When 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 walls made red by oxidized iron, and “sky islands,” isolated mountain ranges with drastic elevation and vegetation changes from the surrounding landscape. Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains constitute one such range, rising suddenly from the Mojave like an island jutting from the sea. When I hiked there, among quaking aspens and bristlecone pines, it was as though I were in another world. Far from being hostile to life, the Mojave is abundant.
There is some truth to desert stereotypes. In the Mojave, temperatures are extreme: The thermometer reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer of 2021. The desert kills those who come unprepared, and demands we pay attention if we want to survive. In spite of the landscape’s intensity, some plant life (like the Joshua tree) has thrived here for millions of years. People, including the Mojave and Chemehuevi, have dwelled here for thousands of years. The desert’s Native peoples have long known, as part of their cultural heritage, how to read the landscape: where to find water and shade during times of heat; 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 understand their environmental context. When pioneers, for example, were stranded in the below-sea-level basin east of the Panamint Mountains, they deemed the area Death Valley. The morbid theme stuck, with landforms today called Coffin Canyon and the Funeral Mountains. But the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in the valley, which they call Tüpippüh, for thousands of years. It’s easy to estrange ourselves from the places we inhabit, or believe them to be fearsome and deadly. But non-Natives can learn from Indigenous Mojave people’s relationship with the desert. Spending time in the desert teaches you to exist within this ecosystem, affirming we are of the landscape, not apart.
When I began to pay attention, I noticed that because the weather is relatively constant, seasonal change arrives in subtle shifts rather than the markers I was used to, like changing leaves and summer wildfires. The gradual lengthening of springtime light. The slight cloud cover during cold spells. Once in a while, the shifts are 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 in the Mojave. This land is very old, made up of soil, lichen and algae pressed together over thousands of years into a living crust. The Spring Mountains formed millions of years ago from ancient rivers, sand dunes and the sea. Exposed metamorphic rocks in the Mojave National Preserve date back as far as 2.5 billion years, roughly half the age of the planet. In the desert, humans are reminded of our smallness, our naïveté, our transience. This is the meaning of geological time. Our bodies will die, leaving in their wake a changed atmosphere, but the rocks and sand will go on.