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Death Valley, driest, hottest - a photoessay on life in extreme conditions

"Water" - a poem by Wendell Berry

I was born in a drouth year.  That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
Veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy's soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.


"I was born in a drouth year"

Death Valley, on the easternmost edge of central California, is a land of extremes. Four mountain ranges between Death Valley and the ocean create an almost impenetrable rainshadow. Average annual rainfall is 2 inches, but heat and aridity make for an evaporation rate of 150 inches per year, forcing salt up through the earth's crust as water evaporates and leaves behind minerals. Some years, no rain falls at all. Barely half an inch of rain fell over 40 months from 1931 to 1934, and just a few years before, the world's hottest recorded temperature was set In Death Valley at 134°F. In 2001, the valley recorded 154 consecutive days above 100°F. Badwater Basin (pictured) is the lowest place in North America, at 282 feet below sea level.

"That summer my mother waited"

Yet in one of the world's hottest and driest landscapes, evidence of water is everywhere. A small amount of rain conveyed through a vast drainage produces a massive volume of water that follows the law of gravity, moving down, down, down until it reaches the lowest point. At the mouth of Gower Gulch in the Amargosa Range (pictured), tall canyon walls carved by violent water flows are evidence of the ferocity that infrequent rain can bring. Across the sub-sea level basin lies the highest point in Death Valley -- 11,050-foot Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains.

"in the house enclosed in the sun"

Despite its foreboding name, Death Valley is home to over 1,000 plant species adapted to desert life. Roots may extend dozens of feet below the surface, searching for cool moisture buried deep underground, or they may stretch out many times the width of the plant's upper portion. Once a plant has lived out its life in the desert, its skeleton may remain intact for years. With virtually no moisture to aid in decay, the process of returning to the earth is gradual.

"and the dry ceaseless wind"

Heat and aridity in the harshest of desert environments prompt nature to improvise clever responses. Light-colored leaves, stems and trunks reflect sunlight, deflecting heat. Waxy surfaces retain moisture by limiting evaporation.

"for the men to come back in the evenings"

The desert conjures images of a lifeless and inhospitable environment, but well-adapted plant species provide a food source for resilient animals. Many desert dwellers are nocturnal to avoid the worst of the heat. These elusive creatures leave evidence of their presence through tracks and scat. In Fall Canyon, tracks on dried, cracked mud tell the story of a coyote roaming in the rain.

"bringing water from a distant spring"

Salinity is another inescapable feature of this arid environment. With a drainage area of 9,000 square miles, minerals from higher elevations are picked up by water flowing down to the lowest parts of the valley at Badwater Basin. This enclosed basin traps mineral-rich runoff, which evaporates and leaves a salty brine that most earthly creatures find toxic. Arrow weed (Pluchea sericea)  is a hardy plant that adapted to withstand these conditions. By growing in clumps, arrow weed plants at Devil's Cornfield (pictured) increase their chance of surviving erosion and unforgiving sandstorms.