In a 1970’s song by America, “A Horse With No Name,” the lead singer describes the desert as an ocean with its life underground, and it’s an apt metaphor for better understanding, exploring and living in this type of environment.
So how do most organisms and other beings manage to live and thrive in the desert, where rain and snowfall are scarce, and in some years no precipitation may fall at all?
Nighttime is the big time to be active, it seems. Kangaroo rats come out of their daytime hiding places to eat, and kit foxes, coyotes and sidewinder rattlesnakes all come out as well. Yucca moths pollinate Joshua Trees, bats and owls zoom across brilliantly clear night skies in search of sustenance.
It’s vital to be resourceful, and adaptive. Some plants lose their leaves entirely during dry spells and regain them after it rains. Other plants have tough, stubby leaves that retain whatever moisture that falls; some in turn have leaves growing at angles that minimize their exposure to the intensity of direct desert sun.
Make the most of what nature and life bring you. The desert tortoise can go up to one year without drinking water. Somehow, they can sense rain coming before we humans do. Tortoises have been observed digging shallow holes or pits where they lie and wallow and welcome rain when it comes.
Have a back-up plan and more than one option on your plate. In Joshua Tree National Park recently, we learned about the strategies of the cactus wren when it came to nesting in desert environments. We observed unoccupied nests these wrens had created in thorny clumps of cacti to distract predatory snakes hunting for their eggs (and at times, their fledgling newborn). Somehow these birds have learned it’s best to have a few decoy nests to distract those whose plans and goals are different than your own.
Be ready and able to capitalize quickly on what life gives you. So true, whether you are in the desert, or wherever your feet may be. Desert wildflower seeds may lie in the soil for a century, waiting for optimum conditions to flourish. Too much heavy rain or snow all at once doesn’t create such conditions. Instead, gentle, steady rains are the key to what may unfold in the spring here. It’s incredible that something so gorgeous and so fleeting has perhaps been 100 years in the making, such as the extensive ocean of desert gold flowers carpeting the floor of Death Valley nearly a month ago
Be humble, and know that you are not the only one out there trying to thrive and make a living.
The desert highlights the need for healthier interdependence between human-impacted versus our wilder neighboring environments. A desert garbage dump for L.A., for example, would attract ravens, which prey upon younger desert tortoises that haven’t developed their tougher adult shells. These endangered reptiles have enough challenges already to survive and thrive and a garbage dump may very well be the tipping point toward their extinction.
Another example-it makes sense for desert locations to be considered for solar and wind power projects, but location is everything. It’s better to site such projects in areas already disturbed by human activity, but not always. We have to consider other factors, such as where bighorn sheep travel over time in search of water, food, or seasonal habitat, or where desert pronghorn migration routes may still best have a chance for their long-term survival as a species.
In the end, it’s amazing that the desert country of southern California, southwestern Nevada, and Arizona is perhaps the most intact and functioning healthy desert environment we have left on the planet. Not bad for a region with over 20 million folks living in southern California, a few million people living in Las Vegas, and perhaps another five million in Phoenix alone.
It’s a vast, often quiet and unforgiving desert surrounded by an ocean of humanity that many only hurry through to get on with their busy lives. Yet it showers those who bravely venture here with its wild, unmanufactured wisdom, helping us thrive in the so-called “real world” as well.