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The Desert Modified My Life. It Can Change Yours, Too.

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Once I moved to Las Vegas last October, the environment upended my expectations of sparseness and monotony. I hiked through slot canyons and along the Colorado River. I brushed my hands over pinyons and junipers, nicked my fingers on cholla and barrel cactuses. I developed a lexicon of the Southwest, learning about sandstone rock partitions made red by oxidized iron, and “sky islands,” isolated mountain ranges with drastic elevation and vegetation changes from the encircling landscape. Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains constitute one such range, rising suddenly from the Mojave like an island jutting from the ocean. Once I hiked there, amongst quaking aspens and bristlecone pines, it was as if I were in one other world. Removed from being hostile to life, the Mojave is abundant.

There’s some truth to abandon stereotypes. Within the Mojave, temperatures are extreme: The thermometer reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime of 2021. The desert kills those that come unprepared, and demands we listen if we would like to survive. Despite the landscape’s intensity, some flora (just like the Joshua tree) has thrived here for thousands and thousands of years. People, including the Mojave and Chemehuevi, have dwelled here for hundreds of years. The desert’s Native peoples have long known, as a part of their cultural heritage, find out how to read the landscape: where to seek out water and shade during times of warmth; to avoid depressions and washes during times of flash flood.

In “Ecology of Fear,” Mike Davis writes that Anglo-descended settlers lacked the cultural knowledge to know their environmental context. When pioneers, for instance, were stranded within the below-sea-level basin east of the Panamint Mountains, they deemed the world Death Valley. The morbid theme stuck, with landforms today called Coffin Canyon and the Funeral Mountains. However the Timbisha Shoshone have lived within the valley, which they call Tüpippüh, for hundreds of years. It’s easy to estrange ourselves from the places we inhabit, or consider them to be fearsome and deadly. But non-Natives can learn from Indigenous Mojave people’s relationship with the desert. Spending time within the desert teaches you to exist inside this ecosystem, affirming we’re of the landscape, not apart.

Once I began to listen, I noticed that since the weather is comparatively constant, seasonal change arrives in subtle shifts fairly than the markers I used to be used to, like changing leaves and summer wildfires. The gradual lengthening of springtime light. The slight cloud cover during cold spells. Infrequently, the shifts are usually not so subtle. In August, a sudden and heavy humidity replenished my dry hair and skin. Then, the skies broke: my first monsoon season.

Time and scale feel different within the Mojave. This land may be very old, made up of soil, lichen and algae pressed together over hundreds of years right into a living crust. The Spring Mountains formed thousands and thousands of years ago from ancient rivers, sand dunes and the ocean. Exposed metamorphic rocks within the Mojave National Preserve date back so far as 2.5 billion years, roughly half the age of the planet. Within the desert, humans are reminded of our smallness, our naïveté, our transience. That is the meaning of geological time. Our bodies will die, leaving of their wake a modified atmosphere, however the rocks and sand will go on.

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