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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Chapter 12:  wild palms
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The coast ranges are the wall at which the desert ends. Here east of them the land is dry as bone, cold in the winter nights and as majestically empty as a country scraped by ice. This lowland desert of southern California is the home of the wild desert fan palm, but you could pass through here a hundred times without seeing one. They have something of the elusiveness, rarity, and power of big game.

The great bordering faults -- the San Andreas, the San Jacinto -- have cracked the continent through here as if it were a vase; shattering the rock roofs of aquifers, so that water pricks up here and there along the fault lines, coming up cool and glass-clear or hot and salty; in any case coming up.

Wherever water springs to the surface there are wild palms. Suddenly in the corner of a canyon, in a crevice, a hollow of the broken wilderness of rock there is a clutch of thick columns of trunks leaning this way and that as if they were so many birds in a nest, with lively puffs of scissored green at their tops. These are very big trees, and the basket-colored petticoats of old fronds trail sometimes to the ground, making each one house-sized in girth. These are the only palms that keep their dead fronds all their lives. Unless the cylinders of thatch are burned or cut away they are prime habitat for king snakes and lizards and western yellow bats and countless insects, and every oasis is announced at a distance by the cooing of doves, and in some places by a tweetling chatter of house finches or orioles, as loud and contained a noise as if it were an aviary.

There are one hundred and fifty-one known oases of desert fan palms in the world, most of them in California, with a scattered few in Arizona and southern Nevada, and more in Mexico. In the Mexican oases the desert fans are mixed with sky dusters, Mexican blues, even with wild dates, but somehow one does expect palms to be there, the arcing fronds and their tropical rattling, part of a lush more equatorial place.

The real home of the desert fan palm is this so-called Colorado desert that lies between the river of that name and these coast ranges, south of the Mojave. Most of this country gets less than three inches of rain a year and daytime temperatures run well above 100 degrees from May through October. It's the hottest and lowest extreme of Sonoran desert. For miles on end the whole vegetation seems to consist of bush-sized puffs of gray dust in the runnels of eroded hills.

In one deeper canyon under the coast ranges, some of these puffs, tangles of chuparosa, come into red tubular bloom now in midwinter, and these are a favorite of the Anna's hummingbirds that scoot and thrum and hover through the dry watercourses. There are thickets of cheesebush and clumps of ocotillo and desert lavender. As one moves up-canyon, catclaw and honey mesquite appear in the wash; these thorny (and now in winter leafless) shrubs have taproots that can reach a water table more than a hundred and seventy feet away, but they do not grow to tree size without a water table there.

Among the stones of the slopes are scattered creosote and bursage shrubs and the odd cholla and barrel cactus. The first two shed leaves and even branches in dry times, the second two store water in waxy and thorn-protected stems. The parsimonious exigencies of desert life; spiny, sticky with resin; the passivity of the things gets on my nerves. They're desert nerves, don't tell me, I know, it's the light that does it, the eyes get gritty and the skin goes stiff as paper, even patience loses its resilience. The cacti are paler than stones. I want to kick one, out of spite.

After all this stubborn vegetation and broken rock, shimmering air, too much brightness everywhere, the first palm comes as a shock to the senses. It is square in the canyon bottom; a burst of green accordion-pleated leaves reflecting sunlight like a fractured mirror, leaf edges frilled with curling fibers. Then there are more, tall ones with spiky bursts of rush around their bases, then more, and a noise of trickling, black pools, a waterfall, a patch of cattails, a thicket of young palms as dense as grass. And shade. Deep shade. And a smell of earth and water. And the clean basket smell of the dry fronds, and a rattling and rustling and liveliness, a ponderous overhead swaying of green heads.

Fan palms are rooted with a shallow fibrous ball; they have no taproot, nor do they have any means of water storage in swollen root or stem; they do not shed leaves in a drought; they open flowers and set fruit in the hottest months of the year. They do not seem to be desert plants at all. They need their feet wet. They are relics of a California of two to twenty-two million years ago, before the coast ranges rose (as they're still doing, now, in tectonic agonies) to wring the moisture from Pacific storms. They surrounded lakes, marshes, river courses, inland seas. They have retreated, as moisture has. They survive in the wild now by having the audacity to stand in any available water source and shade out or shrug off everything else.

They are stout and long-lived. They can grow as much as seventy-five feet high and some of them have trunks more than three feet in diameter. A prime tree in a good year can yield over four hundred pounds of fruit. The fruit has a large stone in the middle, something like a date; it's round and black and sticky when fresh in the fall though it wrinkles like a raisin as it hangs and dries. The Cahuilla Indians here once stored these fruits and ate them by grinding the whole thing to mush. The coyotes eat the palm fruits still, shitting out the hard indigestible seed, which then has a far better chance of sprouting: an interdependence -- or anyway an intergood -- of animal and palm that's well established here, though coyotes, of course, will eat anything.

The Cahuilla Indians and the desert fan palms go back together, no one knows how far. Three quarters of known palm oases have the evidence: rock art and stone circles, rock shelters with sooty ceilings, patches of blackened soil, flakes of stone tools, and everywhere the round bedrock mortars made by and for the grinding of palm fruit. When the Spaniards first came through here on the way to the missions on the coast, most palm oases had permanent Cahuilla villages nearby. Walls and roofs of houses were thatched with fronds, palm leaves and fibers were used to make sandals and baskets, the long palm fruiting stems were made into spoons, shovels, walking sticks, fire-starting tools.

Fire. This was the language of their relationship. Fire connected people and palm. Those thatch petticoats will burn hotter and faster than paper. Once lit, the whole palm flares like a torch and subsides to a black and smoking stump. Then green fronds grow back. With water-carrying tissues scattered in bundles throughout their trunks, palms are resistant to fire. Not so the other desert plants that like to find rootholds in oases; mesquites and catclaws and other desert shrubs are killed (or pruned to the ground) by fire, and flames consume the trash of fallen stalks and fronds, all of which makes walking through the palms (and gathering of fallen fruits) difficult, even abusive. Palm stalks are curved in such a way that stepping on one end brings the other end up quickly into one's nose. Rattlesnakes like to hide in the trash, too. And fire kills some of the giant palm boring beetles that feed in and weaken the trees, and a number of other insects as well. In the year after a fire, palms show their appreciation by nearly doubling their yield of fruit, because of nutrients released into the soil or because of decreased competition for water. Whatever the reason, for the Cahuilla and for the palms, fire worked for them both.

Nowadays, horticulture has replaced fire as the language that people use, the medium of the relationship. Desert fan palms are amenable as well as big and handsome; nowadays they grace garden spots and avenues from Hollywood to Vegas to the resorts of the Caribbean and the cities of Africa. They are maintained by the fake oases of sprinkler systems. Whenever I see them there (they're hard to miss) in the self-conscious tropic landscape of a Palm Court Motel, for instance, gracing the general gracelessness of city streets with their birdlike leaning, as if they were sentient, lending an ear to us mortals below, it's like seeing contented lions in a zoo.

If you take the time to stalk them into the broken hills, you can see them wild. That is something else.

Wild Palms:  There are two palm oases here, both in the Tierra Blanca Mountains in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. They are really more than a mile apart. To give a sense of scale, there is a self-portrait in the lower left.

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