How Sahara Mustard Changes More Than Just Landscapes
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
It’s a 2-mile drive down a dirt road from my house in the Borrego Valley desert to the paved main drag. Tubb Canyon Road is a 2-mile corrugated ribbon stretching in a straight line from where the Peninsular Mountains meet the desert floor, down the Tubb Canyon bajada, to form a “T” with the paved road. Driving this dirt road at low speed is a teeth-chattering experience that could dislodge fillings, but at 45 miles per hour it’s smooth as silk.
How many times on my way to golf did I streak past my neighbors along this road as they were laboring under a warmish winter sun doing God-only-knowswhat.
They had said something about a “terrible weed invading the desert that had to be stopped before it was too late.
Really bad!” Other friends had said something along the same lines; but I thought, “Really? How bad could it be? The desert is enormous. How could anything as insubstantial as a weed threaten anything as huge, as timeless, as death-defying as the desert. Really?” (This last word to be pronounced with that unmistakable, high-pitched note of incredulity so often employed by my younger friends).
On Sunday, March 27, 2011, after another fast trip down Tubb Canyon Road to golf and back up, my partner and I decided to streak down one more time to look at the wildflower fields at the north end of the Borrego Valley. It would be a shame to miss one of the extraordinary phenomena of springtime in the desert: hundreds of acres of yellow desert sunflowers, purple sand verbena, and white desert primrose— an incredible display of natural beauty in a landscape most people consider to be a dead wasteland. We had been privy to this desert secret for over two decades, and it was time to see it again.
We headed toward a landmark known as the Angel of Coyote Mountain. From a great distance, and with the eyes squinted just right, what is actually an enormous landslide exposing light colored rock looks like a giant angelic figure gesturing to the north. At least that’s what the first Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, is reported to have thought as he passed through the valley in December 1775 searching for a route to San Francisco. De Anza and his party followed the angel’s gesture and, as most people tell the story, were lost for the next six months.
Looking for neither San Francisco nor salvation, we used the Angel of Coyote Mountain as a landmark to lead us to the largest wildflower fields in the valley. In good years these fields at the foot of Coyote Mountain were hundreds of acres of golden desert sunflowers, rivaling in intensity (ironically enough, as you will soon see) the brilliant yellow mustard fields of Burgundy.
This time, as we drew closer to the Angel, there were no fields of yellow. Not every year has the right combination of moisture and temperature to bring forth wildflowers, so we assumed this was just not a good year. Still, there was a sense of disappointment as we parked on the shoulder of the road—a few sand verbena here and there, one or two desert primrose, but nothing like the endless sea of desert sunflowers we had hoped for. Strangely enough though, the fields were not brown with dry vegetation like in previous years of few wildflowers.
What we saw this year were hundreds of acres of something green, something thick, something three feet tall with pale yellow flowers so small as to not really register as flowers at all. We got out of the car to explore and came upon a small sign explaining that the half-acre plot in front of us was a “demonstration project” of the benefits of the early and consistent eradication of Sahara mustard.
What we were seeing pierced me as if the Angel on the other side of the field had hurled a lightning bolt through my chest. That half-acre demonstration plot was sickly and pathetic, like Hope struggling to crawl out of Pandora’s box. It was surrounded by hundreds of acres of something powerful, vibrant, and devastating.
That “something”, I now realized, was healthy, green Sahara mustard plants, each with thousands of seeds. Sahara mustard had in the space of a couple of years utterly devastated—or, as biologists like to say, “type-converted” – hundreds of acres of native habitat into a monoculture of itself. Not only were the ephemeral wildflowers gone, but the hearty creosote bushes and jumping cholla were dying: each plant surrounded, strangled, by Sahara mustard.
Standing in the middle of the field, looking for survivors, I became aware of my tears. Tears for the devastation of beauty that had been on display here for centuries, tears for the magnitude and completeness of the destruction. It was all gone. My desperate mind reached for those far too easy questions, “Who let this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t they do something about this?” And then it got worse. On the somber ride back to Tubb Canyon, now that I could identify the plant, I could see Sahara mustard everywhere. It was along the shoulders of the paved roads. It was growing in residential areas and in the yards of businesses along the main street in town. It was even growing in the decorative planters at the mall! This time, driving 5 miles per hour up Tubb Canyon Road, I could see it growing in patches even there.
I then realized the enormous area of desert 2-3 miles south of Tubb Canyon Road in the middle of state park property, which for years had turned green before everything else each spring, was probably Sahara mustard. But there were patches even closer to home, fingers of infestation emanating from the state park. Four or five fingers extended a mile or two, the longest one crossing Tubb Canyon Road onto a neighbor’s property. Now I knew what my neighbors had been doing, and the battle they were fighting.
That Sunday afternoon in March was the beginning, the awakening, my Helen-Keller-at-the-water-pump moment, when awareness flashes into existence, when that which before was only vaguely seen or felt becomes distinct, clear, and compelling.
Most importantly, it brought an answer to my heart’s desperate question as I stood in the midst of devastation, “Who let this happen?” To say that it was I who had let this happen would be a little too grandiose, but it contains a grain of truth: I certainly had done nothing to prevent it from happening, and my willful ignorance had offered no resistance to the unfolding biological catastrophe. My complicity and willful ignorance ended that day.
Some thoughtful friends pointed out that it took “having some skin in the game,” (i.e. biological devastation on my doorstep) to wake me up. I initially took this as either criticism or skepticism of my motivation. But I have since come to realize that having skin in the game is what provides the energy for sustained action—a parent protecting his child, a farmer protecting her land, any of us protecting our home. Without skin in the game, “conservation” and “ecology” remain abstractions, incapable of generating the kind of energy and sustained effort necessary for today’s challenges. Just as the wildflowers require the right combination of moisture and temperature, that Sunday afternoon brought together the right combination of elements for a new awareness to blossom in my consciousness.
Sahara mustard had in the space of a couple of years utterly devastated— or, as biologists like to say, “typeconverted” – hundreds of acres of native habitat into a monoculture of itself. Not only were the ephemeral wildflowers gone, but the hearty creosote bushes and jumping cholla were dying: Each plant surrounded, strangled, by Sahara mustard.
With a newfound reservoir of energy, the politics of organizing friends, neighbors, and community members flowed easily into the formation of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy, an organization dedicated to furthering all avenues of eradicating Sahara mustard. In the two years of our existence we have navigated the IRS shoals of non-profit formation (thank God we were not the Tea Party Conservancy!), raised money, underwritten research performed by the University of California Cooperative Extension, created a website (www.tubbcanyondesertconservancy.org), developed a web-based application for mapping volunteer eradication projects via smart phones and iPads, partnered with University of California, Irvine researchers for NSF grants, and we have pulled Sahara mustard! For each of the last two years we have sponsored a team of young volunteers from AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) to spend two months with us pulling Sahara mustard from selected areas on public and private lands. We have cleared and defended perimeters around native desert flora and intend to expand restored habitat, sector by sector.
The problem of Sahara mustard is enormous, stretching from California to Texas and from Utah to central Mexico. Although it is clear that my neighbors and I have not stopped the devastation, we have taken a stand. We are no longer waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue. We have realized our choice is stark: stand by and do nothing or realize that we are the cavalry and do what we can in our sphere of influence. I hope everyone who has had a similar blossoming of consciousness will join us in combating this threat to biodiversity, before the deserts of the Southwest experience a true Silent Spring.
There are those who think the challenge we have taken on is impossible. “The genie is out of the jar,” they say. “The geographic expanse is too large.” “The genetic proximity of Sahara mustard to commercial crops is too close.” “There will never be a solution.” In response to such thinking, I try to remember that “impossible” and “never” are positions of the moment. There were those who thought it “impossible” for a ragtag bunch of farmers to defeat the most powerful nation in the world during the American Revolution.
And for centuries it was clear man would never fly, much less go to the Moon. Admittedly, ours is a very different challenge: but with the awareness that blossomed that Sunday in March 2011, I can no longer let a little thing like impossibility stand in the way of trying.
David Garmon is a founding director and President of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy. He holds an AB in Molecular Biology from Princeton University and an MD from the University of Arkansas. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and is engaged in fulltime practice in San Diego, California where he lives with his partner and two yellow labs. Most recently, he is the proud recipient of AmeriCorps NCCC Pacific Region’s 2013 Sponsor of the Year Award.