Desert. The very word stirs images of sand and rock, wind and heat, an extreme environment of sparseness and space, a place where one might glimpse the earth’s elemental forces at work, yet also a land rich with life adapted to its dry world.
Around a third of Utah is true desert,[i] lands receiving less than 8” of rain a year,[ii] much of which evaporates away in the heat. That arid zone holds Bluff in its palm. The land here is lean and thirsty, the rare springs tucked away in secluded corners, the soils more sand than dirt where they are not clay. This is the place where I’ve chosen to reside, a fact that surprised even myself, for Bluff and its surrounds are seemingly a drastic change from my Montana homeland.
I’ve always been a mountain person, thriving in the rugged terrain of the northern Rockies. When I first came south in what I thought was a temporary shift, I decided to get to know this place a bit more, a land only somewhat familiar from previous visits. I wandered, wanting an intimacy with the high desert, to feel its bones press into my feet and its rough rock rub against my fingers, to sit with its quiet and its howlings. The dry earth and its life slipped in; I decided to stay and make Bluff home. Having begun the settling process, I now believe that perhaps this change is not so strange, for I’ve started to see similarities between the high desert and the high mountain.
In Montana, I head up to the alpine as often as possible. Alpine. The very word stirs thoughts of snow and rock, wind and cold, where the elements spark awareness and flora and fauna hold their place in another extreme environment. It is that “extreme” that weaves desert and alpine together – and surprisingly, alpine plants also face aridity, for little precipitation falls during the short growing season above timberline. In both places, limited water and an overabundance of sun drive adaptations while harsh temperatures test life’s existence, though at opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, in these environments a diversity of species have found ways to exist, and many would perish in more temperate environments. Extreme becomes relative.
Facing some comparable conditions, desert and alpine plants have evolved a few similar survival mechanisms for their habitat: hairy surfaces to reduce water loss and protect against intense sunlight (spines on cacti also serve this purpose, along with protecting the plant), and pigments to protect against high UV radiation. The little alpine stonecrop (Sedum sp.) is a succulent, just like cacti, storing water in its stems, and like cacti, it has a specialized photosynthetic process that decreases water loss (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM).[iii] The pink blooming moss campion (Silene acaulis), occurring in habitats above treeline, sends down a deep tap root to find water, just as many desert plants do. Other plants in both dry realms have roots near the surface to catch the slightest bit of moisture.
With conditions a challenge, water at a premium, and soils thin, any bit of topographic change can make a difference in what grows where, be that on exposed Rocky Mountain heights or the dry Bluff surrounds. Microclimates shift quickly in alpine and desert, minute differences in the land creating niches that hold water, protect against wind, provide shelter: change happens at small scales. Take a step from the rock you are standing on and find a plant thriving on a bit of soil built up against a water channeling stone. Take another step, and the soil deepens or maybe thins out, and a different plant appears. Where there is not a plant, even the rock holds lichen. An array of life is displayed, walking either the high fellfields or the dry desert. Diversity within sparsity.
They are far from the same, more differences than similarities, but ecologically desert and alpine twine together. Yet, it is something not so objectively rational that also links these two environments.
As a wanderer, what draws me to this Utah corner is what lures me to the alpine: the space, the quiet, the life tucked into cracks and crannies, the wildness that remains though we have touched and tampered with most all of the natural world. Both have their seasons to be avoided, but… Walk the alpine where the earth reaches up to brush against sky, where views can stretch beyond the limits of the horizon and the dark belly of a thundercloud can sit just overhead; meander into high desert canyons or stride over slickrock where the sky stretches down in an immersion of blue and time itself feels exposed in the rock, where clouds can rise on days of rain to cloak the blue with a blessing; be in those worlds that are infinite yet now – they feel not so different, alpine and desert. And both places hold their extreme: they will test and challenge, even as they delight and enchant.
I am enchanted. As a naturalist and ecologist, I find each day in this dry canyonland an exploration. Here is a place replete with the unexpected, even the mundane holding its mysteries, a place of story and natural wonders – some of which I hope to share with you through this column.
Robin Patten is a writer, naturalist, and environmental historian. Her first extended stay in Bluff started in September 2020, when the pandemic thwarted her plans to be overseas. Her column, Desert Notes, will be published monthly.
[i] Valkenburg, N. V. (1989). Tundra, desert, highlands: Utah has them all and more. Deseret News.