May 13 2010

Searching for Tortoises

CA Mojave NP 0510-18As Chuck noted, we were in the Mojave Desert last week. We visited the very little visited and huge park, the Mojave National Preserve. This is a stunning location that really shows off the desert. Distances are big as you drive through the area with rocky mountains all around you. You can see the “bones” of the earth, the geological structure of our planet. And for me, it is truly an awe – some place that inspires awe about God’s creation. I could go on and on about the amazing desert here and how I discovered much to love about a so-called “barren” desert. The Mojave is only barren in our human-centered eyes — God might smile at such a description since the place is filled with life. And we were there during a peak blooming time. You can see some of this on my photo blog at

But what turned out to be quite interesting was our search for the desert tortoise. Chuck was determined to photograph one of these creatures. It is an endangered species and also the “mascot” of sorts for the Preserve as you see signs about it everywhere, including warnings to watch out for tortoises on the road.

We kept our eyes ever vigilant for a “turtle”, but after three days, no tortoises had been found. On the last day we were in the Preserve, we decided to go through the park one more time on a road we had been on earlier but had not had much time to explore for photography. We stopped at an area filled with signs of old volcanic action and lots of blooming creosote bushes … but no tortoises.

CA Mojave NP 0510-17Finally, going down a very long incline, Chuck spotted a tortoise on the side of the road. Chuck was so excited and immediately got out and started photographing the animal. I was a little concerned for his life since he was so close to the road, but on the other hand, this was not exactly a busy road (we saw three vehicles go by in the time we were by the tortoise and two of them were park vehicles).

So why care so much about a tortoise? Since this was an important animal for the area and the Preserve, Chuck wanted to see and photograph it. But consider that the tortoise is not beautiful, it looks like a textured rock. It offers no economic value to people, no food, nothing.

Now there is value in the tortoise as a representative of the Mojave Desert that people can see and relate to. The tortoise definitely gave us a connection to this environment that is different than seeing and photographing cactus.

I believe that the point is that if God created the world and saw that it was good (Genesis 1:12), then there needs to be no other justification of the value of a desert tortoise. If God saw that it was good, who are we to question its value and place on earth? Yet that is exactly what a lot of people do. “We can’t hold up development because of some stupid turtle.” “People’s jobs are more important than wildlife.” But are they? Isn’t that putting a judgement on God’s work? Yes, our jobs and our livelihoods are important, but they are temporary compared to God’s creation.

Searching for a tortoise is also searching for God’s creation and finding value in what the Lord has made.

— Rob

May 12 2010

The Gift of the Desert

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Mark 6:31

JTNP 755It’s nice to be back home in southeast Kentucky but I have to admit I find myself missing the desert.  I’m not really sure how to explain that.  I have no desire whatsoever to live in a desert; I prefer the lushness of the mountains around me here.  Still, there is something about the desert that beckons me. 

Over the centuries many have been drawn to the desert, often for spiritual purposes.  It has been noted that “The Jews traveled in the desert and became a community; Jesus went there to pray and to prepare for his ministry; and Muhammad received his commission in a desert cave.”  I can understand this; over the years I have spent a fair amount of time in the desert and it does something spiritually to me as well.  I just can’t seem to explain why.

MNP salt flats 472In her wonderful book, Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams offers insight that gives me a clue or two.  She writes, “It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers.  I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility.  I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together.  If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred.  Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.  There is no place to hide, and so we are found.”

Earlier in my life I saw deserts as literal “waste lands.”  I hardly view them that way today.  In ways that many people don’t understand, they are full of life.  They are full of life biologically and full of life spiritually.  For that reason we need to do everything we can to preserve them.  In some ways, the health of our souls may depend upon it.


(The top image was taken at Joshua Tree National Park.  The bottom image is a salt bed captured at Mojave National Preserve.)

Jun 4 2009

Do Deserts Miss the Rain?

High Desert Arches National ParkI know Chuck is going to go, “Not again!” He has heard this story before. But you have probably not. 

A number of years ago there was a popular song by a group called Everything but the Girl that was sung from the perspective of a woman who missed her lover. The title and premiss of a comparison was “Like the deserts miss the rain.” Now you have to think a minute about this, but if this woman misses her lover like the deserts miss the rain, doesn’t that mean she does not miss her lover? By definition, a desert does not miss rain because a desert is a place with little rain! Deserts, with their associated plants and animals, use rain quite wisely, in fact.

I think often we put our own perspectives on what is good or bad in nature rather than accepting that God made it. I think the Genesis writers said, “And God saw that it was good” because they felt God’s creation was good. 

Truthfully, it took me a while to really appreciate the desert and other dry lands. I grew up in the East and Midwest where lakes and streams were common. Back in Minnesota, we could get more rain from one thunderstorm than a desert might use in a year!

But as I spent time in places like Arches National Park as seen in this photo, I began to appreciate the unique ecosystem in a desert. This is no wasteland, but a place of very special life. Getting out in the desert and moving in close to life like this aster can really open your eyes to possibilities in such a dry place. If the location pictured here had lots of rain, you would see little of the rocks or the flowers as they would be smothered by a completely  different ecosystem. 

Speaking from experience, I think we sometimes want to control what we don’t understand, such as the desert, rather than appreciating it for what it is, a gift from God. The desert has been an uncomfortable place for humans, but it isn’t uncomfortable for the life that is there. They are adapted to those conditions. And I believe this is simply another example of the great work of art that God has created on our planet. Once again, for me, this is God’s “wildly wonderful world.”

–Rob Sheppard