The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, like the Sonoran villagers Joyal is studying, traditionally used the palm trees for just about everything. Now, the Cahuillas are some of the richest people in Palm Springs, having gotten in on real estate back in the 50s. The Cahuillas have just bought the Spa hotel and are rumored to be contemplating gambling, but back in the old days, they lived a little closer to the land. They made houses out of palm wood and roofs out of fronds. They ate the fruit of the palm trees. They made baskets out of them. Every few years, the Indians would burn the trees in the oases to get rid of the shaggy palm skirts. It didn't hurt the trees; in fact, it made them bear more fruit.

"The palm was to the Desert Cahuilla what the bison was to the Sioux," writes Gary Nabhan, a nice comparison, although palm trees tend not to thunder with the same rumbling magnificence across the Plains.

The palm trees of the Kofas were a popular story for Arizona Highways after they were discovered in 1923. At that time, U.S. 95 going south from Quartzsite was unpaved, and the eight miles from the road to the foot of the mountains had to be bushwhacked. The magazine helpfully printed a photo of the mountains with the proper canyon opening marked, so readers could find the interesting trees. Today, signs direct you toward the turnoff, the eight-mile track is graveled and graded, there's a roomy parking lot and even a helpful brochure telling you how to find the trees. The going up the canyon is rough, blocked by big boulders, sticky spider webs and the thought of rattlesnakes. It's puffy going, so you forget to keep turning to your left to look for the side canyon with the palm trees. Then you see them.

It's a Saturday morning and no one else is around. The canyon is quiet except for the birds. Just the tops of the trees are visible. They look like children, hiding there quietly. There's something touching about seeing palm trees in their natural habitat.

"We hope your walk into Palm Canyon was a satisfying experience," the brochure reads.

Thank you. It was.
@body:Despite the fact that palm trees are a native desert species, Washingtonia filifera is an arbor non grata at Desert Botanical Garden, a policy that director Robert Breunig gets a little defensive over. "People make suppositions about what I think about palm trees," he says, apparently imagining that most people in Phoenix take a strong stand on the palm-trees-at-the-Botanical-Garden question. He is personally quite fond of palm trees. In fact, he has a palm tree in his front lawn. He was going to chop it down, but then the thought that it was a living thing stayed his hand. But he doesn't want palm trees in his botanical garden because, native or no, they look pretty dorky standing cheek by jowl with Sonoran desert species like saguaro and lechuguilla. Besides, they attract pigeons, known to bird watchers as "flying rats." So while Washingtonia filifera is a desert species, not even a botanical-garden director associates it with sand and camels. "Palm trees are not evoking the desert, they're evoking Southern California," says Roger Brevoort, who works for the city in historic preservation and is quite at home talking about the symbolism of trees and architecture. As everyone knows, Phoenix is a suburb of Los Angeles. Phoenix would like to be Los Angeles. If you want to know about palm trees, look west.

Palm trees figure in the work of a number of artists associated with Los Angeles, like Ed Ruscha, who published a whole book of photographs of palm trees, listing the street address of each. Ruscha also published similar books showing pictures of gas stations and parking lots in Los Angeles, which tells you his view of the city.

David Hockney painted palm trees in Los Angeles, too, although his tend to stand next to swimming pools. This last tip comes from Bruce Kurtz, curator of 20th-century art at Phoenix Art Museum, and a man who seems to spend a lot of time wishing he were in Los Angeles. "Hockney was a transplanted Briton who came to Hollywood because he was infatuated with the whole myth," Kurtz says. "He used California to mean Eden."

Phoenix's palm trees, he says, evoke a similar resort mentality. "Palm trees means it's warm enough so you can take all your clothes off outside," Kurtz says. "You're on vacation."

The association of palm trees with vacations is not a God-given one, such as the association of haste and waste, ice cream and happiness or impulsiveness and pregnancy. In fact, vacations are a fairly recent invention, having to wait upon the invention of the middle class and the work week.

The first place where folks went to take vacations and get warm, says James Haug, was Nice on the French Riviera. "It all began there," he says by telephone from his office at Mississippi State University, where he teaches. The rush to the Riviera began in the 18th century with a couple of British noblemen, but tourism got serious after 1860, and made Nice one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets