In the arid, golden, and seemingly inhospitable planes of the Mojave Desert, many artists and travellers have made a home. Zoe Childerley tells the story of its residents
It takes a certain type of person to move to Joshua Tree. The near 800,000-acres national park in southern California, on the edge of the immense Mojave Desert, abounds with extraordinary beauty. It is also unrelentingly harsh, with severe temperatures, limited water supply, and a flourishing biodiversity not entirely sympathetic to human incursion. “In England,” says Hastings-based artist and photographer Zoe Childerley, “we don’t have to step out of our door and worry about something killing us. But you have to think about that out there. Even the plants have thorns.”
Childerley’s project, Dinosaur Dust, published in book form this autumn by Another Place Press, captures Joshua Tree in all its majesty and menace. A distillation of work produced over several trips, it deploys a variety of techniques to represent this multifaceted region. There are portraits and landscapes, some in black-and-white, others in colour. Snatched moments sit adjacent to wide, painterly scenes.
Joshua Tree subverts initial appearances. Though it seems desolate, it hums with distinct flora and fauna, including the eponymous species of yucca tree. Ostensibly untouched sweeps of land abound, scattered with the debris of human activity. Childerley’s photographs channel both the park’s buzzing minutiae and its awesome, alarming expanse. This is a place where unfortunate travellers still vanish amidst rock and sand. “You can feel a sense of the sublime, the feeling that we’re tiny and insignificant against this great landscape stretching out before us,” she explains.
This sublimity is palpable in Childerley’s landscapes. One depicts the sun streaming over a valley, with a radiant seam of gold emanating from the earth’s surface. Another shows a silent gash in the ground, as if made by some terrifying creature from time immemorial [page 78]. The very name Dinosaur Dust conjures up this prehistoric past, so distant that it defies understanding. “You can very clearly see geological time, way before humans were around,” says Childerley. “And [the project] is partially about deep time, the idea that, like the dinosaurs, we are just a fleeting species. One day we’ll be gone and the landscape will still be there.” Dinosaur Dust is particularly concerned with places where nature’s apparent permanence rubs up against the signs of transient human activity. A fragment of a sculpture blends into the rock formation behind it. One magnificent open span of seemingly empty landscape is riven with the criss-crossing striations created by all-terrain vehicles. A luminous wall of amber light belongs to a solar farm, installed to power the distant city.
“It’s hallucinatory being in the desert because of the heat and the light. In the daytime, it’s often blindingly bright”
Some aspects of Childerley’s own practice hover between nature and artifice. A few images have a granular texture, as if perceived through a cloud of glittering dust. “For those, there’s someone helping me to throw salt and sand in the air, then capturing it with a flashgun,” she explains. “I wanted to see if I could make it look like a galaxy.” Through this, Childerley taps into the desert’s cosmic associations – which have attracted the likes of astronomers, UFO chasers and rock musicians in search of a background for their psychedelic trips – as well as its mind-bending qualities. “It’s hallucinatory being in the desert because of the heat and the light,” she explains. “In the daytime, it’s often blindingly bright.”
Despite its remoteness, Joshua Tree has long been settled. Numerous mines were built in California’s Gold Rush era, now abandoned; Childerley references this period in a photograph showing a poster of a woman’s face, speckled with insects and crystals of fool’s gold. “It’s always been thought of as an area where people went to try and make their fortunes,” she explains. In the 1940s, it was home to the United States’ final homesteading scheme, where the government gave away plots of land to those willing to move to the desert. Few lasted very long, and later these derelict structures became associated with nefarious activities. “There are urban legends, of meth labs and things like that in abandoned cabins,” says Childerley.
In recent decades, it has attracted a diverse set of denizens. Many of them are artists, drawn to the area by its ambience and beauty, as well as its low cost of living compared to California’s heaving cities; indeed Childerley’s first visit was part of the Joshua Tree Highlands Artists Residency. “It made me think of people returning to the way of the 19th-century settlers,” she says. “Hitting the Pacific and heading back, coming away from the cities, not to find their fortune, but peace and quiet – and maybe spiritual or existential wealth.”
Dinosaur Dust pays special attention to some of the women who have made their home in the desert in search of such unearthly riches. “I’ve met a few women who have moved there by themselves, and learned new skills to renovate an old cabin in search of a more traditional way of life,” says Childerley. One can sense these individuals’ passion for their adopted home in Childerley’s portraits. One image shows a woman lying face-up in a natural pool [above], in ecstatic peace at the natural water. Another picture shows Isabella Megli, proprietor of the White Rock Ranch Horse Rescue, snuggling her head alongside one of her charges [below]. Many show people living in harmony with even nature’s less immediately attractive representations. We see a hand touch the tip of a scorpion’s tail, and another act as a branch for a coiling snake.
The connection between individuals and the places they occupy has long excited Childerley. “I tend to work in a rural context,” she says, “where people feel closer to the land than those who live near a city. The link between the stories you can tell about the land and how you make sense of them runs through my work.”
In her 2015 series, Petrified in Storyland, she explored the relationship between nature, myth and human activity in Wales. Another project, Beyond the Pale, resulted from walking the entire 100- mile length of the Anglo-Scottish border in 2016. Comprising images both pastoral and unsettling, it investigated how place can shape the identity of those on the margins. “I hadn’t realised until I spent some time there,” she explains. “There’s a strong shared cultural identity as Borderers; neither Scottish nor English.” Though geographically and climatically different to these British regions, Joshua Tree instilled a similar shared bond between its long-serving residents, Childerley found. “It’s a small community,” she explains. “It’s spread out, but people know each other.”
Childerley last visited Joshua Tree in 2019, after a gap of several years, and found it on the cusp of change, to the chagrin of many of its more settled residents. “Joshua Tree is becoming more popular, even a bit gentrified,” she explains. “And it’s becoming harder for people who want to live there permanently, because Airbnbs and second homes are pushing up the prices.” Vital resources such as water, always scarce and particularly so in the wake of the 2011-2017 Californian drought, are being stretched further than ever. “In many ways,” says Childerley, “I agree with the argument that maybe we shouldn’t be living there.” Whatever the future holds for Joshua Tree, Dinosaur Dust encapsulates the ragged glory of life today on one of America’s final frontiers.
Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.