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Honor the Desert

A Talk Before the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group on November 1, 2005

by Barnaby Davidson

This is a talk to introduce a pamphlet, "Landscaping for Borrego Springs," as a first step in fostering the idea of planting, for both private gardens and public spaces, plants that are native to the area. It is an attempt to think about landscaping from the desert’s point of view. To try to preserve all aspects of what a desert essentially is.

Plants are part of a large and complex system so the subject can’t be limited to just water conservation or habitat protection or light pollution, etc., etc., etc.  So the stated purpose is water conservation; but equally important is the aesthetic that plants create – "a sense of place."

I am here to advocate for the desert and that means for the desert plants that are an important part of the cycle that defines all landscape. Briefly, I’d like to give you what credentials I have for such presumptuousness – especially since I just settled here four to five years ago.

Born in Los Angeles when it was a beautiful and interesting city on the cutting edge of architecture, art, theater, music, and more – before it became L.A. Born too late to know the time when, it is said, one could see the fields of California poppies sixty miles to sea, or as one conquistador wrote in his journal about the San Fernando Valley "one could ride all day long and never leave the shade of the oak trees."

In the thirties, my time, California was still paradise. I grew up in the hills above Altadena – not many cars, houses or people. In kindergarten we were taught to not turn on the water tap until after teeth were brushed, and then only briefly to rinse the brush. It was a small enough price to pay for living in paradise. Of course, I now know the seeds of its destruction were already planted.

We went regularly to the desert for the dry, healing air – as if one needed an excuse. My father painted the desert and my mother organized hikes with anyone she could round-up. We learned proper gear for desert hikes and took care to carry enough water. We learned the botanical and common names of plants, and the use that insects, snakes, and animals, including humans, made of them. Tracks and scats were examined. Their would be a quiz at the end of the day. And, of course, the miracle of coming upon the magic and essential elixir watched over by the sturdy palms. At night we put cots out under the stars and at last I could make my own connection to the desert. The sky was so full of celestial bodies that it was hard to find a space where another might fit. If you reached out you could touch a star.

How did we get from there to here? These are the words defining "desert" from a few dictionaries: Barren, wasteland, forsaken, lonely, desolate, abandoned, and uninhabitable. "Desertifcation", a relatively new word, is defined as a process by which fertile land becomes barren. Small wonder deserts are considered suitable sites for dumps, toxic waste, bombing sites, off-road vehicle racing, and for domestication in the form of acres of turf-grass, planting of non-native plants that are invasive and require water, causing the rise in humidity brought about by evaporation of precious water by overhead watering, uncovered swimming pools, ponds, fountains, moats, spas, water traps, and more.

Much of the world does not look like the desert. Most people grew up thinking green is good – brown and grey are bad. Green – the color of emerging crops, Green thumb, Greenbelt, Greenpeace, The Greens. Hospital walls are painted green. One side of money is green – greenback. Go is green. Green is a synonym for environmentally sound building. The only exception I can think of is Golden Gate, named for the golden native vegetation on the hills that the bridge foundations sit on.

Why the love affair with lawns – even the smallest strip of unused lawn? In the days of kings, only kings had lawns because only kings had land. When the kings were booted out, important in this country’s history, every "peasant" who managed to acquire a small bit of land planted a small patch of lawn to let the world know that he was king of that land – the house, his castle.

Naturally the desert is an alien place to someone who has roots in another landscape – one based on green. Some people are not green based, however. I know a second or third generation Californian who married a New Yorker. While honeymooning in New England she burst into tears and cried "Why don’t you take me home where the plants are brown the way they are supposed to be?"

My husband and I took our daughter to school in Portland, Oregon and scheduled a few extra days to tour that magnificent countryside. On the second day my husband grabbed my arm and said "Let’s get out of here; I can’t stand this GREEN any longer." We packed, wished our daughter well, and drove straight to the desert where we took several deep breaths.

Landscapes have deep psychological meaning. They are something that defines us – our sense of place. That has almost disappeared in our increasingly homogenized culture. The last big change in California came with the huge population influx after WWII. In the fifties, Disney gave birth to Disneyland and the idea that California, particularly southern California, should look like it. Landscape as entertainment, landscape as a movie set, as a tropical island. Landscaping was and is an important part of Disneyland. Consultants were hired to advise on how best to attract the public. That is when the royal lawn surrounded by Technicolor arrived in California and took hold. It galvanized the nursery and infant turf grass industries.

Over the years I have watched, heartbroken, the destruction of the California landscape – a place blessed with more microclimates and therefore more different species of plants than any other state. I have heard all the variations of "It can’t happen here" over and over again and then watched it happen over and over again. Not only the destruction of the desert, the most fragile of all the plant communities, but of every native plant community in the state.

"Why not?" some will say. Some will not be moved by the aesthetic arguments, the loss of habitat argument, but eventually everyone has to come face to face with the fact that if we continue to pour water onto exotics (that includes turf grass), onto any plant material that is not completely adapted to living in the natural landscape, we will run out of water.  One might want to research what happened to Santa Barbara when it almost ran out of water – a community of angry, distraught citizens, dead lawns, shrubs, and even mature trees. Santa Barbara was saved at the last minute by the California Water Project, which is now over subscribed.

This Sonoran Desert, that Borrego Springs is in, is the last bit of unprotected desert left in California. It is unique. Let’s not lose it.

Now I am going to say some harsh things about Borrego Springs. I would like not to, but I feel they need to be said. Take that wonderful drive down Montezuma Grade starting at the top – the place where the land falls away – the distant mountains and the valley floor alternating with each curve. Descending through the chaparral – the first desert plants – the transition zone. Then into the desert itself. It an exhilarating trip in all seasons. Then what do you see at the bottom of the grade, at the entrance to Borrego Springs? On the one side, solid asphalt from road to building. No area left in which to plant desert plants that would screen the buildings and parking. On the other side is the wrong message to send – the back entrance to RV parking followed by a very large area of unused lawn.

Continuing toward the center of town, it doesn’t get better. Every property owner has been left to plant whatever they want or not at all. A few have done a good job, one outstanding, but that’s not enough. The overall impression is highway blight.

Fountain grass is appearing in more and more public as well as residential places. There is a hybrid that doesn’t set seed, but most people looking at it will not see what distinguishes one from the other, even those who think they do. Someone sees it in a public place, likes it, sees it at the nursery, buys it, plants it, and there it is, ready to escape into the park. Public planting should be a role model!

Closer to the center of town shrubs are jammed into places too small for their natural size and have been hacked back into solid spheres and squares – obliterating the natural structure. In the mall, they make it impossible to see cars coming at right angles to you. It is mistakenly called pruning. I call it Crime and Punishment. When applied to trees, you just want to put them out of their misery. It is penny wise and pound foolish. Properly pruned trees need less maintenance and are less subject to insect infestation. They are a major dollar investment as well as a pleasure to be around. And the person who cornered the market on pink dwarf oleander must be living it up now on a yacht in the south of France. The entrance to Borrego Springs looks like the entrance to any tacky shopping mall in San Diego County and beyond.

There is no retail nursery in Borrego Springs that specializes in native desert plants. We need one – desperately. Also, what is needed is a cohesive, intelligent, landscaping plan that gives us a sense of place – an honoring of the Sonoran Desert.

I could go on but I want to move on. It’s one thing to shake the disapproving finger – another to come up with some constructive ideas. Here are a few. I’m sure you’ll think of more.

PAMPHLET - This pamphlet is an attempt to convince people to think about landscaping in the desert from the desert’s point of view – to try to preserve all aspects of what a desert essentially is. To be distributed in all public places – I hope.

PLANTING GUIDE – In a two page, 81/2 x 11 inch pamphlet it is possible to get all the essential information about selecting, planting, staking, drip irrigating, pruning, etc. A larger plant list than the pamphlet including plants both aesthetically and in terms of water conservation, that are geared to Borrego. High and most moderate water users are not mentioned at all, nor overhead watering. It will "suggest." (Other desert communities that are incorporated have the power to enforce but we have to use the carrot and the stick and the bludgeon. The stick being the rise in water rates – the bludgeon being running out of water.)  More suggestions – that the property that abuts the road is visually public space and should be planted only with native plants to maintain the desert feeling for passersby. Encourage gardener’s imaginations to soar. There are some good examples already in place. One of the many pleasures of going to the desert was seeing the fantastic desert gardens. It should be fun – it should be appealing to people.

There will always be some who can afford to pay the higher rates and will choose to do so. If enough people and organizations are turned on to the idea of Borrego Springs being in the forefront of knowing what a desert community looks like, then peer pressure can work. Someone convinced the mayor of Palm Desert that planting native plants in both private and public spaces would conserve water and the mayor convinced business people that planting natives is GOOD BUSINESS. I have brochures of some exclusive clubs as well as public spaces bragging about their beautiful native (and water conserving) landscaping – and brag they should; it is elegantly done and designed to attract people. The old fifties strip of lawn surrounded by color, color, color (read water, water, water) is now passé. Regularly there are articles in the Los Angeles Times and local papers (especially the North County Times), and many Arizona publications (Arizona, particularly Tucson, has been way ahead of California in the protection of the desert) about how the built landscape should reflect the natural landscape.

Take a look at the places in Palm Desert, both public and private, that have planted all natives or some very intelligently combined with non-native plants that are drought resistant and mix aesthetically with the natives. Take a camera. If you don’t know the owners of the malls or golf courses here, show the pictures to golfer friends. If you do know the owners – meet at the club house or on the fairway. Convince them that native landscaping is good business. Then try out a new idea – golf courses in the desert do not have water traps! Carrot: beautiful, elegant customer-attracting landscaping. Stick: higher water rates. Bludgeon: no water, plummeting property values, no customers.

LIAISONS – A liaison, a volunteer keeping information lines open with someone at the Park for common problem solving. Liaison with San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They do interesting projects, some with landscape architects, so might be a good source for professional help for the public planting. Someone who uses native plants and understands the desert. Their bulletins give notice of meetings with public input or importance. San Diego is a long way to go; so the few people who do go should have a sheaf of papers to wave when its their turn to speak bearing the (hundreds; dare we think thousands) of signatures of all the Borregans who couldn’t be there but are in agreement with the spokesperson. Spread far and wide the idea that Borregans are a force to be reckoned with – that we will be fierce in defense of the desert and our community nestled within it.

SCHOOL NATIVE PLANT GARDEN – Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, had access to Bay Area school administrators. She suggested to them that students make kitchen gardens. Students learn first hand about climate and soils so they plant the appropriate plants. They learn how to plant, maintain, and harvest. They then take the crops to the school kitchen and learn how to prepare food in a commercial kitchen. Their school lunches are a big hit. Here the project is the Sonoran Desert. Students could develop their own brochure giving information on such things as climate and soils, drip irrigation, pruning (how and why), the birds, insects, animals, etc. that rely on the plants. Native American use, and more. The garden should be in a public space for interaction with public.

WELCOME WAGON – Resurrect this idea. People volunteer to distribute a bag full of certificates or samples from local merchants to newcomers. Also in the bag are civic regulations (in this case "suggestions") for instance the trash pickup day and when barrels go to the street – and off the street. The bag also includes information on water conservation – this pamphlet and guide, the student garden pamphlets, etc.

REWARDS – A few years ago I received a notice from the East Bay water district that water rates would be rising based on last year’s usage – thereby penalizing people who had conserved water – rewarding those who didn’t know the meaning of the word. In a fury, my immediate reaction was to turn on all the taps and let them run. I didn’t, of course, and was ashamed of my reaction; but recently I read a letter to the Los Angles Times from someone who said that he was tired of being told to conserve by a body that had just approved yet another development. He plans to water his lawn copiously every midday, buy a generator and run the air conditioning nonstop, etc., etc. I knew my reaction was not unusual. It’s impossible to have everyone feel that they are being treated fairly because there are inequities. One way to reduce that feeling is to recognize and reward real water conservation.

Las Vegas and Cathedral City pay substantial amounts to people who eliminate their lawns and plant natďve plants. Los Angles Metropolitan Water District gives away up to five five-gallon trees per lot for energy conservation. Other communities are doing similar things both to conserve and to create a sense of place. What about, for here, one year at the lower tier if all Sonoran natives are used with the idea of not watering them after established?

The next Borrego Days theme could be water conservation and native plants.

A garden club tour that features only gardens with all native plants and mostly native Sonoran plants mixed with appropriate exotics and watered by a drip irrigation system.

Also under non-monetary rewards – recognition featured splashily in the press – local and beyond.

I understand the difficulties because Borrego Springs is unincorporated, but a groundswell of public opinion – public passion – goes a long way. Borrego Springs, the California desert community that does it right!

I’d like to close with an anecdote about Ian McHarg, landscape architect and urban planner. He wrote a beautiful book called Design With Nature, and he was a great public speaker. For many years he tried, to no avail, to convince the people along the New Jersey shore that by building (residential, commercial, and industrial) on the sand dunes and in some cases removing them altogether they were removing natural flood protection. One night he gave a lecture on this subject and afterwards the president of the sponsoring club said to him "Dr. McHarg this is just terrible, terrible. What can we do about it? McHarg said, "Well, you know the president of Con Ed don’t you?" "Why yes, yes I do." "Well, the next time you see him, don’t ask him how he is – LEAP at his jugular vein!" 11/15/2005

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