Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks in a Fragile World

Tomorrow, Thursday, is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.

A day dedicated simply to being grateful. Probably every human being, every culture, shares the distinguishing trait of expressing gratitude, numbering blessings, remembering gifts and good fortune.

I have many blessings. I like to think Under Western Skies represents my awareness of many of them.

Much of my travel over the past 24 years has been in the desert, the definition of a harsh land: dry, witheringly hot in summer, often bitterly cold in winter. I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to walk in desert places.

The desert is replete with beauty, as I often try to show in photographs and describe in words.


That’s the sky at sunset with a three-quarter moon above the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The next morning, late one December, dawned clear.


600,000 acres of Anza-Borrego are contained in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. There are mountains and dramatic canyons, some watered by springs that support California’s only native palm trees. Long slopes of scree tail out of the canyons to a wide valley floor where there is agriculture fostered by water from an aquifer.

The harsh beauty of the desert can consist of rock as hard as granite, as soft as talc. Here, banded gneiss.


As harsh and hard as the desert can be, it is also fragile. Rock weathers, cracks and splits over long ages, and mountains themselves wear away. We humans can represent the desert’s greatest threat, bringing animals, machines, mines, oil wells and polluted air. Even a desert can be made waste.

Despite the extreme conditions, life thrives in the desert in astounding variety.

Desert plants and animals can be, must be, extraordinarily hardy. The archetypal desert plant, the cactus, is the avatar of desert life.


That’s a teddy bear cholla (CHOY-uh), Cylindropuntia bigelovii, native to the Sonoran desert in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. “Teddy bear” is an ironic name, because those fuzzy arms are extremely sharp spines that, trust me, will pierce you deeply if you brush against one.

The cholla, as tough as it must be to endure heat, cold and drought, is highly combustible, easily destroyed by a wildfire: fragile. All life is fragile, everywhere, even in the desert.

The way desert light strikes the cholla is one of the evanescent, sometimes otherworldly beauties of dry places. Standing still, listening to nothing but silence, looking at the play of light, is a way of giving thanks, counting blessings.


The tall, spindly plant on the left is an ocotillo (oh-coh-TEE-yo), Fouquieria splendens. They can grow to more than 30 feet in height. What looks like a dead plant in that photo is simply waiting for rain to sport a covering of green leaves. They bloom with brilliant crimson flowers at the tips after enough rain. Humans are its biggest threat: those hard, dry stems are collected for fencing material.

Fire is a threat to all life. Humans like to camp under trees and build a campfire. As Smokey Bear says, take care with fires. Trees, scarce in the desert, can suffer. They, too, are fragile.


Of all things in my life, I’m most grateful for people: more than I can name here. I’ve walked some desert places with my father, who’s still walking them. Here he is, that day in Anza-Borrego. Thanks, Dad.


Palm Springs is on the far side of those mountains. In the middle distance, the town of Borrego Springs and some of the agriculture in the valley.

The Counselor was there, as she has been with me on many desert hikes, from my first one many years ago. Thank you, Counselor.


There you see some ocotillos in their greener phase, cholla, and the gravelly sand that comprises the long scree slope at the mouth of a canyon.

Our lives, the lives of every thing that grows, our planet itself: All are temporal, subject to change from time, wind, water, fire. All reach some end. We can count all life as a blessing, and should do what we can to embrace life, nurture and protect it.

A tiny cactus shelters in the lee of a granite boulder that will outlast it, perhaps by thousands of years before it becomes sand:


Spiny, persistent, enduring; at home in an arid land. A blessing.

I’m grateful for you, my readers. What are you grateful for? I welcome your comments.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2016, used by kind permission.

Click here to read more about Anza-Borrego, with additional photography of the desert and its wildlife.



  1. The deep serenity and stark beauty of these desert places never fails to refresh and inspire me. Indeed places to be nurtured and protected.Thank you for the thoughtful post.


  2. A beautiful post, Brad, thank you for sharing. So much to be grateful for, and I especially appreciate November, an entire month where we put gratitude at the forefront. Blessings to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love BS … I mean, I love Borrego Springs. 😀 I wish to be thankful of seeing it again. 🙂 Greedy or ungrateful -sounding, but can’t help to re-explore more of it. Thanks for the beautiful images, for now.


  4. Thanks for educating your readers, and for the fab photos. That last cactus is spectacular! I live in southern California, have a xeriscape front and back yard (desert, drought resistant plants), but I’ve never seen a cactus like the one in your photo before.


    • Well, we’ll just have to take a little hike, then! Thanks.


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