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Creek Running North

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July 01, 2005

Ironwood

Something I wrote about five years ago. Desert plants and Becky combined in one handy essay. It just doesn't get better than that.

The dark wood is cool in my hand, and smooth. It sheds sawdust to my old grafting knife, a slow, reluctant yielding of deep brown flecks like ground cinnamon, powdered chocolate. I put a moistened fingertip to the pile of dust on my knee, then to my tongue, and am surprised despite myself when I taste nothing but cellulose.

Just as well. There isn't enough of this tree for people to start eating its wood. Restricted in range to the increasingly impacted Sonoran Desert, the desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is faced with threats ranging from harvesting for "mesquite" charcoal to suburban sprawl to exotic plants spread by cattle grazing. And as goes the desert ironwood, so goes the desert: the tree is the shelter under which the rest of the desert lives.

I harvested this piece of ironwood in what I thought was as benign a fashion as possible: I found it, and a couple others, sticking out of the gravel in a dry wash. Something, it seemed — a desert windstorm, a flash flood, a band of stick-fetching coyotes — had carried them from a copse of trees a hundred feet away. They looked like they'd lain in the sun for years, wearing a gray patina that only year-round UV can provide. A few passes of the knife over this piece, though, and gray gave way to reveal this deep, confectionery brown. A few strokes with the coarse section of a four-way file, and the wood looks nearly polished.

I'm not the first person ever to pick up a piece of desert ironwood with art in mind. The Seri people along the Gulf Coast in Sonora, Mexico, among the last hunter-gatherers on the North American continent, list ironwood carving among their contributions to world culture. You've probably seen their work, or its imitators: deep, dark fluid sculptures of sharks, sea turtles, birds and desert animals. The best carvings, made by artists with a hunter-gatherer's familiarity with nature, seem about to come alive. Frogs crouch in a pose they strike when under threat by something big. Sea turtles seem to bear exaggeratedly large forepaws, until you learn that, like husky puppies, baby sea turtles have to grow into their feet. Sharks are, I think, the pinnacle of Seri art: carved as the natural curves of the wood suggest, they are fluidity embodied. You expect them to flick a tail and disappear from the display case.

Other Sonorans have adopted the art form as a means of generating tourist revenue. The differences aren't hard to spot. Where the Seri opt for spareness of form and smooth line, their Mexican neighbors turn out angular pieces with gouged-out hatch marks. The Seri rarely carve fish other than sharks, and almost never portray subjects other than local animals. Sonorans, on the other hand, will offer carvings of everything from stereotypical siestans leaning on saguaros to stunningly detailed representations of local beer bottles. The Mexicans' powered machine shops turn out sculptures at a far faster rate than the Seri's human-powered hand tools. More to the point, the Seri, with an ecological ethos not uncommon among hunter-gatherers, carve only wood from downed or dead trees. The Mexican machine shops, with their higher capacity, have spurred a demand for cutting green trees. The US and Mexican governments have taken some steps to restrict trade in non-Seri carvings.

I've been carving this piece of wood for several months. You wouldn't know that to look at it. It's hardly an intricate form; a rectangle, with a bend in the middle, which I labor to make symmetrical. I imagine polishing its final, perfected geometry with double-ought steel wool, fixing a barrette clasp, giving it to Becky to wear in her hair. The colors of wood and hair would complement one another well, differing shades of dark brown. For the hundredth time I consider carving a bas-relief on the surface, a raven or coyote, something appropriate to the provenance of the medium. Perhaps the leaves of the desert ironwood itself, plain compound leguminous leaves like those that littered the wash from whose gravel this wood protruded, driftwood miles from the nearest sea. It's hard to say. There is something in the heft of the wood, the soapstone texture, that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, and yet my inclination is to scour the slightest ridge away, to make a mirror of this dark piece of old dead tree.

The eponymous "bean trees" of Barbara Kingsolver's Tucson novel were wisteria, thirsty exotic plants brought in from the Far East by way of England and the East Coast, growing in a well-watered downtown garden behind a tire repair shop. The wisteria would wither, with most of its human neighbors in Tucson, if not for the constant pumping of millennia-old water from aquifers under the city.

But climb the adobe wall that fictitious vine encumbered. Cross the street. Pass the Sonic drive-ins and Waffle Shops and motels and the metastasizing spread of stylish homes of ringing urban Tucson, get out into the unadulterated, stinking hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert, where the rattlesnakes and tarantulas play; there, you'll find bean trees of another sort. Native to the place, they do just fine without any help from us or pumped Pleistocene aquifers or the Central Arizona Project. Four species of palo verde, acacias with sharp claws that snag hikers' clothing like rabid Velcro, knee-high desert senna with its complement of buzzing pollinators, the notorious and fashionable mesquites, and the desert ironwood, beans all, make up much of the perennial plant cover of the Sonoran Desert. Column cacti may have better PR, but if it wasn't for the bean trees, there'd be damn few saguaros to grace kitschy postcards and travel magazines. The desert ironwood and its cousins are the ecological foundation of the Sonoran Desert. Remove them and the rest of the plants and animals in the desert would likely vanish as well.

If you're a plant that wants to survive in the desert, it's a good idea to sink your roots under a desert ironwood, or one of its cousins. Shade is one reason: as sparse as a bean tree's leaves generally are, they're better than nothing at all. Then there's the heat and the humidity: even droughty desert legumes exhale a little bit of water through their leaves, and their loss is your gain. Higher relative humidity due to the bean tree means you'll transpire less water yourself. There's the simple fact of shelter: germinate under a bean tree and it's less likely that browsing animals will find you and eat you. Leguminous thorns also help protect young plants. Nitrogen from shed leaves is augmented by that excreted by birds and other small animals who come for shade, shelter, or nutritious bean seeds. The shade beneath the trees is optimal habitat for cacti. Each majestic saguaro, each venerable multi-stemmed organ pipe, each white-bearded senita you see on your travels to the desert quite likely got its start beneath one of the region's legumes. Remove the trees, as happens when a subdivision goes in or wood is cut for the burgeoning gourmet "mesquite" charcoal industry or the bosque burns after an invasion of exotic buffelgrass ups the fuel load, and you close down the nurseries from which new generations of column cacti are fledged. With this in mind, Bill Clinton - in one of his final acts in office - established a bit less than 130,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert as the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Desert ironwood trees tend toward far longer lives than do mesquites or palos verdes. One live tree near Tucson has been carbon-dated at 1200 years old: 300 years is a fairly probable average life expectancy. Even after dying, the tree can provide an oasis of shade in the desert for an immense stretch of time. The wood is, in the words of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Stephen J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum & UC Press, 2000) "rich in toxic chemicals and essentially non-biodegradable." Once ironwood dies, nothing eats it, though I've seen termites making stalwart attempts. Firewood-sized chunks found in desert washes have been determined to be 1600 years old. A standing snag may, after its death, provide valuable habitat for a thousand years.

This knowledge, gained after I collected the few pieces of wood now sitting on my writing desk, does not exactly fill me with an uncomplicated sense of joy in acquisition.

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California's subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night, in a grove of Olneya tesota.

The valley was bleak indeed. It was October, far from the hottest part of the year, and yet we saw little in the way of vertebrate life during the day. A house sparrow that had probably strayed from the alfalfa fields flitted briefly into the ironwood canopy, then returned eastward. Other than that, I don't recall seeing so much as a lizard. Not a creature stirred the desiccated husks of summer annuals, the pallid leaves of desert ironwood and palo verde. All was silent. This was driven home when, eyes on the desert pavement at my feet, I absently muttered something to Becky. She replied with a tone of amusement. I looked up to see we were at least two hundred yards apart, yet we could hear each other's normal speaking voices perfectly.

That afternoon I found a comfortable-looking spot in the wash, shaded by a bit of ironwood, and laid down for a nap, shifting my back to gouge out a depression in the gravel. I opened my eyes for a moment, saw nothing but a few ironwood leaves silhouetted against an impossibly blue sky, then dozed. Not a few minutes later, something soft brushed my cheek, and I started awake. Eyes the color of polished ironwood gleamed: Becky had kissed me. The image of my wife's face, bean tree leaves behind her, deep blue firmament framing all, would prove to haunt me through months of desultory wood carving.

Things picked up a bit when the sun went down. A wind came up from the south, bearing the slightest odor of the Sea of Cortez. Zeke, our dog, noticed a desert packrat or two whose stick homes we had missed among the fallen trees. Far-off coyote song punctured the twilight, the local great horned owl providing a bass line. After dark, the valley was palpably alive.

I sat by a fire. We were far remote, there was an abundance of dead wood in the wash, and I wanted a fire, so the first two clauses in this sentence seemed sufficient justification. Ironwood burns hot. A pile of fuel the size of a regulation softball, and we couldn't get closer than ten feet to the blaze. With wood like that, you don't need much fire. The next morning, half the small pile of scraps I'd collected lay unburned next to the coals. I grabbed a few and put them in the truck. They've sat near my computer since then.

I pick up one of the larger pieces now, a rough, splintery crescent a foot long, four or five inches wide at its thickest. It looks weathered, old, rotten, yet it weighs at least three pounds. I heft the wood in my hand. I can't be sure this stick is a millennium-and-a-half old, but I can't rule it out, either. When did this piece of wood die? When did its tree release it into the desert soil, there to bleach and suffer futile attacks by termites? 1500 years ago the Anasazi were just learning how to add roofs to their adobe houses. Augustine was writing his Confessions. The Roman Empire had collapsed within living memory. And this stick, perhaps, or one just like it in the same valley, was already turning gray on that alluvial pediment west of Blythe. "Essentially non-biodegradable," these few pieces of dead tree straddle the line between biology and geology. A tree grew them, but they may as well be rocks for all the effect that the centuries have on them. "Driftwood," hell: it's just as likely that I found these pieces where they fell, and the ironwood grove drifted away from them over the intervening millennium. The immense antiquity of this firewood makes my collection of it seem, in retrospect, abhorrent, like the actions of the guy who cut down the world's oldest bristlecone pine to count the rings.

But there is something in the desert ironwood that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, which naggingly reminds me that issues are never as straightforward as ideology would insist. Who would criticize the Seri for turning ironwood detritus into grocery money? Ironwood supported human beings long before the first Seri carver ever saw a chisel. Leached of a mild toxin, ironwood seeds were used for centuries as food by the Seri, the Tohono O'odham, and other Sonoran Desert people. Warriors and hunters used ironwood bark tea as a ceremonial purgative. When an O'odham couple married, elders gave them an ironwood branch to hold between them, so that the wood's durability would infuse itself into the marriage. Though we've done it some wrong the past few decades, this is a tree whose memory is long, and it was deeply involved in human lives long before the invention of the four-way file and the chain steakhouse.

I look again at the piece I've been carving. I won't be collecting any more, and I certainly won't insist on a fire when I'm camping in ironwood country, but giving this piece to my wife seems, somehow, appropriate, a way to infuse this marriage with the permanence ironwood engenders. A bit of dark wood, and the knowledge that more grows, protected, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 1, 2005 10:00 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

You're right. It doesn't get much better than this.

Posted by: Lorianne at July 2, 2005 02:02 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs