New Growth at Joshua Tree

Lessons from Desolate Places

Empty, desolate and dry. Although these are the words most commonly thought of when describing the desert, they only tell a small portion of the story.

For much of the world the desert is a surreal place, conjuring images of a wasteland. At first glance, California desert locales—the Mojave, Death Valley, Joshua Tree —may seem empty or even void of interest, but upon closer examination they are anything but that. Although I might extol the beauty and grace of the desert, this would only be a distraction from its true purpose. Besides, rating beauty is a question of taste, and I would no more ask you to visit the desert in search of beauty then visit Antarctica in search of cold. Rather, it is emptiness and desolation that make the desert a place of wonder. For me, the desert has been a teacher with lessons that are not easily deciphered or put into practice.

The fortress…
I think back to a time when I was backpacking alone in Joshua Tree National Park in the early spring. The wildflowers were in full bloom, with a mix of red and yellow brushed across the sandy desert. Rows of Joshua trees dotted the landscape with gnarled arms outstretched like a man reaching for the sky.

After venturing off the beaten path, I located a large punch bowl depression that was surrounded by granite rocks. The terrain reminded me of a medieval fortress, cut off from civilization standing alone as it had for thousands of years. The area, about an eighth of a mile in diameter, was isolated and presented a unique and diverse terrain complete with brilliant red blooms of cactus flowers and old leafless oak trees.

While exploring the many cracks and niches of this box canyon, I found an ancient Joshua tree. The proud old tree had been ripped from the earth and had come to rest peacefully on its side. I looked around the decaying trunk and was surprised to find one newly formed branch, no more than a foot tall.

The growth was easy to spot, as its bright green spiny leaves sprung from the main trunk toward a never-ending blue sky. Since every other branch was denuded or decaying, it became clear that this growth had started long after the tree lost its hold on the sandy loam and toppled over. Realizing that this Joshua tree had fallen years ago, I began to wonder why this succulent , adapt at surviving the hottest summers and the coldest winters, would form new growth.

At that moment I discovered something staggering about life. True faith is going on despite the fact that you know you will never be as grand or perfect as you once were. It is the knowledge that you can still grow even if you are not rooted in the earth. Further, I realized that faith was perseverance even with the knowledge that you will die one day. Strangely, in the case of this tree, that day of death was close at hand, yet there was no indication of it in the growth of that new branch.

Some might question whether lessons learned from a rotting tree in a barren desert are worth contemplating. However, I believe that you must look in those desolate places to find the questions worth asking.