I Heart Ugly Nature

By CHARLES HOOD 

This essay is from the collection A Salad Only The Devil Would Eat, out now from Heyday Books.

ASAL cover

Once upon a time I lived at the beach, and not just any beach, but one of the good ones: Newport Beach in Orange County. A hashtag search delivers 2.3 million Instagram hits; if you stand at the end of Newport’s wood-planked pier on winter mornings, Catalina Island looks close enough to touch. I was not there the day a masked booby showed up, but I have seen a sea turtle, a bloom of moon jellies, and a stout man paddling a paddleboard completely naked. Coffee in hand, sitting on the front steps of my rental cottage, I would admire the early surfers jogging past in neon-trimmed neoprene, shortboards clamped under blond arms. I envied their urgency and zeal. According to their wet suits, their names were O’Neill and Rip Curl. Their girlfriends were even prettier and more fit than they were. I had a surfboard too, but it didn’t do me much good. Any wave obvious enough and slow enough for me to catch just petered out in the kelpy slop thirty seconds later. Mostly, I used it to prop open the door when I brought in the groceries.

Newport was beautiful, but life there was complicated since I was married yet separated and we had a baby on the way and no real plan. We also only had access to the rental house for nine months out of the year; in summers we had to move out, putting everything in storage and living out of our truck. With the baby and all, a tenure-track job seemed like a good way to start over. Rumor had it a college in the Antelope Valley would be hiring two, maybe three English teachers. This is the Joshua tree highlands part of the desert, north of the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, south of the High Sierra. The tall, vigorous mountains of Angeles Crest separate the Antelope Valley from the rest of Southern California. It is (and probably always has been) a bit lost in time, like a down-market Shangri-La. My hope was to be invited for a campus visit, and if so, before the interview I could bird the nearby town of Mojave (checking for spring migrants), and afterwards, if I got out in time, take a quick cruise through the Lancaster Sewage Ponds.

Water in the desert is a rare thing, and rare places attract rare birds. Among the most legendary of these, a shorebird called a Polynesian tattler had been discovered at the sewage ponds one July day by Jon Dunn. I don’t know what Dunn said out loud in that moment, but if it had been me, I would have said holy shit. The Polynesian tattler breeds in Siberia and winters in the South Pacific, and Dunn’s how-lucky-can-you-get sighting was the first record south of the Aleutians. Would there ever be another one? The only way to know: keep looking.

My job application made the cut and I was told to show up on a Friday in May. I drove out the night before and stayed at Motel 6. The day started great, with perfect temperature and no wind, the trees dripping with birds. I logged eleven species of warbler by midday, including two rare ones for California—a black-and-white warbler and a northern waterthrush. I drove Highway 14 back to Lancaster, had lunch, then changed into my suit in the restaurant parking lot. I took out my earrings and put on my wedding ring. I pushed my fingers through my hair. Show time.

The committee was cordial but skeptical: I had a quirky CV that included everything from ESL to photography to a Fulbright in ethnopoetics. There was some tech writing, volunteer work in a marsh, a letter of reference from a poet laureate. It didn’t add up. They needed somebody to commit to a lifetime of teaching remedial English. The Academic VP wanted to know, had I taken the wrong exit? Did I even know where I was?

I understood why she had to ask. It has a bad rap, the Antelope Valley. The Antelope Valley is the place where old sofas crawl to the ends of dirt roads to die. Fame touches the Antelope Valley rarely, though Tom Selleck was part owner of a shopping plaza and came out to cut the ribbon. In the 1920s, Judy Garland’s family had a house here; it later became a homeless shelter and then was gutted by fire. Frank Zappa grew up here and that should count for something, but once he got out, he refused to come back, not even when offered a pile of money to give a single speech. In Senegal I was once asked if the antelope in my valley were good to eat. Yes, and in fact so good that we ate them all. Even the Pacific Crest Trail goes around the valley instead of crossing it, sticking to the high ground like a matron avoiding a load of spilled manure.

I took a risk and told the committee the truth, that my next stop was the sewage ponds, and talked about birds and deserts and how that afternoon’s target species, Franklin’s gull, was named after Sir John Franklin, a polar explorer who died of scurvy in 1847. According to campus legend, I ended by standing on the table, flapping my elbows and imitating bird calls.

Soon enough the job came, and so did the baby; the marriage came back together and then went away again and finally stayed gone for good. Years passed. I learned that xeric landscapes suited me. Not just the Mojave where I have lived thirty-odd years, but all the others—Black Rock Desert in Nevada and Atacama in Chile, the Gobi and the Namib, the Kalahari and the Taklamakan. “The desert is where God is and man is not,” or so explains Victor Hugo. Challenge accepted.

Rather than hosting the nomads of Burning Man or the architecture of John Lautner, my desert is more about cars that don’t run—all my neighbors own at least one—and mailboxes wallpapered with lost dog announcements. That’s why this is the very best place to be a nature writer. The birds are here at the sewage ponds (and the sod farms, in the case of wintering mountain plovers), while back in Newport Beach, people are still trying to find a place to park. I have always been attracted to the idea of making art from trash, perhaps because I was raised by the generation carved from the stob wood of the Great Depression. They slid directly from that experience into the communal frugality of the Second World War. In that way of being and making, an empty Maxwell House coffee can might be reincarnated as a flower vase or a sorting bin for bent nails, or as the chalice into which one pours bacon grease, to be stored on the back shelf of the fridge. You can use bacon lard to grease a skillet or top off a bird feeder. A world in which I wait for perfect light in a perfect meadow before taking a picture of the perfect bird is going to be a world where I can only “do” nature for ten minutes once every twenty years. But when I embrace the cactus wren singing from a hillside that includes dirt bike scars and ragged mounds of old carpet, I can have all the birds and nature I want, every day of the year.

Even my dog Lucy was a rescue from the pound, and bless her, but she’s a bit of a muddle. She is afraid of sneezes and all aspects of carrots, and as a corgi-shepherd-lemur mix, her legs are too short while her butt is too long. Due to various dental mishaps, she has fewer teeth than the average cast member in Tiger King. She can’t decide if she wants to play with pigeons or eat them, and any puddle, no matter how fetid, clearly exists only to be waded into and sampled deeply. If there is a passing siren, one must stop and howl—I am expected to join in as well—and anything peed on during the outbound half of a journey has to be marked again twice as vigorously on the return leg, just to be sure the territorial claims have not gone stale in the intervening hour. She would prefer some assistance from me in this, but Lucy understands solidarity has its limits.

Spring of 2020 hit us all like the comet that killed the dinosaurs. You know it’s going to be bad when even the biker bars have to close. Some of my classes switched to Zoom, while other gigs circled the drain a few times and shlurped away forever. Worse, the shutdown meant no more birding trips. My wife, Abbey, and I ended up sharing a house but not a schedule. We got along fine, but she had to work the hours I was free, and same for me the other way around. If I couldn’t travel or even work in my campus office, at least I could take long walks. By necessity, Lucy and I became topographic locavores.

I live in Palmdale, which as my kids liked to point out, has few palms and no dales. (They also called it “Yawn-dale.”) A roadcut here is popular as a cover shot for geology textbooks because the sheer face reveals layers of stone folded in half by the San Andreas Fault. Overhead, blue sky stretches from the aircraft assembly plants straight up to the edge of outer space; in the promo brochures, the Chamber of Commerce brags about 360 flying days a year. Parts of Palmdale look bougie, even upscale, and on the good side of town there is a Trader Joe’s and a Barnes and Noble. On the bad side of town (which of course is where I live), development has been more casual, even haphazard, and tracts of modest, mostly blue-collar homes alternate with vacant lots and sections of creosote edgeland that collectively are not quite original desert, not quite exurban wasteland, but an in-between zone of once-grazed, sometimes-trash-filled, always fascinating possibility.

If society shuts down, the desert is a good place to ride it out. From my front door, it only takes me a few minutes to reach open terrain. Lucy and I traverse two blocks of the same one- and two-story houses, most with a single, scruffy yard tree: Bradford pear, London plane, Italian cypress, Biltmore ash. Some of the trees have white flowers in spring, some have yellow foliage in fall, but all require an obscene amount of water. Slowly my neighborhood is converting to xeriscape, and I now have a palo verde tree and a desert catalpa in the front yard—instead of the sidewalk-lifting, water-pipe-breaking, beetle-infested ash tree that once was—along with agaves and sages and wildlife- appropriate groundcover. Other houses have drip-line-fed fruit trees or zig-zagged paving stones or the Zen calm of homemade rock gardens. Small changes can make swift differences: once we put in the new plants, we had butterflies and hummingbirds visiting the very first day.

At the end of the block, Lucy and I have to decide, left or right? There are no formal parks or nature preserves nearby, but we can connect the open sections into a route that could last all day if we wanted. On most rambles we limit ourselves to out-and-backs of a few miles. The goal is not raw mileage but to learn the land by walking and thinking, looking and touching, writing and noticing. Or at least, those are my goals; Lucy’s are more territorial. If her ambitions could be summed up by a single artwork, it would be Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.

As our walks take us to new places, I name previously unnoticed features: Railroad Ditch, Church Ditch, Nadaland, Salt Cedar Fields 1 and 2, Field of Broken Bikes. For most people this landscape looks like it has been hit about ten times with the ugly stick and left for dead. The bushes are spare and prickly, Joshua trees can’t decide if they are small trees or large toilet brushes, and everywhere, everywhere, the yellow static of cheatgrass fills up all the spare pieces of dirt, leaving no room for slower, more indigenous grasses, and always ready to catch fire at the first flickering touch of a car-tossed cigarette.

Yet I like this desert. I feel at home here. On paper, this does not seem inevitable. In fact, on paper, my local plant list sounds like a salad only the devil would eat: bitterbrush, burro weed, creosote, jumping cholla, Mormon tea. If we take away labels, the plants themselves must be praised for their tenacity and admired for their small, miraculous, life-affirming flowers. At work I suppose I have the same ability to stay on task as anybody else—the bar is not set very high, in any case—but once outside, each new color or detail distracts me. It’s mid-March and mornings are still chilly, but is that cluster of chrome yellow the glow of early daisies? Let me lift this plywood and find out. Yes, Wallace’s woolly daisy, Eriophyllum wallacei, sage green and hardly bigger than a Ritz cracker. The tiny spoon-shaped leaves would make good toboggins for ladybugs.

Burro weed or burro bush or Ambrosia dumosa or white bursage or hey, are these sticks even alive or what? fills in the gaps between the taller, more dominant creosote bushes, and like creosote, it spaces itself out evenly, one plant per magic circle. The root systems produce a chemical that tells other roots to clear off, like the collision warning signals on fancy cars. It is two feet tall, and when not in flower, it looks like a midget sagebrush, a rugged little shrub with small leaves that drop off when a drought lasts too long. (Identify a leafless plant by very thin stripes on the stems.) Flowers are yellowy green, and wind pollinated—achoo, so much pollen thrown into the air at once, really rough on my allergies—and anybody who has hiked even one hour in the desert has probably walked past it, though almost nobody bothers to learn its name or bend down close enough to notice the Cirque du Soleil of insects that leap and crawl and drill and make babies among its bonsai leaves and seeds.

Beauty—and I am now quoting Roger Scruton—“can be con soling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling.” But beauty is rarely identified as inherent to sticks, thorns, goatheads, or roadside weeds. We are trained to value large over small, green over brown, lush over sere, smooth over rough, pristine over altered. In movies like Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic landscape is always the desert; in Lawrence of Arabia, the desert brings out Lawrence’s best qualities but also his worst. I think one reason we call an abandoned lot ugly (if we call it anything at all) is that it is not green, not finalized. Tentative things bother us. Make up your mind, dirt: what are you? Except if it were green, it would be neither lot nor abandoned; it already would be a park or somebody’s house or a Weyerhaeuser tree farm or halfway through escrow or stuck in court or in some way already assimilated into the expected productivity of modern life. Search for “nature images” and you’ll end up with horizontal-format, middle-distance photographs filled with a saccharine abundance of trees, meadows, clouds, and water features (usually lakes or waterfalls). A subcomponent of the genre includes one or two hikers, often young, sometimes female, usually Anglo. In page after page of outdoor equipment catalogs or search results, not much bitterbrush or ceanothus or native blackberry on offer. Not much variety. Not much reality. It’s like looking at a children’s primer from the 1950s, where the caption would say “The happy family goes on vacation.” The happy white dad would be driving, the happy air would be blue and crystalline, and in the backseat the happy white kids would be so ruddy cheeked and giddy it was like they had been topped off with helium.

That is not any family I’ve ever lived in, even the happy ones. It is also not like any nature I have hiked in. Real woods are messy, complex, full of contradictions and compromises. I prefer terms like “blended nature,” which is to say, nature that is native and nonnative, blood related and adopted, attractive and past its sell-by date. I have come to prefer ugly nature best: at least it’s not going anywhere. Nobody can take it away from me, nobody can ruin it or lock it up or break my heart by just not caring. If my desert were more Edenic, it would have been built out long ago. Another good thing? Open land, unallocated to any goal and exempt from any purpose, allows for open play. In the Field of Broken Bikes I once saw a gopher snake and a coyote, but some of the most interesting topography is formed by kids riding bikes and digging forts, creating a series of hard-packed dips and launchpads. If I am on my mountain bike, then Lucy and I pelt along in a side-by-side race: who can hit the highest mound first, trying to grab big-time air?

If my wife, Abbey, were present in this essay, she might now say, Tell these nice people how many times you have broken your wrists. Show them the bent bike rims, the scars on your knee. Tell them about your toes that even with surgery never healed straight. Luckily, she is not here, and aside from me saying, “Kids, always wear your helmet,” we can carry on enjoying how nicely the sunlight glints off broken glass and continue listening for the warning whistles of the squirrels. These are California or Beechey ground squirrels, dun gray with grizzled shoulders and light speckles down the back, and they are Lucy’s very special frenemies. The lookout watches from a pyramid of broken concrete, chirping updates and directing the others how to dash back and forth in front of her—the left squirrel goes right, the right squirrel goes left, each one zipping down a hole with minutes to spare, laughing as the dog trips, poor thing—short legs, but very eager. Lucy loves it (and falls for their feints and dodges every time).

To reach that site we have to zig left on a street named East Avenue S-8 and then zag right on Forty-Fifth East. That road becomes dirt and doesn’t really go anywhere, but its name reminds us we can never fully escape the grid. The founding fathers were so literal, so bankrupt of imagination, they named the streets not after presidents or zoo animals or circus acts (or the landforms and history of the place itself), but for the sequential letters of the alphabet. Avenue A starts at the Kern County line, and each one-mile increment counts out a new letter. Numbered crossroads keep pace: Forty-Fifth East is exactly half a mile from Fortieth, which is one perfectly measured mile from Thirtieth East. We could have had poetry and Picasso and instead we were handed a xerox of graph paper. Where the hills rise up, where the fault lines run, where we might want to follow an arroyo’s meanders and shady places, those features do not matter: the grid rules everything, subduing all lesser cartographies. Some people find structure reassuring. I am inclined to agree with Robert Venturi, the architect famous for a book called Learning from Las Vegas. To Venturi, “Disharmony has tension, poignancy, quality, and beauty.” Just before the bike field, some accident of grading has left one ditch by the railroad tracks lower than the other, and the low parts stay wet with runoff and groundwater most months of the year. Arroyo willows cluster in thickets dense as a British hedgerow, and behind that green wall is where the coyotes live, or so I suspect. We can hear them at night, even see them midday, and along the muddy edges of Railroad Ditch I can find their quick trotting tracks, but their actual den site remains a mystery to me.

Bobcats are possible, but I don’t expect them often in this corner of Palmdale. Once about every other year a fire-addled mountain lion gets treed in somebody’s yard and has to be darted and carried back to the piney woods. Gray foxes are a mix of cinnamon and slate blue, and judging by roadkill and postings in iNaturalist, they are in the foothills nearby but don’t reach my township. What I’ve been really hoping to see is the big-eared, big-eyed kit fox. Kit foxes are slim, tan desert foxes—smallest wild dogs in North America—and one population, the San Joaquin kit fox, has been on the endangered list since 1967. To the surprise of all, San Joaquin kit foxes have begun to move into urban Bakersfield, a Central Valley city that’s culturally and ecologically similar to the Antelope Valley. By 2019, surveys estimated Bakersfield had a population of four hundred or even five hundred foxes.

Turns out, these animals appreciate the same vacant lots I do. Researchers of road improvement efforts in Bakersfield discovered that “kit foxes commonly use undeveloped lands (vacant lots, fallow crop fields), storm water catchment basins (sumps), industrial areas (manufacturing facilities, shipping yards), commercial areas (office and retail facilities), manicured open space (parks, schools, golf courses), and linear rights-of-way (canals, railroads, power line corridors).” On the campus of Cal State Bakersfield, I came out of a meeting at dusk one day and watched a kit fox work its way through the parking lot, peeing on the tires of each chrome-hubbed, lifted, four-wheel-drive truck. One claim for macho status was being met and overlaid by another, more liquid claim. (Lucy says she entirely approves.)

In England, a phrase for brownfields and forgotten bits is “accidental countryside.” Of course, in England they also say that a car has four tyres and one parks a car at the kerb, so we can’t always trust the Brits for good linguistic leadership. But this idea does have merit. In learning the neighborhood by foot, Lucy and I are surprised how quickly we can go from houses to non-houses and from closed systems to open ones. In a car one connects destinations point by point (“I am driving to the store now”), often overlooking the blank places in between. In actuality, there are no blank places, only unseen-by-us places. And on average, those gaps all have their own botanical hierarchies. In my area, the center of the hierarchy is burro weed’s big brother, creosote.

Another word for creosote is greasewood. Each spindly bush is six feet tall, six feet around, and spaced out six feet from the next one. The branches spike up from a central point on the ground but in a rather parsimonious bouquet, since the waxy leaves are barely half an inch long. A central taproot supports an alliance of surface-level rootlets fanned out in a huge radius; when it comes to water, creosote does not take even the feeblest drizzle for granted. When I went to college, I was told that each bush leaks poison to sterilize the soil and hence keep other plants at bay. Probably not true but it I want it be, so I repeat it here, reminding you that it’s unreliable nonsense from a cranky old man. What I don’t approve of is the one-name-for-two things problem, since the black ooze painted on railroad ties is also called creosote. That product comes from coal tar, not plants—the plant is named for the preservative, not the other way around. Creosote has shown me to be a failure as an herbalist. Gary Nabhan and others document indigenous uses ranging from mending arrow shafts to treating tuberculosis. Inspired by its many medicinal properties, I once tried cooking sprigs of creosote into a healing broth. Wrong trousers, Gromit: all I managed to do was stink up the kitchen and coat the bottom of our best saucepan with a patina of black goo that even steel wool couldn’t scrub clean.

No territory has ever named creosote’s small yellow blossoms as state flower, yet taken as a whole, creosote outnumbers the poppy a trillion to one. Botanist Matt Ritter calls creosote “the toughest desert plant.” It is the first thing listed on the National Park Service site for plants of Death Valley and the last thing I smell at night, on warm days of spring rain. This special odor comes from defensive measures. As the Mojave Project explains, “The combination of oils and waxes (with additional phytochemicals and compounds that make up 10 to 20 percent of its dry weight) protects the plant by deflecting ultraviolet radiation and heat exposure, overall transpiration, and water loss.”

Lucy reminds me that she is the one who protected those plants from potential invaders like carrots or UFOs, so can she have her treat now? Lucy would chase the jackrabbits through the creosote if she could, but their eyesight is better than hers and they always sprint away first, back legs flying. The last time it snowed we only got a few inches, but I grabbed a trekking pole and camera and went out early; gray, crusty snow documented the crisscrossing tracks of multiple jackrabbits, bush to bush and back again. I had not known we had so many, which reminded me to take more walks after dark. That same morning I also found coyote tracks and the meandering path of something mouse sized, and a splayed pattern of micro-pits that I realized marked where the dawn creosote branches had shed droplets of wet snow. Writing about it now, it strikes me that this is honest landscape: the world as it is, not how I wish it to be. Nature writing too often drifts into High Church rhetoric. Yet not all forests are pristine; not all ecology heroes are heroic. At the end of his life Ansel Adams drove a Cadillac and John Muir died a de facto millionaire, thanks to his own hard work but thanks also to migrant labor and a well-capitalized inheritance. My hero Ed Abbey threw beer cans out the car window. To leave “nature” islanded in a sea of exalted adjectives is to leave us out of the conversation. Nature is not above us, separate but better. It is us—weeds, warts, and all. When National Geographic wanted to do a feature article on tumbleweeds, where did they go to find them? Raise your hand if you were about to say the Antelope Valley. Do you collect hubcaps? Come on down: the bushes are full of them. We can also do tin cans from modern days back to the 1930s.

And yet here’s this, too. I never expected to find so many young Joshua trees coming up in roadside fields that were abandoned a generation ago. There is a claim one hears, that Joshua trees only occur two places, the Mojave Desert and the Holy Land. Half right on that. None in the Levant, but the range includes Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Pollinated by moths. Spread through seeds or rhizomes. Named for a fellow in the Bible. The largest Joshua trees might be a few hundred years old, but the smaller ones are just ten or twenty or thirty years old, many coming up out of a creosote’s reluctant shade; these young ones look like yuccas and so are easy to overlook.

They are there, the next generation of Joshua trees, and their return is not due to any human intervention—other than neglect. Our best action on behalf of nature may be inaction: stand back and let it do its thing, see what happens. Plants do not need to be beautiful or even picturesque to be ecologically valuable. Some of the Joshua trees in my area wear prayer shawls in the form of shredded plastic bags, this is true. When my friends complain, I tell them I have a ladder and they are welcome to go and tidy things up if they want. True too that many Joshua trees have been burned black and gold by fires, and one Joshua tree I call the Old Gent got knocked crooked by a drunk driver ten, twelve years ago. Yet it grows still, a Leaning Tower of Pisa and fortitude, not giving up.

Hard work being alive, for us as well as the plants. If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a round of applause. And hard too, looking at the work that still needs to be done. Easy to get discouraged. As I write these words, somewhere there is a dog at the end of a chain, weary and harmed. As I write these words, somewhere a person is hungry, while another person tries to wipe the blood off her face with the hem of her shirt. Yet as I write these words, an oriole is building a nest in the thatched beard of an untrimmed palm tree, and it is letting me watch. As I write these words, a kind of bat called a pipistrelle, small and quick, celebrates sunset and moonrise. As I write these words, water waits in a stream. As I write these words, marsh hawk. As I write these words, mule deer. As I write these words, quartz, obsidian, chert. As I write these words, owl’s clover, chicory, lupine, globe gilia, marigold, evening snow.

As I write these words, music and laughter.

As I write these words, hidden nature, ugly nature, abandoned nature, holy nature.

As I write these words, I have been walking a long time, but I am finally arriving, and it feels good to be home.

 

Charles Hood has studied birds and natural history from the Amazon to Tibet, and he has seen more than five thousand species of birds in the wild. A widely published poet, he has received numerous fellowships and writing awards, and his most recent artist-in-residence positions were with the National Science Foundation in Antarctica and with Playa Arts in Oregon. He has also been a visiting professor in England, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea, as well as a research fellow with the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art. Hood is currently a teacher of writing and photography at Antelope Valley College in the Mojave Desert.

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