August 15, 2012

From Fires to Floods

Whitewater River

Today, the wind hasn't stopped whipping. Shortly after sunrise, it swirled a nice cool breeze around me in the national park, and blew smoke from the lightning-ignited Quail Fire across the sky.

Being from LA, when I first saw the smoke on Sunday shortly after ignition, I assumed it was smog.

And then I saw it rising from the park's mountainous, sawtoothed skyline, and thought, "Oh."

You expect fires in an arid climate, but it has been remarkably wet here since my arrival, with spot showers, thunderstorms, and flooding.

Is that why it's been humid? Isn't the desert supposed to be dry?

Meteorologically, over the last couple of weeks, Joshua Tree has been everything you wouldn't expect the desert to be.

In Palm Springs, the locals complain of the increasing humidity resulting from the proliferation of golf courses, for which constant irrigation is necessary to keep their But up here, in the high desert, far from the luxury resorts and ubiquitous swimming pools, where does the water in the air come from?

To understand the desert, you have to understand its relationship to water. Very dry soil repels water, so when it actually does rain, the water doesn't get absorbed into the ground. Rather, it immediately runs off, down mountains and canyons, settling into the lowest ground it can find, often flooding it. And even then, given the ambient temperature, it's more likely to evaporate into the air than seep into the ground, where it's needed most.

The life that thrives in the desert does so because it can survive on very little water. Plants can grow their roots deep into the ground in search of moisture. Succulents can store it in their leaves, stems and roots for as long as they need it. Coyotes can extract water from juniper berries and then leave the rest behind in their scat.

Other living things become desperate for water, especially when temperatures rise into the triple digits. Hikers expire when they've lost the trail and wander for hours. Honeybees become aggressive and attack you for the sweat on your skin. Birds flock to natural springs and oases, if they can find them.

But for all of these desert dwellers that desperately need the water - the ground, the plants, the wildlife, the tourists - the water must be administered slowly and not stormily. The water must slowly drip - not stream or cascade - or the water will either run right past you, too quick to catch, or it will flood you, drown you, and become more of a danger than dehydration itself.

A storm arrives. Lightning strikes. A fire ignites. Helicopters dump water to extinguish the flames. Floods ensue.

A bucket of water tossed over the head won't cure a person dying of thirst.

As I write this, the wind velocity has increased exponentially, and I've felt exactly two droplets of water on my left shoulder. The sky is patchy with clouds but not stormy. A horse whinnies. The quails plead. The rusted wind sculptures creak. The mourning doves have gone silent. The trees shudder from the wind in the distance. I can hear them before I can feel it in my hair.

It is now not a question of whether it will rain, but for how long, and how hard? Will it blow out the power, as it has during every other rainfall? Will it wash my (rental) car down the hill? Will it leave me stranded and alone in the highlands?

Will it run off my skin, barely wetting me on its way down, or will it sink in through my pores, drown me, flood my lungs and overwhelm the senses?

After going without water for so long, it's hard to know how much will be enough, and when it's too much. It's almost easier to live without it.

You get used to it.

Related Post:
Where Does My Garden Grow?
A Delicate Desert Flower
Could I Be Loved?

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