By David Rains Wallace
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Additional resources for Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California’s Desert
South America has high mountains and midlatitudes, so it has many deserts. Their ubiquity prompted one young observer to entertain some of the first thoughts about natural 21 22 A n E volu t iona ry B ac k wat e r as opposed to divine or devilish desert origins. Not surprisingly, that observer was Charles Darwin, who saw plenty of cactus and creosote bush while crisscrossing Argentina, Chile, and Peru from 1833 to 1835. Like Miguel del Barco and John Fremont, he found the experience grim but strangely suggestive.
Seven Descriptive Confusion Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh collected in coastal California but not in its desert, perhaps thinking it too barren even for bone hunting. Early scientists who did explore it were ambivalent about its evolutionary role. Some saw it as a backwater; some saw it as filled with competition. Most felt they had enough to do describing the wretched place, much less trying to guess at its past. Petrified wood, shells, and other evidence lay about, unhidden by vegetation, but desert fossils can be confusing.
In short, God has created him, as I see it, solely for the purpose of seeking out these unhappy, ignorant, and rustic people. A member of the more cerebral Jesuit order took a greater interest in the desert itself than the Franciscans, albeit ambivalently. Miguel del Barco, a perceptive observer who manned missions in central Baja from 1738 to 1768, tried to be precise in describing the peninsula. But he couldn’t restrain his dismay at its relentless aridity: “Since the land is so elongated it is not strictly speaking uniform in air temperature and soil quality.