Learning Opportunities in JTree, And Other Fun Tidbits

4 04 2011

[This and a number of future posts were written during our stay in Joshua Tree National Park. They’ll come out over the next few days and will eventually catch up with real life, which has us staying by a local non-English-speaking family in a tiny 98% Latino / Mexican city. More to come on that.]

Written on Friday, April 1st

I loved bouldering challenging routes and testing my physical strength while in JTree.  One of my favorite parts of the week was enjoying the traditional learning opportunities offered by the park.

Yo Tengo Músculos!

Yo Tengo Músculos!

Nature walks, historic tours and other educational courses are offered daily (and generally free of charge) by local park rangers.  Learning about the environment around me enhances my appreciation of the site, so Yair and I trekked out to several tours over the past few days.  Here are some highlights:

1.  Many visitors zip around the park in vehicles at lightning speed, so one program that we attended had everyone slow down and study JTree at zero miles per hour.  Each participants was handed a clipboard, piece of paper and pencil, and was given ten minutes to observe and draw a still object of their choosing.  I thought that this was a creative way to start the tour, which later featured local plants and their historic medicinal and nutritional uses by Native American tribes.

My Masterpiece - The Original Tree is in the Distance

My Masterpiece - The Original Tree is in the Distance

We were treated to fresh and delicious pine nuts off of a Pinyon Pine Tree and learned to identify Mormon Tea, a plant whose leaves are still used to treat headaches and cold symptoms.  We learned that Prickly Pear cacti are edible once you burn off the spikes and that they house a small insect called the Cochineal, which are used in yogurts, lipsticks and many other products for their red coloring.  (Look for ‘carmine’ in the list of ingredients.)  Finally, if you are ever in a bind for rope, strip off strands of the Yucca, braid them together and you’ll be playing with one of the strongest natural fibers in the country.

Park Ranger Who Led the Medicinal Herbs Tour at Hidden Valley

Park Ranger Who Led the Medicinal Herbs Tour at Hidden Valley

Prickly Pear Cacti, Also Known as Beavertail - Edible!

Prickly Pear Cacti, Also Known as Beavertail - Edible!

2.  On our first walk, I noticed a pretty gross-looking dense, white spindly web with dozens of little caterpillars stuck inside.  I first thought that these were spider webs, but soon realized that we were looking at nests of caterpillar larvae that were in the midst of growing their wings and transforming into moths.  Incredible.  On a similarly interesting note, the plant-life here has been spectacular.  The Jojoba adapts to the desert heat by growing its leaves vertically, in order to minimize surface area in contact with the sun.  The Cholla are a stunning species of cactus that glimmer as though they are covered in snow, but (I hear!) easily attach to the skin with microscopic barbs – earning it the nickname ‘jumping cactus’.

Larvae Caterpillars in Metamorphosis

Larvae Caterpillars in Metamorphosis

Up Close and Personal With a Moth-in-the-Making

Up Close and Personal With a Moth-in-the-Making

Snow White Cholla - Deceivingly Beautiful

Snow White Cholla - Deceivingly Beautiful

Finally, Joshua trees – the park’s namesake – are very odd creatures!  They grow only about 2 inches per year for the first five years, and just under 1/2 an inch annually after that, so they are tiny things.  Their root systems aren’t very deep, making them highly susceptible to wind and they have no annual rings, making it very hard to age them.  They were named by Mormom settlers who likened their curiously-shaped branches to the Biblical story of Joshua outstretching his hands to hold the sun in place.  Each tree is shaped intriguingly and grotesquely differently, and they grew on me as the week went on.

Joshua Tree Roots - Thin and Shallow

Joshua Tree Roots - Thin and Shallow

3. We took an evening tour of the Keys Ranch, which re-created a typical night on the ranch in the 1930s.  We used authentic and somewhat dim flashlights from the 1930s, listened to Amos’n’Andy radio programs and were regaled with stories of the Keys family and their creative ability to survive, thrive and diversify their sources of income.  One small example:  The family was unable to keep coyotes from killing their chickens each night.  The coyotes would bite and claw through wire and find their way into the chicken coop.  So Mr. Keys hunted down an old rusted and abandoned automobile that he turned into the first ever armored chicken coop, and each night the children would run the chickens into the trunk of the car.  The tour underscored “family values” and the benefit of a slower pace of life, and encouraged participants not to wait another year before taking a vacation, enjoying the country’s parks or paying attention to their own quality of life.  It was a sweet evening.

Mega-Boulders: Great for Playing

Mega-Boulders: Great for Playing

4.  Finally, here is the short version of how Joshua Tree’s enormous  boulders came into being:  Many years ago ocean plates under the Earth’s surface began to shift, unleashing magma from the depths of the Earth.  The liquid forcefully shot its way toward the surface, expanding near the surface to a breadth of miles.  The magma that broke through the topsoil became volcanoes and lava.  The other magma shafts (called plutons) shot only part-way to the surface and hardened into rock formations under the ground.  Wind, water and time led to the erosion of the rock above (called gneiss), uncovering and baring the massive magma boulders that were once a whopping ten miles underground.  The end.

During our hikes, we spotted dozens of lizards and began naming them.  Our naming convention (devised by Yair) went something like this: females were Lizzie, males were Leozard and our gender-ambiguous friends were just plain Lee.  The week was a wonderful learning experience and – having only been to one or two national parks in my life – I now appreciate how much of a gift they are to anyone who finds the time to visit.

Splat! Poor Lee.

Splat! Poor Lee.

posted by ayo

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4 responses

4 04 2011
Talia

I can’t believe you guys have been to so few national parks until now – I’m glad you’re getting to do it now :-).

5 04 2011
amybetho

Crazy, I know. All those years of international travels and I’ve barely seen THIS country. Hopefully, that is about to change. Want to join us in Utah’s parks this summer?

5 04 2011
Shira

Love the picture of the moth-in-the-making.

5 04 2011
amybetho

Thanks, Shir! It was really gross and really awesome at the same time. 🙂

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