Joshua Tree, CA, 2018
Each morning during my residency, I looked out the windows of my cabin into the creosote (Larrea tridentata) covered landscape. I saw desert quail, cottontail and black-tail jackrabbits sheltering beneath the redolent greasy leaves. Languid coyotes passed quietly by, picking their way around the cholla and brittlebush.
The Mojave is an extreme land of heat, parched earth, and bright reflected light off the sand of decomposed granite. Its indigenous plants and animals are adapted to chronic aridity and periodic extreme droughts in which these conditions are necessary to maintain the individual and community’s structure. Because it is a barren landscape, the amount of garbage and junk that would stay hidden in a greener, lusher biome, sticks out as remnants of man’s attempt to claim, define and prove it up. Trying to make it theirs, they have failed and left, with no attempt to leave the land the way they found it.
Driving through the Morongo Basin, one can’t help but notice how dry and parched the earth is. One morning, I came across a field of dried corns stalks, gray and standing, someone’s unsuccessful failed attempt to farm in this arid environment. Corn cobs still hung like ornaments, the seed long gone, eaten by raccoons, crows and kangaroo rats. Running the length of each row, lay black plastic irrigation tubing still on the ground. An eighth of a mile down the road, a small skeletal structure, likely a tool shed, still stood. An RV, its windows all broken or missing, was parked nearby and black plastic pots filled with dead trees. How long will it all stay as clutter on the landscape?
The Morongo Basin lies north of one of the more magical, mysterious landscapes in America, Joshua Tree National Park, world renowned for its 5.9’s and Dr. Seuss trees. In its desire to populate this vast and arid landscape, the federal government enacted the Small Tract Act of 1938, designed to sell off “useless” lands not fit for cultivation. Originally inhabited by the Serrano, the area was replaced by the nomadic Southern Paiutes, Shoshone and Ute cultures known as the Chemehuevi people.
A descendent of the 1862 Homestead Act, the Small Tract Act encouraged homesteaders to purchase five-acre parcels of land for as little as $10, with an agreement that the property had to be improved within three years. By 1941, 142 land claims had been filed and by the mid-1950s tens of thousands of applications had been submitted. Improvements to the land accelerated, and hundreds of prefabricated cabins, with names like the Joshua, Mesquite, Madrone, Cactus or the Chalet were purchased and constructed for a couple thousand dollars. Today, hundreds of vacated jackrabbit homesteads still dot the landscape, their tenants long gone, the structures decomposing in the wind and sun. And like the trash, they have become the marks left by man and the government, symbols of manifest destiny.