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Chuckwalla Land

Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert

Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Chuckwalla Land
    Book Description:

    Described as "a writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and other self-educated seers" by theSan Francisco Chronicle, David Rains Wallace turns his attention in this new book to another distinctive corner of California-its desert, the driest and hottest environment in North America. Drawing from his frequent forays to Death Valley, Red Rock Canyon, Kelso Dunes, and other locales, Wallace illuminates the desert's intriguing flora and fauna as he explores a controversial, unresolved scientific debate about the origin and evolution of its unusual ecosystems. Eminent scientists and scholars appear throughout these pages, including maverick paleobiologist Daniel Axelrod, botanist Ledyard Stebbins, and naturalists Edmund Jaeger and Joseph Wood Krutch. Weaving together ecology, geology, natural history, and mythology in his characteristically eloquent voice, Wallace reveals that there is more to this starkly beautiful landscape than meets the eye.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94866-2
    Subjects: Paleontology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    It took me years to notice the California desert. When I first crossed it, on freeways from the east, it seemed more of the same blazing scrub as in Nevada or Arizona. When I crossed it from the west, it seemed more of the same agroindustrial sprawl that borders California freeways. It wasnʹt all subdivisions, warehouses, tomato fields and power lines, not yet, but it looked more like an enormous vacant lot than a landscape. Tractmongersʹ catchphrases—ʺraw land,ʺ ʺnothing thereʺ—nonsensical applied to forests or wetlands, sounded more appropriate to the dead-looking brush sliding past the car windows.


  4. ONE A Sphinx in Arcady
    (pp. 1-5)

    The desertʹs stark reticence challenges comfortable notions that we humans occupy the apex of benign, reasonable processes that have unfolded especially to produce us. American pioneers saw Californiaʹs forests and grasslands as an unspoiled Promised Land divinely created to usher in an Arcadian Golden Age for progressive civilization. They saw its desert as a strange ruined wasteland that needed ʺreclamation,ʺ with the implication that it somehow is not natural as forests and grasslands are, that it might be part of a contrary, hostile creation.

    Early conservationists like John Muir did not necessarily share the publicʹs biblical creationism (Muir had his...

  5. TWO The Country of Dried Skin
    (pp. 6-10)

    One of the things that can make California desert look inconsequential from freeways is that much of it doesnʹt even support bushes and lizards. Wide basins of dirty white salts that fill most of the large valleys seem about as close as earthly nature can get to nonentity. Even a big hole in the ground has more character, more promise of life, than desert alkali flats. Their present vacuity makes it hard to credit the fact, proved by the bathtub rings of extinct beaches around them, that they were once freshwater lakes full of fish and waterfowl and surrounded by...

  6. THREE A Cactus Heresy
    (pp. 11-15)

    The first Spanish explorers in California certainly didnʹt see the desert as a supermarket. Most of them saw as little of it as possible. Pedro Font, a Franciscan priest who accompanied the pioneering Anza expedition to Alta California, wrote vividly of the coast, leaving early descriptions of redwoods, grizzlies, and other wonders. Traversing the Sonoran from the Colorado River to the mountains east of San Diego in December, 1775, he wrote only of scanty or bad water and poor or nonexistent pasturage. The eighteen-day outward crossing made the expedition want to see even less of the desert on their way...

  7. FOUR The Creator’s Dumping Ground
    (pp. 16-20)

    The Anglo explorers who entered southeast California in the mid-nineteenth century had begun to call it desert but otherwise described it much as had their Spanish predecessors. The fur trapper Jedediah Smith was among the first, crossing the Mojave from the Colorado River to Los Angeles in 1827 on roughly the same Indian trade route that Francisco Garces had followed. He called it ʺa west course fifteen days over a country of complete barrens,ʺ where the only water available at times was from ʺchewing slips of the cabbage pear, a singular plant.ʺ Smith found the ʺbarrensʺ so complete that when...

  8. FIVE An Evolutionary Backwater
    (pp. 21-25)

    As Iʹve said, the California desert has connections with others. One of the vivider landscape surprises Iʹve experienced was of starting a trek in the Peruvian Andes and finding that the trailhead vegetation—on a bench above the Urubamba River at nine thousand feet—might have been in Red Rock Canyon or the Providence Mountains. The plants werenʹt the same but they were similar variations on the themes of spikiness, hairiness, smelliness, and so on. I saw what looked like ephedra, cholla, cereus cactus, and prickly pear. The only marked difference from the Alta Californian Sonoran was the presence of...

  9. SIX Anti-Darwinian Lacertilians
    (pp. 26-33)

    One reason why Darwin found the Galapagos Islands ʺvery sterileʺ was that most of their terrain is recently erupted lava: ʺNothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is every where covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.ʺ He agreed with theBeagleʹscaptain, Robert FitzRoy, that the lava gave the islands an infernal aspect, making their swarms of blackish marine iguanas seem like imps of darkness on the shores of Pandemonium despite the big lizardsʹ inoffensive...

  10. SEVEN Descriptive Confusion
    (pp. 34-39)

    Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh collected in coastal California but not in its desert, perhaps thinking it too barren even for bone hunting. Early scientists who did explore it were ambivalent about its evolutionary role. Some saw it as a backwater; some saw it as filled with competition. Most felt they had enough to do describing the wretched place, much less trying to guess at its past. Petrified wood, shells, and other evidence lay about, unhidden by vegetation, but desert fossils can be confusing. When I was at Mitchell Caverns, many black, scatlike cylinders on rocks suggested that small, living...

  11. EIGHT A Murderous Brood
    (pp. 40-49)

    For all its extremes, the California desert can be surprisingly benign at times. The first night I spent at Mitchell Caverns was a complete change from the chill, windswept grotesqueries of Red Rock Canyon the night before. The evening was warm and calm, rare in spring. The creosote flats rose toward the dove gray Providence Mountains with a kind of tender majesty beneath a royal blue sky and a full moon that was as inviting in its gigantism as the previous nightʹs had been daunting. Strolling over the white sand was like floating. The only disturbers of the peace were...

  12. NINE Hopeful Monsters
    (pp. 50-54)

    Early twentieth-century scientists forgot Edward Copeʹs neo-Lamarckian ideas, but they still faulted Darwin for not explaining ʺthe origin of the fittest,ʺ the source of the variation that he said natural selection needs to operate. Without such a source, evolutionary change of any kind would not occur, since organisms would simply remain the same from generation to generation. Many evolutionists became so obsessed with variationʹs origin that they almost forgot about Darwin. It seemed possible that changes in the ʺgerm plasm,ʺ genetic mutation, might be the main force in evolution, with natural selection a secondary factor. Mutations might allow organisms to...

  13. TEN An Old Earth-Feature
    (pp. 55-60)

    An anti-Darwinian bias toward desert evolution lingered well into the twentieth century. Forrest Shreve, a botanist who succeeded Daniel MacDougal as director of the Carnegie desert lab, published a book about cactus in 1931. It reiterated Reverend George Henslowʹs theories of the 1890s:

    One of the most commonly held ideas about the cacti is that their spines have come about ʹfor the purpose of protecting themʹ from their enemies in the animal kingdom. True enough, there can be little doubt that the spines do the plants good service in many cases in protecting them from the ravages of rodents and...

  14. ELEVEN A Climatic Accident
    (pp. 61-68)

    Ivan Johnston presented his desert shrub paper at the Eighth American Scientific Congress in Washington, D.C., in May 1940, and it was influential. A 1944 textbook resoundingly titledFoundations of Plant Geographyechoed its idea that very ancient South American deserts had been the source of ancient North American ones. But at least one member of the audience may have questioned Johnstonʹs version of the desert past.

    Daniel Axelrod was working as a postdoctoral fellow in paleobotany at the National Museum and the Carnegie Institution when Johnston presented his paper. The subject interested him, albeit from a different angle. When...

  15. TWELVE An Evolutionary Frontier
    (pp. 69-74)

    The colleague who recalled Daniel Axelrodʹs prickliness underwent some controversies of his own. He was G. Ledyard Stebbins, who was revolutionizing plant evolution in general while Axelrod revolutionized desert plant evolution in particular. As one of the chief proponents of the ʺnew evolutionary synthesis,ʺ also known as neo-Darwinism, Stebbins helped to shoulder the contentious task of resurrecting natural selection from the limbo into which opposing ideas and its own original shortcomings had thrust it.

    By the late 1930s, discovery of basic genetic mechanisms had confounded non-Darwinian notions about ʺthe origin of the fittest.ʺ Whether or not heat and dryness could...

  16. THIRTEEN A Neo-Darwinian Galapagos
    (pp. 75-80)

    Nowhere do the California mountains rise more dramatically than in Death Valley. It is the lowest, hottest, driest place in the United States, and it looks it, a vast salt flat walled with escarpments so steep they seem to ascend with visible speed through the heat waves that distort the air. But to me the most dramatic thing about Death Valley isnʹt the blazing salt but little animals that live, to a degree, in the salt.

    My strongest memory of the valley is not of the famous scenery but of happening, after a morning of being roasted and sandblasted by...

  17. FOURTEEN Mexican Geneses
    (pp. 81-86)

    If pupfish didnʹt show how California desert originated, that didnʹt mean other organisms couldnʹt. Daniel Axelrod was energetically exploring such possibilities when G. Ledyard Stebbinsʹs ideas about accelerated desert evolution emerged. Axelrod suspected that, contrary to what botanists from Asa Gray onward had thought, it was nottodayʹsdesert vegetation that originated in Mexico and moved northward with drying climate. It was another type of vegetation, which he called the Madro-Tertiary Geoflora to complement Asa Grayʹs temperate-zone Arcto-Tertiary flora of conifers and deciduous hardwoods.

    Axelrod thought the Madro-Tertiary Geoflora had evolved from humid tropical and subtropical forest that, as fossils...

  18. FIFTEEN Desert Relicts
    (pp. 87-94)

    About halfway along the road from Twentynine Palms to Cottonwood Springs in Joshua Tree National Park, there is an interpretive stop called Ocotillo Patch. It consists, predictably, of a patch of ocotillos, tall woody plants that for most of the year are simply clusters of spiky poles. The patch might seem redundant for a roadside attraction, since ocotillo typifies Californiaʹs Sonoran Desert and pervades vast areas. Yet the few big specimens at Ocotillo Patch are remarkable because they are the only ones around, as I found one morning when I walked to the nearest foothills looking for more.

    The patch...

  19. SIXTEEN Madro-Tertiary Attitudes
    (pp. 95-99)

    Despite his attention to the details of fossil floras and the strength of his opinions about them, Daniel Axelrod was flexible. A legendary example of his flexibility, and of his prolific energy, was his response to the plate tectonics revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, when new studies of the continents and ocean basins suggested that they are not permanent features, as geologists had thought, but have shifted considerably in the past, driven by obscure forces in the earthʹs core and mantle.

    In 1963, Axelrod published a closely reasoned article that used fossil floras to refute plate tectonics: ʺThe distribution...

  20. SEVENTEEN A Friendly Land
    (pp. 100-108)

    Scientific rivalry clearly played a part in the resistance to Daniel Axelrodʹs ideas, and his attitude to nonscientists didnʹt help either. Not only prickly with peers, he disdained to court the popular media. His articles are relentlessly technical, replete with jargon, neologisms, Greco-Latinisms, passive voice, and other barriers to general readership. Unlike G. Ledyard Stebbins and Jerzy Rzedowski, he didnʹt publish books except for academic monographs. Resistance to his neo-Darwinian concepts of recent and rapid desert evolution had deeper roots as well.

    Despite its scientific influence, neo-Darwinism has never engaged the public as ʺpaleo-Darwinismʺ has. New books, articles, and films...

  21. EIGHTEEN Furry Paleontologists
    (pp. 109-116)

    One day, I took a walk up a canyon in the El Paso Mountains, which run northeast from Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave. The El Pasos have produced as wide a variety of fossils as any part of the California desert—not only the Pliocene mammals that John Merriam found in the Ricardo Formation, but petrified wood later dug from the same formation as well as older animal and plant remains from others. I didnʹt find any fossils that day, but I did encounter one of Californiaʹs most influential fossil collectors.

    The porous rock of the canyon was eroded...

  22. NINETEEN Dawn Horses and Dinosaurs
    (pp. 117-121)

    At about the same time that wood rats were revealing the youngest fossil evidence of the regionʹs past, more conventional paleontologists were digging up some of the oldest in the wood rat–filled El Paso Mountains. Lying in the immediate rain shadow of the southern Sierra Nevada, the El Pasos are barren even for the Mojave. Their gray slopes look cadaverous when seen from colorful Red Rock Canyon, with just a faint fuzz of creosote bush among the rocks. So it is odd that they produced the earliest proof that southeast California not only wasnʹt always desert but once supported...

  23. TWENTY Axelrod Antagonistes
    (pp. 122-128)

    I bumped into Daniel Axelrodʹs prickles once when I was tempted to write about what Darwin called the ʺabominable mysteryʺ of flowering plant origins. Fossils show that angiosperms appeared in the late dinosaur age, but nobody is sure exactly why or how. When I consulted G. Ledyard Stebbins, he gently warned that it would be hard ʺto present the evidence and reasoning in a form that anyone other than a systematic botanist, plant anatomist, or paleobotanist could easily understand.ʺ Recently found early angiosperm fossils complicated the problem because they were less primitive than some living flowering plants. ʺIf you can...

  24. TWENTY-ONE The Midday Sun
    (pp. 129-138)

    Using modern desert animals to elucidate past desert evolution is confusing enough in scientific articles. In the desert, it can be bewildering. Coming suddenly face-to-face with a creosote bush–eating grasshopper one windy day, I had trouble seeing how ʺnormalʺ evolution had produced it, whatever the continent. It was improbably stout for its meager food plant, colored a snazzy black and chartreuse better suited to a NASCAR rally than a dead-looking shrub in the middle of nowhere. It seemed more like something hatched out in a nuclear test site than a product of natural selection, old or new.

    California desert...

  25. TWENTY-TWO Lacertilian Ambiguities
    (pp. 139-145)

    Joseph Wood Krutch wasnʹt sure that his zebra-tailed lizardsʹ performance was sexual, much less musical. But he did cite indirect evidence of the former: ʺThe performance went on for some two hours. . . . I hope the ultimate result was some more little lizards to continue one of the most ancient lines. That such a happy event sometimes does occur I know, because I discovered, just about the time of this courtship, several inch-and-a-half-long individuals of the same species scampering about in the dry herbage by my patio wall.ʺ

    When I walked up Porcupine Wash, small zebra-tailed lizards scampered...

  26. TWENTY-THREE Xerothermic Invasions
    (pp. 146-150)

    Round Valley Regional Preserve east of Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay Area is a prime example of what John Fremont extolled as Californiaʹs ʺfresh and verdantʺ coastal valleys. A gentle bowl of savanna and grassland tucked into the edge of the Coast Range, it contains just the kind of riparian woodland I vainly sought at the Kern River Preserve in 1983—a stately gallery of big valley oaks, sycamores, buckeyes, and walnuts as well as cottonwoods and willows. Thereʹs even an old fig tree, clearly left over from a homestead but now seeming integral to the preserveʹs secluded...

  27. TWENTY-FOUR Sand Swimmers
    (pp. 151-155)

    An area that I found as unexpectedly enchanting as Red Rock Canyon during early desert trips was Algodones Dunes between Anza-Borrego and the Colorado River. Dunes hadnʹt interested me particularly as natural places; Iʹd associated them mainly with movies about Rommelʹs desert war. But another writing project sent me to the Algodones in 1985. When I got there one late afternoon in March, I might as well have arrived at a desert war. One side of the road was solid with parked pickups and trailers, and the dunes beyond swarmed with ORVs from which came occasional gunfire and a steady...

  28. TWENTY-FIVE Axelrod Ascendant
    (pp. 156-159)

    David Morafkaʹs interpretation of the fringe-toed lizardʹs ambiguous distribution in favor of Axelrodʹs ideas indicated a paradigm shift. Despite the resistance of biologists like Frank Blair, and perhaps also because of the confusions involved in that resistance, the Madro-Tertiary Geoflora had come into its own by the late 1970s. In a 1978 monograph coauthored with Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Axelrod presented his California desert origin scenario more as fact than hypothesis: ʺA number of genera that are recorded in late Cretaceous to Eocene floras, where they are in tropical savannas to thorn forest vegetation, may well...

  29. TWENTY-SIX An Evolutionary Museum
    (pp. 160-164)

    Daniel Axelrodʹs Madro-Tertiary laurels would prove prickly, however. Theoretical fruition always bears the seeds of doubt. G. Ledyard Stebbinsʹs later thinking on desert origins seems an example of this. In his 1952 paper, ʺAridity as a Stimulus to Plant Evolution,ʺ he had written that genetic change and natural selection would speed up in both semiarid and arid regions. This had supported Axelrodʹs idea of regional desert as a fast-evolving, recent phenomenon. In a book on flowering plants published in 1974, however, Stebbins had changed his mind about desert as an evolutionary frontier.

    He had maintained in his 1952 paper that...

  30. TWENTY-SEVEN The Riddle of the Palms
    (pp. 165-172)

    If sand dunes are a metaphysical essence of desert, then palm oases seem their essential complement, the moist, shady exceptions that prove the rule of fiery desiccation. A desert movie with dunes but no palms is unimaginable. One of the archetypes of this artistic convention is an oasis that geologist Clarence King described amid the Coachella Valleyʹs sands during his 1866 desert crossing:

    Under the palms we hastily threw off our saddles and allowed the parched brutes to drink their fill. We lay down in the grass, drank, bathed our faces, and played in the water like children. . ....

  31. TWENTY-EIGHT Bushes and Camels
    (pp. 173-179)

    The same year that the two San Diego State biologists published their analysis ofWashingtoniagenetics, another biologist published yet another possible explanation for desert fan palmʹs limited distribution—that its main dispersers are extinct: ʺIt is likely that contemporary rare desert trees with very localized distributions and fleshy fruits (e.g. the desert palm,Washingtonia filifera, which occurs in tiny groves in the Sonoran desert and has canid dispersed seeds at present) could become very common if once again serviced by a wide-ranging megafaunal dispersal agent such as a camelid.ʺ The biologist was Daniel Janzen, who became prominent in the...

  32. TWENTY-NINE Axelrod Askew
    (pp. 180-186)

    It is hard to imagine even camels thriving in some of Californiaʹs present desert. Fortynine Palms Canyon on the north edge of Joshua Tree National Park is an example, a landscape of granite boulders like Cima Dome, but without Joshua trees, junipers, grass, or much else in the way of giant mammal fodder. Even spring wildflowers are sparse among the creosote bush and barrel cactus. The palm oasis at the top provides water for bighorns and deer, toads and tree frogs, but it is the usualWashingtoniagrove, a crack in the rocks with a dusty trickle at the bottom....

  33. THIRTY Paradigms Postponed
    (pp. 187-193)

    It seems perversely counterintuitive that an Andean-size massif dominating the far west at the Age of Reptilesʹ end should have persisted to become the present Sierra and Great Basin ranges but have left only esoteric traces of its existence throughout the Age of Mammals. The West Coastʹs jagged peaks and steep canyonslookso young compared to the hulking Appalachians, which are supposed to be truly old mountains. YetScienceandNaturepublished no letters in opposition to the articles proposing this reversal of long-accepted notions. Subsequent issues carried arguments about climate change, animal rights, drug abuse, human evolution, science...

  34. THIRTY-ONE The Falcon and the Shrikes
    (pp. 194-202)

    It is striking if not surprising how quickly the desert empties of humans as the summer nears. When I visited what was then Joshua Tree National Monument in mid-April 1984, the parking lots in the western, high-desert section looked like suburban mallsʹ and the crannies among the nearby granite boulders were full of tents and sleeping bags. When I visited the recently upgraded national park in late May of 1998, the only other person at one large lot in an already blazing dawn was a crazy young Australian in a black raincoat. It got hot enough a few days later...

  35. Epilogue. THE SPHINX’S LAIR
    (pp. 203-210)

    I didnʹt go back to Red Rock Canyon for years after 1983. My first impression of ominous squalor morphing into surreal enchantment seemed unrepeatable. And the canyon was different when I did return in spring 2008—a tidily improved state park on a rebuilt, four-lane highway. Litter and ORV tracks were scarce. Ubiquitous signs protected raptor-nesting cliffs and botanical features. Well-maintained trails led into the formations.

    But surrealism lingered in the hoodoos and minarets. I soon found myself walking a narrow gulch strangely unmarked by recent human presence. There was broken glass, inescapable in a former movie location, but even...

  36. Notes
    (pp. 211-228)
  37. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 229-240)
  38. Index
    (pp. 241-255)
  39. Back Matter
    (pp. 256-256)