Around the Pier: Desert Splendor


A vast desert landscape punctuated by massive rock formations and twisted, prickly trees resembling drawings from a Dr. Seuss book set the stage for a weekend of exploration for a group of UC San Diego students.

The students spent two winter days immersed in the surreal setting of Joshua Tree National Park as part of an interdisciplinary course on the desert that explores the intersections between the physical sciences and the humanities.

UC San Diego Associate Teaching Professor Matthew T. Herbst, a historian, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography Assistant Teaching Professor Geoffrey Cook, a geoscientist, co-teach an interdisciplinary course called “Desert Splendor.” The class equips students with cultural, historical, and geological perspectives on desert environments and culminates with a weekend field experience at Joshua Tree National Park—an ideal outdoor laboratory with nearly 800,000 acres of pristine wilderness.

“The desert has a tremendous range of life, though one does not always see it at first glance,” said Herbst, who serves as faculty director of the Making of the Modern World Program at UCSD’s Eleanor Roosevelt College.   

Joshua Tree is indeed brimming with life, showcasing a variety of flora and fauna that have adapted to the harsh desert environment. The park features a topologically diverse landscape where the Mojave and higher-elevation Colorado deserts meet.

Since 2012, Herbst has partnered with UCSD’s Outback Adventures and Outdoor Leadership Coordinator Simon Teale in leading humanities-focused wilderness programs.

“My interest as a faculty member is to pair academic content with experiential activity, bridging the gap between classroom and the world beyond,” explained Herbst.

This winter’s desert seminar marked Herbst’s first interdisciplinary program.  He taught the historical and cultural portion of the desert course, while Cook covered geology and earth science.

The two professors met five years ago and soon discovered a mutual interest in the desert and a shared love for the outdoors. When Herbst began offering wilderness-themed freshmen seminars, he invited Cook to give guest lectures from a geoscientist’s perspective. These lectures, coupled with the professors’ rapport, sparked the idea to create an interdisciplinary desert course.

“Herbst was highly intrigued by the model that geologists have for field trips and fieldwork, so a collaboration seemed inevitable,” said Cook, who specializes in volcanology and the science of volcanic eruptions at Scripps. “We were really excited that Scripps approved our collaboration as a special topics course.”

The cross-disciplinary course attracted a diverse group of UC San Diego students, including undergraduates from fields such as economics, journalism, geology, business, and political science, as well as three students majoring in earth science at Scripps.

Freshman Nick Lau was drawn to the desert course as an opportunity to learn more about the earth and to experience an environment vastly different than that of his native Hong Kong.

“The desert is a super unique place. Geologically, it shows how dynamic the earth is, and that attracts me,” said Lau, who changed his major from political science to earth science after enrolling in the desert seminar. “It’s fascinating for me to understand how the earth works together as a whole.”

Fellow student Carlos Anguiano, a California native, shared Lau’s appreciation and awe for the desert.

“It was a lot of fun because I’d never been to the desert. It was a new experience,” said Anguiano, an earth science major minoring in physics. “Deserts can be pretty deadly if you’re not fully prepared, so carrying food and water and other essentials for survival is important.”

Anguiano is looking forward to gaining more experience in the field—perhaps as a graduate student at Scripps where he hopes to one day obtain a PhD in geophysics.

Geologists are drawn to deserts because of the abundance of rocks, clear sight lines, well-exposed outcrops, and absence of water, trees, and other vegetation. These desert features provide a remarkable and accessible picture of geological processes at work.

“The bottom line is that you can see a lot more of the geology [in the desert] because it is better exposed than in other regions,” said Cook. “Plus, because erosion dominates as a force of nature in deserts, there are weird and fascinating features that really appeal to the senses and the imagination.”

Upon arrival in Joshua Tree, the students embarked on a one-mile hike along the Hidden Valley trail, which loops through a rock-enclosed valley rumored to have been used as shelter by 19th century cattle rustlers. Standing amid gigantic granite monoliths and boulders, Cook explained the geological processes that occurred 80-100 million years ago that created these spectacular formations—features that now define the region.

The group later hiked a 1.5-mile loop to the Barker Dam, a water storage facility constructed by cattlemen in 1900. A more difficult hike to the Wall Street Mine followed, along with a history lesson, provided by Herbst, on the gold and mineral mining industry that once thrived in the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Wilderness is never safe if there are resources to be extracted; then the value of its preservation is reconsidered,” said Herbst, standing among abandoned mine shafts and discarded mining equipment, remnants of human impact on the desert.

This hike was accompanied by a discussion of the American environmental movement of the early 1900s that united both scientists and humanists to defend and preserve wilderness from exploitation and further development. This effort led to the creation of the first state and national desert parks, including Joshua Tree which was deemed a U.S. National Monument in 1936 and became a U.S. National Park in 1994, after the passing of the California Desert Protection Act.

“I admire Americans as foreigners because they value their land and protect it. I hope later I can bring these ideas back home,” said Sumin Wang, a sophomore from China studying management science. After taking two previous courses with Professor Cook and then participating in the desert seminar, she was inspired to add earth science as a double major.

“I want to be an environmental consultant in the future and do something to contribute to environmental protection,” said Wang. “I’ve loved geology since I was in middle school and working on things related to the environment is my dream. I want to study earth science at Scripps, because it’s an amazing place.”

At the Indian Cove campground, the students, professors, and Outback Adventure leaders set up tents, cooked dinner, and started a campfire.

Herbst then assigned the students 30 minutes of solitude and quiet reflection, a task that seemed fitting for the serene desert-scape. Headlamp-clad students soon scattered off among nearby rocks where they scribbled journal entries in their notebooks.

“There’s real value in carving out time to reflect,” said Herbst. “Unless we consciously set out time to ask students to reflect and to be present in the moment, that process does not happen.” 

Later in the evening, students chatted around the campfire, pointing out constellations in a dark and starry sky untainted by light pollution. As the night drew to a close, many students slept outside beneath the open sky.

“I had never camped outside of a tent before,” said Lau. “Hearing the coyotes scream, it was kind of scary, but it felt so close to nature.”

Before heading home the following day, the group hiked to the top of Ryan Mountain, which stands at 1663 meters (5,456 feet) and offers stunning panoramic views of the Mojave desert section of the park and the surrounding Little San Bernardino Mountains. On such a clear winter’s day, students were even able to see in the distance the snow-capped Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California’s highest peaks.

From this awe-inspiring perch, the students reflected on their desert experience and further examined course content, contrasting their own views of the national park system with the musings of Edward Abbey, the celebrated American environmentalist and novelist. The discussion also included reflections on how the desert’s challenging and often unforgiving environment has inspired spiritual and existential quests throughout history, from the times of Moses to Edward Abbey.

Both professors were pleased with the outcome of their first collaboration and look forward to future interdisciplinary programs.

“My hope is that the course provided the students with a greater sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world,” said Cook. “I hope that they are more motivated and excited to learn about deserts and natural phenomena because of the class and field trip.”

On a similar note, Herbst hopes that this course has fostered “a sense of appreciation for desert environments” for students and “an understanding of the cultural and historical processes that made this appreciation possible.”

One thing is certain: whether students loved Joshua Tree’s desert environment or admitted to preferring the lush, green environments found in other national parks, they all agreed upon the importance of understanding and protecting this vast desert wilderness—a surreal place where beauty and wonder are clearly evident when you take the time to look closer.

-Brittany Hook

Related Image Gallery: Joshua Tree - Desert Splendor 2015

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