dune exactly? Sand dunes are hills that are formed by the wind. Under high winds, the fine sands that collect in washes can become airborne and travel across the valley to land in sand dunes. If you are ever in the Coachella Valley on a very windy day, you will see the sand moving across the roads and through sand transport corridors. Sand dunes are home to unique plants and animals that have adapted to survive in this unique landscape.
But the dunes wouldn’t exist without mountains. The Coachella Valley is nearly surrounded by mountains: The Santa Rosa Mountains to the southwest, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east and San Gorgonio Mountain to the north. These mountains block storms and cause them to lose moisture before entering the Coachella Valley. They are the reason this area is a desert. They also shape the Coachella Valley landscape: they create the sand dunes! Rocks from the mountains are pulverized as they travel downstream during large rainfall events, producing the sand and silt that replenish desert washes and sand dunes.
Last stop – palm oases.
Oasis of My Heart
An oasis can be boiled down to one word: water. A palm oasis exist in places where groundwater is pushed to the surface of the earth. For example, at the Coachella Valley Preserve, the San Andreas Fault is pushing water that would otherwise be underground to the surface.
While southern California may be known for its palm trees, the only palms native to the state are found in small, isolated oases in the Sonoran Desert—including the Coachella Valley. The California Fan Palm (Washington filifera) is found in locations where groundwater is forced towards the surface of the earth as springs and seeps, and the water and trees form a protective oasis habitat where bats, birds, and aquatic species thrive. The giant palm-boring beetle (Dinapate wrightii) lives exclusively in palm oases, and by feeding on older trees, helps keep the oases young and healthy. The springs at oases are important sources of water for large mammals that move through the Coachella Valley.
Deserts are among the most extreme habitats on Earth and only the well-adapted survive. In the summer, baking sun scorches the earth during the day, and in the winter temperatures plummet. Water and food are scarce, so the desert animals that make their home here must be hardy and adaptable. Water, and the places where it rises to the surface in the desert, provide a lifeline for wildlife and plants that live in the California desert.
Come back and enjoy these magnificent places. The more you learn, the more you’ll want to join up with the desert rats to care for this life-giving land and precious water.