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Sun-Baked, but not Half-Baked

Simmons B. Buntin reviews Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, text by Deanne Stillman and photographs by Galen Hunt

Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango, text by Deanne Stillman and photographs by Galen Hunt.Often, reviews begin with a pithy analogy of something the reviewer did—somewhere he went, someone he knew—that relates to the book he is reviewing. For better or worse, however, I have no such story to share of Joshua Tree National Park—a place I have only been by and not to, enticing though it is.

Fortunately, my lack of just such an introduction is more than made up for by the pithy writing and stories in Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango by Deanne Stillman, with photographs by Galen Hunt. To whit:

The Mojave is the kind of desert that won’t just outlast you, like all deserts, but really looks like it will. The Colorado Desert, on the other hand, the softer half of the park, the southeastern side, is at a lower elevation, not quite as close to the sun, although it is generally hotter than the Mojave. It’s also prettier, doesn’t appear to threaten in any way, which is why it doesn’t get as much press or fanfare. But it should; if Joshua Tree National Park had been limited to just the Mojave side, it would not be the amphitheatre of strange magic that holds me in its unshakeable and ever-comforting spell. I like to think of the Colorado as yin (female) to Mojave’s yang (male); the Colorado as a beautiful dancer who endlessly swivels and arcs and laments and loves, the Mojave as a goofy, ruggedly handsome killer with a face full of crags that you will never find your way out of, the Colorado that sucks the extreme energy of the Mojave into its pores and breathes it back, without the edge.

Stillman’s insightful, witty, and sometimes odd narrative is beautifully supported by Hunt’s photos. To whit:

Joshua Tree photo by Galen Hunt.

Rather than a comprehensive guide to the park, or a travel memoir, Joshua Tree reads like a meandering essay, which in fact it is. The book itself is magazine-length: 76 pages, including bibliography, with a full-color, soft and glossy binding. It’s easy to slip into the backpack and pull out while waiting for your vehicle to be serviced, which is precisely when I read most of it, in one wonderful sitting.

Stillman is a regular at Joshua Tree National Park—she has daggered friends growing from the desert floor, friends she confides in, whom she measures her progress against even as the land around the park becomes less and less parklike. It helps to know, too, that she is the author of the critically acclaimed Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, first published in 2001. It’s more important to note, however, that Stillman is not just a reporter of events, whether those in real-time or in a more geologic sense. She is a participant. And the good news in that is that we become participants by reading her stories, by meeting her more human friends, such as Larry and Donna Charpied, “a delightful pair of jojoba farmers who have lived just outside the park for twenty-three years and over time have become its unsalaried guardians, defending it against all manner of threats as civilization closes in.”

Near the center—the apex, perhaps—of the book-length essay, Stillman recounts how she met the Charpieds, their fight against “a mega-garbage dump at an old mine site” near the park, Donna’s arrest for participation in an earlier blockade of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, and how they learned to farm jojoba, a native plant. So too we meet Raven, a “body art pioneer” who moved to Twentynine Palms from Sunset Boulevard to open a used bookstore.

And what we discover is that, even in the immensity and peculiarity of the desert—whether Mojave or Colorado—this place called Joshua Tree National Park is not only about, well, this physical place. It is also about its human culture, though perhaps sporadic, and about its wavering blanket of individual and even ecological spirituality.

Joshua Tree concludes—as by necessity most collections about inspirational places must in this day and age—with a review of the threats to the park and its flora and fauna. It is important we know these things, that we understand why they are threats and, just importantly, what can be done about them. One of the stylistic approaches I really enjoy, though, is how even in portraying these challenges, Stillman remains true to her literary, quirky self:

Lest you think I’m sun-baked, or maybe even just baked, rest assured that I’m not the only one who depends on the Joshua tree for succor and support. The multi-limbed character with the furry-looking bark and the dagger-like leaves is actually the original desert housing development. If you can fit into its trunk or one of its branches and have the kind of skin or shell that can withstand its serious armor, you can move in for nothing down!

Stillman makes it clear that we all want—indeed, all need—a place like Joshua Tree National Park. And I’m delighted to report that, thanks to the University of Arizona Press, we’ll soon have more books on other sacred (or at least scattered) desert places. Similar books on the Grand Canyon, San Luis Valley, Black Rock Desert, Cedar Mesa, Chiricahua Mountains, Organ Pipe, and the Hansford Reach already exist. New books on Escalante and the Painted Desert come out this fall. If these other personal portraits of desert places are half as enjoyable, and beautiful, as Joshua Tree, then they will make a welcome addition to my already eclectic library, indeed. Better go check them out for yourself—both the desert and your sun-baked soul will thank you.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango

Text by Deanne Stillman
Photographs by Galen Hunt

   The University of Arizona
   September 2006
   ISBN 0816523509

Purchase this book at Powells.com.


Learn more about the Desert Places Series here.



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