(Jarek Tuszynski)
Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) at sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park near Hidden Valley Campground

On September 19, 1973, alt-country forefather Gram Parsons died from a drug overdose while staying at the Joshua Tree Inn, where he had gone to unwind after recording his seminal album Grievous Angel. Shortly afterward, his body was relocated to the LA airport where it was to be flown back to Parson’s family in Louisiana. Prior to the departure, however, Parson’s friend and producer Phil Kaufman absconded with the body to make good on a pact that if either were to die, the other should see him cremated at Cap Rock in Joshua Tree National Park. According to reports of the incident, as well as Kaufman’s autobiography, Kaufman poured a few gallons of gasoline on Parson’s casket and lit it up.

Anyone who knows anything about cremation knows that it generally happens in a furnace, or at least a pyre—somewhere hot enough to incinerate flesh and bone. The tragicomic incident resulted in a disfigured but perhaps vindicated corpse and a $750 fine for Kaufman (for stealing the coffin).

“Hot enough to incinerate flesh and bone” might also describe the modern tourist’s first impression upon opening the car door in Joshua Tree National Park, which routinely sees temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As global warming affects the Mojave and Sonoran biomes, the intersection of which forms the Joshua Tree ecosystem, another desert drama plays out between two friends.

The relationship between the yucca moth and the Joshua tree (a member of the yucca genus) was described by Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend and colleague J.D. Hooker as “the most remarkable pollination system ever described.” As “obligate pollinators” each is totally dependent on the other for survival. This relationship goes back some 30 million years, which means the two have been going steady since the Paleogene period.

(Takwish)
Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) panicle (inflorescence). Mojave Desert near Kramer Junction, California

Yucca moth

According to Dr. Cameron Barrows, associate research ecologist at UC Irvine, this relationship, along with the moth and the tree themselves, are in deep trouble because of climate change. Warming trends and reduced rainfall in the California and Arizona deserts are threatening the younger generation of Joshua Trees, which can’t survive without a minimal amount of water, even in the arid climate they call home.

By Brian Gruters


Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.