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Creek Running North
October 15, 2003
A few years back I spent a few days in the vicinity of Berlin. No, not that one: the interesting one, in central Nevada, with the ichthyosaur fossils. I was with a friend. She'd visited the state park there the year before and found the visitor center at the fossil park full of creationist literature. We went back to investigate, to write the definitive exposé of the Christian Right's incursion into the visitor centers of the Nevada State Parks Department and sell it to High Country News. But the creationist literature was gone. The previous park superintendent had been quite devout, and chose the books himself. It was hard to find qualified people to take a posting that far out in the middle of nowhere. The new staff were all rather embarrassed by the whole thing.
But it was summer, and the olive-drab pinyon-juniper slopes of the higher altitudes of central Nevada beckoned, so we stayed for a couple days.
Gabbs is the nearest town of any size. It's best known for being the home of Melvin Dumarr of Melvin and Howard fame. We filled up at Melvin's gas station, found out after a moment of conversation that the attendant's sister-in-law was my wife's coworker, and then went to the cafeteria across the street.
We stood out, dressed in the raiment of our tribe: pastel fleece pile, Gore-tex, fanny packs, my desert hat with an inconspicuous label from a pretentious nature-related store. My friend's cutoffs revealed something like four cumulative meters of leg. A couple of locals struck up a conversation: a woman ranch owner who invited us to hunt fossils on her land, and her ranch hand. The ranch hand was picturesque, seven feet tall and four wide. He seemed built of sinew and jerky and four-o'-clock shadow, Shepler's shirt tucked into boot Levis with obligatory boots, and if you looked hard you could just see his lips move behind the four-inch mustache. I would say something, and he would reply to my friend, eyes locked onto hers, hers rather meekly submissive, pinned fast like a butterfly to a board.
There are moments that burn themselves into your memory. I mentioned the height of the sagebrush near the washes, how it grew four times as high as the plants just up the bank. "Well, that's natural," said the cowboy to my friend. "Water is the mother of all life."
Later that afternoon, we were pulled over at a wash on the road back to Berlin. I cut a few long branches of well-watered sagebrush - always carry your pruning shears on long desert trips - to bring back home to Becky.
Stephen Trimble, in his book The Sagebrush Ocean; A Natural History of the Great Basin, points out that Great Basin sagebrush - Artemisia tridentata - is a highly plastic species, one of a handful of closely related Artemisias that colonized the middle elevations of the Intermountain West in rather a hurry.
Geologically speaking, that is. Once upon a time the land between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range... well, once upon a time some of it was open ocean, as evidenced by the presence of fossil ichthyosaurs in the middle of the godforsaken desert. But significantly after that, Nevada was forested with pines, and broadleaved trees, and the ancestors of the Sequoias that still just barely hang on to life in the valleys of the Sierra Nevada.
And then something unlatched beneath the soil of California, and the Sierra swung up like a trap door to block the rains off the Pacific, and sagebrush rushed in to replace the dying forests. A few progenitors, and a huge territory to fill in a relative jiffy, and you have an evolutionary pressure cooker to force diversity, like Pacific salmon rushing into previously glaciated watersheds around the Ring of Fire, literally spawning diversity ranging from the Mongolian taimen to the Southern California steelhead. Or, for that matter, like the immense diversity among the descendants of the people who spilled across the Bering bridge, Yokuts and Haudenosaunee and Yanomami and Micmac and Quechuan.
Maybe that diversity is why one of the three Artemisia tridentata I planted in the front yard is growing exuberantly, while the other two are biding their time, putting out a few leaves. I don't know. I'm happy none of them has died. It's bracing to stick my nose into their foliage, to breathe deep. It doesn't quite match standing alone in a wide, unpopulated valley full of sunwarmed sagebrush, but it will do for today.