Seat Guru advises that, on the Canadair Regional Jet 200 operated by United out of Albuquerque, “Seat 14 A is in the last row of the plane and may not recline. Proximity to the bathroom may be bothersome”. On the other hand, situated aft of the wing, seat 14 A offers a ripping view of the desert landscape below on an afternoon flight to Los Angeles. There was cloud cover as we flew over the forestlands of the Zuni mountain foothills but as we approached the dead desert heart of Arizona, north of Phoenix, the skies cleared and I dreamily tracked our progress over the trackless land.

We had left fire-ringed Santa Fe (Too Late) and driven to Albuquerque – well north of the 44,000 acre Silver City blaze in the Gila Wilderness and took off, our departure delayed a mere three hours, in this little 50 seat aircraft to fly home to the western fringe of the continent where charred battle lines were being drawn northeast of Banning and north of the Morongo Indian Reservation in the Hathaway Fire. Between the mountain pine beetle ravaged forests of New Mexico and Arizona and the San Bernardino National Forest (where the Dendroctonus ponderosae thrives in elevations above 2,000 feet) there’s mostly sand, rock and cinder cones.

In his book The Wild Places, British writer Robert Macfarlane writes of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands:

 “There was too the motif of the delta: in the antlers of deer, in the branching forms of the pale green lichen that cloaked the trees and boulders, in the shape of Loch Laidon, in the crevasses and fissures in the peat, and in the forms of the few stag-headed old Scots pines.”

In the Sonoran and Mojave deserts there are deltas written in the sand. No need for metaphor - the rippled land is stamped with the once-upon-a-time ravages of flood water. Everywhere, as I looked down over the brown land from my imperious (non-reclinable) sky-chair, I saw etchings of the hydrologic cycle. The resolution of these watery scribblings became evident as we flew over the California border where the Parker dam holds back the Colorado and forms Lake Havasu.

This reservoir feeds the Colorado River aqueduct, operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern  California, which supplies water to almost all the cities in the greater Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego areas (Wickipedia). Beyond the dam, the Colorado flows south, much diminished, and is further vitiated by its irrigation of fields of lettuce, cauliflower, cotton, cantaloupe and tomatoes; it then suffers the twin indignities of the Imperial and Laguna dams. As it approaches Yuma it is but a “dull brown glint…in the rushes”, as William T. Vollman writes in his opus, Imperial, and it serves as nothing much more than the main drain of the Quechan Indian Reservation.

A little further south, in the Sonoran border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Vollman looks askance at the offerings of a taco shop: “three bowls of salsa: blood-red with a hint of orange, carrot orange and deep green. Their liquid content derives from Colorado River water…..” The withered Colorado River then makes its way through a narrow strip of Mexico and eventually dribbles into the Gulf of California across a fetid delta that Aldo Leopold, the great naturalist (A Sand County Almanac) proclaimed, in the early 1920’s, as “a land of milk and honey” amidst “a hundred green lagoons”.

Airborne, approaching Los Angles over Riverside County and then the Inland Empire, the quietude of the wide brown lands give way to an urban mosaic sinuously threaded with freeways – a built gestalt halted only by the implacable Pacific. Travelling north on the PCH to the 101, the 126 and finally the 150 to Koenigstein Road affords ample time to consider our fragile hold on life at the irrigated edge of the westward creeping desiccation. Earthbound, car-bound, constrained by asphalt and lane markings, I cannot shake the somber sky-message of the desert – drought lands between burning forests.

At home, we are cosseted in that broad swathe of chaparral that runs through the northern half of Ventura County, east to west, totaling over 325,000 acres. West of desert and forest, undeveloped tracts of Upper Ojai wildland are cloaked in shrubland, oak meadowland or riparian woodland; coastal sage scrub and vestigial wetlands then run on to the ocean – all lands that are both drought and fire-adapted and where, not incidentally, Native Americans achieved their highest population densities on the continent.

Yes, its dry. Yes, its crispy (CAP’N CRUNCH). But there is a pleasure to be found in the plant community’s phlegmatic survival and, even now, its floristic delights: the coy Acourtia where, amidst mostly drab white blossoms or fuzzy gone-to seed clusters, there are fringes of Day-Glo pink; white sage is ghost-like in a sea of rusty black sage; Laurel sumac is in creamy bloom and sometimes in fruit –tight pyramids of tiny red berries, the caviar of the chaparral.

Elsewhere, the California everlasting continues to be just that while the buckwheat blossoms, white muddled with pink, have now begun to oxidize and begun their metamorphosis towards a dark tannic brown. In these first days of summer the poison oak leaves have already begun to turn – from withered green to pink and deep carmine. Aloft, amidst whatever armature its tendrils grasped in spring (but often poison oak or laurel sumac) the seed heads of clematis, the size of Ping-Pong balls, add a white, fuzzy syncopation to the dry, entwined brush. Mountain mahogany is covered with its wispy beard of seeds while the florets dropped from the pendulous bracts of chaparral yucca blossoms are decoratively impaled on its spikey base.

Today a dense mist hangs over the hills. There is moisture in the air and the chaparral will soak up the fog-drip. It’s the time of June Gloom, when the marine layer grants soft light and moderate temperatures. The full heat of summer will soon be upon us and the pleasures of the chaparral will become primarily olfactory rather than visual. The sizzle of summer awaits us, but this afternoon I expect the cool winds to kick up and send the bunch grasses into a graceful dance - I revel in this season. Thoughts of fire, desert and drought recede and, if I look at the brilliantly yellow tar weed panicles I can see in the tracery a delta – harbinger, perhaps of a coming season of heavy rains, this year or the next, when the chaparral’s impassive stoicism will be vindicated.