High Desert Test Sites advances Andrea Zittel’s vision of creating art within the context of everyday life. The organization stewards A-Z West, Zittel’s 80-acre compound and artwork, where artists, writers, and thinkers spend time in residence while realizing projects that engage with our surrounding desert communities.
Co-founded in 2002 by Andrea Zittel, Andy Stillpass, John Connelly, Shaun Regen and Lisa Anne Auerbach—High Desert Test Sites has hosted the work of more than 460 artists, 12 expansive site-specific programs, and 25 solo projects.
Who We Are
PO Box 1058
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Office hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 10am-5pm PST
Vanesa Zendejas - Executive Director, email@example.com
Connor Schwab - Facilities and Grounds Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Foreman - Director’s Assistant and Visitor Services, email@example.com
Lisa Anne Auerbach
Shaun Caley Regen
WEBSITE AND DESIGN
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
David Knaus - Chair
Andrea Zittel - Founding Director/Treasurer
Brooke Hodge - Secretary
Marilyn Loesberg - Member
Susan Lubeznik - Member
Aram Moshayedi - Member
Paul Bessire - Member
High Desert Test Sites is grateful to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Tides Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation - Arts Regranting Program/Inland Empire at The Community Foundation, Strengthening Inland Southern California through Philanthropy, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, The Ranch Projects, California Arts Council, Sky Village Swap Meet, Copper Mountain Mesa Community Association and our generous donors for their support over the years.
When HDTS was founded in 2002, part of the original mission was to run on a zero budget. The idea was to support artistic visions in practical terms—provide help, guidance, tools, a cot, and infinite space. For many years this worked and it produced self-driven projects that were ambitious and independently spirited.
Over the past ten years, HDTS has been working towards building a more substantial funding structure for artists’ projects. This has included hosting recurring fundraising projects such as our Artist Painted Rock Auction, Gem/Mineral Expo, pop-ups at art fairs and art museums, and producing limited edition artworks for sale.
But these endeavors never quite add up to what we need—to pay our artists fairly, for venue rentals, for staff, liability insurance, the bookkeeper, to feed our volunteers, pay for all-terrain forklift rentals, and so much more.
As our programs grow every year, so does our budget. And although we make every effort to raise the money that we need with Andrea’s self-sufficient spirit in tow, we still rely on support from donors to make it all happen.
HDTS has been a registered 501c3 since 2013. Please consider a gift in any amount to help us in providing access to engaging, experimental, contemporary art in the high desert region.
Donate via PayPal, via Venmo (@hdts_azwest), or via check:
PO Box 1058 Joshua Tree CA 92252
Many past HDTS projects have only been temporarily sited, but some are permanent and scattered throughout the Morongo Basin. The best way to find these works is to follow the directions on our current HDTS driving map. This map also includes sites we’ve partnered with in the past and admire as independent projects. Most HDTS works are located at sites that we regularly activate and operate out of. Those sites include:
Our base of operations, A-Z West is Andrea’s project, where she lived and worked for 21 years. Located a few minutes outside downtown Joshua Tree, this 80-acre compound includes four restored homestead cabins, several experimental living structures, permanent sculptures, 4,000 square foot studio space, and pristine desert landscape.
Public tours of A-Z West are offered twice a month. Tickets for these tours can be purchased through the West Works store. All funds raised from tour ticket sales support HDTS programming and operating expenses.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left, then the next right. At the hanging wooden signs, go straight to park in the Encampment lot, or make a left to go to the house, cabins, or studio.
Behind the Bail Bonds
Sited on this 10-acre boulder strewn parcel adjacent to A-Z West are several works that may take some deeper exploring to divulge: Morongo by Nathan Lieb, Surveillant Architectures by Julia Scher, and CA Truck Heads by Sarah Vanderlip. Feel free to visit this site sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking and do not block the road.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left. Follow along power lines, park just before the turnaround area.
Andy’s Gamma Gulch
Co-founder Andy Stillpass has generously allowed countless HDTS projects to take place on this wildly beautiful 100-acre parcel north of Pioneertown off of Pipes Canyon Rd. Several works are sited here, includingGradually/We Become Aware/Of a Hum in the Room by Halsey Rodman, Trail Registry by Scout Regalia and Tapwater Pavilion by Tao Urban. Andy’s is also available to visit from sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking or if you do need to park off the side of the road, be careful not to end up in soft sand.
Directions: From Hwy 62 turn right at Pioneertown Rd. Drive about 7.5 miles. Turn right on Pipes Canyon Rd. Drive 2.2 miles to Gamma Gulch Rd, turn left (respect our neighbors – do not drive above 20 mph on this road!) Drive 1.6 miles to God’s Way Love (if the sign has blown off look for Dave & Jeannie’s sign), turn right. Drive 0.4 miles.
This 40-acre site, located at the most eastern edge of Wonder Valley, in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness area, is surrounded by BLM wilderness land. Located at the very end of the valley, but feels like the end of the world, this site is home to several permanently sited works, including Dineo Seshee Bopape’s HDTS 2022 work, and a mostly “invisible” project: Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt’s Secret Restaurant. On the opposite side of Ironage Rd and slightly to the north is a work by Kiersten Puusemp (Untitled) that you will probably need to get out of your car and explore in order to find. Be very careful when parking off the side of the road as the sand is very soft here.
Directions: From 29 Palms continue east on Hwy 62. Drive forever (23 miles) and turn left at Iron Age Rd. Drive a mile or so until you see something. (Iron Age Road connects both Amboy Road and Hwy 62, so you can reach it using either access road.)
Neither the desert nor the earth need saving. They will be fine. It is the human species that will eradicate itself. That is the trajectory. It is up to us to change this and there are solutions. Just one quick very simplified example: the rhizoshpere. The rhizopshere is the thin layer of the earth’s surface that is designated to plant root space. If we were to increase that layer by 10% we could sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, enough to return it to pre-industrialized standards. That is huge. It’s so enraging that the reasons these kinds of solutions are not being implemented on a large scale are due to corporate greed, power, short term gratification, convenience, laziness, self indulgence, denial. My anger isn’t exasperated enough and the concepts and the conflicts haven’t resonated deep enough in me for it to become compassion yet, but I have glimpses. And I want it to become that.
A desert phrase that I keep hearing float around is the claiming/exclaiming of the desert as a “blank canvas”. It’s not a blank canvas! Nothing is a blank canvas! That phrase is a colonizer’s phrase and it makes me look down when I hear it. I’ve been asking about indigenous culture here. There isn’t much of a presence in Joshua Tree. My inquiries have led me to the Morongo Reservation in nearby Riverside County. I went to visit their museum a few days ago (the Malki Museum). At the entrance I was met by a guard who asked what I would be doing on the reservation. He then gave me this pass that read:
“This pass only permits you to go to the address listed. If you are located on the reservation at a location other than that used on this permit you will be trespassing and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of California state and federal law. Firearms are not permitted on the reservation, even if you have a state license or permit to have the firearm. Possession of any firearms is strictly prohibited.”
He was nice enough, but the exchange and the tire spikes I slowly drove across made me feel tense. When visiting reservations in the past, I’ve never experienced a guard, simply signs on the roadway clearly stating that you are entering a specific territory. There are many ways I could unpack my feelings - I wrestle with my own white guilt and privilege. This isn’t due to any direct encounter in my own life or any familial heritage I know of. But working with and learning about cosmologies from the Inca, the Maya and to a much smaller extent the Apache over the last 12 years has shown me the reality of the colonial discourse that is in no way in a post era. A source of my guilt comes from the fact that I have at times chosen to ignore this reality in order to continue on, pursuing other goals in my life easily accessible to me as a white middle class female. I have reached a point where I can’t do that anymore and am beginning to see the interconnections throughout the different kinds of work that I’ve done and how the simple goal to live better can be enacted as one, incorporating them all. But that means no more denial, and the recognition of blind spots when they are revealed.
I haven’t read too much of Bruno Latour’s work, but am familiar with his ideas to the degree that he is a strong, very present voice in the philosophical debate around the climate crisis via ontology. I recently read this critique on ontology as “just another word for colonialism” written by a self proclaimed indigenous feminist academic after attending a talk by Latour in Edinburgh. I’ve looked for the talk and found 6; listed as Gifford Lectures via the University of Edinburgh, and I’m not sure which one she is specifically referencing (perhaps the one focusing on David Hume?). Her argument immediately made sense:
“I waited, through the whole talk, to hear the Great Latour credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations, and with climates and atmospheres as important points of organization and action. It never came. He did not mention Inuit, or Anishinaabe, or Nehiyawak, or any Indigenous thinkers at all. In fact, he spent a great deal of time interlocuting with a Scottish thinker, long dead, and with Gaia.”
So, in the spirit of the desert not being a blank slate to be claimed by American rugged individualism (though those stories and histories have their fascinating elements) - here are some brief notes I’ve gathered about how the Cahuilla Indians lived on and related to this land for thousands of years, bound to the north by the San Bernardino Mountains, to the south by Borrego Springs, and the Choloclate Mountains, to the east by the Colorado Desert, and to the west by the San Jacinto Plain and the eastern slopes of the Palomar Mountains.
From the book, Mukat’s People: The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California by Lowell John Bean:
NATURAL ELEMENTS AND EXISTENTIAL SPECULATIONS RELEVANT TO ADAPTATION TO THE ENVIRONMENT:
Wind patterns were very significant to Cahuilla existence. Seasonal variations caused dramatic fluctuations in the abundance of flora and fauna. Prevailing winds come from the west as cool ocean breezes, the hot Santa Ana winds came in summer from the southeast, and winds off of the desert floor during the day rose up mountain sides and were rapidly cooled by night and moved quickly down the mountainsides.
Snowfall provided a delayed run-off so that streams, springs and rivers could flow from high mountain melting during drier parts of the year.
Flooding was always a danger but would also enrich and expand the soil base of the alluvial fans where a diversity of edible and medicinal plants thrived.
Permanent springs were common but their distribution on the surface was irregular because of snowfall and flooding. Natural artisan wells occurred where impenetrable soil sealed certain areas, preventing subsoil infiltration. Little is known of the precise location of these bodies of water because modern water control measures have radically changed the prehistoric situation.
Desert lakes could extend up to 60 miles in length and were formed because of melting snows, torrential rains, and overflows from the Colorado River. Where water was 10-30ft below the surface, deep walk in wells were dug and small lakelets were created by banking sand around the well. The water table would rise and fall after an earthquake which caused physical disturbance in the environment, but also disturbance to the psyche:
“…one time - I was very small, I could not remember yet - there came such earthquakes as had not been known to any of the people. Whole mountains split - some rose up where there had been none before. Other peaks went down, and never came up again. It was a terrible time. The mountains that people knew well were strange places that they had never seen before.
Then it was that Tahquitz Creek went dry, and only ran water in the winter time, and other streams that ran good water all year around have only been winter streams since. And so the Indians could not raise crops on that mesquite land any more. The climate seemed to change. The Andreas Canyon Creek that only ran in the winter became an all year stream, as it has been since. Before the earthquakes, the only water to be had there in summer months was from a small spring which ran always in the creek beneath the caves. There were many springs on the mountain sides and on the level land. When the rains came less, they dried out and went away. No one knows where they used to be anymore.” - Francisco Patencio, Cahuilla
The Cahuilla universe is systemic - all phenomena are potentially unstable and unpredictable. All matter was subject to unpredictable change. Since ?iva?a is quixotic, it might leave unexpectedly, causing any number of disasters. ?iva?a is a power or energy source, the basic generative force from which all things were created. It was very intense in the beginning, but has constantly and elusively diminished through time.
-The universe is divided between phenomena containing will (?iva?a) and the potential for action, and phenomena which did not have the potential to act.
-Some groups had greater amounts of power than others. ?iva?a was greater to the west and diminished as it moved east, thus the cultural dominance of the Pacific Coast cultures of the Gabrielino and Chumash, who had greater access to ?iva?a.
I was attending the annual spring agave roast, a tradition of the native Cahuilla people that’s continued to this day at the Malki Museum on the Morongo reservation in Banning, CA. While talking to a highly revered cultural anthropologist and Malki board member, picking his brain about culinary and medicinal plants, I casually mentioned “Mormon tea.” His smile dissipated and he looked at me with a very grave brow. “Never call the ephedra plant Mormon tea.” I was really caught off guard and asked meekly, “why?” It was the most commonly used common name I had encountered when referring to the abundant stick-like plant that reigns alongside creosote bush and Joshua trees in our desert terrain—field guides use it, as do botanists and long-time desert dwellers, and all of my medicinal plant books also uses that label. “Because,” he matter-of-factly stated, “the Cahuilla used this plant to treat syphilis, gonorrhea, and other venereal disease—all of which were introduced by the Mormon or white settlers. Using that name displays a lack of respect and honors the colonial spirit.”
As a white woman and desert transplant—who additionally works with wild regional plants and draws heavily upon native traditions when researching their culinary aspects—this plant epitomizes my colonial conflict I try to tame. How can I respectfully work with the flora of this region without evoking the vestige of the rapacious European who has stolen and benefited from the oppressed? I get down about it, and sometimes think about just going back to commercially available plants in my cooking practice. But I was talking to a Joshua Tree herbalist the other day, and she too expressed similar insecurities, and simultaneously emphasized the importance of not losing the historical and cultural knowledge that has been practiced for centuries. To continue to work with these plants and remember their heritage is critical, and so is using the Cahuilla nomenclature.
By saying “Tutut,” you are reminded that you were not here first. You are not entitled to anything. That what you know is not born of your own genius, but a legacy that deserves to be acknowledged and honored only with the most honest, humble gratitude.
There are several Palo Verde trees (both Blue and Mexican) growing around the front of the main house at A-Z West – their seeds can be easily harvested and eaten raw, or cooked or sprouted.
Palo Verde, Spanish for “green pole” or “green stick,” are named because their trunks and branches are green. Although you will find “volunteer” Palo Verdes in this area, they are not native to the Mojave ecosystem (where A-Z West is located), rather they are indigenous to the Colorado ecosystem found in the lower parts of Joshua Tree National Park and the lower deserts like Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs. There are two kinds of Palo Verde that grow well in Joshua Tree – the Blue Palo Verde (bushier with small round leaves) and Mexican Palo Verde (brighter green and more stick like needles).
The website Desert Harvesters has a wealth of information on edible desert plants – here is a little of the information that they provide on Palo Verde:
Like other leguminous desert trees, both species of Palo Verde produce edible flowers and seeds. The trees generally flower in late April through May and then set green seed pods a few weeks after. The green pods will dry in June-July. Both green and dry pods can be harvested, preferably before the summer rains start.
Green Palo Verde seeds can be harvested when the pod is green and the seed inside has developed but is still small, green, and tender. When green they can be eaten like peas or edamame. Taste before harvesting! The green seeds should be sweet. (If they are chalky, it’s too late to harvest them fresh — best to let them ripen even longer and harvest when dry on the branch.) Gently pull the whole pod off the tree and place in a canvas or paper bag, bucket or basket.
Dry pods are beige and the seeds inside are brown. At this stage they are best eaten sprouted. Rather than picking by hand you can put a clean tarp on the ground and gently shake the dry pods off the tree. However, do not harvest dry pods/seeds off the bare ground.
PROCESS & STORE
Whether green or dry, Palo Verde seeds should be cleaned and processed for storage as soon as possible after picking to preserve freshness and reduce the chances of the pods moldering.
Fresh green pods and seeds should be blanched the day you pick them to prevent ripening or moldering. They can be blanched in the pod or shelled like peas and then blanched. To do this, wash your pods or seeds in cool water. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of ice water. Add green seeds to boiling water and boil for at least 90 seconds. Remove, drain and immediately place seeds in ice water for 90 seconds. Once cooled, drain and package in labeled and dated plastic freezer bags, getting out as much air as possible.
Dry brown pods and seeds are also best processed the day you pick, but can also be stored in an unsealed container outside until you do. Do not store in a plastic bag or they will molder! To process dry seeds, free them from the pod by hand or by laying them on a clean tarp, covering them with a clean sheet, and walking on it to crush the dry pods. Winnow out the pod, leaving just the dry dark brown seed. Freeze seeds for two days to prevent bruchid-beetle infestation. Store in the freezer until use or take them out, dry thoroughly and then store in a sealed jar.
Palo Verde flowers can be eaten raw in salads or candied for use in desserts.
Although they can be eaten raw, both green and dry/brown stages of seeds may be most easily digested when blanched, sprouted or cooked.
After blanching green pods, salt and eat the green Palo Verde seeds from the shell like edamame. Or use them in salads or soups, as garnish, or sauté or roast with seasoning.
Dry seeds are best eaten simply sprouted, or sprouted and then parched/roasted. To sprout: soak overnight and then rinse daily until seed coat splits open and sprout emerges. Remove sprouts by squeezing the split seed coat. Rinse with clean water and then use sprouts raw or lightly cooked. To parch/roast: Sprout seeds just until the tiny root emerges (1-2 days). Dry seeds in the sun, solar oven, or conventional oven set to 150 F. Once dry, put seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat to cook until seeds pop. Season with salt or other spices.
The trees in the shipping container compound area at A-Z West are Mesquite trees. They are some of the fastest growing and most resilient trees in the desert. While not native to the Joshua Tree area, Mesquite Trees grow wild over much of the southwest, usually in more of a bush form unless they are trimmed upward.
Here is some harvesting information from the Tuscon-based group Desert Harvesters.
Harvest mesquite pods before the summer rains, and never wet or wash your pods—Harvest Early, Harvest Dry. This practice reduces the growth of molds/fungus on pods. There is a relationship between an invisible fungus (Aspergillus flavus) and a natural carcinogen known as aflatoxin B1. Recent research at the University of Arizona by Dr. Nick Garber, Dr. Sadhana Ravishankar, and the Mesquite Harvest Working Group showed a clear correlation between aflatoxin levels and rainfall. Many mature pods harvested after a single rainfall (a single event during which they got wet) were unsafe for human consumption due to high aflatoxin levels. These same studies found mesquite pods harvested before the rains had safe aflatoxin levels—well below the minimum levels allowed by aflatoxin sampling of food products. Ripe pods range in color from yellowish tan to reddish or purplish (not green), and are dry and brittle. They come off the tree easily.
Harvest pods from the tree, not the ground. When you harvest from the ground there is greater risk of the pods having come into contact with fecal matter, herbicides, pollutants (like oil dripped from cars), fungus from the soil, or irrigation water that may increase the amount of fungus or mold on the pods. You can find quality pods on trees in washes, small drainages, city parks (as long as sprinkler irrigation has not come into contact with the pods), backyards, and along low-traffic neighborhood streets. Often, city trees are the most abundant producers because they receive supplemental water in the form of runoff from nearby rooftops, patios, and streets—especially when people have set up water-harvesting earthworks around or beside the trees.
Pick ripe pods from the tree. Taste one to judge its sweetness before continuing to harvest from that particular tree. Flavor varies from tree to tree. The sweeter the better! A good-tasting pod will have no chalkiness, no slight burning sensation in the throat, no drying out of your mouth, and no bad aftertaste. Pull gently and the pods should come right off. If you have to pull hard, they’re not ready yet! Pick only those pods that are good-tasting, clean, and nice-looking (free off black mold).
Dry pods should snap easily in two when you try to bend them. If they are not dry, lay them out in the sun on a cloth, metal roofing, or the hood of your car until they pass the snap test. Drying may take 1 to 3 days.
Once pods are dry, store them in a dry, rodent-free place until milling day. Store in food-grade containers or bags. Used, clean food-grade buckets make good storage containers. You can get these buckets (with lids) from donut shops, grocery-store bakeries, or the eegees corporate office in Tucson (the eegees buckets have nice strong metal handles). NOTE: Plastic garbage cans are NOT for storing food because the plastic in the cans often contains harmful biocides.
Bruchid beetles may hatch out of the pods during storage—they are what make the small holes in the pods—but they are harmless! Allow the bruchid beetles to escape and most will leave on their own accord. If storage container is open to insects, beneficial tiny wasps can also enter the container to predate upon the bruchid beetles. To avoid beetles, freeze your pods. Remember, though, to thaw and dry pods at least three days before milling so they snap easily in two when you bend them.
You need a mill to make flower from the pods – but some people in Joshua Tree have found a way to use a high quality blender instead and it would be great to get that information for the log.
There are a number of edible plants growing around A-Z West – one of the most common in the encampment area is Ephedra, otherwise known as Mormon Tea, or Desert Tea, a medium-sized shrub that grows up to 4 feet high and appears to have no leaves. It looks like a thicket of numerous green, jointed, leafless branches with conspicuous nodes or joints.
My grandparents used to make us Desert tea when we were kids in order to avoid giving us “grown up tea” that had caffeine in it – little did we know then that the tea is actually a form of ephedra.
The Indians prepared Mormon tea for stomach and bowel disorders, for colds, fever, and headache. Dried and powdered twigs were used in poultices for burns and ointments for sores and one tribe made a decoction of the entire plant and drank it to help stop bleeding.
Early Mormon settlers, who abstained from regular tea and coffee, drank the beverage made from this plant. Other white settlers used a very strong tea of the plant for the treatment of syphilis and other venereal disease, and as a tonic. It was standard fare in the waiting rooms of whorehouses in early Nevada and California. It was said to have been introduced by Jack Mormon who frequented Katie’s Place in Elko, Nevada during the mining rush of the last century.
In order to make the tea, a handful of green or dry stems and leaves are placed in boiling water for each cup of tea desired. After cooking a little while the tea is removed from the fire and allowed to steep for twenty minutes or more. In early times a spoon of sugar or some strawberry jam was added to bring out the flavor.
Although not as potent as the commercial relatives in China and India, the southwestern species contains enough ephedrine-related alkaloid ingredients to make it functional. The drug ephedrine is a stimulant to the sympathetic nerves and has an effect on the body similar to adrenaline. It has a pronounced diuretic and decongestant effect and was used wherever urinary tract problems occurred. The dark brown resinous scales contain at least a third tannin and made an excellent external hemostatic. The small, hard, brown seeds were ground and used as a bitter meal or added to bread dough to flavor it.