Friday, March 27, 2009

Desert Prayer

“It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”

Edward Abby, Desert Solitaire

I’m working in the California desert this spring. Every day I walk across the vast landscape, through sandy washes, over rocky low hills, amongst the creosote bush and wildflowers.

The sun is bright, the wind cold, and all day long I hear the crunching of the small stones beneath my boots. Lizards scurry under shrubs when they hear me, antelope ground squirrels flick their tails, and if I’m very lucky I might see a desert tortoise, infinitely dignified and every-so-slightly comical, blinking its ancient eyes. Some days there's a river of painted lady butterflies, streaming past me from the south, alighting now and again on the tiny bright desert flowers for a sip of nectar before flying on.

I drove through the desert last December in a blinding rain, and the glorious wildflowers all around me are the fruit of those winter storms. Sometimes I walk through a sea of golden desert dandelion, splashed with the blue and purple of phacelia. The beavertail cactus is just coming into bloom, a brilliant unlikely fuchsia. Tiny white “desert stars” dot the gravels, and evening primroses of every shape and color are splashed across the landscape. It’s a paradise for these few weeks of spring.

I’m working with a team of botanists, looking for rare plants on a huge swathe of public land. We’re here because this land may end up bulldozed to make way for one of many, many solar energy projects slated for the southwestern deserts. Everything we see and document may be gone in a few years.

The work is glorious, we all agree. We work long hours but we have the joy of seeing the desert in bloom and of working in a place that feels like wilderness, miles from the nearest paved road. Most of us are tremendously concerned about global warming and climate change, and cheered by the new emphasis on alternative energy. But to see this beautiful landscape and imagine it utterly changed is painful. We walk and wonder…is it worth it? Is this the only way?

Millions of acres of public land in the southwestern deserts, much in pristine condition, are currently being identified by energy companies as potential sites for solar and wind power projects, in a kind of 21st century gold rush. I was told that if all these permits were actually granted, more public land would be destroyed than in all the mining since the passage of the mining act in the 1800’s.

Wind power leaves some natural habitat beneath the turbines, but most solar projects need to completely flatten the landscape to provide a stable surface for mirrors or solar panels. Nothing is left except the stones and gravel. And these projects can cover many square miles of land, enough solar power to be equivalent to a nuclear power plant.

Is this good? Is this bad? Some environmentalists – and the current administration in Washington - argue that these few million acres of our deserts are expendable, given the scope and scale of global warming, looming over us like a bad dream. They may be right. But how do you say that to these tortoises, to the whiptail lizards, to the painted ladies streaming across the land? What about the value of wilderness, of great open spaces of light and heat and emptiness?

Deserts have always gotten the short end of the stick. They’ve been the places we put our prisons, our bombing ranges, our landfills, our toxic waste dumps. They’re too dry for cattle, too stony to farm, too far from cities for suburbs. Most of the desert is public land, but there’s no money for the government to make on creosote bush and sunlight. Until now. And it’s a great deal for the energy companies, perhaps even what makes these huge projects feasible: rather than spend millions for private land, they can lease – and utterly alter – public land for a fraction of the cost.

“Public land” means “our land”. But no one seems to be considering yet where these projects will do the least harm, or how to plan for them on a regional scale. We do our surveys, but it’s not clear that they will have the slightest effect on the final decision. The government wants clean energy, NOW, and the desert is a long way from Washington.

So far not one major national environmental group has been willing to raise concerns about the effect of “clean energy” on desert lands. Only the tiny California Native Plant Society has stepped forward: Deserts Need Care in Rush to Clean Energy.

Last week, Senator Feinstein became the first senator to take a stand and ask for greater protection for desert lands that were specifically purchased by the public for wildlife conservation and are now being considered for solar projects: Feinstein Seeks Block Power from Public Land. I wonder whether any other legislators will be willing to join her, and whether the Department of Interior will be willing to listen.

Meanwhile, I walk through the desert, bending down to identify the small flowers, feeling the clean wind in my face, loving this place while it’s still here, knowing it may one day go to feed our great hunger for energy, like so many other places – our coal mines, our uranium mines, our oil fields, our pipelines…Even though part of my spiritual practice is to know that "all things that have a beginning have an end", still I can hope that this place, and others like it, will go on as they have for thousands of years, free of our insatiability.

Every day that I walk here I love it more, and wish for others to see it and love it as I do. Surely there’s a way to move toward more solar and wind power with less harm. Surely people can and will wake up and ask our government to care for the land that belongs to all of us, and to the plants and animals that live here, no matter how barren and empty it may seem at first glance.

That’s my prayer.


  1. Great! I love it, Florence. You articulate all the love and quandary so well. I identify with every noun and verb. Who knew this place would grow all up and through us the way it has? I look forward to reading your other essays.

  2. Wow, in the rush for clean energy and finally getting over our addiction to fossil fuels, yet another casualty is made. Thanks for helping to spread awareness about this issue!

  3. Wow. That's just some very fine words that stand right up to anything Ed Abbey might have said on the subject. This Earth is a precious body and the desert is the bare skin. I'm glad you're there getting the full experience and telling us about it. Thanks, Florence.