Writing inspired by the desert in Joshua Tree National Park

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You can’t see anything (in the desert) from a car; you’ve got to get out of the… contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.” – Edward Abbey, from “Desert Solitaire.”

This past October in the Mojave Desert’s Morongo Basin – season of the tarantula and turkey vulture migrations – came in like a lion with record heat and went out like a lion, too. When 95-degree temps dipped overnight, yielding to a massive dust storm, icy winds and the grit of sand in everyone’s teeth as they awoke to a cold autumn morning before the air slowly cleared and our mountain-rimmed views reappeared.

It was a wild weather weekend in the Mojave, in all its ferocity and yielding, its surprises, its unanticipated weather changes just when you thought you had it all figured out – and the end of an unimaginable summer of weather whiplash that featured a massive desert wildfire and an unlikely desert hurricane, followed by a second landscape-altering monsoon storm, all in August. Then there’s the rare desert flora and fauna super bloom that followed the fire and rain into deep autumn.

This all converged to set the perfect, enticing desert eco-tones for my new Desert Institute on-site field writing workshop, Write Like the Desert (c.) on the last Sunday of October at the majestic Indian Cove campground in Joshua Tree National Park, situated at the north end of the aptly named Wonderland of Rocks where a vast alluvial fan spreads across several miles onto the open desert floor. Here, the light washes across massive, ancient white boulders and rock spires in a timeless and prescient shimmer that evokes a deep and knowing land history we might only imagine ourselves to be part of.

It was here a group of adventuresome writers gathered, put boots on the ground and pens to notebooks and immersed ourselves in the possibilities of weaving word and visceral desert immersions into verse and prose that dances across the page, sparking human emotion and imagination into a unique desert language of the human tongue, never mind the high winds and early morning texts between workshop sponsor Desert Institute Director Benazir Lopez and I on the possibility of relocating to a calmer and warmer indoor space at Black Rock Campground true to the workshop theme, adapting and adjusting to the weather whims of the desert itself, by the hour.

The opening flash fiction prompt that I gave to workshop participants was aptly inspired by epic California writer Joan Didion, from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem:” “And then, just past the moment when the desert has become the only reality…”

It wasn’t hard for our writers to use this magnetic phrase to look around in awe, feel the midday sunshine, hear the whistle of wind whip through creosote, observe mini-dust devils spinning across the sand, and use this prompt as a portal to jump-start a compressed piece of prose writing filled with immediacy, conflict and excitement as sharp and layered as the yucca and cholla cactus fields around us.

After sharing their writing, our writers moved to their next prompt, and this one followed a short discussion we had on concerns over some of the heavy impacts of high-volume tourism on the Park’s ecology. Jumping right in, I asked participants to write a public service statement in the voice of a Joshua tree: “I am a Joshua tree.

This is what I want to say to all of the people taking selfies with me.” I encouraged participants to share their write-ups and help encourage eco-literacy in how we approach and treat our fragile desert places, remembering to respect nature.

Ruth Nolan grew up in the Mojave Desert and now teaches creative writing at College of the Desert. (Photo courtesy of Pablo Aguilar)
Ruth Nolan grew up in the Mojave Desert and now teaches creative writing at College of the Desert. (Photo courtesy of Pablo Aguilar)


“You can’t see anything (in the desert) from a car; you’ve got to get out of the… contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.” – Edward Abbey, from “Desert Solitaire.”

This past October in the Mojave Desert’s Morongo Basin – season of the tarantula and turkey vulture migrations – came in like a lion with record heat and went out like a lion, too. When 95-degree temps dipped overnight, yielding to a massive dust storm, icy winds and the grit of sand in everyone’s teeth as they awoke to a cold autumn morning before the air slowly cleared and our mountain-rimmed views reappeared.

It was a wild weather weekend in the Mojave, in all its ferocity and yielding, its surprises, its unanticipated weather changes just when you thought you had it all figured out – and the end of an unimaginable summer of weather whiplash that featured a massive desert wildfire and an unlikely desert hurricane, followed by a second landscape-altering monsoon storm, all in August. Then there’s the rare desert flora and fauna super bloom that followed the fire and rain into deep autumn.

This all converged to set the perfect, enticing desert eco-tones for my new Desert Institute on-site field writing workshop, Write Like the Desert (c.) on the last Sunday of October at the majestic Indian Cove campground in Joshua Tree National Park, situated at the north end of the aptly named Wonderland of Rocks where a vast alluvial fan spreads across several miles onto the open desert floor. Here, the light washes across massive, ancient white boulders and rock spires in a timeless and prescient shimmer that evokes a deep and knowing land history we might only imagine ourselves to be part of.

It was here a group of adventuresome writers gathered, put boots on the ground and pens to notebooks and immersed ourselves in the possibilities of weaving word and visceral desert immersions into verse and prose that dances across the page, sparking human emotion and imagination into a unique desert language of the human tongue,

never mind the high winds and early morning texts between workshop sponsor Desert Institute Director Benazir Lopez and I on the possibility of relocating to a calmer and warmer indoor space at Black Rock Campground true to the workshop theme, adapting and adjusting to the weather whims of the desert itself, by the hour.

The opening flash fiction prompt that I gave to workshop participants was aptly inspired by epic California writer Joan Didion, from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem:” “And then, just past the moment when the desert has become the only reality…”

It wasn’t hard for our writers to use this magnetic phrase to look around in awe, feel the midday sunshine, hear the whistle of wind whip through creosote, observe mini-dust devils spinning across the sand, and use this prompt as a portal to jump-start a compressed piece of prose writing filled with immediacy, conflict and excitement as sharp and layered as the yucca and cholla cactus fields around us.

After sharing their writing, our writers moved to their next prompt, and this one followed a short discussion we had on concerns over some of the heavy impacts of high-volume tourism on the Park’s ecology. Jumping right in, I asked participants to write a public service statement in the voice of a Joshua tree: “I am a Joshua tree.

This is what I want to say to all of the people taking selfies with me.” I encouraged participants to share their write-ups and help encourage eco-literacy in how we approach and treat our fragile desert places, remembering to respect nature.

In another prompt, I asked participants to weave a patterned poem by writing a one-two sentence description of a panoply of interrelated desert life: coyote, creosote, monsoon rain, rattlesnake, tourist at Jumbo Rocks, the Milky Way, bighorn sheep, and several choices of their own.

Hearing these elegiac pieces read aloud as the calming afternoon wind tossed and fretted in its own paces and rhymes added a mosaic of quilted beauty and voices into what turned out to be a perfect Mojave Desert day, one brightened by this gathering of souls who converged in a cove of ancient rocks to spend a few hours together to write like the desert.

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