“As the millennia had sped by and the tree-zones had rolled upward, the lake had shrunk back in the other direction…Of all the plants that had grown there—pines, firs, aspens and berry-bushes, and lush grasses—not one had survived that death march upward.
Yet why should we call it a death-march rather than life-march? If the pines died, the greasewood and the seepwood and the spiny-sage and the bunch grass lived and prospered where they had not lived before. If the trout died, the pronghorns came to browse on the shadscale where once the trout had spawned, and where the otters had dived and sported in the shallows, now the kangaroo rats dug their holes in the dunes, and lived on the seeds of greasewood and seepweed, and flourished and multiplied.”
-George R. Steward, Sheep Rock (1951)
The seeming immutability of the desert is an illusion, an error of human judgment and timekeeping. We express wonderment at tire tracks and wagon ruts that traversed the sere soils decades upon centuries ago, still plain as day; we marvel at the stoic fortitude of cacti and agave and other xeric species inured to countless droughts. We assume—unwittingly, implicitly—that what outlives us will outlive anything. Features of the landscape that endure generations of humanity are, for our intents and purposes, etched in stone. Call it generational amnesia, or the tragedy of common knowledge, taken for granted.
We are eminently self-aware, and we are conceited. We use our (ever-increasing) lifespan as a yardstick against which other natural phenomena are measured, dated, cataloged, deemed significant or otherwise. This despite modern humans representing the barest sliver of a 580-million-year-old lineage of Animalia, and moreover occupying an infinitesimal speck of the earth’s 4.54-billion-year history. We stand tall upon a storied heritage, mere mites on the Mount. From this vantage we lord over all else, adamant and hugely disproportionate. It’s easy to forget what brought us to this point—just as it’s almost inconceivable to imagine us gone.
In the aptly named Pine Forest Range of northwest Nevada, tree-clad clues to the desert’s past rise up like lithic redoubts from the shrub-steppe, granitic and altitudinous and forbiddingly remote. Relict stands of whitebark and limber pine attest to the atavistic nature of this region, as do its glacially-carved tarns and craggy eminences, the tallest of which is Duffer Peak at 9,428 feet. Even from Duffer’s flanks there is a sense of standing at basin’s edge, peering over and down into the desert. Aspen and mountain mahogany carpet entire mountainsides here from base to summit. Clark’s nutcrackers find refuge in the copses, as do pine grosbeaks and red crossbills and squeaky flocks of American pipits. This is a Great Basin range that time forgot, too high and mighty to succumb yet to desertification. How long will these bastions hold out? Here’s a clue: Look beyond your own earthly tenure, and instead frame your perspective from the rumbling, groaning, grinding tenor of the earth.