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Gardening Columns

Desert Beauty

First published on on March 26, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

This week, I'm fortunate to be writing from Las Vegas and the 2009 International Master Gardeners conference. This gathering of 600+ gardeners provides opportunities for sharing ideas, connecting with old friends, and learning something new, all of which I've been able to do. 

I arrived a few days early, met a friend in Phoenix, and drove to Vegas through desert landscapes like nothing I've ever seen before. Although I can see why people describe the desert as a wasteland, it's anything but. As we drove north the vegetation varied, with saguaro cacti, Joshua trees, and occasional cottonwood groves indicating a spring or other water source. Plants were spaced feet or yards apart to take advantage of whatever sparse rains came their way. There just isn't enough water to support lush undergrowth. 

At the conference, I attended a slide show presentation by artist Sharon Shaefer, who provided a remarkable insight into the desert landscape. Inspired to create the show because she was tired of "hearing the words 'wasteland' and 'Southern Nevada' in the same sentence," her presentation was separated into eight segments, each focused on a single wild area. Her work is especially compelling in that it invites the viewer to look at familiar objects in a new light. She introduces a subject with closeups -- the feather patterns on the neck of a golden eagle, the mosaic of a reptile's back, the shocking red of a wading bird's legs. Then, she steps back slowly and the photos reveal more and more of the subject at hand. It was an inspired and inspiring presentation.

Later that day, my friend and I changed our plans to tour the casinos and other tourist attractions of "The Strip" and instead drove out for a hike in Red Rocks Canyon, a wilderness area about 45 minutes west of Las Vegas. There couldn't be more contrast between the garish excess of the Las Vegas and serene beauty of the canyons. I can't understand why tourists prefer the former, but I suppose I'm glad they do because the wilderness couldn't survive an onslaught of visitors. 

I've often thought that, were humans to depart, nature would quickly take over. Here in New England, I picture vines growing into windows and over buildings, tree roots invading and crumbling pavement and concrete; decay organisms having a field day on wood siding. At the risk of sounding antisocial, I feel like nature will have the last laugh, so to speak. 

Here in the desert, though, I expect things would progress so much more slowly. The impact humans have on the desert habitat might take centuries, not years, for nature to undo. Plants and animals in extreme climates like the desert live on the edge; there isn't much room for adapting to changes in their habitat. Populations are scattered and when too many of those are disrupted, species edge toward extinction. In the desert, there's no going back. Habitat destroyed now is likely destroyed forever.

At the close of Sharon Schaefer's slide show, she asked us all to find places in our own regions to protect and preserve. Nature needs us to strive to minimize our negative impacts, and to set aside places where plants and animals can live out there lives uninterrupted by paving, suburban sprawl, and over-sized commercial developments. Spend some time in the quiet of a natural area and be reminded of how rejuvenating it is. If we don't save natural areas for Mother Nature, let's do it for our own well-being.


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