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The Oasis This Time
The Oasis This Time
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Author(s): Lawton, Rebecca
ISBN No.: 9781937226930
Pages: 200
Year: 201903
Format: Trade Paper
Price: £17.33
Dispatch delay: Dispatched between 7 to 15 days
Status: Available (Forthcoming)

Chapter 7: The Sentinels The Marine-base town of Twentynine Palms, California, is as hushed as a morgue. There are no families in the shops and cafes, no moms holding kids by the hand, just a dead main street with traffic that''s only passing through. Chairs sit empty in barbershops advertising Marine haircuts for ten bucks. In the Mojave Desert wind, yellow ribbons stream from lightpoles, street signs, storefronts. They remind us of a faithful promise to endure, a popular song once played to death on the radio, although their faded color says the waiting has gone on too long. Stubby stands of sage and creosote reach to the horizon past houses with drapes drawn to the intense sun. Inside are those still holding vigil, still believing in the inevitable return of the warrior. Lured by the call of anything alive or wet, I check into the first motel I see.

In the chill of an air-conditioned room, I pull on my bathing suit, wrap up in a big white towel, and wander out the back door in search of the pool. Beside the hot tub, a young Marine greets me. He''s a junior officer, probably just a few years older than my own teenaged daughter. His handsome face reveals no guile, especially when he smiles. Assigned to an advanced course in communications, he''s stuck in this California desert town while others in his unit have been sent to Iraq. "The base is dead quiet," he says. "Everyone''s overseas." Although the pool is lovely and inviting, the officer has his back to the water--he''s in uniform, at a table, with a textbook spread before him.

When he''s done with his course, he''ll ship out, too. The communications reading doesn''t bother him, except that it requires "too much math." He says it in all earnestness, without a hint of irony. The numbers are just one more barrier to getting to fight. When I say that I''m visiting from the northern part of the state, he asks if I''ve heard about a tank crew lost near Nasiriyah, Iraq. After a bit of back and forth, I realize that I have: the gunner, a Scottish-born newlywed, is from my county north of San Francisco. The papers have carried reports of his going missing. His wife is expecting a first child any day.

"It''s an M1A1 Abrams crew," the communications officer says. "They''re based here, in Twentynine Palms." That''s news to me. I ask if he''s heard updates. He tells me that the remaining members of the First Tank Battalion have no clue to the missing crew''s whereabouts. The last radio contact from the Abrams came in before midnight Tuesday, when the tank was patrolling without headlights west of the Euphrates River. Today is Thursday. Desert sandstorms and near-zero visibility have made search efforts impossible.

Blowing sand has confined the rest of the First Tank Battalion to their quarters. They''re praying. Photographs in the paper show the men standing together in a dimly lit building. "Doesn''t it scare you?" I ask. "That an entire tank and its crew can disappear?" He frowns and shakes his head. "Going MIA is one risk you take. And casualties are part of combat." My heart beats so hard I wonder if he can hear it.

Apparently not, as he goes back to his books with the calm of a Zen priest. But what more can I expect of him? Or of myself? Should I pray? Make a wish? Some months ago a friend taught me a method for wishing: fix your gaze on the nearest natural object and compose an eight-syllable blessing. Looking toward a row of palm trees in the motel garden, I count out syllables on both hands. Please. Find the crew. Alive and well.I settle into the hot tub, checking on the officer occasionally from the corner of my eye. He''s not worried, or doesn''t reveal that he is, as he works textbook problems on his calculator.

He''s only eager about his assignment. How can he be so calm? The years I''ve spent working among veterans of other wars tell me he''s headed for some kind of fresh hell when he ships out. Today, my friends who went to fight in southeast Asia could no more consider going there again than they could walk on water. When the hot-tub jets time out, the officer says, "Don''t get up. I''ll take care of it." He speaks with dignity, as if he''s assuming a torch of responsibility for his mother or favorite aunt. It''s another important mission he''s been assigned. I let him handle it for me.

I''ve come to the desert for the waters: specifically, oases. Fertile, moist refuges in arid regions, oases have long been places of solace and rest. Twentynine Palms is named for the Oasis of Mara, a cluster of California fan palms in adjacent Joshua Tree National Park. Mara''s palms, of the genus and species Washingtonia filifera , have drawn humans for centuries. According to legend, beginning around 1500 A.D., indigenous women of the Mojave who wanted to give birth to male children made Mara a sort of Mecca, where aspiring mothers of sons were directed by spiritual advisors. Mara, greener than the surrounding desert due to near-surface water, possessed supernatural attributes.

Want to give birth? Go to Mara, the fertility clinic of the ancient world.The women''s migrations to the oasis must have succeeded. The legends say that, in the first year alone, the mothers who visited Mara were delivered of twenty-nine male children. They celebrated by planting one palm at the site for each infant boy. The trees they sowed grew tall, guideposts one could see from miles away. Not a single one of the mothers, I''ll wager, could have foreseen the place becoming a stronghold of warriors training for battle in foreign deserts.Despite the name of the town, today there are no longer exactly twenty-nine palms in city limits. The total count of Washingtonia has fluctuated through the years, both thinned by fire in some places and expanded by the growth of new palm-pups in others.

Their frond skirts whisper. They summon visitors, passing on veiled secrets from the original enclave of native mothers. We want sons , they might be saying. Bring us sons. Centuries after those first oasis-migrants, outsiders wore the native footpaths deeper to Mara. The shade and open water drew miners, homesteaders, cattlemen, and the stage line, gradually becoming the village of Twentynine Palms. No longer the sacred destination for mothers desiring to make sons, it drew the sons themselves. Most men arriving there had either just returned from war or were about to go.

Veterans of World War I who''d suffered lung problems due to the gassing in France came to the clean, dry air to regain their ability to breathe. Long horizons, unbroken sunlight, winds that came from the Pacific Ocean over basins of rock and sand: all of that, a world away from the mud and gloom of trench warfare and the dark, northern forests of Europe. A return from the dark side of the moon. When World War II loomed, the U.S. Army found the open skies of Twentynine Palms ideal for glider instruction. On some timeline determined by the fighting overseas and the needs of the military, the base transferred to the Navy and then to the Marine Corps. Since 1954, the Marines have trained at the base with no hiatus.

There''s been no rest for the warrior in times that try our souls. The morning after my arrival in Twentynine Palms, I leave my motel to find the storied Oasis of Mara. A paved path near the visitor center--maybe an asphalted-over vestige of the fertility trails--threads among National Park Service interpretive signs at a well-tended stand of Washingtonia. First I''m surprised to find that the oasis consists mostly of sand and gravel. Where''s the water you always see in the movies, the liquid that desperate, thirst-crazed travelers plunge into head first? The signs tell me that an oasis really consists mostly of land. At the heart of the oasis may be a hydric zone, or pool of open water, generally dwarfed by the other, surrounding zones. Around the pool lies a patch of dry ground, encircled by palms, called the oasis proper. Around that dry patch, where it''s easy to picture camels kneeling and silk-swathed sheikhs resting beside them, is the desert-oasis ecotone.

The hardier plants of the ecotone transition from water dependent species closer in to thick-skinned varieties farther out. The ecotone plants must be able to take the heat and utter lack of water of the surrounding desert, a cruel master. The path at Mara winds through the diverse species of the ecotone, unique and eccentric shrubs with spikes and claws--clearly not the willows and sedges one would see poolside along some rivers and lakes. The ecotone has as little in common with the oasis proper as sleepy surburbs have with a glittering downtown. Moving along I come to a view over a handrail barrier, from the ecotone, past the sandy oasis proper, into the hydric zone. Peering in, I don''t see a pool. What gives? It''s not wet. Where''s the famous Oasis of Mara? Another sign provides immediate answers.

Declines in groundwater have resulted in the springs feeding the oasis drying up more than three decades ago--hence no pool. In the forty years following the opening of the military base, the water table dropped more than fifteen feet. Between 1939 and 2013, water-level declines of seventy feet and more beneath Twentynine Palms showed up in monitoring well data available from the California Department of Water Resources. With over 140,000 annual visitors to the oasis, demands on water resources did nothing but intensify after the old days when only those who could walk the footpaths came here. No matter how inviting the sand ground among the palms, no visitors are allowed there. Even without water, it beckons, but the weight of our trespasses would damage the trees'' root systems. Washingtonia has a mass of pencillate rootlets just inches underground that radiate as far as twenty feet from the.

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