Yesterday the endless vistas. This morning, a snow-shrouded house and views into white squalls. At sunrise, we could see to the edge of the playa but no farther.

View to the playa, snow day. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.

Before the storm settled in, Paul and I walked along the Chewaucan River as the lightest snow fell. We had a suspicion it was Super Bowl Sunday but hadn’t checked the news. Who knew who was playing and when? It was a world away and not a world we cared to be in.

Chewaucan River in January. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.

No one along the river. No one on the Forest Service road. Just the rush of water in the canyon and wind in the trees. Weather coming in, announcing itself with sound and movement.

Weather is a powerful force. We set our plans by it, decide whether to drive the frozen highway as far as the nearest store for a carton of milk. For writers, weather is also metaphor. Once at a mesmerizing reading given by geologist & author Rick Bass, I asked what he considered when he composed his short stories. How did he envision a scene? He paused a moment before answering in his gentleman’s drawl that he thinks of the mood he wants to convey. Will the scene be hopeful? Sinister? Suspenseful? Whatever he’s after, he find words to paint that mood.

It was not the reply I expected. I’d thought he’d answer storyline or voice or character arc. As soon as he’d said it, though, it made perfect sense. His work trades in rich images drawn from nature. He uses the things he knows well from the outdoors to convey a feeling. He references the light in the sky, the dark in the forest, the spacious feel of plateaus, the heady elevation of mountains.

Weather moods were on my mind in spring 2015 when I composed the following post in the Anza-Borrego Desert. I’d just proposed to write The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West. The land was responding to late-season rains that had been setting off mudslides along the coast and flooding towns all along California. Knowing that even a good rainfall season couldn’t meet our growing thirst, I hiked, looked for wildlife, and talked to folks I met on trails and in town. Far from the desert I live in today, where sage and rabbitbrush hide under a windblown crust of snow, I wrote this down.

The weather: a quarter inch of rain.

What breaks my heart: the lack of water.

What lifts my heart: a quarter inch of rain.

The desert smells like rain. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.
The desert smells like rain. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.

Last night in the Anza-Borrego, the rain fell so hard that its hammering on the roof woke me. It was a downpour: three parts noise, two parts excitement for the flowers that would soon bloom, and five parts my dream of capturing every drop as it fell.

The standing-seam metal roof poured runoff onto the ground. The earth soaked it up like a sponge. In the morning, the desert smelled of creosote and wet rock. The earth had absorbed the storm into its stony fabric.

Some people say this valley is an oasis with five hundred years of capacity left in the groundwater. Others who think of the aquifer in terms of recharge say there are no more than twenty years of supply available at current use.

Most of the groundwater is pumped for agriculture—seventy percent. The second highest use is for irrigation of golf courses and to water the spas—twenty percent. The remaining ten percent goes to the municipality and residences and, if the supply can be spared, to the land and wildlife.

What I love about this place isn’t its resorts or agricultural fields but the land with its openness, the quirky town, the dyed-in-the-wool desert people and creatures. The ten percenters.

There’s the retired ranger who’s a well-known birding expert as well as the lead guitarist for one of the hottest bands in town. There’s the paleontologist who runs a world-class fossil lab on a shoestring, with expert volunteers. There’s the astronomer who throws “star parties” where pasta and wine are part of a show that’s really about views of other galaxies. Telescopes for the viewing are brought in the beds of pickup trucks driven by more volunteers.

There are solo roadrunners and herds of bighorn sheep and packs of coyotes keening at night. Waxy blossoms open up on the prickly pear and barrel cacti, and crimson flowers burst at the tips of the ocotillo. The dark night sky shines up high with nebula light. Constellations, easily recognizable from their larger stars when seen from light-polluted skies, from here appear so packed with stars they’re barely recognizable.

Maybe it’s selfish to want this place to stay as it is, wanting the water for the ten-percenters not to be over-allocated to revenue-producing endeavors. The desert needs the little water it gets. It must be possible to reimagine a future where grapefruit and golf courses aren’t irrigated with ten-thousand-year-old groundwater.

A different future is the only one this desert can possibly—possibly—sustain. It’s the future I want for this place, the possible one.

As Canadian painter Emily Carr said about her spiritual home in the British Columbia forests, “This is my country. What I want to express is here and I love it.”

For me, this kind of desert is my countray, this kind of place. What I want to express is here, where I love the roots of wild things.

Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.


  1. Lovely rain (snow here, finally), lovely writing. So glad you were there to witness it, and to report on the ocotillo’s red flare!

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