Scout - Katherine Ball


We’re thrilled to welcome Katherine Ball to Joshua Tree as our Spring 2014 Scout!

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Katherine has spent the last two years working on projects around the world, exploring alternatives to the dominant discourse.  Some of these include: bicycling across the US to interview Americans working on small-scale solutions to the climate crisis, coordinating a national day of action to halt business at banks and corporations unduly influencing state laws, living in an off-grid floating island building mushroom filters to clean a polluted lake, and studying the behaviors of various species acting as the ecological counterpart to civil disobedience. An amateur in the best sense of the word, Katherine strives to give more energy to our dreams than our fears. 

Check back often to see what Katherine is up to!  You can email her at:

Learn more about the Scout Residency.

28.4.14 — Part 3 — The desert tortoise, large-scale solar, and future plans for the Mojave Desert


We Use the Term “Renewable” Loosely

By Kelly Herbinson

            At noon we eat lunch from paper sacks and tell stories, kicking dust from our boots as they hang off the edge of a tailgate.  We look like one of those old photos of construction workers sitting on a steel beam in a New York skyscraper.  It’s as though nothing has changed since then except now some of us are there to walk around and make sure no sensitive species get killed during construction.  The laborers and linemen and equipment operators are from Missouri and Georgia and Wisconsin.  They talk about the big mossy shade trees back home and flick their hands in disappointment at the low-lying desert shrubs that look scraggly and browned from drought, fanning out around us for miles.  I feel embarrassed and protective of the shrubs, like they’re my awkward-aged children.

“They get much more green in the spring,” I say. 

            You know what I like most?  If you bulldoze a creosote bush, I mean completely annihilate it, cover it in dirt and pack it down, if a single branch remains above ground, the shrub will survive.  The leaves on the jutting branch will turn green after a rain and they will dance around in the wind like it’s no big deal, like the rest of it’s body isn’t dead and decomposing beneath the surface.  Creosote shrubs have this incredible way of reproducing that involves sprouting clones of themselves from their roots.  After many generations the clones form giant creosote rings, ancient shrubby crowns topping the landscape.  Some creosote clone rings can be thousands of years old.  The King Clone, the largest and oldest known creosote ring in the Mojave, is over 60 feet in diameter and is thought to be more than 11,000 years old.  It is likely the oldest living organism in the Mojave.  Maybe when you’re that old you just refuse to go very easily?  Or maybe when something is that old the universe just can’t bear to see it obliterated in a microsecond by a bulldozer.

            I don’t do this type of work very often.  My job used to be mostly research-based and funded by federal agency research money.  The desert tortoise was listed as threatened by the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1980 after major declines were recorded.  In the 1990’s some populations of tortoises declined by as much as 90%.  It’s difficult to get an official count of tortoises across their entire range, but researchers are currently working to figure out if numbers have stabilized or not since the decline in the 1990s.  There’s no simple answer as to why this decline was (and may still be) happening, but it appears to be a combination of habitat loss, disease and the encroachment of humans into desert communities which causes increases in things like off-road vehicles, feral dogs and ravens, which all kill tortoises in startling numbers.  There was a band of forty or so of us desert tortoise biologists who would travel all over, walking the California deserts calculating desert tortoise abundance in to see how the species’ numbers were doing in specific areas.  We would give them health assessments to determine if they were suffering from a disease that appeared to be killing them in droves.  We’d conduct behavioral and foraging studies; we’d affix radio transmitters to their shells and track them over time to learn where they go and what they do.  We were helping federal agencies and researchers figure out why the tortoises were dying off so fast and what we could do to turn those trends around.  Then, in 2006, the state of California passed a bill mandating that 33% of the state’s utility-scale energy come from renewable resources by 2020.  That’s when everything changed. 

            Over one quarter of the California desert was earmarked for solar and wind energy development. Federal agencies reduced funding for certain types of desert tortoise research and my job as a desert tortoise consultant shifted from working as a researcher to working as a facilitator of energy development.   In the last few years, hundreds of people have been trained to survey for desert tortoise for solar and wind development.  Now we sweep the desert en masse moving the animals out of harm’s way and outside of project footprints. The federal agencies scramble to come up with plans for development that would manage to facilitate the growth of renewable energy, but not impact the recovery of local sensitive species, the desert tortoise being the highest profile of the bunch.  And right now, we, the consultants, federal and state agencies and solar companies, are scrambling to build these facilities and somehow minimize the impact to this terribly misunderstood place.  The desert. 

            Unfortunately just the word, “desert,” connotes an absence.  But that’s not the case at all.  It just appears that way if you don’t look closely. Having grown up on the coast of southern California, I occasionally drove through the desert, usually on the way to Las Vegas.  I never thought much about it, and certainly never sought it out.  I had the beach and the mountains, after all.  The desert was not even on my list of potential destinations.  When I landed my first desert tortoise job out of college I was summoned to Barstow, California, where I sat on the curb in front of an old broken down motel and cried at the overwhelming feeling of desolation.  Barstow is an appropriate storefront for the desolate reputation of the Mojave Desert.  A town built on Route 66, it boomed in the 1950’s and busted soon after.  Now it’s rundown motels still flickering their neon signs, arrows pointing towards dirt lots.  An old train depot is filled with fluorescent-lit tchotchke shops enticing passers-through to buy Las Vegas themed key chains, mini slot machines baubles and cheaply made t-shirts.  A nearly undetectable community of locals run antique shops or attend the cosmetology school downtown. 

            I showed up for my first day of desert work at the site of a massive natural gas pipeline installation.  My job was to walk around looking for tortoises and their burrows. When I encountered my first wild tortoise sitting on the mound of her burrow blinking back at me, I realized that there are still dinosaurs roaming the Earth.  I’d never really thought about it before then, but tortoises have been around for millions of years and they’re still here with their armored shells and scaled legs and marked deliberation.  Adult tortoises are about a foot long and they spend most of their time underground in half-moon shaped burrows.  They come out in the spring and fall to mate and to eat plants growing after winter and summer rains.  They’re much more aggressive then I thought they’d be, the males have a startlingly high testosterone level and they spend a lot of their time looking for other tortoises.  If they find a female, they’ll bob their heads and bite and ram them with their shells for a while before mounting and mating with them.  If they find another male they’ll challenge them to a fight using protruding parts of their shell under their chins called gulars, which they use to get enough leverage to flip the other tortoise over.  They’ll fight brutally until one runs away or is overturned.  And, yes, they do actually run.  This whole process helps the community of tortoises establish a complex social hierarchy.   Tortoises have been in what is currently called the United States for millions of years, persevering through all kinds of planetary woes.  But unfortunately the ability of the tortoise to thrive in what some ecologists are deeming the Anthropocene –an informal geologic era defined by the impact of human activity on global ecosystems-, will be its most challenging feat.

            Although I’m endlessly worried about the future of the desert tortoise, they’re demise is not my biggest concern.  At least the tortoise is protected.  There are people whose job it is to walk around and account for every individual tortoise during construction.  There are pre-construction surveys to calculate the density of tortoises in the area, and then the tortoises that are displaced are radio-tracked after construction to make sure they survive the aftermath (or don’t survive, for that matter.)  Despite the fact that we know relatively little about the desert tortoise, at least they’re being looked after.            What really frightens me – what really keeps me up at night – is the potential impact of development in the Mojave to all of the things we don’t know about.  Things like the plant and insect species that are still yet to be discovered and described, or things that we know exist but don’t know enough about (or aren’t charismatic and “sexy” enough) to warrant any kind of legal concern.  That’s perhaps the crux of the issue with current environmental law.  The Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the Migratory Bird Act are the main pieces of legislation that dictate what is protected at a federal level.  The problem is that most desert species are relatively unstudied.  If we do not have concrete scientific evidence that a species is sensitive or declining, it is not protected.  Although lots of scientists focus their efforts on desert species or ecosystems the amount of research that would need to be done to properly document the state of every desert species is impossible with the small amount of funding available for such endeavors. 

            One particularly magical amalgam of understudied organisms doesn’t sound so magical.  They’re called biological soil crusts.  Biological soil crusts are clusters of tiny living organisms that form on the surface of just about every square foot of desert soil.   They’re pretty important ecologically and they (like most sensitive species including the tortoise) take forever to grow.  Soil crusts are mostly composed of cyanobacteria, and sometimes lichens, fungus and moss.  When they’re older you can see them.  They look like crusty black clusters sometimes forming little pinnacles on the ground.  In some areas green moss grows on the soil crusts.  It looks black and moldy when it’s dry, which is most of the time, but when it rains it instantly transforms into a lush, bright green moss unfurling tiny filaments that reach toward the sun.  You wouldn’t ever notice it unless you were looking closely at the ground during a rain.  What we do know is that those soil crusts perform many important functions. They absorb nitrogen in the air and convert it to something usable by the soil. They prevent soil erosion and help plants absorb the nutrients they need to survive.  They’re basically a building block for life in the desert—the life upon which other desert life is built.  No one knows what would happen, or, what will happen, when they are destroyed.  Right now, as I write this, tens of thousands of acres of desert are being or have been destroyed, including the soil crusts that reside upon them. 

            A few weeks ago I walked around a bulldozed swath of desert looking for a tortoise I had moved away from the area, making sure it hadn’t decided to try to find its old home.  I didn’t find the tortoise, but I did find several colonies of ants.  Even after their mounds had been bladed over and packed down, even after several trucks had passed through loading and unloading troops of construction workers, even after a storm passed through causing the soil to swell, wash away and harden, a single ant poked out of the ground.  She walked in frenetic circles and then was followed by her sisters, thick red arteries of ants emerging from deep underground. They swirled around the bare ground waving their antennae maniacally trying to get bearings on their new surroundings.  We couldn’t see it, but they were moving one grain of sand at a time all day and all night for days trying to make it to the surface, cleaning out the wreckage of their den.  That’s why their colonies can go thirty feet under ground—so that when the rains come they can just close their doors and hunker down and wait until the storm passes before digging their way back out. I wonder if they think the bulldozers are just big hurricanes.  Giant storms passing over their homes. 

            The desert keeps its animals underground; it holds them like secrets.  They are equal parts vulnerable and invincible.  The ants and the creosote have evolved ways to persevere through devastation, but most of the vertebrates, the tortoise and the kit fox, the coyotes and the kangaroo rats, the lizards and snakes, can’t withstand the impact of such a wide scale disturbance.  Unlike the creosote or the ant colonies, if you run over a tortoise, it just dies.  I don’t know what will happen when this is over and the desert has been reduced to islands of land connected loosely by wildlife corridors.  The world won’t end.  The majority of the planet won’t even notice.  But it seems a shame and a bit reckless that we are destroying one of the last frontiers of wilderness in the United States before we even know all of its secrets.

            It’s important to think about these issues from both the perspective of the soil crusts and the ants all the way up to the Earth on a global scale.  I, like most folks, am supportive of the pursuit for renewable energy.  I’m inspired to see so many people working and dreaming up ways to live sustainably.  So far, however, I don’t think we’ve quite found the answer for utility-scale energy.  Mine is just one perspective, the way it looks from the ground, from a biologist’s point of view.  There are many more pieces of the puzzle that I don’t know enough about to speak to.  Things like the intricacies of solar power, which types are more productive, whether or not rooftop solar is a viable option for utility-scale energy and the details of how environmental legislation may or may not be able to guide this onslaught of development.  I do know that when you boil it all down it reduces to a complicated values question.  Which is more valuable to you?  The preservation of the Mojave Desert?  Or the “renewable” production of 1/3 of California’s energy? 

            There’s really only one way out of having to make that decision, although it may be too late.  It would be to focus more on designing innovative means of streamlining and conserving electricity, seek ways to become more efficient and use less power, rather than focusing on ways to produce and consume more.   It’s a tact we as a planet have not tried in earnest yet, but it may be the only truly sustainable path forward. 


28.4.14 — Part 2 —The desert tortoise, large-scale solar, and future plans for the Mojave Desert


Interview with Kelly Herbinson: Desert Tortoise Researcher

K: Can you describe what you do as a biologist?

Kelly: My day to day has changed a lot. I started twelve years ago as a consultant doing tortoise work. I would get hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to do surveys. Part of what is good to do if you have an endangered species is count them every year. So, part of what we would do go survey for tortoises every year to get that count. Or the government would fund some sort of disease research to figure out where these pockets of disease are. We would radio track tortoises to see what kind of movement patterns they had. I had one job working for USGS where I just sat and watched a single tortoise from sunrise to sunset for weeks at a time and wrote down what it did all day. It was a behavioral study on what tortoises do. It was the greatest job. I was in the field, doing surveys and learning about them. It was research. Once in a while there would be a gas company that needed repair, so I would work with the gas company. I would go out with their crew and make sure they were not harming the tortoise when they were repairing the gas line.  I worked on a railroad expansion once where I had to go out with the construction crew and make sure they weren't hurting tortoises when they were expanding. 

When the solar thing came down the pipeline, all of a sudden everything changed. All of the work that exists now is solar related. Initially that means doing surveys on the site to see how many tortoises there are. So we will all walk in these big lines searching for tortoises and count how many we will find. Then use that in a formula to figure out how big the abundance is. Depending on that number the solar company will decide to do it or not. Then they work though this big process with the BLM to get permitted. Then we have to clear the area of all the tortoises. Move them and translocate them out of the area. Then the company will do construction and we have to monitor the construction. We have to walk in front of the bulldozer and make sure we didn't miss any tortoises. 

Some how the government has lost funding for that research we used to have to do. It doesn't really get funded too much anymore. The abundance sampling still happens but it is really minimal. It is kind of a weird time. There is not as much research and there is all of the solar. On the other hand, the solar companies are having to fund these big monitoring projects where we are doing research on the animals that are being moved. So we are still doing the disease testing, monitoring their movements, we put radio transmitters on them and track them. We compare the animals that we have moved versus a control group to see if translocated animals move more and if they are more prone to disease if they move more. That is now the bid site for research: Looking at the effects of translocation on the tortoise. So, a lot of what I do is that kind of research.

K: Have you seen anything specific happening with the translocation?

Kelly: The only thing we know that has really been published is—this is pretty obvious—animals that are translocated spend more time above ground initially than animals that haven't. Typically tortoises spend 90% of their time underground. There are a few reasons why: For thermoregulation. They are reptiles so they don't get too hot or too cold. Also to avoid predators, like coyotes and ravens. So if animals get moved and they don't have their cover sites and they are all freaked out because they are in this new place and they don't go underground, what we are trying to figure out is: 1. Are they more prone to predation because they are above ground? 2. Are they more prone to getting this disease because they are not able to thermoregulate themselves or are exposed to more stuff? All of that is being tested right now. It is all pretty new. 

K: I would be really curious to hear about what is happening with the tortoise and how it is being affected by the military and large scale solar. 

Kelly: Let me give you some background first. The tortoise was listed as threatened about 1990. Partly because of a woman named Kristin Barry who works for USGS started doing long term study plots all over the desert studying the tortoise. In some of her plots, she started finding the numbers of tortoise were declining by about 90%. Huge massive die offs all of a sudden. She was finding areas with a lot of disease. The tortoises are suffering from a respiratory illness. We are not quite sure where it came from and it seems it just started in the 1980s. It is called mycoplasma. It is sort of like a hybrid between a bacteria and a virus. That disease has swept through the population and in certain areas has killed off entire populations. It is not super prevalent out here in this part of the Mojave Desert. It is really prevalent in captive animals and pets. We actually think it came from people bringing animals into their homes and exposing them to the bacteria. It probably came from humans or dogs or something like that. 

K: When pet tortoises get released?

Kelly: People often lose them. It is so funny: You talk to people out here and almost everyone is like, "Oh, I have a tortoise." It is this really common thing because they are so long lived. In captivity you can keep a tortoise alive for 100 years. In the wild, 60-70 years is probably typical but no one really knows. In fact, I had a pet tortoise when I was young. I grew up on the coast and there was a tortoise walking down the street one day in the suburbs in Orange County. We took it in and called Fish and Wildlife. They said, "Whatever you do, don't let it back in the wild. Just keep it as a pet." So we kept it. Our tortoise got out because they burrow. It just went under the fence and we could never find it again. So that happens up here: people have them, they keep them, they get sick, then they burrow under and get into the wild population, and then it is all over. So that is one of the big issues, but there is a million things threatening the tortoise. Another issue is ravens, which are native to this area, but subsidized by humans: they like trash and water—and they are real smart—and they love to eat baby tortoises. We will find raven nests with a 100 dead tortoise shells in them. They are just eating tortoises like snacks. Raven numbers are astronomically high compared to what they are naturally. Off-roading is a big issue in certain areas. People run tortoises over and that kind of thing. 

But I would say the number one threat—and I would say this is true for every endangered species—is habitat loss. People come out to the desert and are like, "There is so much space! It is just all open." But so much of it has been built. Towns come in and there are these buffers and all of a sudden the habitat has been destroyed. And then there are these offroading areas were the habitat has been essentially destroyed. And now what is happening: About in 2006, the State of California ruled a third of its electricity should come from renewable resources. I believe they originally said by 2014, and it keeps getting pushed back, now it is 2020. So, all of a sudden there was this big land grab for places to put solar and wind development. The desert, which used to be inhospitable to humans because there is no water and it is so hot, has suddenly become attractive for that same reason. The solar radiation levels are really high; that is why it is a desert. So, it is really attractive for solar companies. Some ridiculous amount of desert is proposed for solar right now—almost the majority of it—in some way or another. 

I should mention, about 1/4 of the Mojave Desert is military bases. Which is interesting because in a way they kind of function as preserves. They are used for a lot of things, but most of them are just empty and no one can access them. So, they are kind of good and kind of bad. The private land is, I don't know exactly what percentage, maybe 10% of the Mojave. Most of the land out here is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which is our public lands, that we can do anything on—literally anything—you can graze cattle, you can mine, you can camp for free, and you can lease it to put solar panels on it. Most of the BLM land out here has been looked at for solar or wind. They need certain things: they need flat areas that are close to transmission lines, they need water. So a lot of these solar plants have broken ground and been installed and it is all starting to happen. Unfortunately, the only way to stop a project like that from happening is if you can prove that it will cause the extinction of the tortoise. Essentially the tortoise is the only thing stopping anything from happening. If there wasn't a tortoise, these projects would just go.

The endangered species act is interesting because we have the tortoise listed, it is really putting a wrench in these guys games. Even though it is costing these guys heaps of money, it is like a drop in the bucket for them. They will spend tens of millions of dollars on tortoise mitigation, but they are standing to make billions so it doesn't matter. 

We are in this weird time where it is like, "Oh god. How much of the desert is really going to get developed?" No one is really sure, but luckily because none of these single projects. You can't prove because a single project is going to cause the extinction of the tortoise species, so it won't stop the project. But somebody said, "We'll you shouldn't be looking at every individual project and its effect on the tortoise, we should be looking at the collective projects. Making sure that the cumulative impact of all of these solar projects aren't causing the extinction of the species. So the BLM put a halt to permitting projects and now the DRECP (Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan) is still being hashed out. What they are going to do is decide on some area of the desert that they will ok to fast track solar on. (Approximately 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land are in the DRECP Plan Area.)

K: How do you feel about this shift between analyzing the effects individually verses collectively?

Kelly: I think it is a great idea conceptually. It's not fair to say that this individual project is not doing anything, this project is not doing anything, and this project is not doing anything—but what about all of them together? When I first heard about it, I was like, "That's great. How smart of them. What a great idea. I can't believe it." But it is complex. There is a lot of politics involved. They are still deciding on this pretty massive area to fast track solar on—I think they are picking out 2 million acres. They are like, "We are going to avoid tortoise critical habitat. We are going to avoid this town's viewshed." Everyone has something to say about where they think it should go, but it is going to be a massive area that they are going to basically fast track renewable energy on. It is great that they are thinking about it as one big piece instead of individual projects, but it is still messed up. It is going to be a massive development. 

K: What is wrong with massive developments?

Kelly: That is a really fun, philosophical question. Why is it bad to develop the desert for renewable energy? I actually just wrote a big essay about that exactly. I personally believe that the wilderness has an inherent right to exist. So there is a couple things going on. That is my opinion. Other people don't share that opinion. I think it is important we are creating renewable energy, but what is happening is because of capitalism, they are not actually creating energy in the most efficient way possible—they are doing it the cheapest way possible. It is frustrating to watch them be like, "Okay. We can lease this land from BLM for pretty cheap and just bulldoze it and put in these panels and that is cheaper than thinking about a way that we can create this energy in already developed areas." 

They don't want to fund rooftop solar because then they are empowering individual homeowners or businesses. Everyone is always like, "Why don't they just do it on rooftops?" It is a complicated question. I have worked for a lot of these solar companies and I am always asking them, "Can't you do it somewhere else? Can't we both be happy here? You can save $50 million dollars by not bulldozing the desert and just do something good that is more efficient for the planet for once." We all know capitalism does not go hand-in-hand with preserving the environment. That is the history of America. It has always been like that. Every time we are trying to produce and create and consume things, it is never cooperative with how the environment works. 

The third of the power that has to come from renewables is utility scale electricity—so that is different than people putting power on their rooftops and being able to do it themselves. This is like: large scale, we have to produce so much power, for some reason you have to put it all in one area. I think the problem is the technology is just not there yet. I think it probably will be in a couple decades. but we are pushing it a little too early and what is happening is we are like, "Well, it is cheap and easy to just do it out here in the desert." and then like 50 years we will be like, "Oh my god, I can't believe we did that. We just completely annihilated the desert permanently. Now we have figured this thing out where we don't have to do that. We can just build it over freeways or over parking lots or over the aqueduct. Oh there is this issue with the aqueduct in California where all of the water is evaporating out of it. Why don't we put solar panels over it—and that would solve those problems!" I don't get it. Why don't they do that? 

If they develop millions of acres of the desert I don't know what will happen ecologically. It might not do anything. But chances are it will cause a pretty significant decline in the tortoise even if it is not in critical habitat. And that is another question: So what? So what if the tortoise goes extinct? Frankly, if the tortoise went extinct it probably wouldn't cause a huge ecological succession. They are not like top carnivores or anything. To me, it is just sad. Every species of animal has the right to exist. It shouldn't be ok with the human species to just destroy other species to consume more electricity. That's my opinion, other people don't share it. (Laughter)

K: Who do you find doesn't share your opinion?

Kelly: That is a good question. Certainly, even a lot of people who live out here. I think the desert faces a bit of a reputation problem. A lot of people call it a wasteland. Just the word "desert" has certain connotations to it. They think nothing lives out here and everything is just dead and what is the point of it. I certainly have talked to many, many people—including people that have lived here—that are like, "This place should be all solar panels. What a great thing that would be if we could just supply all the power for the state of California." It is this interesting thing where I am like, "Huh. I disagree. I think it is pretty important." The southwest is a unique area in North America and it is worth preserving. But, then look at the East Coast. Most of it is developed. There are not big continuous pieces of land anymore. And what's the big deal? Everything is fine, right? It all works. (Laughter) But, hey there were a lot of species that we didn't know ever existed that are gone now. It is my perspective that that is sad and, I don't know, I am having a hard time finding the right words. 

K: It sucks. 


Kelly: It just sucks.

K: One other way I have been thinking about it is if we don't annihilate the desert with solar and wind, then climate change is going to happen in a mass scale and these species are going to die anyway. What is your response to that?

Kelly: I think that's bullshit. This is the interesting thing: We keep thinking, "We need to create green energy. We need to create more energy." Why don't we put all of our research and development into thinking about how to consume less energy? Why don't we do that? Why don't we take all of these things we use that are taking energy and figure out ways to make them more efficient—that would help fix the problem. I wish we could focus all of our energy that way instead of thinking about more ways to create it. Because, why should we be able to just use as much as we want?

We have this big issue where no one has figured out how to reinvent the battery. We have essentially the same technology with storing energy. You can't really do it, you can't really store energy. We know there is so much energy around us all the time from the sun, from the wind, and there are all of these ways we could harness it—but we can't store it. The only way these solar plants can figure out how to do it is to shove it directly into the transmission lines and get it into the system. But, if we had a better way of storing it that is better than the current battery technology, we would be way better off. It is easier to produce something you can sell, than it is to try to create things that don't need to consume as much, because of the way that America works and the world works—certainly in capitalist countries of which we are one. That is how business works. You create something that produces something to sell. 

And things have gotten more efficient. It is kind of incredible. I just bought new appliances for my house and compared to what they were even 20 years ago, they are so incredible in terms of energy consumption. But it is not really home use that uses most of the energy. It is major corporations and factories and that kind of thing.

K: What do you think about ethical consumerism?

Kelly: What do you mean?

K: Like, I vote with my dollar when I buy some eco-friendly green thing.

Kelly: I think that is a great idea but, honestly, I think we are in a situation where things are going to get real bad, real fast. Just by choosing good products, it will take a really long time to get anything to change. In our generation things are going get really bad. It is already getting bad, it is just you don't see it so easily. Climate change is already happening and it is causing all of these issues and getting exponentially worse every year. I am a biologist and I have to drive a big four wheel pickup truck to work out in the field. These trucks don't exist in any kind of efficient form. I would pay a lot of money if someone built some kind of efficient truck, but it doesn't exist. Even though we are making slightly more efficient things and people are using less plastic, it is great but it is not enough—it is not even close to enough. 

K: What do you think needs to happen?

Kelly: Well, a lot of things. Education is a big issue. Every time I talk to someone about what is happening in the desert, and I am like, "Hey, look at this species of ant. It's incredible. It does all these really cool things." And they are like, "Wow!" I tell people about their life cycles and people come up to me afterwards and say, "I will never kill another ant again after you explained that to me." That is what it is: if people get what is happening out here. This is an incredible, complex ecosystem, that is doing all of these amazing things. This desert is fixing carbon and nitrogen and is a really important part of the air and soil cycle and is actually really important for us to survive. People don't realize that. We actually rely on the ecosystem to function properly for us to survive. It is easy to get disconnected from that. In my ideal world, if everybody knew, if everyone understood how ecology worked and understood more than trees produce oxygen—which is good that a lot of people understand that—and had more understanding that bees are pretty important and these types of things. I have faith that people would try harder, be more thoughtful.

Our country is so fascinating right now because somehow the environment became a political platform. So people that subscribe to a certain political party, you just get what their environmental platform is. It is so fascinating…Oooh! Wow! (Looking up)

K: Is it an eagle?

Kelly: No, it is a red-tail hawk being chased by two ravens. The red-tail ate the raven babies I bet, or the ravens ate the red-tail's babies. 

Hawk: (Soaring and filling the sky with its call)

Kelly: I hope it was the red-tail eating the raven babies! (Laughter) See! See! It is so important.

K: Wow. The red-tail has been flying for about an 1/8th of a mile and hasn't even flapped its wings.

Hawk: (Flies around mountain and out of site)

Kelly: Despite all of this I am a very optimistic person. I have faith that people inherently want to do the right thing. I think most people want to do what is best. Even these solar companies. I have worked with them and talked with them and they genuinely want to do what is best. They are like, "What can we do to try and make this work? What do you need and maybe we can work something out?" They have been surprisingly great. The interesting thing is that the solar companies think they are doing a good thing for the planet. They think, "We are producing green energy. What is your problem? Why are you guys complaining?" And it is like, "Well, you are producing green energy but you are doing it in this wildly inefficient way." These solar plants take a ton of water, a ton of natural gas, a ton of oil to create with a ton of construction workers and all the construction with  a ton of materials that were shipped here from China. If you really boil it down it, it is not all that great for the environment. For the footprint, they are not creating that much power. But they want to and I think they think they are. I don't think most people are like, "I don't give a shit about the desert. I think it should be destroyed just to be destroyed." I think people connect to places. It is hard enough to connect the people that live here to this place, let alone people that live anywhere else. Just like I don't know anything about Vermont and I don't feel connected to that landscape because I don't know it. 

K: You were saying earlier that we depend on this ecosystem of the desert to survive. What would happen if the majority of the desert was covered in solar panels? 

Kelly: I don't know exactly.

K: What are certain things that the plants, fauna and ecosystem do to make it so we can live here currently? Like if the plants were gone all of the soil would probably erode and there would be really big problems with flash flooding, sandstorms and things like that.

Kelly: Certainly. One of my favorite desert organisms is biological soil crusts. Have you heard of these? They are really important. We don't know very much about them at all. There are biological soil crusts blanketing the sand right here in front of us, you just don't see them built up. 

K: I have seen them in Moab, Utah. Sometimes you will see a black spot on the sand.

 Kelly: It is cyanobacteria, lichen, and moss. Those are the main things and I think there might be some other things sometimes. Basically the soil is crusted in this stuff and it is really cool. There is moss that lives in the desert! If it rains it turns bright green and spits out these huge filaments. That is how is survives: it waits for the rain, then it does everything in a couple of seconds, and then dries back up again and turns black. It is possible without that stuff none of this would work—none of the ecology would work—because the soil crust is fixing nitrogen, it is doing this huge nutrient cycle, it is involved in the carbon cycle, it is there to uptake all the nutrients in the soil for all of the plants to survive. If it wasn't there doing that and if it wasn't stabilizing the soil, then the plants wouldn't survive. If the plants wouldn't survive, then you wouldn't have oxygen. I don't know how it works, if you just got rid of all of the plants out here, if there would still be enough oxygen. There probably would be. I don't know how that works—but it just seems scary to try it! 

But then, look at Europe. Most of Europe is developed. And its fine, right? I always think about that. Most of these huge old places were developed so long ago and there is very little big pieces of open space left and it is fine. Of course it is super green there. 

But this place just functions so differently. I don't know what would happen if the majority of the desert was covered in solar panels. People always ask me, "Why is it important? Why is the tortoise important?" I don't even want to have to answer that question. It is just really irresponsible to us to think that we should be able to destroy it. So that we can power our computer more, or whatever. It just seems irresponsible to me. Why should we have the right to destroy life so that we can have more stuff? I don't think that is right. Let's just assume that none of this matters. That if it all went away nothing would change. I don't think we should fight for it because it is serving humans. I think we should fight for it because it deserves to be here, because it was here long before we were. 

There is that debate of valuing nature for the intrinsic values or the commodity of it. There has been this big thing about ecosystem services, a a kind of movement by some ecologist to quantify how much money the ecology was saving us by quantifying the ecosystem services. At first I was like, "That is so great! Look people: nature is actually procuring important services for us that we take for granted is for free. The bees are worth like 80 billion dollars because they are pollinating our food. The wash is worth so much money because it is delivering water to our aqueduct." But on the flip side, I kind of think it is a terrible way to look at it because Then all you are doing is quantifying how nature is serving humans, which I think can lead to some tricky ways to think about nature. I sort of prefer to think about it as being worthless to us in terms of a commodity and that we shouldn't have the right to destroy something. 

K: What about the military and its effect on the ecosystem? You are in the process of quitting working for the Marine base out here, right? Isn't it the largest Marine base in the US? 

Kelly: I know it is the largest Marine base in North America—or it is going to be once its expansion finishes. The 29 Palms Marine Corps Base is about to expand about 150,000 acres. (It is 596,000 square acres right now, which is equivalent to 932 square miles. 150,000 acres is 234 square miles.) It is expanding into an area that is an interesting environmental conundrum. It is called Johnson Valley. There is some really good tortoise habitat there. None of it is critical habitat. When you list a species you designate critical habitat. You can pretty much not develop in critical habitat anymore. So all of the solar cannot go into critical habitat. Same with the Marine Corps base, it cannot expand into critical habitat, or at least they didn't and I have a feeling they couldn't have. Anyways, there is some really good pockets of of tortoises in there, really high density, but it is a really popular Off-Highway Vehicle area. It is popular with people with their motorcycles, ATVs and dune buggies to go wild out there. To camp and there are races. It has kind of been a rough place for the tortoise anyways. So when we heard about the expansion a lot of people were like, "Well maybe that is good because it is going to force out the off-roading. And if the military doesn't use most of it then it is actually going to do more good than harm." That was sort of the camp I was in. 

In fact, the Off-Highway Vehicle people have a pretty strong pull with the military. They were very upset about it and they actually managed to negotiate with the military to give them access to a third of the expansion area for ten months out of the year. Now it seems what the military is actually going to do in the expansion area is going to be quite a bit more impactful than I think we were all hoping for. Even though a good chunk of it won't be used very much and it will essentially be preserving pockets of tortoise, a much larger chunk will be used very rarely but it will be used in a way that will cause a pretty negative impact on the tortoise. 

K: What kind of things will it be used for? 

Kelly: Just military training.

K: Which means what exactly?

Kelly: To be honest, I don't even know. To sympathize with the military: they have to practice. This is the base where every marine who goes to Afghanistan has to train at this base first. So this is where these kids have a chance to learn how to do what they are going to do in the Middle East. They are practicing traversing large areas, encountering different objectives, some of it is on the ground, some of it is in the air. I frankly don't know too much more detail.

K: Do they drop bombs and shoot missiles?

Kelly: Yep.

K: Do you have an idea about how dropping a bomb or a missile effects the tortoise and the other species that live in that area? 

Kelly: I am sure someone has research that but I haven't. Obviously if an animal is impacted by something it will die. 

K: But just the sound and the scariness and…I am also wondering what is happening not just in the military base, but in other places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and where there are drone strikes and things like that. What the effect is on the ecosystems there. 

Kelly: I bet people have studied it. I will have to look it up, it is interesting. Even just the highway. I always think about this: How devastated we would all be when they put in this highway. It is essentially cutting this ecosystem in half. It is a huge geographic barrier tortoises can't cross. The ones that are here are here, and the ones that are there are there. And it's loud and there are a lot of vibrations. We don't even really think about that anymore. But if it was happening now, I would be flipping out about it. 

K: What about all the roads and transmission lines and different infrastructure that has to support the solar fields—

Kelly: Oh, there's is a quail! I just saw my first quail babies the other day. They are so cute. (Laughter) On the projects that I have worked on the roads that get put in are just little dirt roads. Aside from opening up the possibility of a tortoise getting run over, they are not really doing a whole lot. Usually they will use existing roads that have already been cut. A lot of the projects will have to mitigate by tortoise fencing certain roads. That is not a huge issue to me. Most of the plants will locate themselves at an existing transmission line so they don't have to create a transmission line or they will just have to tie into one. If they built one where they had to build a huge substation that would probably be nuts. 

K: What about with wind power?

Kelly: I have never worked on wind project and I don't know much about it, to be honest. I was just at a big wildlife symposium and I learned those wind turbines kill an astronomical numbers of birds and raptors. I had no idea. There is the Migratory Bird Act. I don't get why we can even build them if we know that it will kill migratory birds. All migratory birds are protected. 

K: What is it like to be working for the solar companies?

Kelly: I studied ecology and specifically desert ecology because I care about it and I love it. I am very invested in the tortoise and the ecology of this place. I had this career studying them and then all of a sudden all of the work that exists is working for the solar companies and working for the military. These jobs that are doing all these things that I don't agree with. It is hard because they need really experienced people to do the research. But sometimes I feel like I am facilitating these projects happening. I have certainly quit a couple times, but this is what I know and this is what I do. I also feel like by doing it I am doing the best job that can be done to make sure these translocations happen in the way that is the best for the tortoise and is minimizing the impact on the tortoise. But it is really hard. I cry at work a lot. I am constantly fighting with the agencies and fighting with the companies. Trying to get these things go be as minimally impacting the tortoise as possible. It is hard. There are certainly times where I am like, "I am done. I am going to go become a waitress cause I can't do this anymore." It is certainly a conundrum. I left to do the military thing to get away from solar, but I also feel like it is sad to not be there in a way and feel like I am helping to make things better. I don't know. It is a complicated situation.

K: I feel similar as an artist because I work for a lot of institutions that are funded by the fossil fuel industry and I also fly a lot to do different things.

Kelly: I am also on the board to the Mojave Desert Land Trust and I donate a lot of money and time to them to try and attack it from this other angle and that feels really good. I am trying to get this research initiative funded to try and completely separate myself. I want to set up long term ecology study plots that are half research and half education. So, I can make them open to kids to come out and help me collect data and get the community involved. But I don't know if it will happen. 

Related links:

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

29 Palms Marine Base

Major Solar Plants in the USA

Ivanpah Solar Plant, Nipon, CA

Mojave Desert Land Trust

Part V — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting

Jill Giegerich, Permaculture designer and co-catalyst of the TJT Permaculture Group

V. Interview with Jill Giegerich

Jill and I pulled out of the driveway and onto the dirt road, cutting through the night, staring at the city lights kicking out the ladder to dark matter, and talking about ecological approaches to predicament we are in.

K: What is the overall idea with the Transition Town movement? 

J: It’s a global grassroots, community building organization that helps the community transition through peak oil, climate change and economic crisis—which Transition sees as completely intertwined. The situation it came out of was a class in Ireland that Rob Hopkins ran. He is a permaculturist. Permaculture is the underpinning of what we are attempting to transition to: creating a regenerative paradigm instead of an extractive one.

K: What is your analysis about capitalism?

J: (Laughter) It hasn’t worked very well. In its current form it is an extractive endeavor. It uses up resources and is very short sighted. 

K: Does the Transition Movement try to work within capitalism or in a different system?

J: There is a lot of discussion about economy because an important part of Transition is building a resilient local economy as the current economy collapses. The current economy is having a little bit of regeneration right now due to the bump up from the ecologically devastating tar sands and shale oil extraction process, but if you follow peak oil and really research it, then you see that the entire economy is driven by oil and we are reaching its end. Peak oil is the point at which the easy sources of oil are exhausted and the extraction becomes less and less economically viable. Something has to happen as we come over the curb of peak oil. Transition is such a grassroots, localized idea, because every ecosystem is different, every economy needs to be different as well, so I don’t think there is a one size fits all. In this town, in this place, what kind of economy can become a resilient one? What kind of economy can we have if food is no longer trucked in? If peak oil destroys the ability to import food into this area, what kind of economy can we build? There is a lot of talk within Transition about bartering, bit coins—all different kinds of ways of building resilience economically. 

K: Why are you out here in the desert trying this?

J: Because I like a challenge. (Laughter) We have all thought a lot about that. 

K: This is one of the driest places in the United States, right? 2-4 inches of rain per year?

J: It’s dry enough. I have a lot of thoughts about that. One being that the amount of population here cannot be sustained if the general economy collapses and peak oil hits. If you look to the indigenous cultures that were here before, they were very small groups and they were located around a few ground-level water sources, the oases that were here, which are dropping.

K: Does the dropping have to do with the fact that people have been taking so much water out? I read that between the 1950s and 1990s the water table dropped 35 feet. 

J: Yes, we are overdrafting our aquifers. It is an ongoing ethical problem for me—whether we should be here or not. The Southwest is running out of water. Climate change is also having an impact: as the mountain snow packs diminish so does the water recharge source for the aquifers. On the other hand, the things we are learning here and the systems we are putting into place: these are going to benefit the entire world. This water issue and climate change, these are going to affect everyone. I feel like I am on the cutting edge of permaculture here and that really interests me. 

K: Earlier, we were talking you said when you came out here you re-evaluated everything. How did you come to this conclusion of stopping your traditional art practice and instead working on permaculture? 

J: It just kind of happened. I still had some shows when I was up here and had a gallery in LA, but I just found myself more and more unable to get any satisfaction out of standing in front of a canvas and painting on it. There is an urgency building and I can’t justify doing that right now. It doesn’t mean I will never paint again, but I have bigger ambitions than that, in a way. To me, a collaboration with nature, working with my community and being part of a regenerative process is the deepest satisfaction that I am experiencing right now—which used to be comparable to the kind of satisfaction I would get making a painting. I don’t get that kind of satisfaction anymore. 

K: What is this regenerative process? How does it happen within your daily life? What is the process you are working with and going through?

J: I am constantly assessing the natural systems around me. I am constantly aware of the patterns around me. I am constantly thinking, feeling and implementing my collaboration with those patterns to help generate growth. That happens in many different ways. It could be a certain kind of working with the environment to understand that a certain kind of garden should be put in, planting food producing native trees and understanding exactly how to plant them and exactly where to plant them for maximum water harvesting. That is what I mean by regeneration. It is understanding how to help things flourish by understanding patterns. That is the crossover to art making. That is why I am good at it, because I am trained as an artist to understand patterns. To take huge, wide ranging interests of mine and see that this thing over here is actually exhibiting a pattern that is similar to this thing over there and that the pattern that is flowing between them is a pattern that generates consciousness. It increases consciousness. I think that is what artists are trained to do. It is not what everybody is trained to do.

K: So what is your vision?

J: My ambition is to help make things better. To help undo the damage we’ve done. To be one of many helping undo the damage we have brought on the planet. 

K: And where does it stand now?

J: Oh, I think it is anyone’s guess. All bets are off. It may be too late and it may not. That was one of the deciding factors to me. I am not interested in living out the rest of my life in some kind of despair over what I see around me. I am going to give it my best shot. It may be too late, but just in case it is not, that seems really worthwhile. A really worthwhile human endeavor to be spending my time on this planet while I am here. 

And I really like permaculture people too. I have a great fondness for artists and I spent most of my life around them, but there is a gloom that hangs over artists that is not hanging over permaculture people. I like being around that energy.

K: Why do you think that is?

J: Because I think artists have to deal with the very corrupted art world and it is kind of soul killing. They do this thing in their studio that they probably thought was very much about the soul and then come into conflict with the world. Which, like everything in American culture, has been completely infected by money. It has caused a lot of despair for artists. Whereas permaculture people don’t have that going on. They are just growing stuff. 

Part IV — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting

The Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Group

IV. The Meeting

“You’ll have to navigate,” Jill said as she handed me the directions. 

We arrived at Hamid’s house at 5:55 for the Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Group meeting. He greeted us with the warmth of the sand, wearing a safari hat and Hawaiian shirt, standing next to a scarecrow that gave us a gaping look as it stared at us through oversized sunglasses and a mop of blue hair standing on end. I smiled back as I admired its fashion sense: a trench coat layered underneath a pair wading overalls. By the time I set my bag down in the living room where Hamid had already arranged couches and chairs in a large circle for the meeting, the group was ready to begin the tour. An agreement was made at the last meeting to be more punctual. 

Outside, we began walking down a long ramp into a greenhouse that Hamid had dug six feet into the ground to keep the temperature steady. Then, we walked through a nursery of mesquite trees and cacti. “Oh, this is a mesquite tree,” I said, realizing the tall mystery tree on Neil’s site was a mesquite. 

“You can make a flour out of the mesquite pods. They are 10% protein filled with a type of sugar that is sweet but doesn’t raise your blood sugar. Mesquite is gluten free too—so mesquite is good for people with gluten allergies and diabetes,” explained Tim Delorey, one of the founding members of the permaculture group. “You can also make a syrup by boiling the pods. I brought some mesquite bread you can try later.” The Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Group began as a project group started by Tim Delorey, Jill Giegerich, Damian Lester and Janet Tucker. Their first moves were to relay information about permaculture as fast and efficiently as possible, which included organizing a hands-on workshop on boomerang swales and designing a mesquite guild. A guild is a group of species that partition resources or create networks of mutual support. The mesquite guild (#4 on this link) is made up of a mesquite tree underplanted with banana yucca, prickly pear, chuperosa, turpentine bush, four wing saltbush, western mugwort, and wolfberry. 

As we approached Hamid’s orchard, Janet pointed out the birds of paradise, “A lot of people think they are just weeds, but they are beautiful and are nitrogen fixers too,” meaning they add nitrogen, an essential nutrient to plant growth, into the soil. Janet is a self-described “native plant nerd” and was another one of the founding members of the permaculture group. Her most recent passion is edible succulents, “It makes me feel optimistic. I was feeling a little down about our limitation.” The Mojave is the driest of the dry, getting as little as 2-4 inches of rain per year. So dry, Mojave gardeners dream about the 12-inches Tucson-area gardeners get in the Sonoran Desert. But edible succulents might be the sweet spot for edible, low-water, desert gardens.  “First, the Nopales, the edible prickly pear leaves that are available at supermarkets,” Janet elaborated, “Those plants are available now on sale at Home Depot. Their biggest drawback to me is the very tangy flavor, but I'm working on ways to tame it so that people will be more likely to use it as an everyday vegetable. They also propagate very easily. Among the Yuccas, the Yucca baccata or Banana Yucca is about 3 feet tall and wide and produces 5" long fruits on tall stems that taste like yams. This is by far the most xeric plant, as Yuccas are easily killed by too much water. Finally, the Agaves have the Century Agave and the Agave murphyii, both of which were eaten by the original inhabitants. How to process the Agave for food is a little more complex. First of all the plant has to almost flower, which happens after about 10 years! Then there is a complicated procedure ending in baking the core in the ground. Since the Century Agave gets to be 13 feet across, harvesting it was originally a guy activity! Lastly, I discovered that my Sedum Autumn Joy that I had been growing in pots for years is edible.”

In the orchard, the sun’s glow traced the veins of the leaves of white mulberry trees, danced with pollen of the pears, stroked the fuzz of the almonds, soaked the parasitic wasps protecting the apricots, and ignited my memories of the fig trees growing in the cracks of pavement in Greece. I stared at the trees, I stared at the sand, and I knotted my eyebrows. “I put Alpaca manure around them to help them grow,” Hamid demystified, “I have been thinking about putting it through a grinding wheel to get it to decompose faster.” 

The group began to discuss different variations of swales that could be used to catch and store water that sweeps by Hamid’s orchard through a wash. Also called an arroyo, a wash is a dry streambed that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after heavy rain cascade down a canyon. A swale is a broad, shallow ditch that follows the contours of the land and holds water runoff from storms. Generally, it has a mounded berm on the downhill side. Over time, swales fill up with silt and form terraces that can be planted and mulched. A junk mail swale functions as a sponge in the ground that can stay wet for months and slowly release water to nearby fruit trees. It is made by digging a 1-2 foot hole slightly uphill from a tree and filling it with junk mail, paper bags, and phone books. Then, you wet and stomp on them, add in some horse stall bedding, and finally cover them with rocks to hold in the moisture, and leave a gap for an overflow trough. On slopes steeper than 15 degrees, boomerang swales can catch, store, and pattern the flow of water. These arc-shaped berms form basins that direct water to a tree. They are dug in a net pattern, starting at the top of a slope, so each boomerang transfers the water to the next lower row of boomerangs. 

At the end of the rows of fruit and nut trees, Hamid opened the door to his well sitting next to gigantic, empty emergency water tanks. “The pH is 8.6 and the alkalinity is 120, which means it is very good water because nothing grows in it,” Hamid said over the crowing of a rooster in the nearby chicken coop. A red, yellow and black pheasant peered out of the chicken wire. 

At the end of the tour, Hamid told us about his upcoming inventions. A series of large plastic cargo crates stood like time capsules waiting to be buried. Hamid bought them from the military and had plans to turn them into a pond. Satellite dishes were stacked against his shed which he planned on turning into raised garden beds by setting them horizontally on tractor tires, filling the dishes with dirt and then running a pole through the center so he could make a teepee of netting to keep the bugs or birds out. 

After the tour was complete we went inside for the meeting, which included action items, announcements, reports, old and new business, and planning the tour, which will happen next Thursday, May 8 from 4-7pm. The tour will visit the gardens of Janet Tucker, Damian Lester, and Wolf, and is open to the public to join.   

Group discussion about building swales to catch and store water in Hamid's orchard

The wash

The pheasant and Hamid

Tim checks out the military containers that potentially will become a pond

The scarecrow


Part III — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting

White Mulberry

III. Permaculture Principles

The permaculture principles may sound like a holy grail one would find hidden in a box underneath a stone walkway in a pyramid covered in vines. When I blew the dust of ones and zeros off of the box, I opened it to find this set of principles is not set. Different permaculture designers have their own versions of the principles. Toby Hemenway argues that permaculture and its principles might be hard to define because they exist in a paradigm that is exists outside of the paradigm of domination and exploitation we are currently experiencing. As both Einstein and Buckminster Fuller said, “We will not solve the problems we face today with the same thinking that got us into them.” I paged through different sets of principles and pulled together the ones that resonated the most with my internal ecosystem and categorized them into six themes.


Some Possible Principles of Permaculture

— Pattern Literacy — 

To create a design that responds to the site, first observe the context. Over multiple seasons, observe the climate, landform, water, legal issues, access & circulation, vegetation & wildlife, microclimate, buildings & infrastructure, zones of use, soil, and aesthetics. Also spend time doing unguided observation. 

Accept feedback from the system as it unfolds through the spectrum of time. Creatively use and respond to change. 

Make the least change for the greatest effect.
Identify leverage points in a system and intervene there, where the least work accomplishes the most change and the least unwanted side effects.

Design From Patterns To Details
Practice pattern literacy by observing patterns and integrating them into designs to intentionally create functions and relationships. Begin with overall patterns first, then refine towards the details. Patterns reflect the ecological functions and relationships of an ecosystem. Understanding patterns brings an understanding of how to help things flourish. Patterns arise from: needs, goals and desires; the relationships between us, plants, birds insects and microbes. They exist at multiple scales in space and time. Some distribution patterns include random, regular, clump, scatter, carpet, patch, tuft, cluster, constellation, and drift. Some root patterns include flat, heart, tap, rhizome, stolon, sucker, tuber, corm, bulb. 

— Relativity —

Relative Location
Design a meshwork of relationships, rather than an assortment of isolated elements. Base spatial relationships on how elements interact and assist one another, their frequency of use and maintenance. Attempt to bridge the gaps between wildlife areas to reform continuous corridors.

Zones are a way of analyzing and dividing space based on frequency of use and maintenance. Typically, zone mapping begins as concentric circles that are then modified. Elements of frequent use and maintenance are placed closer to the center zone. Elements requiring less frequent interaction are placed in outer or preserved zones. 

Sectors are used to analyze space based on how external energies enter and pass through the system. Elements are strategically placed to cooperate and synergize with incoming energies.  

— Multiplicity —

Each element performs multiple functions.
Select and locate elements that contribute in multiple ways to the success of the whole. Identify, the multiple functions and interactions of elements. Strive for interactions that are cooperative, facilitative or neutral. Avoid designing interactions that are competitive, inhibitive, or predatory unless they are used for an intentional, advantageous purpose. Stack elements in time and space.

Each critical function is supported by multiple elements.
Identify critical functions, such as water, food, and energy. Ensure that these critical functions are supported in two or more ways. Redundancy can build resiliency: if one element fails, a redundant element can expand to fill the gap in functionality. 

— Mutual Aid —

Practice Mutual Aid
Mutually cooperate with plants and animals to conserve energy and perform functions that would otherwise require fossil fuel resources. 

Collaborate with Succession
Assist with, rather than inhibit, the successive waves of evolution of a system towards greater diversity and productivity. Means of collaboration can include following the path of least resistance, using biological means to cycle energy and increase organic material, inoculating a site with diversity species, creating a habitat to attract a cohort of beneficial collaborators, and long term thinking. 

— Work with nature rather than against it —

Cycle Energy and Material
To increase the available energy on the site, identify, capture, store, chelate and cycle energies and materials present on the site and coming into the site from external sources that would otherwise flow out of the system. Strive to produce no waste. In a cycle, decomposition is as important as growth. 

Reduce Energy Use Before Acquiring Energy
Design to reduce energy use before attempting to acquire energy. Attempt to generate energy by collaborating with biological means before resorting to renewable sources. Use small scale renewable energy rather than large scale renewable energy that displaces ecosystems—colonizing the last wild spaces in the name of saving the “environment”.

Small Scale Stacked Systems
Because small scale systems take up less space, they can be managed with less resources and allow more space for wildlife and autonomous zones. Design stacked systems to attempt to maximize abundance within a small area. Stacking functions and diversifying the use of vertical and horizontal space can be used to intensify systems. Stacked systems can do less damage if they are placed in existing “developed” rather than “undeveloped” areas.

— Think, act, and feel like an ecosystem — 

Everything Gardens
Everything modifies its ecosystem to improve its habitat and ability to obtain food and energy. Humans are a keystone species: our actions and inactions are primary determinants of ecosystem health and evolution. We can become intentional guiders of change in our ecosystems by attempting to mimic the physical and social structures of ecosystems. Analysis is only one method of learning how to mimic an ecosystem. Spending time connecting with the other-than-human-world is another way to learn how to think, act and feel like an ecosystem. Humans and habitats share immune systems: we are organism-environments. Ecosystems occur both outside and inside the human body.

Integrate native elements. Native elements increase ecosystem health because they have evolved to thrive with the resources available, tolerate climatic conditions, and practice mutual aid with their neighbors. Native elements form essential webs of relationships and embody knowledge beyond our scope of understanding.

Integrate diversity in form, function, time and space. Diversity provides more niches for food, energy and habitat. By making more niches available, diversity reduces completion while increasing productivity and yield. Diversity generates resiliency because diverse ecosystems are more resistant to disease and pests and more stable during crises because of functional redundancy. Diversity reduces herbivory because predators spend more time looking for food than eating food. 

Ecological Analogs
Ecological analogs can be used to mimic native or desired ecosystems while enhancing desired yields. Ecological analogs are made by substituting native plants with plants that perform similar functions and thrive in similar conditions. The practice of ecological analogs can be expanded beyond plants. 

Part II — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting

Birds of Paradise

II. Permaculture

Wrapped in a fragile shell and filled with essential energy, the theory of permaculture a hard topic for me to write about because it is one of my yolks of hope and I want to do it justice when writing about it. 

Permaculture is a term that is being batted about like a kitten does with one of those fluffy toys on a string. Especially in the arts, I have overheard people toss the term out when they really don’t have any idea what it is, but use it to hang ten surfing the green wave of cultural capital. Each casual misuse of the term seems to dilute it, squeezing out its potency until it becomes empty like the word “sustainability” or the “environment” and fills the vial of some sort of expensive elixir you can get hits of at Whole Foods. To quote pattern designer Toby Hemenway, someone who has done much more than skimmed a Wikipedia article on the subject, “Permaculture is not the movement of sustainability and it is not the philosophy behind it; it is the problem-solving approach the movement and the philosophy can use to meet their goals and design a world in which human needs are met while enhancing the health of this miraculous planet that supports us.” 

To flatten any pedestals I may be putting permaculture designers on, I should be clear that I get equally discouraged when the language of capitalism is reproduced by permaculture designers. Phrases that rationalize the importance ecology within capitalist terms—like “investing energy”, “increasing resources and productivity”, describing the roles of flora and fauna in an ecosystem as “professions”, describing soil like a “bank account” that you “withdraw” from, and most importantly attempting to create “infinite growth” while ignoring the importance of decomposition—only further ingrain the doctrine of exploitation that capitalism disguises as freedom.

I was first introduced to permaculture when I met Connie Van Dyke, a woman in her 50s who grows 70% of her food in her tiny yard in Portland, Oregon. In 2011, I took a permaculture design course. I often describe permaculture to people by saying, “It is a set of design principles that can be used to design ecosystems where humans can cohabitate with other species. It was originally based on the practices of indigenous peoples and was used in the 1970s to design homesteading sites, but has since expanded beyond growing food and living off grid. Permaculture principles can be used to design a relationship, a cooperative, an organization, an event, a space, a movement, an action, etc.” 

Part I — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting


I. Something so fragile and essential, I am afraid to name it

There is a nest in the cavity in my chest woven with threads of hope salvaged from the veil of optimism I used to wear, until it got caught in the conveyer belt of reproduction and ripped apart rolling into the incinerator of green capitalism. Winding my metal spanner around the gears, I loosened the bolt and pulled out the threads, pinching them between my fingers to put out the embers ignited by citizenship. I tied the threads into a sparrow-sized nest and placed inside small speckled eggs impregnated with yolks of theories spawned from a set of thinking different than the thinking that walked us into this factory in the first place. I selected the eggs by scanning their genetic codes for the ones that read the most like lines of poetry: the horizontalization of social relations, fuzzy biological sabotage, open sourcing, decomposition, suspended disbelief, ecosystem design, and permaculture. When I opened my rib cage to place the nest inside, out fell television monitors leaking heavy metals and nationalism, computers off-gassing carbon dioxide, cell phones exuding the blood of Congolese, milking machines oozing hormones and methane, cars sputtering oil and lobbyists, drones hacking up dispersants and the virus of progress, election booths crackling with market based mechanisms, and passport scanners cannibalizing the wings of human beings. I hollowed out a space and slid in the nest, relocking my chest and grinding the key to pieces between my teeth. Now I hunch my shoulders to protect the fragile shells from the brutal blows of dismissiveness and mockery that come on horseback with the crusades to colonize the mind, own the body, and put the soul to work. As fragile as this hope may be, it is also essential to continuing to live. Without hope, I would puncture like the membrane between dream and reality burst by a squad night ambush. 

22.4.14 — Living in the wash with Tova, Diana, Anna, Nora, Katy, Lilly and Rose

What does it mean to live in a place? Over two years of moving from place to place, wherever I arrive people always ask me where I live. That is a good question. I have been trying to expand my perception of where I live as something beyond the borders of a city. To understand wherever I am is where I am living—and to treat that place with the respect one traditionally treats their “home”. Is home a structure or an essence?

Similarly, I have been trying to treat the people that care for the place I am in with the respect I would treat “my community” if I was living in one place—why should how I treat people be based on how long I will be in the same immediate space as them?

There is a lot of talk about NIMBY issues: Not In My Back Yard. I am trying to grow into the idea that our backyards extend beyond the borders of our fences. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

When I’ve lived in different cities in Europe, I used to feel bad when I didn’t know the language, but as I started to become more aware of refugee and immigrant populations living in these cities and how language is often seen as a barrier to be overcome in the process of “integration” and “assimilation”, I began to wonder if there are moments when localism slips into forms of nationalism or fascism.

I should be clear that I have a great deal of respect for people who live in a place long term, caring for the land and forming deep bonds with the people around them. At the same time, I have noticed in Joshua Tree that there are many temporary communities that pass through here: hikers, climbers, tourists, musicians and the many people who commute between here and LA for work and life. This spectrum of temporary communities is a real factor, one that often unaddressed in discussions around localism.

I spent the last ten days living with seven women in the wash at A-Z West. We arrived here from Sweden, LA, Portland, Denver, Greece and Massachusetts. Our living together might have been short in time, but it was deep in experience. By day, we would cook in the outdoor kitchen, hike in the canyons, and explore the larger Joshua Tree area attending events like the farmer’s market, the swap meet, concerts at Pappy and Harriet’s, sound baths at the Integatron, and the karaoke at the saloon. At night, we would descend into the Wagon Stations, some of us sleeping with the hatch open and gazing out at the stars. We also lived our daily lives here: bicycling along the highway, washing our clothes at the laundry mat, shopping at the grocery store, filling up our tanks and buying ice at the gas station in town. We also breathed in the bacteria, fungi, and dust in the air and exhaled some of our own. We were not locals, but we were living here: sharing moments of kindness, appreciation, intimacy, wonder, and friendship. I asked all of these friends to contribute a few words about why they were drawn to Joshua Tree, what it has meant to them to share this place, and how what they experienced here extends into their lives beyond Joshua Tree:

Image by Nora Rolf

“In the high desert there is a heightened awareness of isolation and compelling freedom. People migrate from the city to stretch out among the skeletons of former homesteads that are discernible across the landscape. The expansiveness surrounds you allowing uninhibited thought while everyday survival and simple creature comforts cultivate reconciliation.The native plants hold fast as an unintended testament to primitive resilience.” – Nora Rolf

Image by Nora Rolf

Image by Katy Davidson

“My music has always been based in the desert--I recorded an album called Mountain Rock in a Quonset hut outside of Tucson many years ago. Most recently I released an album called California Lite, on which I examine image vs. reality in southern California, simulation, and our obsession with transportation and technology. When I have visited Joshua Tree in the past, I have always enjoyed the unbelievable natural setting which is so epic and beautiful, but also taken simultaneous notice of the dizzying barrage of commercial aircraft that constantly, almost mockingly, zoom overhead. Joshua Tree's relative proximity to urban centers such as Palm Springs and Los Angeles ensure that this desert paradise is always below the flight path. The pervasive human element in this "God-like" place creates a fascinating friction. I approached A-Z West because I know that working in this setting will imbue my work with that same friction.” – Katy Davidson

Image by Katy Davidson

Image by Tova Rudin

"I was here about two and a half years ago when Andrea was just starting to build up the wash as it is now. Before the luxurious showers, kitchen and highly functional shitters were installed. I was kind of a guinea pig, first person to stay in a Wagon Station for a whole month. Back then I shared my experiences on a blog which I later turned into a book – One month in the Mojave. Bringing the book back ”home” was a great reason to finally make it back here. This time around I´ve been able to do things I thought I would do, the last time I was here. I´ve read books. I´ve meditated on a rock and I´ve had time to almost get a little bored. It´s good to be back."  – Tova Rudin

Image by Anna Reutinger

"I live in Los Angeles, which is technically a desert, although everyone likes to forget it. I came to A-Z West to refresh my memory, and to reset my thinking, to start from scratch upon my return to the city." – Anna Reutinger

Image by Lilly Fein and Rose Srebro

"It is clear why I came back to the desert and the A-Z West encampment a second time. When I am not living outdoors, in the desert, the wonder that I get from it slips away, drowned by the stimulation and chatter of the concrete city. I am so happy to have experienced a different way to live, that connects me to my participation in and with the living earth. I hope I keep coming back to Joshua Tree and this mindset." – Lilly Fein

“Like so many others of my generation, at 19, young and carefree in halter tops and Indian skirts, we, that is my best friend and I, ventured out west and back, with our thumbs out; fearless, young and invincible. It was how it was done. An experience that I would never take back, however one I am grateful my daughter in her search, did not feel the need to pursue.

However, at 21, my daughter Lily, asked me to return with her on her second visit to A-Z West, where she had an experienced something close to her heart. It had been 40 years since my little adventure out west so I couldn't imagine not making it happen. At 59, I had few expectations. I only knew that I would perhaps get to know my daughter better and have more opportunities to be more in the moment with her, more than our everyday lives back east would allow. So I jumped at the opportunity and suggested we make it a 5 week mother/daughter trip, and include many of the places that touched my life when I was her age on my adventure. So we are doing just that and more.

The experience thus far, has mostly been at A-Z, an experience I can add onto my list of life experiences that I would never want to take back. Luck plays a big role in experiences like these, and ours was luck to have. We were with an incredibly diverse, curious, intelligent, interesting and talented group of people that made for a genuinely caring and thoughtful community. I identified with everyone, as I felt like it was like yesterday that I was in their place. But more than ever, I was reminded of who I was when I was young, when the transition of my dreams transformed into a new reality, and the challenges I faced made me who I am today. I was reminded of how time and experiences help one shift into acceptance, and how the will to teach your children to make some of those dreams happen, become a reality.” – Rose Srebro



Today I rode my bicycle down Twentynine Palms Highway to pick up trash in Section 33, a nature preserve bordering the highway. The preserve is owned by the Mojave Desert Land Trust who organized the clean up event. I locked up my bicycle against a round, sort of trash can looking cover with an advisory message about a gas line that I didn’t stop to read and climbed up the soft shoulder into the desert. A group of teenage boys were already filling up large plastic bags with trash that had been thrown or accidentally blown out of people's car windows, deliberately dumped, discarded by hikers, who knows. An employee of the land trust came over and introduced himself and his kindergarten-aged son, “This is Tommy, the Chief Engineer.” He handed me a black plastic bag said we are trying to pick up, “anything that is not natural”.

We spread out in rows like a disorganized military formation and combed a fifty-foot wide strip of desert tracing the highway. I wandered through the low vegetation, scavenging toilet paper wrapped around hedgehog cactus making it look like a miniature mummy, candy bar wrappers threaded between the spines and purple flowers of beavertail prickly pear, flickering silver plastic wrapping woven in the zebra striped branches of creosote bushes, rusted cans and broken beer bottles collected in the dales of washes. I lamented about the plastic bags that blew away after I left them in the drying rack in the outdoor kitchen my first day here. I looked at the teenagers and remembered what it was like to be their age and find myself at a community service event feeling half-abducted, half-fascinated at a situation totally outside of my routine. I thought about how we have being mining landfills for metals and other useful materials and wondered if we will reach a point where we begin scavenging the desert for them. The most annoying and dishartening trash were the pieces of plastic that would just break into infinitely smaller pieces as I reached down to pick them up—making me feel like I was only doing more harm in my attempt to help—a feeling I have so often in my life it trails me like a shadow.

There are varying estimates for how long it takes plastic to degrade—or if plastic degrades at all and instead just fragments into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic water bottles are estimated at 500 – 1000 years. There is also a lot of trash that isn’t plastic that will linger longer than I will live: an aluminum can takes 80-200 years to degrade, a rubber tire 80-2,000 years, cigarette filters may break down in 10 years, but their acetate fibers do not fully degrade—nor do the 4,800 chemical compounds in cigarettes, at least 69 of which are carcinogenic and bleed into the ecosystem they are extinguished in. 

When I bent down to pick up a burst balloon shriveled up like a squid, a cactus stuck me in the leg. As I pulled the cactus spine out my sock, the spine pulled my skin outwards, making a thin and tight peak. I got a little worried that it wouldn’t come out because of the barbs lining its surface, but it finally relinquished and I followed a couple up a sandy wash pulling up half-buried plastic bottles and cardboard. A woman with a broken swing wrapped around her head carrying a bag filled twice as big as mine smiled and said, “I wear my trash well”. Renée and I talked trash for a while, “It’s when I see the younger people littering that I lose hope. The older people still do it but that doesn’t bother me because they grew up in a time when you could just throw things on the ground because everything was biodegradable.” I thought about how her observation of this shift in postconsumption pertained to my recent trip to Jordan staying with a group of Bedouins in the desert and all the trash that tumbled through the wind past their goat hair tents. “I don’t feel angry at the people that litter, but the companies that design this indestructible stuff in the first place,” I tossed in as I told her about one of my friends, who is the most staunch environmental activist I know, who hates recycling because it puts the onus on the consumer. I pulled a piece of paper out of the sand and dusted it off to read it:


I scanned its list of “events that would be evaluated at the company level”:

a)  Individual marksmanship
b)  Team and squad attacks
f)   Casualty processing
g)  Tactical site exploitation
h)  Detainee handling procedure
n)  Actions on contact (IED, complex ambush, direct/indirect)
o)  Squad night ambush
p)  81mm mortar platoon live-fire

I figured it must have blown out of a marine’s car, driving to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the largest Marine base in the country, located just 15 miles from Joshua Tree and measuring 295 square miles—and planning to expand. Further up the wash I teased another sheet out the thorny branches of a cat’s claw:


The list of “What you must report on a Quarterly Report” included:

  • Anyone’s citizenship/immigration status changes or receives correspondence from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • Any household member fleeing from the law or in violation of probation
  • Any household member convicted of a drug-related felony after August 22, 1996 for manufacturing, sale, distribution of a controlled substance…or harvesting, cultivating or processing marijuana, or involving a minor in the above activities.
  • Any real or personal property, bought sold or exchanged
  • If you move;
  • Someone moves in or out of your home

Depending on who is counting, the federal government spends 28-38% of its annual budget on the US military. It spends $708 billion on the Department of Defense while spending $80 billion on food stamps, $77 billion on unemployment compensation, $800 billion on medicare and medicaid, and $769 billion on social security.  20% of the total federal budget goes directly to the Department of Defense and 8-18% is dispersed under different departments for things like nuclear weapons, FBI, CIA, Homeland Security and NASA intelligence gathering, veterans, and interest on debt incurred from past wars. U.S. military spending accounts for almost half of the entire world's spending on war and weaponry. The US spends more money on military than the next top 10 countries combined (China, Russia, UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil). There are no available figures for how long it takes the US military to decompose.

Our garbage route ended at an industrial dumpster across from the High School were we pooled our collections until the dumpster was about 1/3 full and a rusted spring mattress nearly peaked out of the top. I watched as the teenagers ate Dominoes pizza and I felt like I was really back in the US after being gone in Europe and the Middle East for the last four months. As the teens began to pile onto busses, Danielle the director of the land trust explained that they were marines, so new they weren’t allowed off the base yet except for special events like these.

Mary Poppins Record — Found by Brad and Brooks
Mary Poppins Record — Found by Brad and Brooks


We were a pack of over a hundred today, all piled in to the windowless cinderblock room. This seemingly unassuming space is actually a vibrant community center for watching children's theatre group plays, the annual gem and mineral show, and meetings about pressing issues the community is facing, like the meeting I went to: Aquifers 101. I came out of desperation, wanting to know when the water is going to be gone. The answers to this question extend beyond the boundaries of Joshua Tree. What is happening here is a future image of what the world over is about to undergo.

The fault lines of the scientist’s forehead wrinkled and unwrinkled as he clarified: there are no underground lakes below this desert. The aquifers below the sand are not lakes but actually water that has seeped into the interconnected pores of rocks and alluvium and accumulated over impermeable substrate. Joshua Tree sits on the Joshua Subbasin, a narrow three-storied aquifer 2,000-4,500 feet deep—a wet sponge of sand and gravel shaped like a valley partially paved over with Highway 62. Over 99% of the water drawn out each year in the Joshua Subbasin is from stored water accumulated over centuries. Only 1% of the water is replenished by annual rainfall and underflow. The natural recharge of Joshua Tree is 207 acre feet per year, 84 come from underflow from the Warren Subbasin to the west and 123 come from rainfall and streamflow. Each year, Joshua Tree uses 1,612 acre feet (525,465,083 gallons). Drinking water is going to run out, just when is unknown. 30 years? 100 years? It depends on a lot of factors: the increase in people moving here sucking the aquifers dry like vampires with wells for fangs; the increase in oases of globalization receiving intravenous injections by roads and parking lots refusing to let the water permeate the ground—but even without any new “development” the current amount of water extraction is beyond what the system can sustain. I admire the people who aren’t hedging their bets over whether or not it will be their problem to deal with, the people who want to do something whether or not they will be above or below ground when the drinking water is gone.  

But really, the water will never run out. Before attempting the impossible act of squeezing every last drop out of the rocks’ pores, the water will become too poor to drink. The present births the process of sucking away the high quality water near the surface, the future bears drawdown and cones of depression sinking straws into the deeper, poorer quality water stored in the lower aquifers. Between the 1950s and 1990s the water level sank 35 feet away from the hearts of homesteaders that have proved up parcels here since 1836, 35 feet away from the roots of plants that feed the scaled, shelled, winged, furred and even the single celled.

Before riding this bomb down into swimming pools and golf courses, the Water District is trying their hand at stop gap measures including aquifer recharge: conjuring water from Northern California down a quagmire of aqueducts and pipes into the Mojave Desert, dumping into recharge ponds to percolate down into the aquifers, carrying unintended consequences with it. When the recharge pond is near a septic system, the water carries septage nitrates down. When the nitrates eventually reach the groundwater, they will become part of the drinking water. Upon entering the bloodstream, nitrates replace oxygen, turning babies blue and acidifying the ecosystems inside stomachs.  According to the EPA’s website, the maximum contaminant level of nitrate in drinking water is 10 parts per million (10 milligrams per liter of water). According to the Joshua Basin Water District Water Quality Report, the nitrate level in the drinking water is 16 parts per million and the maximum contaminant level is listed at 45 parts per million.

This isn’t news to the people who have unfolded their lives here. It isn’t unique to Joshua Tree either. The natural materials we call “resources” are being picked clean. Some of us have the luxury to neatly fold up our lives, pack them into suitcases and carry them away in search of other lands. Others can only ball up a few tattered items into a backpack or run away from rifle sites with nothing at all, crossing the land on foot at night, driving by day crammed twelve people into eight person vans and cargo trucks so full no one can sit down, crossing the Aegean Sea in four person life rafts sinking under the weight of twenty people, capsizing reaching shore and rescuing two small boys swallowed by the waves—their mother crushed into the rocks, tossed into a room for three months straight with everyone starving and fighting over any food that is brought, finally reaching the European Union to apply for asylum and be deported back…back to the laser shows of rifle sites, the hum of drones, the flutter of pages turning in torture manuals, the gentle touch of soft power, the spine cracking of structural violence, the slamming of a rifle butt into the back of the skull, the chatter of human cages, the echoes of accusations, the heavy breathing of persecutions and the deafness of bombings.