Saturday, June 25, 2011

When They Come

Ever since I was a kid growing up in suburban NY, I've been pissed off about the loss of wild things. My parents house was an old victorian that bordered a small forest. Way down below the house were the railroad tracks that took most of the fathers to NYC each day. Along that track ran a marsh. The tracks marked a line in my young head that formed a balance beam between seemingly opposite ideas - NYC versus the tadpoles, ducks and turtles in the marsh by the tracks. My mother taught me to love nature. My father taught me to love art and complex stories. Nature versus culture. Since the culture of my people seemed hell bent on destroying nature, I found it very hard to reconcile my twin passions.

8 years ago, when I moved from my 30 years of adult life in Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in the high desert above Palm Springs, I had a strong desire to connect with the non domesticated animals of my new world. My desert studio could not have been more urban, situated in the heart of downtown Joshua Tree and right across from the paramedic station. There were no animals in my stripped and barren backyard. Not a bird. Not even the ubiquitous desert rabbit. It seemed that only the inside of my  previously vacant studio had any signs of life - stinging centipedes (a desert friend said "one bites you, get your ass to the emergency ward"), black widows and the occasional scorpion. I'm not squeamish about insects...but come on!

And why would there be animals around? There was nothing to eat or drink and scary emergency sirens across the street. Still, it was and is a good place for my studio. Call it a half way house for an urbanite coming off fast lane addiction.

Over time I slowed down. Permaculturists say the process of land and habitat repair begins with Long and Thoughtful Observation. Here's another reason why permaculture appeals so much to me as an artist. That's what I'm trained to do. I apply that process to the observation of my surroundings and the way my mind interacts with those surroundings. This motto also appeals because our culture rarely engages in this kind of observation which often leads to thoughtless and destructive action being taken. I started to apply it to my rented studio. I learned a lot and managed over time to bring some life back via a vegetable garden, some grape vines, cactus garden, pomegranate trees.  Now there are birds, quail...still no rabbits. Currently I'm applying Long and Thoughtful Observation to my my newly purchased land.

My land is not too badly scraped and not too barren....and very quiet. So there are actually some animals to observe. I keep a journal of animals sighted, the direction they are moving, the time of day. Also I track the direction and velocity of the wind and the temperature. I've long looked forward to living in a thriving habitat and I know that a few years down the road I will be looking on a desert food forest where everything works together to make an abundant environment. In the days of living in my studio, I thought about When They Come....the animals, that is. Now, they're beginning to arrive.

A week ago I was sitting under the big tamarisk tree next to the border hedge of very old and big cactus. I was looking out over the land and thinking about what it will be like when they come, when movement caught my eye. There at the edge of the cactus was a huge beautiful King snake. It's very lucky to have a King snake in residence. They are rattlesnake antagonists and do a great job of keeping them away. This one was moving very slowly and carefully and was clearly making the rounds. A perfect moment for long and thoughtful observation. I followed it at a respectful distance for the 45 minutes it took for it to navigate through the hedge, cross some open territory and disappear into the huge oleander hedge on the east side of the house. Here are some things I thought about during that long observation:

1. The animals are already here. Even with a habitat that has still gone through some destruction like my land, they are around and ready to enter.
2. The snake is here, so close by, maybe because baby rabbits were born in our outside demolition pile during remodeling of the house. Why did the mother rabbit feel that this was a good idea? Maybe because the noise of demolition would be keeping predators away. Now demolition is done, there are more rabbits and so a food supply for the snake.
3. I wonder where my passport is.
4. My mother had a horror of snakes. In fact, the family couldn't even utter the word snake. We could say S.P.Q.E.N. if we needed to say something about them.....go figure. But I'm not afraid. Fear doesn't have to be passed on generationally.
5. I wonder if it's true that toenails continue to grow for awhile after death. Since I discovered when I was 12 that women DO NOT have one more rib than men, I'm deeply suspicious of all definitive statements.
6. I noticed that in between my thoughts, my mind was clear, alert and deeply engaged. I felt plugged in. I liked that feeling.
7. No thoughts. Good! Damn, thinking again!
8. Maybe long and thoughtful observation is similar to meditation.
9. I wonder if the snake has a circuit it makes on the land and how often? Got to consider this when placing structures so as not to interrupt its path.
10. I thought about how amazing it will be as the permaculture plan unrolls and the food forest takes effect. Each stage will bring it's own challenges as the animals come and I learn how to deal.

In the next few months we will hook up the greywater and direct it all to our first swale in which we will plant fruit trees and other plants that will form a beneficial guild. I look forward to seeing who comes along then and how I'm going to deal when they start eating all the fruit. Permaculture says "The problem is the solution". I'm intriqued by this statement. Its implications unroll as I encounter the challenges of transitioning to a new way of life. I look forward to understanding how it will apply when they REALLY come.


  1. Love your blog. I came across it as I was writing about stacking functions on my own. We live in the mountains but many of your desert tips still apply. Thanks for being out there and sharing the dream. And the occasional fears.

  2. Read your blog as well. Thanks to you too!