Mark’s Place

The Mojave saw the Mormons on their way
to sainthood, and a simple life with many wives.
They named the native cactus for a tree –
Joshuas with upheld arms invoking
Jahweh for some cause that only
trees could know. Seeing plants would
keep the faith, they left for Utah.

Up at the Keys Ranch, the climate
for ideas as this is colder and Joshuas
are rare. The last humans died
in 1969. The National Park
moved in. Recorded Time was paused.
Heritage became as good as gold.

We follow uniformed Naomi, Ranger
in Command, through the gate. Her green
sedan leads our plume of jeeps
to circle round a clearing. Our dust
cloud thins. The moment gathers in.
A joke about “them injuns” is suppressed.
Some sage reminds us that firearms
are banned in National Parks, for peace
is dear in these United States.

And Naomi says our 90 minute
tour on foot is dangerous enough.
“So keep together, take your water
bottles, and promise to avoid the snakes.”
She shakes a finger. “No hands
or feet to go where you can’t see.”
Though she’s amongst the youngest here,
we swiftly settle to the role of kids
in class.

She shows us when it all began –
indents in rock beside the trail show signs
that seeds and nuts spent seven
thousand years becoming flour,
ground by a people’s hands. This only
is their book. Hunters, readers of berries,
stars, footprints, they confided in their Gods
and wove themselves within. Leaving
no forwarding address, and silently,
they went in no more time than takes
a single life. I guess they hoped
the deserts of the world had places for a free
and wandering folk who share and care
for land as if it was their mother’s wombs.
Their patronyms remain: Serrano,
Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla – good names
and gone. They have no other story here.

They took their breath and bones
and left white faces in possession
for a brief syllable of time. Their story
fills the book. First, the Malcaneys
rustled cattle, and left for gold.

Then came the Keys. A simple dynasty
that dwindles through a steady 60 years –
one for each minute that Naomi’s tour
provides. How children came, and died,
how water gathered behind dams
and brought an orchard to this savage
paradise. How old man Keys avoided
jail because a writer paid for his defence
when he had killed a neighbour over title
to his land. And how they all had slowly died,
a testament to pale-faced laws of ever
diminishing returns. The wasting struggle
to survive becomes a beacon on the path
to nationhood; to learn, enjoy, relax.

Their home still stands, its lacey
curtains protecting privacy that’s gone.
The sheds still lean against the heat,
the lines of trucks, and tools, and rusty
cars that even then had come as junk.
The cookers, ranges, toilets – the mining
gear they salvaged from others’ short-held
and their red-eyed dreams – as gold glittered
in the creviced rock, the fragile streams.
Left to itself, the wood will bend
and warp, and termites take it all
to dust; the iron holding longer,
oxidizing down to remake rock,
and dry-as-prayer good earth.
The Park maintains it as it was, as if the words
were not a tale of pointlessness enough.

We notice Mark who gathers us together
as we near the end of our allotted
moment in the sun. He’s there to make
us leave no trace behind but what we bring
away, like any other ancient race.

He lives here now, trailered and alone,
a module base up on a distant world,
with aircon, shower, and fridge for steak
and beer. We almost do not see him,
but for his gentle way with keeping us in check.
He has no script, but guards the spirit
of a place he shares with snakes and scorpions.

Keys Ranch,
Joshua Tree National Park

One thought on “Mark’s Place

  1. First class travelogue, reportage, documentary – and poetry! Factual, evocative, elegiac – and life affirming!


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