People from the east coast make fun of us Southern Californians for getting so excited every time it rains. It just so rarely rains that when it does it is an unusual event. What I like to do when it rains is go to a desert environment that is covered with water erosion and watch that erosion in action. It causes a little bit of cognitive dissonance when you’re wandering the desert on a dry 100° day through sands that were once the seafloor, amongst boulders that have been smoothed to spheres by an abundance of rain. It seems to make no sense. I like to go out during the rain to that erosion in action. It helps me understand how prehistoric people could have thrived in a world that, to my modern senses, seems so inhospitable.
The California desert wasn’t always so arid. In centuries past our Mojave desert may have been very green like parts of the Sonora desert in Arizona which has a lot of similar kinds of desert plant life, but enjoys a much wetter climate. It is astonishing how quickly things turn green after just a day or two of rain in Southern California.
As in all settlements, ancient or modern, people congregate around a perennial source of water. On this day in Joshua Tree National Park I decided to walk around Stirrup Tank and Hidden Tank and see if I could spot a drop or two of water actually storing up in one of these tanks.
A “tank” is a natural water catchment. The USGS topographical map shows Stirrup Tank and Hidden Tank next to a river. In the desert you have to take topo map indications of water with a grain of salt. The USGS maps were made a long time ago and there may or may not still be water there, the waterway may be temporary or seasonal, or the river may run underground.
I mosied around the area and peeked into some Native American rock shelters. One of the bigger rock shelters in the neighborhood has a wind blocking fire ring in it. How do I know the fire ring was for blocking the wind? Most of the rocks are piled up on the side the wind was blowing in from. (Occam’s Razor = the simplest explanation is probably the right one.) What was also clear is that this shelter was more likely used as shelter from sun than shelter from rain because it was not a good rain shelter at all. To start with, the place was pretty damp and the rock that provided the overhead shelter was totally soaked and channeling rain water directly into the fire ring. Maybe the stack of stones was not intended to be a fire ring. Maybe it was actually the remnants of a windbreak wall that visitors have rearranged. Either way, if this was supposed to be my rain shelter I’d fire my contractor.
Bedrock mortar holes (holes where food was ground into meal) were lying around here and there. They were all filled with rain water. There were also some other antique food prep items lying about. My favorite was a sardine can.
Although my hike was rainy and drippy, I had yet to see any evidence of rainwater at these tanks. I crunched through sand along “waterway” on my topo map and poked around Stirrup Tank, which is a large freestanding boulder stack, and I saw nor heard any water there. So I made my way over to Hidden Tank which is at the base of a hill. As soon as I started climbing around the boulders in Hidden Tank I could hear a faint trickle of water. Bingo!
Following the sound of falling water I fought with cats claw bushes (the story of my life) that clung to my clothes and negotiated leaping from boulder to boulder, contemplating at every crossing my game plan for the broken bone I’m likely to get one of these days. Finally, I found the source of the water, a small waterfall at the base of the hill. Not an epic “tank” of surface water, but at least evidence that water gathers at this spot.
Where there is water, there is life. Without water, well… Rain worship is not unique to the prehistoric people of the American desert, it was a universal concern as it is to this day. But for a nomadic people who lacked metallurgy for pipes and deep drilled wells, rain was the end all be all as a source of water. Desert petroglyphs often depict a symbol that is thought to represent rain. It is the same symbol used for rain by the ancient Chinese. It looks like a squared rake. Sometimes the tines are broken lines that look like raindrops, sometimes not.
This tells me that the people were either extremely grateful when they had rain and creating the petroglyph as a way of demonstrating that, or they mark an area that usually had rain as a superstitious gesture to ensure future rain, or maybe it was to mark a spot where water could be found during certain seasons as a reminder to return to the same place for water.
Of great symbolic importance to American natives was the Thunderbird. Thunder brings rain and thus creates and sustains all life. In the native village at Stirrup Tank I found what I think is a giant petroglyph of a Thunderbird. There is a large boulder that backs up to a hill and looks out at the horizon over the open desert to the West. On the face of the rock is natural black and red coloration in the shape of a giant Thunderbird, and it appears to me that carvings were made in the red feathers of the wings to create a striped or criss-cross pattern. At the foot of the Thunderbird is a deep mortar hole that I like to imagine was used for ceremonial purposes in conjunction with the Thunderbird. There’s a not h in the top of the rock that sends rainwater down the body of the bird.
I was exploring around Stirrup tank until dark and I came across another habitat. A lovely little abandoned bird’s nest.
As I was walking back to my car I was startled by the appearance of a desert monster I never imagined I’d be so lucky to see. Yucca Man! I saw him, but I don’t think he saw me. He stayed very still. I hear he does that to keep his cover. Shh…make no sudden moves around Yucca Man.