I had just gotten in from feeding the dogs and the tortoises out back and was feeling listless, lying in the recliner watching a Dateline report, picking through my beard for Ritz crumbs. Not an unusual situation for me, especially since I’d retired from the town planning commission. I was startled by the phone ringing loudly across the house. It was a Tuesday night. Naturally, I didn’t even consider answering it.
Soon enough Janice came in from the kitchen showing a careless smile that drew attention to her ruddy, delicate lips, and handed me the cordless. “It’s for you, dear,” she said, remaining near the chair watching Brian Williams on the TV. Her silver-streaked brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a frayed dishrag slung between her hands.
I brought the phone up to my ear and before I got out more than a breath: “Those fuckers are at it again with the solar field, John,” sounded an excited voice.
“Who is this?” I turned toward Janice, asking both her and the caller.
Janice turned back to her own business just as the voice continued. “It’s Morgan. Morgan Stone. Maaan, I’d hoped you’d be at the meeting tonight; it was a real doozy. You’ve gotta stop this shit.”
A vague image of the young man immediately hit me: a ragged, shouting head of brown hair. I recalled this hair vocally rallying behind me, agreeing with my viewpoints with ridiculous imprecision, often slipping into curses or attacking the more conservative members. His intent, in my opinion, was to intentionally create conflict and destroy any chance of moving forward with business. It was kids like him on the left that made me glad I was out of the game. Must handle this one carefully, I thought.
“As you know, I retired from my post almost two months ago,” I said. “The meeting is the furthest thing from my mind.”
“But you’re a man held up by the community. We’ve counted on your opinion to balance things. You defeated projects bigger than this before.”
“I’m sure they’re getting on without me.”
“That’s it though, John. Those fellas want to build that solar field off Sunfair Road. Just like last year. This time it looks like they may have the pull to do it.”
I knew of the past proposal, but was unaware it was still an active issue. Last I’d heard SolPlex, the company behind it all, was trying to lease land from the Bureau of Land Management. Well, apparently they got it. And further, Morgan, through his incessant ramblings, told me that there was already a planned Environmental Impact Report coming down the pike.
I was starting to think that if I didn’t get rid of this kid, he was going to be calling every week about this until it was over; I always hated that we had to publicly release our contact information. It could take forever for these plans to meet their ultimate pass or fail. Better to nip this one in the bud.
“I’d love to talk,” I lied.
“Oh man, John. That would be kick ass.”
“Just to be clear,” I continued. “Having stepped away from the board, I wish for them to continue their work without me and I respect whatever decisions they make.”
We planned to meet on Thursday in the library of the community college in Joshua Tree. It was just a few miles from the house and Morgan was enrolled as a student and worked on campus. In the short time since I retired from the board, it had already become clear that I had an abundant amount of time on my hands. Why not have a chat?
Later that night, lying in our bed and in the glow of David Letterman, Janice and I carried out what has become through our 38 years of marriage a nightly ritual of light conversation. She told me she was thinking about reintroducing the tortoises into the desert, letting them go Saturday afternoon. We’d adopted them from the Desert Tortoise Rescue a few months previous with the intentions of reintroduction into the wild. Since the kids moved out and started families of their own we’d been doing various sorts of similar projects; something to look after, I suppose.
“Do you think they’re ready?” I asked.
“Are we going to keep them fenced in forever?”
“I just wonder if it’s time.”
She looked at me with rolled eyes and then suddenly came to a thought. “Who was on the phone by the way?”
I told her about Morgan and our appointment, aiming for reluctance in my delivery.
“It’s cute that you have a fan,” she said.
The audience applauded and laughed at one of Dave’s monologue jokes, but I didn’t catch it.
“Fan? Hardly,” I said. “One of these new liberals. Dying to bring change without any thought.”
“Weren’t we—maybe more you and your buddies—called the ‘new left’ at some point?” She made ersatz fingers. “Wasn’t that what you were calling yourselves?”
Some friends and I moved out here to the desert to get out of the city, escape the structural confines that we felt living in L.A. in the seventies. Our intention was to provide for each other, to create a place to live a more natural lifestyle. We were under the influence of up-tight parenting, liberal arts educations, and the asinine Nixon administration, all filtered through assorted thought-inducing substances; the commune or whatever never really took off. I started to substitute teach in town for work (Janice wouldn’t leave the city until I was making some money out here), which eventually turned into a fulltime gig; and eventually time moved on and we all grew up and out of the times.
“But their agendas are confused,” I said. “Too much at once. Everything either redundant or catch-22. There’s a bigger picture; you and I see it; it took time, but you and I see it.”
“Why don’t you can engage this new youth movement to organize in a manner that is suitable to your specifications, Abby Hoffman?” She poked me in my ribs, making me smile. I kissed her and we caught the top-ten-list before turning out the tube.
When I went to meet Morgan I was slightly stoned from a joint I took a hit off while entangled with my coffee and New York Times and Guardian websites; sometimes it’s hard to get through the daily news without it. I’d never been to the school before, but the library was easy to find; the campus was so small. My mind had conjured memories of Williams Andrews Clark at UCLA, my alma mater; but in reality what I’d found was nothing more than a large room with a wall of partially filled bookshelves, and in the center sat some rectangular tables, each with four chairs around them. There were only a small handful of people in there.
I spotted Morgan at the far end of one of these tables. He had on a patched military-styled jacket and his face wore a pale, sunken look as if he’d just had his first shave in months. On the table were a few textbooks and notebooks; a small gray cell phone; a black laptop adorned with stickers; and two little paper cups of steaming coffee, one, I soon learned, for the each of us. I greeted him with an outstretched hand.
He quickly started clearing space on the table, apologizing, telling me that he had just gotten out of history class. Apparently he was also studying journalism, and getting the, as he put it, ‘boring math stuff out of the way.’ He even mentioned, in some sort of altruistic jest I’d hoped, that he was considering writing a story on me.
“No story here,” I said. “Hell kid, all you know of me is that I was planning commissioner for a small town for a short time. And before that I was an English teacher—”
“I was just hoping for some quotes. You know, on this fuckin’ solar field.”
I took a drink from the coffee and looked around the room for a clock. No luck.
“What’s your interest in it?” I finally asked. If he wanted to know my opinion, I had to know more about his.
“I admired your work on the commission. You have experience with this cause.”
“No. I mean, what’s in this fight for you?”
The boy’s face flushed a soft pink and then he cleared his throat. “I’m not about to let them screw ten acres of pristine land for their own financial gain. We are about preserving and cultivating this land naturally.”
There was something suspicious about this. “We?”
Morgan then told me about the ‘community-building network’ he was involved with, Transformation Joshua Tree. They were currently in the beginning stages of creating a commune-like living environment on Mojave Land Trust-owned property, not far from the proposed solar field.
That’s when I started putting things together. It seemed to me like Young Stone had a bias in the situation and was looking for Johnny here to reinforce the argument, make it sound more authentic-like, so they could just coast right in themselves. Looking back this may have been mere paranoia on my part, but you can’t immediately trust one’s intentions just because you’ve spoken to them a few times and they agree with some of your own agendas.
“Some type of get-off-the-grid idea, I imagine,” I said. “Down with the man.” I took a drink from my coffee, tipping the cup afterward with a grin toward Morgan to indicate the joke.
He smiled and again cleared his throat. “A small collective,” he began. “Very much a response to current affairs, not unlike the Occupy movement. But we feel that the problem with the Occupy protests is that these people want their share of the money. As if money is the answer. Money is the problem, and trying to get off of their system is the better protest.”
By then Morgan was standing, his voice volume bordering on inappropriate for the setting. I was getting worried we were bothering the other five-or-so people in the place. I adjusted my posture, making a small motion for him to sit back down.
He sat and leaned in toward me, now speaking at almost too low of a volume. “Look, I know you’re out, Mr. Jass.” He looked puzzled, or maybe it was desperation. “We’re just trying to build an argument against SolPlex to get something going.”
“Well, what do you want from me?” I asked.
“You should come to our workshop tomorrow night. Just come listen. Hear us out. Tell us what you think.”
“I’ll consider it,” I said.
In the living room that evening I read over the newest issue of National Geographic. An old Eric Dolphy record was playing low on the hi-fi. Janice just got in from work and was on the couch rubbing out her bare feet, which had been stuffed inside tiny flats all day, and trimmed her toenails. As she went about her self-styled pedicure, she told me about her day.
A customer in the little health food store she works at, a man about my age, she said, had a seizure right there in aisle two. Her co-worker Karen was on her lunch break, so she was the only one there at the time. She picked up the man, laid him across the backseat of the Camry, and drove him to the ER herself.
“And then once I get back to the store.” Her face now was red and her eyes seemed to pop from her face. “Karen pulls into the parking lot in that ol’ beat up diesel Volvo, wondering who the hell is inside working the registers. I told her: ‘Don’t get me started.’ Isn’t that funny?”
Just then the dogs started scratching on the back door. I put down my magazine and looked to Janice. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to get up, so I went and let them in.
“By the way,” she mentioned, just as I was getting back into my chair. “Did you feed the tortoises?”
I glared at her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it. I’ve got to make dinner anyway.”
While she was in the kitchen, I was thinking over the meeting with Morgan. I hadn’t yet decided a stance on the planning matter. I had left the boy saying I’d think about it. But what does that mean, ‘Think about it?’ Research each fact, read the fine print and weigh out the good and the bad until there is a definitive opinion? And about opinions, isn’t the thing about them that everyone has one and, well, no one can quite ever seem to agree with anyone on anything entirely. Am I right?
We were eating potpies for dinner and Janice brought up Morgan. “So what’s going on with that young man? How’d it go?”
“He seems to be crying paved paradise,” I said. “But I think it could be about his network wanting this land, not just to be preserved, but for their own eventual use.”
“Always the pessimist-intellectual, dear,” said Janice. “It sounds to me like they are environmentalists, less communist than the grandeur you’re willing to believe.”
“Always the optimist, dear.” I offered her a toast with a wink and we clinked our glasses of red wine together. “He wants me to come to their meeting tomorrow night.”
“You should go,” she said, taking her sip. “He seems to care for your thoughts.”
The next morning, outside while feeding vegetable scraps to the tortoises, I caught the sunrise from over the national park. It’s a sight I’ve seen many other mornings, but that Friday morning the hues of red and yellow that were unlike anything I’d seen before. Even God couldn’t have made this. I stood there watching the shadows of Joshua trees and brush shrink quickly from long ambiguous forms to solid definable reflections.
Later, amid o.j. and Cheerios in soymilk, I told to Janice that I’d resolved to sit in on the Transformation Joshua Tree thing that Morgan had invited me to but said it was just an attempt to see what they’re really about, purely inquisitive. I didn’t want to be brought into some sort of movement.
“It’ll be good for you,” she insisted. “Give you something to do.”
The Transformation Joshua Tree meeting went on much like planning board meetings had on slower agenda nights: the handful of folks in charge talked the most and the local opinion was more passion than articulation. The difference, however, was that instead of being held in the supposed prestige quarters of town hall, we were in a downtown art gallery. The exhibition hung on the brick walls epitomized surreal art nouveau, if I remember correctly, lots of greens and purples, very Max Ernst.
I sat in a cold, metal folding chair listening to group members in discussion. Their primary ideas were of resiliency and self-reliance. Although nothing new to me, their arguments impressed me; their discussion of the planned solar fields convinced me that their concern for the natural land was genuine and not for selfish purposes.
Later, Morgan introduced me to a few key players of the group. The range of their individual backgrounds surprised me: two yoga instructors, a former dentist, a Methodist reverend (female even), an aerospace employee, artists, musicians, schoolteachers, and plenty of kids with degrees, but probably no (or only low paying) jobs; . They all seemed like nice people, a rarity in these kinds of functions these days. Just inside the gallery door I spoke with Frankie, one of the yoga instructors, probably in her sixties, but, frankly, looked at least half it.
“We want to teach others how they can set up their own local Transformation Initiative,” she explained. “And to empower the community to tackle the BIG issues of peak oil, global warming, and this crazy economic mess we’re caught up in. These companies, SolPlex included, are stuffing the right pockets of the system. They sure got their EIR fast-tracked.” She looked me dead in the eyes when she talked to me, smiling warmly while I nodded along to her pitch, nearly hypnotized.
That’s when Morgan came walking up laughing. “Is she telling you all about our planned communist uprising?” He whipped an arm around Frankie, looked at me with a nod of his brow, sly as a fox. “I’m only kidding.”
I said, “Miss Andrews was merely breaking down the goals of your think tank here.”
“All about progression, John.” Morgan released the woman from his side as she began to wander off elsewhere. I waved goodbye and Morgan stepped closer to me, the same arm outstretched to pull me in. “Walk with me,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
Morgan and I shared a joint in the parking lot. The only cars around were those of the people at the meeting and whatever occupants there were in the nearby Thai restaurant. A single streetlamp lit whatever the incandescence from the storefront porches couldn’t; otherwise it was a dark, new moon night. Morgan was again in the army jacket, though it was a remarkably warm evening (I had worn only a t-shirt, shorts, and some sandals), and his hair was pulled back into a small ponytail. At first he seemed surprised when I sparked up, but the casualness of the whole thing, coupled with that fact that, you know, we were getting high, quickly calmed the young man.
Trying to handle the tip of the thing without burning my fingers, I said, “The problem I see with getting people against the fields is that it’s alternative energy. Big deal these days. It’s in your mission statement even—”
“But we feel that preserving the land is more impor—”
“Oh, I see that.” I looked up at the moon, holding in my hit. Exhale, small cough. “But that’s a hard sell these days. There’s a big push going in that direction.” I passed it to Morgan who looked at me, his eyes a clichéd red, reaching out. He said nothing. “It was a hard sell back in the day,” I continued. “Hell, what you want is why I came out here in the first place.”
“We’re not trying to sell anything. We want responsible progress.”
“This whole world is made of progress,” I said. He tried to hand the roach back, but I declined, waving it away with my hand. “But you can’t save land with progress today. Progress means building more things and eliminating wasted space.”
“Ah man, don’t tell me you’re on the side of that shit energy company.”
“No. I just question the change you’ll be able to make.” We started walking back toward the art gallery where it appeared that others were heading off for the evening.
“What did you mean when you said what we want is why you came out here?” asked Morgan.
“I guess I was idealistic like you. A few of us were. Me and some buddies from college. The idea was to get out of the city. Get out of L.A.”
“Start a commune?”
“We never would’ve gotten much off the ground. Like I said, idealists. Intellectuals, pseudo and/or otherwise.” I paused to laugh, remembering the reality of the former situation. “Mostly sat around rapping, talking up ideas, you know?”
We arrived at the gallery. Adjusting myself to the brighter lights, I shook whatever essence of nostalgia there was from my mind.
“I just hope you guys can do it. It seems like you’re going in a good direction.”
“I’ve got to go wrap this up inside,” said Morgan, pointing to the door with his thumb, hitchhiker style.
After he was gone I stood around for a while, admiring the warm air of the evening. I waved to Frankie when I spotted her driving off. Only a few cars were left now. It was quiet, the highway traffic sparse. I started thinking about the EIR they’d been talking about, the Environmental Impact Report. Great state legislation had made it a requirement. It seemed to me that this could already be a legitimate threat to SolPlex, but that only time would tell. Not much we could do. After a while Morgan came back out with a handful of papers and I decided to tell him how I felt.
“The EIR could be great, John,” he said. “But we’ve got to continue protesting these companies like SolPlex. Let them know we don’t need them in our desert.”
“If you really want a quote from me,” I said. “I hope that the report finds some sort of projected harm toward protected indigenous wildlife, and squashes the use of the land.”
Morgan was fumbling, trying to write down what I had been saying.
“As far as what we can do,” I finished, “less protest, more action, with attention to the smaller things. The local issues.”
He thanked me, didn’t ask much questions after that.
On the way home the night sky seemed especially bright for a new moon. Once I was on the dirt road I turned off the headlights and navigated by the light of the stars. And when I got home I lay on the hood of the car, leaning my back against the frigid windshield. Janice came out and joined me and we listened to the breeze of the air. Something in the distance moved through the brush. The tortoises in the yard chomped on pieces of lettuce.
That Saturday at about three in the afternoon Janice made some sandwiches, putting some lettuce aside for the tortoises, while I pulled the old Datsun pickup around to the front of the house. I put a thick layer of blankets down in the bed of the truck. After the two of us ate we loaded three of the little guys onto the blankets and tossed the pieces of lettuce in after them.
Once we got to the highway I drove east toward Twentynine Palms, and then north just past Sunfair. As I drove the only thing on my mind was the safety of the tortoises in back. When we got further from the highway, just past where Sunfair transitions into a dirt road, I brought the truck to a crawl as we climbed up the road. I gazed about around the general area, an expanse of dirt hills, Joshua trees, and dried up weeds and shrubs.
“I think the Transformation area is near here,” I told Janice, pointing to the northeast. I drove a little further, up a small hill of dirt and rocks and sight-surveyed the immediate land. Finally, I spotted an area that appeared to be fenced off. Bingo, I thought.
Some light clouds had moved in, causing the sunlight to wash over the mountains and the valley with a shimmering yellow and orange filter over all of it. A giant white bird dropped itself in a spiraling motion before the truck, catching a breeze and then disappeared to the west. As if following it, I took my left turn onto a narrow, untrodden path. After a while any resemblance of the path was gone and we seemed to be driving over brush and cacti. Finally we got to the area I had perceived to be the proposed BLM land. I turned off the ignition and climbed out into the desert. There was a small, wooden makeshift fence.
Janice walked up behind me. “Is this the place?” she said.
I was inspecting the area, blocking the pre-sunset sun from my eyes with a flat hand against my brow, like a sailor at sea.
“This is it.”
At the more recent Transformation Joshua Tree meetings I haven’t told Morgan of what we did then that Saturday in the desert, although I mean to get around to it some day.
I went back to the truck, unlatched the tailgate, and climbed in with the tortoises. I secured a grip on the smallest of the three and handed it to Janice, who gently set it on the ground. She grabbed one of the small pieces of lettuce and tossed it a few feet from the animal’s mouth. This was repeated with the next one and then I personally carried the last one, the biggest one, out myself. Janice grabbed a small bag of carrots she’d brought from the cab, opened it up and poured the contents onto the desert floor.
“You know rabbits are going to just come eat those,” I said.
“Don’t they deserve it as well?”
When we drove home through the desert it was dark and there were far too many clouds to be able to view any stars, let alone what little moon was available. And when I awoke the next morning, after the clouds had all dispersed eastward, I witnessed a sunrise not unlike many sunrises I had witnessed before, the punctual orange slowly peeling, as if, in its obviousness, revealing its strings and the master behind them, not spectacular, but just as it should be.