It’s hard out here for a plant: A (very tentative) guide to surviving harsh and hostile lands

“The living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”

—Edward Abbey, 1968

A fine layer of red dust covers everything in the tent. It’s the same scene I imagine would greet campers waking up in the vast red desert on the surface of Mars, were they lucky enough to survive a windstorm there.

I unzip the door and thrust my head into the landscape outside the tent. The vista from here is similarly Martian: gargantuan red cliffs tower overhead; craters two, three, four thousand feet across fall away from the red dunes of fine sand across the mesa. It is eerily silent.

The only distinguishing factor—all that stands between us and the Mars rover, it seems—is the series of scrappy juniper and sage bushes dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. Squatty, hardy, and with a low center of gravity, they appear to have withstood last night’s dust bowl better than we have. Then again, it’s taken them untold generations to get it right.

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