An expedition through Kim Stringfellow’s Mojave (Steeped in Chaos) — High Country News – Know the West & More Trending News


Tecopa Hot Springs

Five bathers, principally nude, one sporting lengthy sleeves and a black beanie, lounge amongst ocher and brown reeds, the murky water of the sizzling springs coiling through sand. A blue camp chair draped with a towel stands close by; behind it, clothes is piled on a rock. The water holds the picture of a cloudy sky, muted blue rippling through white the texture of cotton balls. In the background, sand dunes are framed by towering navy-blue mountains smeared with rusty pink.  The sizzling springs seem remoted; there isn’t any different water. The undulating, arid panorama extends to the fringe of the body, hinting at the desert that lies past.



In early fall, Kim Stringfellow, a panorama photographer, camped in the Pahrump Valley, a stretch of the Mojave Desert simply over the Nevada border, close to a fenced-off photo voltaic facility owned by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based firm. The Yellow Pine Solar venture was nonetheless below building, and partially assembled photo voltaic panels gleamed in the late afternoon gentle. Conservationists have been there to protest the means they claimed it had destroyed Mojave yucca and disturbed the habitat of the protected desert tortoise, simply as earlier industrial-scale renewable vitality developments had. Stringfellow, who considers herself an environmentalist, gave a short speech earlier than the assembled activists and writers about vitality extraction in the desert. Consumerism, she mentioned, was fueling our want for vitality. “We can cover the entire planet (in solar panels),” she mentioned, “but it will never be enough.”

Bathers at Tecopa Natural Hot Springs, Tecopa, California (2016).

Stringfellow spoke of her personal sprawling Mojave Project, an ever-growing artwork venture that features a reported essay and a photograph sequence about industrial photo voltaic growth in the desert. “The work I’m most interested in is work that is about the environment,” she instructed me. “It’s art as activism.” To Stringfellow, Yellow Pine and comparable developments reinforce an anachronistic stereotype of desert as wasteland, desert as barren, a panorama from which people may take and take till there was really nothing left. To counter that stereotype, Stringfellow, who’s 59, has devoted a lot of the final 25 years to documenting the complexity of life — each human and nonhuman — in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

Using pictures, her main medium, in addition to audio, video, and essays written by herself and others, she examines the methods in which people intervene in the landscapes we inhabit, from homesteading in Wonder Valley to the Manhattan Project and Cold War-era radioactive testing and manufacturing in southeast Washington. For a long time, city artists have flocked to the Mojave, usually gawking at the desert’s extremities or utilizing the panorama as a canvas reasonably than a topic in itself. Stringfellow’s intention is to withstand exploitation of every kind — together with inventive — by making a multi-decade venture large in scope, one which depends on months of analysis per essay and hours spent interviewing individuals who reside in the Mojave. It’s additionally participatory: Through area excursions, she brings folks into the locations she paperwork.

Amargosa Valley Mural, Shoshone, California (2015).


The on-line header graphic for The Mojave Project is a map printed by Time journal in 1955, whose outlined factors of curiosity — mineral extraction websites, navy installations and nationwide monuments — replicate the “archaic values” that she seeks to repudiate, Stringfellow wrote in an essay for the journal Desert Report. “Absent are references to the Mojave’s many Indigenous nations or their respected boundaries,” she wrote. “Nor are there any references to the complex biodiversity of the Mojave Desert. Over time, I hope that The Mojave Project rewrites Time’s 1955 map into an inclusive topography that celebrates the region’s underrepresented histories, voices, and richly diverse ecology.”

Old Woman Mountains

In one picture, Matt Leivas Sr., a Chemehuevi elder and founding board member of the Native American Land Conservancy, holds a protracted strolling stick as he poses in entrance of a rust-brown boulder surrounded by shrubs and guarded by a picket gate. Another {photograph} reveals a petroglyph, which, in line with Leivas, depicts a map of the Lake Havasu area, pre-contact. In the major picture for Stringfellow’s essay, titled “Bringing Creation Back Together Again: The Salt Songs of the Nuwu,” Leivas sits, face tilted upward, behind a rock outcrop at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, a sacred web site for the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) folks. The sky is white and grey; spindly cholla and hedgehog cactus spring from granite crevices. He is singing a part of the Salt Song, an interconnected ritual music map of the Nuwu’s non secular and bodily landscapes, of which the Old Woman Mountains are an element. 

Matt Leivas Sr., Salt Song Singer, Old Woman Mountains Preserve, California (2019).

Leivas met Stringfellow, who’s white, a couple of decade in the past, at a dinner hosted by a mutual good friend, the late ethnic research scholar Phil Klasky. Afterward, Leivas mentioned, they stored in contact, and ultimately she invited him to take part in the Mojave Project. “I said, ‘Certainly,’ because nobody really knows about our history here,” he instructed me.

Stringfellow’s work, he quickly discovered, unfolds slowly, with weeks, and typically months, of studying, driving and interviewing behind every dispatch. Over what he estimated have been 40 hours of dialog with Stringfellow, each in particular person and over the telephone, Leivas coated a large span of matters: his household’s displacement from the Chemehuevi Valley after damming flooded the area in the Nineteen Thirties; his non secular awakening when he moved again to the valley as the chief tribal sport warden, as soon as the United States federal authorities acknowledged the Chemehuevi folks and their rights to parcels of land in the space, his work to protect the Salt Song cycle and his native environmental activism.

 “It’s art as activism.”

He appreciated Stringfellow’s inquisitiveness, her candid questioning. “It was like talking to a friend,” he mentioned. Leivas had felt an pressing want to inform his story, too, as a result of his well being was in decline. “I had a lot of friends who didn’t have any inkling that I was deeply involved in a lot of these land protection or sacred site protections,” he mentioned. “Now they’re all finding out.”

The Nevada Desert Experience 2019 Sacred Peace Walk and Protest, Mercury, Nevada (2019).



The Mojave Desert spans 16 million acres throughout 4 states. The xeric shrublands in the Sierra Nevada’s rain shadow are house to 200 endemic plant species, tons of of animals, rock formations which are billions of years outdated. Indigenous peoples have lived right here for millennia: The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe’s level of creation is the mountain Avi Kwa Ame; for the Southern Paiute, creation stems from Mount Charleston and Mount Potosi, in Nevada’s Spring Mountains. Across the desert, Stringfellow has photographed, interviewed and written about a variety of teams: Rockhounders and land racers. Amateur rocketeers. Water conservationists, UFO fanatics and small-claim miners.

In an interview for KCET, the Southern California public broadcasting outlet that has co-published most of The Mojave Project’s essays, Stringfellow spoke of the kinship she felt with Catherine Venn Peterson, a homesteader who initially moved to the Mojave in the Nineteen Forties, throughout a homesteading increase prompted by the Small Tract Act of 1938.

Stringfellow instructed me that she associated to Venn’s independence, her love of the desert’s solitude, whereas additionally acknowledging that such homesteading, very like her personal relocation to Joshua Tree, is usually solely obtainable to the privileged. Stringfellow has by no means married. “I’m hard to be with,” she instructed me. She’s intense, a non-public particular person, and her work is usually all-consuming. Her life has little to do together with her artwork, she mentioned. And but, the private and the inventive collapse in The Mojave Project: The desert is each her topic and her house.

Stringfellow is a newcomer to the desert, a part of a motion of largely-white artists to the space beginning in the Nineteen Sixties. Raised in Renton, Washington, she grew up visiting her grandmother in Carson City, Nevada, and have become fascinated with the desert ecosystem of the Great Basin. In 2010, she moved to Joshua Tree in search of artistic neighborhood. 

Kim Stringfellow at house in Joshua Tree, California.

Stella Kalinina/High Country News

With vacationers flocking to the nationwide park, a reputation increase spurred, in half, by the pandemic, Joshua Tree has gentrified much more in the 12 years Stringfellow has lived there. The median housing worth shot up greater than 80% between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022. The variety of short-term leases in Joshua Tree grew by 64% throughout this identical interval. On Stringfellow’s road alone, three Airbnbs have sprouted in the previous a number of years; one short-term rental proprietor chainsawed a Joshua tree to construct a pool. 

Meanwhile, over the final century, the Mojave has warmed by 3.6 levels Fahrenheit. Bird species are declining, and Lake Mead is at an alarming historic low. Humans are a part of nature, however, Stringfellow instructed me, “I wish we weren’t taking so many other things down with us.”

The morning after the protest at the Yellow Pine Solar venture, Stringfellow and I drove again to Joshua Tree collectively, about 200 miles. We curved alongside a mountain street and descended into the Amargosa Basin, a area at the entrance to Death Valley, the place the Mojave meets the Great Basin. The desert there was lush, nurtured by the 125-mile-long Amargosa River, which flows, principally underground, from Pahute Mesa in Nevada to its terminus in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin. Thick vegetation — native screwbean mesquite and smoke timber, and non-native saltcedar and arundo — fawned over the street. “It’s almost like blackberry thickets,” Stringfellow mentioned.  

ubo, Hells Belles Racing Team, Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) September 2014 Time Trials, El Mirage, California (2015).

The Mojave is a dynamic panorama: Sands shift, dry lake beds fill with rainwater and evaporate, cities increase and develop and typically die. This dynamism is usually pure, however people trigger a lot of the change, a theme to which Stringfellow steadily returns. In one essay, she examines the development, promise and pitfalls of Antelope Valley, the place growth has beckoned folks priced out of the metropolis of Los Angeles and its suburbs, lots of them folks of shade. In the early Nineties, Palmdale was the nation’s second fastest-growing metropolis, and its Black inhabitants grew almost 1,000%. 

Development has additionally introduced one thing extra sinister. A photograph accompanying the essay reveals a suburban subdivision walled off from a patch of desert, Joshua timber and a juniper scraggly in the foreground. The caption signifies it’s a neighborhood in Lancaster. Soil from the web site, Stringfellow writes, has examined optimistic for Coccidioides, the fungus that results in an an infection that may trigger valley fever, a doubtlessly extreme respiratory sickness for which there isn’t any vaccine. 

Interstate 15

“I think that destination travel from city to city, like LA to Vegas, reinforces the desert as wasteland, conceptually,” Steve Williams, a biologist who accompanied us on our drive, mentioned. We’d been speaking about Interstate 15, the main Western freeway that runs from San Diego to Sweet Grass, Montana. 

Claire Vaye Watkins, who’s from Twentynine Palms and the creator of two novels and one brief story assortment primarily based in California and Nevada deserts, instructed me that Stringfellow is one in every of the few artists she’s seen who “gets” the Mojave, who depicts her house as it’s, versus rendering it empty, or romantic.

Former Lodging at Zzyzx Mineral Springs Resort, Zzyzx, California (2017).

She particularly appreciates The Mojave Project’s wandering ambiance. “What’s so pleasing about the dispatches is that they have the feeling of turning off a main road with your bravest friend,” Watkins mentioned. “It’s unhurried, deep hanging-out.”

 In an essay titled “Anyone for Hounding Rocks?”, Stringfellow recounts how curiosity took her from her meant analysis in Boron, California, to a locale that caught her eye: the gem and rock store Desert Discoveries, owned by David Eyre, a “fortyish looking man with a serious rockabilly pompadour.” She ended up dedicating a whole essay and picture sequence to him, describing him as “a gem and mineral collector/distributor, third-generation Boronite, community good deed doer, and hot-rod enthusiast who drives a different classic car or bike every day of the week.” Her portraits deliver his character to life. In one, the rockhound, sporting a crimson plaid flannel shirt, his brown hair flipped upward like a dolphin fin, grins in entrance of a retro signal studying, in all caps, “ROCKS.” In one other, he holds a small sq. piece of calcite between his index finger and thumb and friends into its depths, his forehead furrowed.

“It’s a pacing issue,” Vaye Watkins mentioned. Slowing down — that’s whenever you start to see. 

Salton Sea

Yes, Stringfellow has made romantic images for The Mojave Project: A sunbeam piercing clouds over serrated crimson rock, a dramatic storm swirling over golden dunes. But for the most half, her photographs are, in her phrases, “harsh” and “deadpan.” She has taken lots of her pictures in the warmth of the day, when the gentle is excessive, virtually expressionless — the time most photographers keep away from. “I don’t want to romanticize the desert,” she instructed me. “I want to show that it is formidable and it is intense, and if you are not prepared properly, you can die.” 

It is a mode she developed in the ’90s, when she began photographing the Salton Sea. It was her first time there, and she or he was drawn in by the panorama: the ruined remnants of a once-thriving resort neighborhood set on an eerily lovely shore. When California drained 90% of its authentic marshland over the twentieth century — greater than another state in the nation — the Salton Sea grew to become a serious cease for migrating birds. But over time,  agricultural runoff contributed to the  water changing into more and more brackish, and ecological catastrophe ensued. Photographers had already been working in the space: In the Nineteen Eighties, Richard Misrach shot ethereal, quiet images of the Salton Sea for one in every of his “Desert Cantos” sequence analyzing human affect in the desert Southwest, and Christopher Landis made haunting black-and-white photographs. Stringfellow appreciated their work however wished to develop a mode that will differentiate her imaginative and prescient from theirs. 

“What’s so pleasing about the dispatches is that they have the feeling of turning off a main road with your bravest friend.”

Wild Burros in the Panamints, Death Valley National Park, California (2016).

In the years that adopted, Stringfellow returned to the space to shoot images for her grasp’s thesis exhibition with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she later became a guide titled, Greetings from the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905–2005. Her stark, saturated images documented the tragic penalties of overdevelopment: fish carcasses rotting on the water’s floor; a rusting bus sinking right into a noxious crimson puddle; a snow goose slumped lifeless close to the shore. “It was meant to be a mirror into the future,” Stringfellow instructed me. 

In later tasks, she examined the controversial environmental historical past of Los Angeles aqueduct system and documented the environmental justice battles alongside Interstate 5 in California. She recounted the cultural historical past of Wonder Valley’s homesteads, a bodily demanding venture that concerned miles of strolling in the desert to shoot images of deserted cabins. The venture additionally included an audio tour, so folks may see these locations for themselves. 

The Mojave Project is her longest and most concerned work. It has no finish date, in half to replicate the ever-shifting nature of the Mojave — the means time in the panorama feels nonlinear, layered. Checko Salgado, a photographer from Las Vegas, instructed me that the images are “like she shoots from the hip,” documentation the focus, not essentially aesthetics. Take, for instance, {a photograph} of a pile of spent heap leach — rocks and different waste left over from cyanidation, a heap-leaching methodology that makes use of aqueous cyanide — a part of a three-part sequence on gold mining. In the foreground: a dust street with tire tracks, and a rusty chain-link fence with an indication studying “No hunting or trespassing.” In the background: the pile, a brown hill dotted with shrubs. The picture could be unremarkable with out the context; in the caption, Stringfellow writes, “Notice how the mountain of ore has been graded to appear more ‘natural.’” 

Stringfellow’s work, which she calls a social observe, crosses disciplines, incorporating geography, ethnography and biology, although she’s formally skilled in none of these fields. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research-based arts group that examines the relationships between people and nature, has lengthy been a mannequin for her. The group has led journeys, together with a 2009 boat tour through Houston — Texas’ “petrochemical artery” — and it creates digital and gallery exhibitions, utilizing sound recordings, images, maps and movies to deal with themes as assorted as the methods in which landscapes influenced American presidents and industrial fertilizer manufacturing.

According to Hikmet Loe, an artwork historian who has taught at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Stringfellow’s work can really feel overwhelming: There is a lot info, and a few of it, like hydrology and the mechanics of mining, will be dense. Forty-four essays, 26 audio recordings and greater than 100 images can be found on her web site, in seven print books, and, sometimes, in exhibition settings. And her topic is impossibly massive. Inevitably, Stringfellow leaves out tales and views. (Absent from the venture, to date, is a dispatch on Las Vegas, a serious Mojave metropolis.) 

Yet taken in at a slower tempo, every bit of the work reveals one other layer of the Mojave’s complexity. Stringfellow sees her viewers as common, made up of desert dwellers and aficionados, although she’s happy when specialists reply to her work. Recently, knowledgeable water supervisor reached out to say he’d shared her dispatch on the overused, drought-shrunken Colorado River together with his colleagues.

Participants Collecting Pink Halite at the 2014 Gem-O-Rama, Searles Lake, Trona, California, (2014).


Though The Mojave Project has been showcased in museums throughout the desert, Stringfellow shouldn’t be making artwork for the “white cube” of gallery interiors. Her work, which is primarily funded by grants and fellowships, shouldn’t be notably business: “I’m not interested in decorative.” Rather, her artwork includes “critically looking at the world around us,” she instructed me. “It’s less about the personal, and definitely not about the market.” 

Devils Hole 

In April, Stringfellow held an immersive arts and earth sciences area tour over the course of a weekend to deliver folks into a few of the areas she’s documented. Stringfellow acted as a curator. It’s a task she performs all through her work. Her presence hovers in the background of her essays; she writes in the first particular person when she’s on the floor, interviewing folks, however she is rarely central to the work. In the previous, she has introduced friends to Joshua Tree and round the Morongo Basin, in addition to to communities in and round Death Valley. This time, the tour was set in the Amargosa Basin.

At Devils Hole, a limestone cavern at the base of a peak close to the Nevada-California border, Ambre Chaudoin, a biologist for Death Valley National Park Aquatics Program, talked about the web site’s enduring mysteries. The cavern, she instructed us, was filled with “fossil water,” which left its major supply in Nevada’s Spring Mountains some 10,000 years in the past and ultimately bubbled up at the fringe of Amargosa Valley. Much remains to be unknown about the cavern — how deep it’s, for instance, or why an remoted species of pupfish subsists there, in the persistently 93-degree water. “Are they considered the rarest fish in the world?” Stringfellow requested. “One of the rarest,” Chaudoin mentioned. “We like to say it’s the smallest habitat for any vertebrate species, and it’s one of the most extreme.” 

At the cavern, Emily Eliza Scott, a professor of the historical past of artwork at the University of Oregon, and Derek Berlin, then a graduate scholar finding out land-use conservation, peered from a platform suspended 50 toes above the pool. Underneath its murky floor, greater than 250 remaining pupfish lived. “Did (Chaudoin) say anything about the impacts of climate change?” Berlin requested Scott and me.

“That’s an interesting question. There must be so much less snowpack,” Scott mentioned, referring to the aquifer’s supply, the Spring Mountains. “Hopefully the rate of evaporation is low, because it’s so protected.” 

Berlin requested Chaudoin how local weather change was affecting the cavern. “Is it evaporation? Is it less flow of the aquifer that feeds in?” 

It’s each, Chaudoin mentioned — together with the warmth. “These air temperatures over that shallow critical habitat, they’re already spiking up, like beyond really what the fish can survive.” 

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, Ivanpah, Nevada (2022).

The conversations I overheard throughout the weekend have been inquisitive and roving, concerning city environmentalism, wildfire ecology and earthworks, the friends exchanging data and experience. The 60 or so in attendance included a lawyer who was preventing to attain threatened species protections for the western Joshua tree, a number of curators and an area date farmer.  “I’m a photographer, but that’s really not the experience I want you to have,” Stringfellow instructed us the first night time. “The art is about the conversations you have with one another.”  

The Amargosa Chaos 

On the final day of the area tour, Marli Miller, a geologist at the University of Oregon, introduced us to the Amargosa Chaos, an space in Death Valley that geologists have been puzzling over for years. The space is very faulted, so “thoroughly broken up and shuffled that nobody’s been able to put everything back in its place,” Miller wrote in an essay for The Mojave Project. No one is aware of find out how to date the rocks there, or what geological occasion, or sequence of occasions, created such dysfunction. 

“We all experience time in a different way,” Miller mentioned as we gathered round a rock formation. “One of the things I find most moving about studying the earth is to think about geologic time and how vast and incomprehensible it is.” She picked up a rock from the floor and recognized it as a Precambrian siltstone, latticed with mud cracks, possible 600 million years outdated. It is each humbling and horrifying, Stringfellow mentioned, to know that people occupy such a small body on the Earth’s geological timeline. “Something that is 600 million years old — how do you fathom that concept and place yourself?”

Stringfellow instructed me she wanted to know geology to put in writing about the Mojave. Not simply the floor of the desert, however what was beneath — the layers of bedrock and crust that exposed the story of this place. “For me to understand a landscape — this is what I’ve come to understand myself — I can’t just go out and go, ‘Oh, this is attractive, I’ll photograph this,’ and not know that this yucca could be 1,200 years old,” she mentioned. “How can I be a landscape photographer if I don’t truly know what I am pointing my camera at?”

“We are part of this larger system, and we’re all related,” she instructed me later. “There’s no hierarchy, or exceptionalism for humans.” She usually refers again to Devils Hole, the place water has sloshed up the cavern’s sides in the minutes after distant earthquakes; on Sept. 19, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake close to the Colima and Michoacán states in Mexico triggered four-foot-high waves in the pool. “We are implicitly tied to Earth’s natural systems, its rhythms and overall health, just as Devils Hole is connected to some unlikely distant spot on the planet some 2,000 miles away,” Stringfellow wrote in a 2015 essay on the cavern. 

Ultimately, The Mojave Project is a celebration — and an enchantment. Through its essays, images, and numerous occasions, Stringfellow reveals her viewers that locations like Devils Hole and the Amargosa Chaos and the Pahrump Valley exist, and never solely that they exist, however they’re sophisticated, wondrous, and, on the geologic time scale, fleeting. Stringfellow is saying, Look. Look at what’s right here. Look earlier than it’s gone. 

Thunderstorm, Death Valley National Park, California (2015). This storm system broken Scotty’s Castle and a number of other park roads on Oct. 18, 2015.

This piece was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

Meg Bernhard is a contract author primarily based in California. She’s reported for The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Guernica, Hazlitt, The Virginia Quarterly Review and others.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor coverage.

Help us create extra tales like this.This protection was supported by contributors to High Country News.

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