The desert is ruthlessly balanced in its extremes, carrying life in a brutal but perfect homeostasis. Suspended in the swinging pendulum of its moods, held delicately between suffering and sublimity, rapture and ravenousness, the desert makes us all small and senseless.
In sagebrush country, the intelligence and agency of plants is tangible. In a landscape with a lack of water and an abundance of temperature extremes, plants grow and spiral and reach in intricate yet beautifully simple patterns, designed to suck the marrow from the earth around them. Twirling a sprig of juniper between my thumb and index fingers, I wonder if I too am optimizing the environments I find myself in, allowing myself to form, maintain, and nurture connections that enable me to thrive.
Around me I can see hundreds of examples of this symmetry and geometry, each insignificant but also universal. The patterns that appear endlessly to create and re-create our planet. Micro to macro. Each step up and down in scale is perhaps another way to study the same thing.
photos by Maya Kobe-Rundio
There is the heat of the rock under my hand, the tiny shadow of the lizard sunning on slickrock. In a barrel cactus I see repetition and continuity. How do these ridges and folds of rock relate to the fiery orange of this crustose lichen? Why do the dusty blue berries held sweetly by juniper bring me to the outstretched fractal arms of her brittlebrush neighbors? What does the comforting smell of sagebrush have to do with the burnt ochre of a canyon at dusk?
Look at the leaves of Artemisia tridentata, big sagebrush. The very embodiment of home to the sage-grouse. Take a few into your hands and roll them up, then bring them to your nose and smell the spice, sweet and bitter. This plant holds her leaves year-round and their shape and pattern provide the greatest surface area with which to capture sunlight. When her environment becomes stressful, Artemisia maintains low levels of net photosynthesis without becoming fully dormant. She has a deep tap root and shallow branching roots, so whether water is scarce or abundant she can still quench her thirst. She depends on the wind for pollination, which I have to remind myself of whenever it is windy in the desert and I am cold and complaining. Artemisia is the key to life for hundreds of species—a delightful and delicate web of interrelationships, symbiosis, and reciprocity.
Moving from the micro to the macro reminds me I am not some passive observer. How did I get here? Traveling one scar among many, wounds of industrial extraction, recreational development, and settler colonialism. Roads like these are my means of escape to desert places. But escape is a misleading word, for I am in control of when I leave and return to my favorite landscapes. They are there for me when I need them.
How do you reconcile needing and taking? What appears natural may not be so. What looks like a miraculous lake is really the evaporation ponds from a potash mine. It is not water.
So I return to something smaller. I slide my hand over sandstone and feel something in the softness and sharpness of the rock. Erosion, yes, but a melting of time backwards and forwards—a profound sense of history in the layers being made and unmade, formed anew and crumbled back into the sand that holds my toes. I am reminded that the desert was once an ocean. In some ways to be here feels like swimming. Like being bathed. Like spilling into and out of something.
Maya Kobe-Rundio grew up along the coast of central California but was slowly drawn to the desert since childhood. She completed her bachelors at the University of Utah and is back for a masters in Environmental Humanities. Currently, Maya is chipping away at her masters thesis, a creative nonfiction project that blends personal and ecological grief in an exploration of multispecies entanglements.