Thinking Like a Species

By | April 11, 2017

Joshua Tree National Park

I’ve situated myself atop a mid-size bolder where the Colorado Desert meets the Mojave, where formidable thickets of cholla cactus and the blossom-tufted whips of ocotillo give way to gardens of the tree that gives this national park its name. Not that it’s an “actual tree,” as you’ll quickly be told by rangers in the park—it’s actually a species of yucca, and its trunks and branches are shaggy with the beards of dessicated, blade-like leaves. The Joshua tree is endemic to the Mojave Desert, which extends North from the edge of the Coachella Valley to the Great Basin Desert of Nevada. The Joshua trees know where Mojave gives way to the hotter, drier Colorado, and the cholla know, too—there seems some smart line in the tufted desert earth; the few cholla to its north, and the few Joshua trees that have strayed to its south, seem almost startled when you come upon them, stunned at having been seduced by some microclimate of dune or declivity of rock into germinating so far from the company of kin.

Such lines aren’t enduring, although their transits mostly take place on time scales beyond the human. Geology as much as botany is the great storyteller of Joshua Tree, and the jumbled pillows and dumplings of granite that draw rock climbers to this place tell a story of billowing magma the sculpturing agencies of wind and water shatteringly long in scope. Like all rocks, their forms seem frozen in time—until you realize that these are the forms rock takes in motion, that you’re looking at a dynamism of form, a landscape’s long meditation on entropy—a meditation each turn of which last much longer than any of us can conceive.

Belatedly, we’re discovering that the changes we humans make also churn and compose themselves on longer cycles than any individual human, any collective, any society can reasonably think. The refugium that is the Mojave for the Joshua Tree—the tiny patch of Earth’s skin on which these shaggy agave retain purchase—may not outlast the epoch of warming that we have unleashed. And on this Earth Day, on the edge of the blossoming Mojave, I’m wondering how we can move from “thinking globally” to thinking like a species, a rock, a planet.


TreeMatthew Battles is Associate Director of the metaLAB and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, USA. His previous publications include Library: an Unquiet History (2004), The Sovereignties of Invention (2012) and Library Beyond the Book (2014). His latest book, Tree, is now available from Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

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