Joshua Trees, Mojave Desert.
They’re everywhere, filling geographical and cultural landscapes that span hundreds of miles (and thousands of films, TV shows, commercials and books).
They survive where other foliage withers, clinging to the yellow earth as they send spiky arms to the sky. They’re at once romantic and terrifying, alien and surreal. Getting pricked by one of their spines is less than savory and their white, husky seed pods litter the territory like strange, dried bathroom sponges. If you smash and shake the pods, round black discuses spill out, ready to propagate more twisty beings.
They’ve been used as a stand-in for various generic deserts in countless fictional narratives, finding themselves in the backdrop of mighty Knight Rider car chases, witty MacGyver yarns, or overseeing countless movie heroes–from Ethel Merman to Joe Dirt. I see them even today in car insurance commercials, on album covers, in mysterious, public places far removed from their origin.
Gram Parsons, pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound and part of the Cosmic American Music movement, was fascinated by Joshua Tree National Monument–obsessively returning to one of the area’s prominent concentrations of yucca brevifolia. He eventually succumbed to a drug overdose in one of the rooms at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973–entranced by the desert even as his health spiraled out of control. His body was stolen by friends from LAX, brought back to Joshua Tree, where they attempted to cremate him at Cap Rock by dumping 6 gallons of gas into his coffin. The resulting fireball was legendary. Though Parsons was later sent to Louisiana for burial, 35 pounds of his earthly bod remained behind with the Joshuas.
The Joshua trees near my childhood home stand guard over my beloved childhood cat Rosie’s final resting place. They also mark tiny treasure hoards, where I buried notes and trinkets in the sand. When I’ve mutated their shapes into visual art, some recognize their trace, others can’t tell them from cacti or fir trees. Without a point of reference, they seem odd, misshapen, distorted and curious.
Fields of Joshuas are often talked about as if haunted, tales of prospectors and natives intermingling with Roswellian visitations. If it wasn’t a ghost, it was a wildman or “Satan worshipper”, lingering in the densest congregations of Joshua forest.
This is the mythology of the Mojave, the land of silent, spiky trees and rolling yellow rock. The life and death of rockstars and prospectors, gas stations and aerospace, the awkward and commercial, the paranormal and enchanted.
KR S2 E1