That awkward moment when your favorite campsite makes Fox News, again

it looks better without the cross

Sunrise Rock with no cross, as God intended

You know what I hate? I hate when Fox News notices my favorite slightly secluded campsite in the Mojave Desert.  They attract pest organisms. There you’ll be sitting quietly among the Joshua trees, enjoying the company of Mojave green rattlesnakes and tarantulas and kissing bugs and other such perfectly honorable animals, and then suddenly a chill wind will blow up the back or your shirt as the television news trucks arrive and some putrescent individual like Sean Hannity steps out into the sunlight, pasty and blinking and malignant. You can actually feel the cacti wither in revulsion.

It happened again this weekend.

Since October 1997 I’ve spent probably more than a hundred cumulative nights camping at a little spot about a quarter mile off the pavement at Cima Dome, a large rise in the Mojave National Preserve. It’s a great place, generally pretty quiet aside from wind  and cactus wrens. It’s comfortable in the summer, cooler than much of the surrounding desert  at around 5,500 feet /1650 meters in elevation. My friend Matthew and I camped there during a heatwave in August 2005, watching thunderstorms, and it actually got down to 90°F or so at night, cold enough that we left after a couple days for  Death Valley, where it was a slightly less chilly 117°F on the valley floor. It’s not a bad place for desert winter camping, either, with only occasional snow, and plenty of dark sky to watch the Hunter and his Dog chase the Bull across the night sky.

cima dome sunset

Cima Dome

That’s not what started me going there, mind. The thing that recommended Cima Dome as a place I wanted to visit back in 1997 is that fact that it’s home to the world’s most extensive forest of Joshua trees.

another sunset

Yes, that’s a forest. 

And as a large swath of Joshua tree forest that is protected from most further disruption and dismemberment by the National Park Service , the landscape of Cima Dome turns out to be a great place to watch the mid-elevation California Mojave Desert ecosystem at work. It’s a beautiful, diverse landscape in which I see something new each time I visit.

Where does Fox News come into this? In 1934 a local miner, John Riley Bembrey, put up a cross atop Sunrise Rock as a memorial to World War 1 vets. A lot of shell-shocked, lung-damaged veterans had come to this part of the Mojave to try to put themselves back together after they’d seen Paree, and phosgene. Riley was a medic in the war, and his memorial meant a lot to him. When he died in the 1980s he asked local John Sandoz to keep the memorial going. John and his wife Wanda have since repaired and replaced the cross a few times.

When the California Desert Protection Act was passed in 1994, the land surrounding Sunrise Rock became the Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave Cross was suddenly an unambiguously Christian symbol on National Park property. Former Assistant Preserve Superintendent Frank Buono sued with the ACLU’s help to get the cross declared a violation of the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution. A surprisingly complex series of court proceedings followed, the result of which was that the Congress and SCOTUS essentially colluded in a bit of sleight of hand: the most recent iteration of the cross would stay, and an acre of land surrounding it would be transferred to a local veterans’ group. People would still see a cross in a prominent spot in the Mojave Preserve with no obvious explanation of the thing’s history and no obvious sign saying “this isn’t Preserve property,” but the letter of the Constitution would be obeyed.

That decision came down in 2010. Two weeks later  the cross was stolen, which act sent wingnuts nationwide into a media-fueled meltdown. Fox News led that charge: it was a War On Jeezis, and the sheer bullshit flung about in defense of the fundamentalist  Yeehawdis’ position was formidable indeed.

A few days ago the stolen cross was found in the San Francisco Bay Area. This weekend the local VFW reinstalled it at Sunrise Rock with a Veterans’ Day ceremony. And so things rest until it gets stolen again. Which is inevitable.

I have to admit that before the ACLU lawsuit went very far, the cross didn’t bother me much. I wished it was gone, of course, but there were a lot more pressing ways in which wingnuts were threatening the landscape of the Preserve, like, say, giving the National Park Service a dollar as an annual budget for running the entire 1.6 million acres. Having a sense of the cross’s provenance helped me regard it as a historical part of the landscape. Of course, there are limits: the cross’ defenders claim it’s a secular memorial symbol, which is about five different flavors of bullshit, especially considering the traditional Easter Sunday services held on the site. Still, having it there didn’t seem horribly egregious.

But I can’t shake the weird ooky feeling that comes from having the national wingnut movement focus its dim, beady eyes on a landscape that I love. The media attention this time around seems more limited, less desperate, but also far more smug.

Empirical materialist that I am, I still find it tempting to describe my feelings for the Cima Dome landscape with words like “sacred.” Spending time there renews me. Friends I’ve shared it with say the same thing. It feels as much like home to me as any place on Earth. Having it become a cause celebre for some of the most destructive people in our society, people who’d just as soon mine the place and pave it as protect it, still galls me. And now a neat 1-acre enclave has been carved out of the Preserve for just those people to run as they see fit. With a cross on top.

Comments

  1. clarysage says

    Thanks for this well-written piece. If there were a plaque explaining the historical significance of the cross and who Bembrey was, it would make it (perhaps) easier for non-Christians to stomach it. It could be viewed in the same light as petroglyphs or something. Maybe. Except much more in your face.

  2. loreo says

    Thank you for this bit of history – I walked past a TV this morning tuned to Fox News which was playing some puff piece on the “Mojave Cross”, and have been grumbling ever since.

    It’s good to know the cross predates the park; I didn’t know how it was erected in the first place.

    Apparently there’s a plaque noting that the cross is a memorial for “the Dead of All Wars”, which makes this a remarkably inappropriate memorial, if a heartfelt one.

  3. neuralobserver says

    (Italics and emphasis neuralobserver)

    PZ Myers— ‘Empirical materialist that I am, I still find it tempting to describe my feelings for the Cima Dome landscape with words like “sacred.” Spending time there renews me. Friends I’ve shared it with say the same thing. It feels as much like home to me as any place on Earth.’

    Ah, Meyers,… getting in touch with your inner spirituality, are you?
    Maybe there’s hope for you in understanding a non-religious, non-supernatal ‘spirituality’–despite the religious origins of the word– that many of us find in nature, and generally in this universe we find ourselves in.

    http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/spirituality-000360.htm

  4. consciousness razor says

    This just in:

    Chris Clarke is not PZ Myers. He’s also not PZ Meyers or ZP Meyers or BD Meyers or Oscar Mayer. (I’m pretty sure. He’s welcome to correct me on any of that.)

    a non-religious, non-supernatal ‘spirituality’

    What is that? Your link only describes a religious, supernatural, bullshitty kind of spirituality.

  5. says

    Part of the problem with these things is that even if a particular memorial isn’t too big a deal, you have to complain or it’ll be used as a precedent.
    Next, it’ll be ok with the prayer plaque in the public school. Then the mandatory, sectarian morning prayer at the school; the graduation ceremony held at the church; the diplomas only handed out after the communion; et fucking c.

    In a world where random steel beams are hailed as a sign from god, a cross simply cannot be a secular memorial. It’s not possible.
    It’s a simple reality that a certain loud portion of the religious group are completely insane, utterly shameless and willing to do or say just about anything to secure special privileges for their particular denomination.

    For that reason, you kinda have to hold strongly to the principles, which occasionally means suing over things that you shouldn’t need to sue over in any sensible society.
    It’s sad, annoying and a bit silly, but we didn’t make it so.

  6. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Maybe there’s hope for you in understanding a non-religious, non-supernatal ‘spirituality’

    Since “spirituality” is non-defined word used by fuckwitted idjits pretending to be deep, but are as shallow as one molecular layer of water, what is your inane and insipid point?

  7. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Were I, everyone would be in love with me.

    Only if you arrived in the weinermobile.

    Dang, showing my age again. But I have seen the weinermobile at some point in time.

  8. Rob says

    neuralnonobserver – fixed.

    Chris I think nearly everyone is in love with you, or at least your writing. Almost made me want to camp in the desert until you mentioned tarantulas.

  9. says

    Oh, the tarantulas are only out in September, and that’s just the males out ineffectually looking for mates. The worst damage they cause you is a mild irritation from their hairs, and they tend to wander stupidly into the road and get flattened. They’re kind of the MRAs of the desert.

  10. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Empirical materialist that I am, I still find it tempting to describe my feelings for the Cima Dome landscape with words like “sacred.”

    I’ve always liked the word ‘transcendent’, a word Christopher Hitchens used frequently when talking about these things. The definition I believe he applied was: ‘extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience.’ It works well for situations where there is the appearance or feeling of being connected to things greater than yourself.

    It is, of course, just a feeling or perception. There is no magic here. That is not to diminish the experience, but merely to put it in proper context.

    @#4 neuralobserver

    You are a worthless troll that can’t even spell properly and fails in the most basic of reading comprehension skills. And I do mean ‘troll’ in the classic sense, in that you have no intention of actually contributing to the discussion and just post to try and get people pissed off.

    Little do you seem to realize that we are actually laughing at you. Run along back to your sad little slime pit, child.

  11. mythbri says

    They’re kind of the MRAs of the desert.

    Write more, please, Chris? You never fail to make me crack up, particularly with your responses in the comments.

    I live in the Southwest U.S. also, and my own local National Parks are places that I would consider to be “sacred”, in the same sense that you used in your post. There’s no worship. There’s no deification – just a profound respect for the beautiful visual evidence of millions of years of natural history, laid out in front of you for your enjoyment.

    It is a deep respect.

  12. A. R says

    Hey, I’ve been there! It was sans-cross at the time. I’ve always been a temperate deciduous forest person myself, but I do rather enjoy Joshua tree forests. Very other-worldly.

  13. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    This almost makes wish that a certain Vietnam War vet and a certain jack mormon would show up for a visit.

  14. says

    This almost makes wish that a certain Vietnam War vet and a certain jack mormon would show up for a visit.

    Conveniently, I can play the fat, increasingly decrepit middle-aged lech.

  15. Janine: Hallucinating Liar says

    Now all we need is a forth person to make up the gang.

    Sorry, I cannot be her.

  16. Becca Stareyes says

    I think Carl Sagan argued for ‘numinous’ as a way to describe that sort of awed ‘the universe is a whole lot bigger and more wonderful than me’ feeling you get that religious people associate with the divine or sacred.

  17. Matrim says

    I’m sorry, but the Mojave comes pre ruined. I spent three years of my life living in that goddamned desert, and I can’t imagine sleeping out there for fun. Sure, the Mojave Greens and the solfuligae are cool, as are the ravens and the view of the sky, but it’s dusty, the ants get into everything, and the Joshua trees are ugly as hell. It’s not too bad in the fall/winter, but I hate it in the spring/summer.

    Honestly, I’m sick of deserts in general. I want to go to a nice jungle, or maybe some tundra.

    Ok, AV rant over.

  18. slatham says

    Thanks Chris. Did you ever meet Ed Abbey? I’ve never been in any US desert, but your writings and his are driving me that direction.

  19. waydude says

    Love Mojave. Great place, and Joshua trees are their own kind of lovely. Would like to go there again sometime, see it every now and then when I fly into PSP. For now, I just keep enjoying our Utah deserts, which you should make a trip to if you haven’t already.

  20. cateck says

    I just got home from a weekend in Johnson Valley camping at a spot we have camped at for over 20 years. Apparently the Marines need that land now and we won’t be camping there much longer.

  21. krubozumo says

    I much prefer Yucca brevifolia to ‘Joshua’ tree.

    I’ll go with magical as a superlative as well, just because it conveys some sense of awe with virtually no conotations of religion, at least not for me.

    Perhaps it takes a certain adjustment to come to terms with the desert but I have always enjoyed it. One of its traits is the silence. During the ten years I lived in Los Angeles I spent every opportunity I could in the desert or in the Sierras. At that time I actually preferred the heat of summer because it drove most other people out of what would become JTNP. So often I had almost the whole place to myself. Fond memories.

    The controversy over the cross – well it is so typical in a way. All the Xtian cross represents to me is death by torture. Makes you wonder just exactly what message it is supposed to convey. And the idea of it constituting some kind of war memorial is equally strange. The only ‘war’ ever to occur in that vicinity would have involved native americans, I wonder how they feel about being memorialized by a cross?

    Mr. Clark’s writing is much appreciated and a complimentary element to the primary subject matter here. Science is a web of knowledge. A multitude of interrelated and interdependent ideas of and descriptions of the world in which we live. If anything, it works too well and hence, people take it for granted.

  22. says

    @slatham, I never had the pleasure, sadly. Though I do have a number of friends who were Ed’s friends as well. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to argue politics with him.

  23. DLC says

    Of all the environments I’ve experienced, the desert is not really my favorite; yet I find myself often marveling at the ways various species find to survive.

  24. says

    It wasn’t his land when he erected it.

    A replacement shouldn’t be replaced – that’s stupid. If someone painted the rock, should we continue to paint the rock in perpetuity? No. Find a place, a private place, a place not in the middle of federal land, and put it there.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    A big, black monolith would fit right in.
    Then add lions, tapirs and some hominids.
    .
    Speaking of WWI veterans, Swedish TV showed an episode of BBC;s “The Last Of The Last” yesterday. Quite moving. They have interviewed the remaining WWI veterans through the 1990s and added reconstructions of the battles and the everyday tasks the people had to face, and on the date the very last veteran died they released the documentary series: It is telling the story of the West Front through the veteran’s perspective.

  26. alanbagain says

    #30 krubozumo

    All the Xtian cross represents to me is death by torture. Makes you wonder just exactly what message it is supposed to convey.

    If you really want to know, the empty cross symbolises the death of Jesus Christ and especially His resurrection. It also provides the dual promise of the end of death and the promise of eternal life for individual Christians. In a war memorial and for those left behind, the promise of seeing loved ones again. A poignant concept for those mourning loved ones.

    You may not agree with anything above but that is what the message is.

    Now, if you want to know why the crucifix, a real image of torture, is used almost universally in some sects of Christianity (step up our RC friends) I haven’t the faintest idea. No doubt you could find out in the Catholic Encyclopedia avaiable on the internet but I can’t be bothered. Sorry.

  27. ChasCPeterson says

    Love Mojave.

    Took me a second to realize you meant ‘Mojave National Preserve’, like you might say ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Yosemite’.
    I thought you meant the city town census-designated place. While of mild interest for several reasons (airplanes go there to die; mentioned in a Frank Zappa song), I think it’s safe to say that nobody ‘loves’ Mojave, CA.

    I much prefer Yucca brevifolia to ‘Joshua’ tree.

    You mean Yucca brevifolia, and a rose by any other name etc.

    They’re kind of the MRAs of the desert.

    Hang on. There’s a very important difference: in tarantulas, males really do get the short end of the life-history stick. Females might live for decades, hunkered down in the same well-lined burrow, ambushing hapless arthropods and geckos at night from the entrance and reproducing every decent year rainwise. Males live one year, risking and losing it all in that one marathon searching walk in the fall, many falling prey to roads or roadrunners and the rest finally dehydrating or just wasting away. And they never, ever get custody.

  28. says

    Now, if you want to know why the crucifix, a real image of torture, is used almost universally in some sects of Christianity (step up our RC friends) I haven’t the faintest idea

    Well, pulling on my theologian’s hat (the one with the antlers and the little bell), I imagine it has to do with the doctrine that it’s the willing sacrifice of Jesus that opens the way to forgiveness.
    I used to wonder about this myself. I saw the resurrection as the good bit and the crucifixion as the low point of the story. You know, the hero is apparently defeated, but in a twist ending he comes back from the dead, turning the tables on the forces of evil.

    However, there is a point of view within Christianity that sees the resurrection as more of an afterthought. The real point is the crucifixion because that’s the point where he pays for the sins of the world.
    The moment of salvation is when he’s on the cross, not when he rises. Naturally, you can’t kill off the god, so he has to come back, but for the purposes of salvation, it’s irrelevant.

    I think it’s mostly a matter of emphasis. The crucifix focuses on the sacrifice to get it across how much Jesus loves you. You know “See, he did that for you. Aren’t you grateful?”
    The empty cross focuses more on the promise of rewards; “If you’re nice, Santa Jesus will give you presents eternal life”.
    They’re both emotional appeals to enforce compliance, but they work different angles.

  29. mojave66 says

    You’re making me homesick yet again.

    I just wish they’d saved the Mojave Phone Booth instead.

  30. consciousness razor says

    Now, if you want to know why the crucifix, a real image of torture, is used almost universally in some sects of Christianity (step up our RC friends) I haven’t the faintest idea.

    I grew up Catholic: same reason. The “empty cross” is a real instrument of torture too, obviously. Being empty does seem to make it easier to pretend the torture never really happened, but I wouldn’t say that makes it any better. I guess it isn’t relevant whether or not you put the magic disappearing dude in the picture with the torturing instrument, because the story is basically the same inconsistent mess no matter which Christian you ask.

  31. Ichthyic says

    enjoying the company of Mojave green rattlesnakes and tarantulas and kissing bugs and other such perfectly honorable animals

    kissing bugs…

    don’t put your lips on that.

  32. Ichthyic says

    If you really want to know, the empty cross symbolises the death of Jesus Christ and especially His resurrection.

    actually to me the emptiness symbolizes the crux of the xian faith.

    …there is no jesus on the cross, there never was, there never will be.

    it was made up bullshit from the start, and will always be so.

    in that sense, I can perfectly understand why an empty cross – then you never have to explain why jesus wasn’t ever on it, being fictional and all.