Last weekend I went for a walk in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a couple of hours from Los Angeles, 25,000 plus acres of desert, though because of snowmelt and underground water parts of it are marsh, wetland, and riparian forest. It’s not far from Joshua Tree National Park, but Morongo receives a couple of million fewer visitors per year, which some of us think is a definite advantage.
I’d been there once before, and if you’d asked me when that was, I’d have said just a few years back, but a little research reveals that it was over a decade ago in 2006.
At the time I was a great desert enthusiast but a bit new to the game (I’d only recently moved to California) and in many ways I was naïve about the desert. I found the Morongo Preserve a bit tame and well-groomed with its designated trails and its boardwalks across the marshland. Back then I wanted every walk in the desert to be some great, wild, cosmic expedition of self-discovery. I’ve lightened up a lot since then.
2006 was an “interesting” year to visit. In June 2005 there had been a serious fire that started in a house in the unincorporated community of Morongo Valley. It’s known as the Paradise Fire because the house was in Paradise Avenue; the fire destroyed half a dozen homes and 6,000 acres of the Preserve.
At its worst it looked like this (photo from Friends of Morongo):
Volunteers rallied round and some trails reopened within a few weeks of the fire, though it wasn’t till March 2006 that all of the trails were open again. And in October of that year, I sauntered along.
As you see in the pictures I took at the time (above and below), there was still plenty of evidence of the blaze, and some startling contrasts between the burned, blackened trees and the new growth. According to the Preserve’s website there were signs of growth within a week of the fire being extinguished.
Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is one of those places where they let nature take its course, as far as they can, and so the old burned trees are still there today, sometimes with exuberant new growth all around them, and the effect is even more startling than it was over ten years ago; like this Giacometti-style burned tree:
And here – and I didn’t realize I’d photographed it before until I got home and checked the archive – are two photographs of the same dead tree taken a decade or so apart. The tree is still dead, of course, it’s lost some of its extremities, but it’s still standing, looking resolute and noble (and anthropomorphic), right next to the boardwalk where hikers pass all the time, You can pick your own metaphors out of that one.