The Native Genius of Desert Plants

by Tyler Lyle

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about

There’s a place I like to go hiking in Joshua Tree National Park called the 49 Palms Oasis Trail. If you live in Southern California and you’re looking for a day hike, I’d recommend it.. It’s off Route 62 and you have to take Canyon road south for nearly two miles, but there’s a secluded parking lot and a trailhead. I’ve come to this place in many different spirits. The first time I saw it on the map, I was intrigued because the word "oasis" is a magical word and exists next to the word "mirage" in my mind. It conjures up images of Bugs Bunny and air brush t-shirts from Panama City. After the first time I hiked it, I brought along Anna, hoping that she might appreciate it as much as I did. The last time I did this hike, I was a alone. I'd gone too many days without any good news. I was still sitting with the death of my friend. I’d lost a manager. I'd been passed over by too many label A&Rs in LA. I released an EP that I wasn't proud of. The lady at Guitar Center asked me if I wanted to apply for a part time position. That was the last straw, for whatever vain reason.
I went to Joshua Tree with a notebook, the essays of Montaigne and a tent. I desperately needed to hear something. I needed to know whether to keep pushing or to change course. I wanted affirmation that this was indeed my path, that I hadn’t absent-mindedly stumbled onto another one. I heard nothing in the silence of the first day. I drove the miles of the park looking for signs. There was a Joshua Tree that had been struck by lightening burst open into a circle on the ground. There was a long silent sunset. I knocked the bumper off my hatchback the next morning trying to go down a scenic road in the park that was posted as four wheel drive only. It wasn't until the third afternoon when I was on the 49 Palms trail that I found something that resembled an answer.
An oasis is an isolated area of vegetation surrounded by desert. At the 49 Palms Oasis there is an underground stream running between two mountains and there's a patch of palm trees above it. I counted- there are almost 60 fan palms surrounded by rocks and dirt in all directions (so eleven or so new ones since they named the place). On this particular hike, after spending the afternoon sitting on a boulder near the stream reading my book and watching the strange desert birds chase each other through the shrubs, I noticed a tree that looked like it had been set on fire. I walked closer to it, and saw fire damage on other trees near it as well. I started to despair. Who would set an oasis on fire? What is this arson trend involving trees I care about? I'd been reading about the arsonist in the Inyo National Forrest, and was worried that this might be a secret epidemic. My unfulfilled spiritual quest to the desert and my disillusionment with a society that is inexplicably setting fire to trees put me into despair. I decided to just go home and give up.
The silver lining came by way of another sort of oasis- cell service in the desert. When I walked back up the mountain on the way to my car, my phone buzzed with the text messages that had accumulated in the dead zone of the park. I'd kept my iPhone on to use as a camera, but I’d forgotten about it all day. With a nearly dead battery on the top of that mountain and the help of Google, I inquired about the arson at 49 Palms. After a bit of searching, I learned that there had been a fire there recently, but it was not arson. Fan palms catch fire all the time. Of course they do. They are desert plants after all. It turns out, fire is a beneficial and necessary part of a fan palm's growth. Fire clears the dead palms fronds, it causes seed production to explode. They have tubes throughout the trunk that transport water and nutrients which provide insulation for the trunk from the fire (as opposed most non-desert trees that have these vascular tissues in the bark). It also burns up smaller plants near it that would compete for resources with it. Fire is good for fan palms. It helps them live. Something so stupid and simple reminded me that there is a course- there is a reason. The reason is inborn. I sat on a rock and wept as the sun set over the desert.
The difference between revelation and realization is so slight, but it's at the center of everything. The magician vs. the musician. Bliss vs. Joy. The native genius of desert plants is that they are engineered to survive. Of course they are. These things are not accidents. With a tight lens all I could see was the tree killed by lightening, the tree killed by disappointment, the tree killed by time, the tree killed by fire. What I had missed was the view from the mountain. Plants survive in the desert against all odds on their wayward course onward. The point is not their lives, or our lives singularly. The point is Life- that One Big Love that we participate in even when we ignore it.
I wrote as fast as I could sitting on that rock at the top of the mountain before the sun set. A mantra was given again. Existence is perfect. The answer is life itself. According to the sloppy handwriting left on the pages of my Moleskin: “There is a point when ambition becomes unhelpful. It’s so much more important to be a good human, a dependable husband, a kind friend than it is to be a self involved, complicated artist driven by ghosts in the wind. There is no such thing as calling. You choose what you value. Go home. Pick the manager with the most experience, and see what happens. It’s time to get your songs ready.”
A couple months later, a vinyl recording of “Happy Woman Blues” by Lucinda Williams that I’d ordered arrived in the mail. It’s one of Anna’s favorite albums. She didn’t have a copy on vinyl though, so I was excited for her to get home from work so that I could surprise her. It was late June and we were getting married in September. We lived on a hill by the sea, in a tiny one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. She arrived home that night in tears. Her company was shutting down the LA office and for her to keep her job, we would have to move to New York City as soon as we got married. Our perfect life by the beach would be no more, replace by another unknown.
After the wedding, after the move, after the bookshelf was full and the vinyl records were put in their proper place and the trees had nearly given up their dead leaves, I met a producer named Sanford Livingston at a cafe called The General Greene in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I played Sanford some songs that I'd written on the west coast, and we booked a day in a studio with a full band. Time and inertia carried the rest along, just like it carries everything else, aimless, onward.
Some people are born near the stream. They have big leaves and never need much special care- so long as the stream doesn’t dry up or change course. Some people are more adaptable to changing climates- they know what it is to have dry seasons and know how to hold out until rain comes. Some live in the desert and can store one good spring rain within them that will keep them for years with the hidden reservoirs within them that we will never know about.
The subtext of this record is my time that I spent in Los Angeles. I was 25 when I moved in spring of 2011. I am 29 now. It represents three and a half years of struggle and joy. I moved on from a bad relationship. I lost some people close to me- some due to old age and illness, and some to depression. I also found a beautiful brown eyed soul from California with deep roots and high branches who agreed to be my wife. I found a voice that is mine. I found a story to tell. I found my answer to Nietzsche's question from The Gay Science as he proclaims that God is dead, “What water is there for us to clean ourselves?” I finally have some answers.
The project can be read as a dialectic, told from three different lenses, or as narrative from darkness to light. It can also be read as one single question- one that I ask in earnest and I ask expecting an answer: How do I survive in the desert?

credits

released 02 June 2015

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Tyler Lyle Santa Monica, California

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