When I started this cottage acquisition project, I decided not to allow anxiety to creep into the process. After all, buying an art studio in the desert is supposed to be a feat of whimsy. And I didn’t “need” it physically - I had a place to live.
I had been coming to Joshua Tree with the express purpose of surrounding myself with nature. I have always been fascinated, maybe obsessed, with the natural world around me. I grew up fantasizing about living somewhere with real live big animals, not just squirrels, crayfish, rabbits and robins. This was my chance.
But as an adult woman who knows about the perils of rattlesnakes and scorpions, could I still harness the whimsy?
I also don’t like bugs. In fifth grade, Mr. DuMez played Arachnophobia for the class as a sort of “bonus” - I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Bugs paralyze me. Oddly, I can justify spiders because they eat bugs. But creepy crawlies? I can’t be near them. Shortly after the arachnophobia incident, I went hiking with my family in the Smokies, kicking mud up onto my shins until they were caked for fear of mosquitos. I really don’t like bugs.
The bugs here can kill and maim, in very nasty, gross ways. My favorite Airbnb in Joshua Tree makes you sign a disclaimer about them, and I will do the same with my closest friends and family, no doubt. But I’ve always been tough. I own a pair of combat boots. I’ve been tackling The Great Outdoors since I was a kid.
Somewhere along the way I recalibrated to desk-work, believing that time behind a screen thinking and writing was a purpose in and of itself. Tell that to the owl, my advance team last night, who guided me to the house where I accidentally left the light on, then stood watch all night even after Sasha and I cleared the space of phantom intruders.
The Mojave Desert is the home of one of my very first pets, Lizabelle the Lizard. She was allegedly a Rainbow Swift, which I’m not sure is a thing, but I saw her doppelgänger on a trail in the park during my very first visit. We also caught a rare glimpse of a Fenec Fox, which is only diurnal during Spring, when the dens are so full of pups the fathers wander about during the day rather than deal with an overcrowded nursery. I caught sight of a desert iguana that trip, too, on a solo hunt for crystals, carrying a stick to ward off snakes in one hand and a gluten free beer in the other.
At the Mojave House, our animals are not sensitized to humans. It seems as though there were originally horses here - there is a hitching post, and the fencing accommodates stables. In the intervening years, however, symbiosis has reigned. I do not scare the local wildlife. In fact, quite the opposite. It comes up to greet me, its new compatriot in our cholla garden oasis.
When the roadrunner circles my jeep, he thinks, “oh, she likes red.” When he approaches my Dad, he thinks “you have a lot of work to do in this yard to make it perfect for me and my friends.” The rabbits are no less shy. They’ve moved from 5 meters to 20 meters out on account of the dogs, and Pippa’s favorite thing to do in the morning is to quietly watch them out the window while I try to sleep in. The desert quails, ubiquitous, always in a group, and today, noisy, are the most shy. The rat in my exterior water heater closet sits outside the screen door, watching me do a puzzle. When I sketch at night under the twinkle lights, kangaroo rats come within 5 feet of me just to introduce themselves. “Hello,” they say, “We live in the Creosote. Welcome!” I’ve been obsessed with these since I was little, since they hop and are so cute. Last month I literally sat on a ground squirrel sleeping under my chaise.
Maybe I’m an interloper, maybe I’m a guest. I hope the local wildlife takes to me. I hope they don’t think I’m not as committed to this patch of land as they are. Do they know I have a 30-year mortgage? God forbid they think of me as an Airbnb host from LA. I may not be here all the time, but I do care and I am helping. Apparently I fed some rabbits by re-potting Agave pups. They must have been delicious, although insufficiently pointy. They’re also a rare source of water in August. You are welcome, bunnies. I’ve purchased pointier plants from a nice lady at the Swap Meet.
The elephant in the room is the circle of life. I’ve been taking a “do no harm” approach to the wildlife. I do not want to use poison to kill whatever rodents are between my walls and my siding. I’ve taken great measures to relocate them harmlessly, especially since they are so damned outgoing and smart. I had live traps and cookie butter all prepped, but my last two visits I did not hear the mice. Instead, I heard an owl in our Joshua Tree, proudly hooting the night away. I thought I’d noticed owl droppings while picking up the yard. I had taken great pains to ensure mama rat (again, EXTERIOR to the house) could have her babies. Two batches (or litters?) of them have now come by to introduce themselves. It’s possible some have been eaten.
Here I thought I would be the keystone species, the alpha predator. Outdone by an owl. I may buy it a house so it sticks around… as long as it leaves the kangaroo rats alone.