Harvest the rain
The smell of creosote is the first premonition of rain in the Mojave. It stinks, until you learn to associate it with rain, and then it takes on a kind of magic. The leaves of the creosote bush produce the smell, a potent resin that drips onto the ground with the downpour and acts as an herbicide against competing plants. The smell is more reliable than weather reports.
We are rarely prepared when it rains. We run to collect tools laying out in the yard, close the windows, tarp something. We look for boots and umbrellas, but can't remember where we put them since the last time.
When it really rains, the water shed off a small roof can overflow a 50 gallon rain barrel in a minute. Rain events can be both ecstatic and dangerous: in the summer it's a treat to stand outside in shorts and be drenched, but every decade or so someone is killed when a wall of water barreling down a wash catches them by surprise; flash floods can flip a car or bury a house in silt.
The last rain event in our part of Joshua Tree was in July, right after my brother-in-law, Damian, finished detailing the second swale. When the first big raindrops fell, we all ran out to watch the water flow into the swales.
The swales are ditches designed to divert rainwater from the hard-packed roads. The level bottom of the swale will slow the water and give it time to sink into the sandy soil. A deep layer of mulch will keep it from evaporating, and desert-hearty trees planted in and around the swales will use the extra water to create shade and biomass, a benefit to the whole ecosystem.
Damian often digs alone by headlamp late into the summer evenings, but the second swale was a family project, most of it dug during a work party the week before.
The work party included Damian and his wife Maya; their 3-year old son Oliver; my in-laws, Steve and Darlene; my husband, Nathen; our friend, Jennifer, who rents a room next door; the neighbour she rents from, Paula; Gabe, another brother-in-law who lives on the property, and myself. We drank margaritas and dug until after dark, using the excavated sand to build a mound on the high side.
Not digging that day was Darlene's 95-year-old father, known to all as Grandpa Bob, who also lives here. Together we span four generations. Counting those friendly neighbors (why not? Paula does yoga with Grandpa Bob four times a week and Karen has rented from my in-laws for many years) we are 12, a settlement Christopher Alexander would approve of.
This settlement – a good chunk of it owned by my father-in-law, who likes to buy land (not a bad hobby for a man with five sons) – is defined by the county's straight roads on two sides, the neighbour's back fences on the South, and a swath of undeveloped desert to the North.
The cloud cover creates an unfamiliar soft light, and the first drops wash the dust away, making the landscape vibrant. The creosotes turn dark as Christmas trees. Maya puts Ollie in a yellow rain slicker and boots. The desert is a warm, wet water park.
There are two kinds of rain to wish for. One is a slow steady rain, gentle enough that the water has time to sink in and long enough to sink deep. The other is hard rain, the kind that will turn the sandy roads into washes, the washes into quick rivers. No matter the time of year, yellow creosote flowers will appear a week or two after the rain. Grass might spring up for a few weeks, and if it happens a few times over the winter we'll have a spectacular wildflower bloom in the spring.
This time it's over in 45 minutes and the sun is shining again. We got less than half an inch; enough to form a small rivulet from the road into the swale. Proof of concept, at least.
I first had my mind blown about rainwater harvesting when I watched this fantastic Brad Lancaster video. Lancaster says enough rain falls on Tucson each year* to meet all of the city's water needs, if the water were collected and stored rather than shunted away in storm drains. Instead, most of Tucson's water is imported from the Colorado river 300 miles away, and the transportation of that water is Arizona's largest carbon emitter.
*Tucson averages over ten inches of rain per year compared to our four. I have what you call desert envy.
When my husband and I moved here three years ago from the Pacific Northwest, my in-laws offered to buy a neighbouring house that happened to be for sale. It fronted on a "busy" dirt road. It was big, with a chain link fence around the yard and new carpet. It didn't need any love, so we passed. There were other houses we might have looked at of course, further away, but Maya had just had her baby, which made me an aunt, and she requested that we live "in toddling distance," which sounded fine to me.
I was already in the thrall of tiny houses, and we'd both grown attached to the idea of fixing up the 1962 travel trailer my husband had lived in in the late 90's, with it's green shag rug full of dust and it's drawers full of mouse droppings.
I chose a spot for the trailer at the north end of his parent's 2.5 acres, across from a small building that served as a bathroom and sauna. A fence created a U-shaped courtyard between the two that would be our domain: landlocked, and far enough from the neighbours to walk across naked on hot summer nights.
Before we could move the trailer we had to tackle a four-foot-tall pile of weathered plywood that had once been a skateboard ramp–the pride of the neighbourhood when the brothers were growing up. Later, the sun had its way with the ramp and the pile attracted more garbage with the special magnetism of junk piles. Then the fence went up to hide it from the driveway. It took us three weeks to saw up the wood and cart it off to the dump, and another five months to get the trailer in livable condition.
The trailer had mercifully little water damage, having spent all of its days in Southern California. My husband unscrewed every stick of aluminum trim from the exterior, scraped away the dried putty tape and replaced it. We took out the green shag carpet and painted the paneling almond white, took out the pink toilet and the noisy fridge, and built-out the two single beds into one wall-to-wall bed. We moved in a couple weeks before our wedding.
We spent a few thousand dollars fixing it up and improving the yard, which I amortized as rent over two years – the longest I thought we would last in the trailer.
This will be our third winter. "Pod living," I call it, because in addition to the trailer we have the bathhouse, a pantry that shelters the fridge and freezer, a tool shed, an RV I use as a sewing studio, and access to my in-laws living and laundry rooms. The "hallways" of this house are sandy trails exposed to the sun and the milky way. It has the improvisational feel of a campground, and I walk barefoot most of the year, despite the inevitable cholla spines in the foot.
Of course, the trailer is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, and sometimes it's both in one day (next time I'd build a box around it right away). We have to climb over the wall-to-wall bed to get to our closet at the back of the trailer, or to turn on the swamp cooler. There's no space for a dinner party and nowhere to sleep my family or friends when they visit. We had internet for a while but the cable seems to have been damaged somewhere along it's 120 foot run. Still, we are remarkably content in our tiny home on the family compound.
When the weather is nice – summer evenings and most of the fall, winter and spring – we tend to congregate in the driveway, while Ollie rides his strider bike, or around the swing set, or under a tree. The sunsets are something to write home about.
The automobile and the aquifer
It might be unethical to live outside of the city unless you are growing food (all of your own, or a lot for other people). As David Owen argues in his book Green Metropolis, apartment-dwelling Manhattanites produce less carbon emissions than the most committed off-grid homesteaders, without really trying. Why? Because of cars.
Allow me to exorcise my guilt by telling you how much I drive now, compared to how little I drove before, so that you will know that this glorious desert homesteading life comes with guilt–if you're the neurotic type–and also some quality-of-life compromises.
In Vancouver, BC, where I lived for most of my twenties, I borrowed my parents car maybe once a month, and otherwise rode my bicycle or took the bus. Here, we live 8 miles from the grocery store and my husband regularly drives more than 40 miles a day for work.
Unlike most of our local friends, we're actually close enough to "downtown" Joshua Tree that I was able to bicycle commute to a retail job the first year I lived here. Despite being on a dirt road, our distances are suburban rather than rural. On hundred degree summer days I'd dunk myself in our stock-tank fully-clothed, pedal off, and arrive at work bone dry 20 minutes later. But even when the temperatures are mild and inviting, cycling feels a little reckless because the roads lack paved shoulders or sidewalks, let alone bike paths. Walking to do errands is a privilege reserved for the destitute.
Feeling trapped, I bought my first car. Then I got a new, better-paying job further away. Between the two of us, my husband working full time and me carpooling with him two or three days a week, we drive almost 15,000 miles a year– right around the American average for one person, but less than way too much can still be too much.
Living out here might also be unsustainable because of water. We get our drinking water–and our toilet-flushing water–from an ancient aquifer, but we're in overdraft: there's only a trickle going in and the population continues to grow. As the water level drops, the mineral concentration rises – two challenges that will make clean water much more expensive in the future.Last year our water district built a pipeline to the California State Water Project; so long as there is water to buy, we'll use it to top up our aquifer and postpone the larger problem.
On the other hand, there is something about the desert that clarifies one's priorities. It's hard to take the global water crisis seriously in the Pacific Northwest, but here we are on the front lines of the drought. David Owen points out that desert-dwellers are at least not consuming arable land, and are at best well-positioned to take advantage of wind and solar power.
Homesteading in the desert may not be primarily about agriculture (fine with me; I'm a lousy gardener). It is, however, a great place to work with the elements: use solar power, harness the wind, and gather the rain.
My father-in-law received generous subsidies for grid-tied solar in the early 2000's and now pays little-to-nothing a year for the power used by the six of us living on the property. Low-tech solar can have an even higher return because it costs so much less: passive solar design is an obvious win in this climate; "Mexican" batch water heaters are simple to build and provide ample hot water even on winter mornings. Solar ovens save energy and keep the house cooler in the summer by moving cooking outside.
We have enough of a buffer from public scrutiny out here to test out natural building materials and use composting toilets. And while conventional crops may be too spendy in water terms, there is plenty of wild forage to harvest, both plant and animal: mesquite and palo verde trees produce edible legumes that can be ground into delicious flours for baking. Yucca root can be dried and used for soap and shampoo. Springtime cholla buds were a staple of the indigenous people, eaten fresh or dried, and taste like okra crossed with artichoke. Prickly pear cactus produce a jewel-toned fruit commonly eaten in Mexico. Rabbits and quail abound.
Ethical or not, we live here for now. My husband grew up here, and his attachment to the landscape runs deep. Perhaps, as local friends Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock write in their manifesto, we can put our eyes on the land and watch out for this wilderness, and maybe too, we can be beta-testers for a hotter, drier climate to come.