Letter From A Desert Tortoise

'Like you, I hope to live my three score and ten in prosperity and peace.' An endangered tortoise speaks through a poem by Rachel White, asserting its right to exist using the only language it has: that of its desert landscape, its seasons, creatures, soil and water. Introduced by Rachel and with images by photographer Adam Elliott from Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah.
makes poems to praise the living earth, and question the social relations destroying it. Her writing has been published in The Ecological Citizen and the liner notes of a classical pianist's album.

The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is an ecotone of transition between the Mojave desert, the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau in the western United States that was designated for conservation in 1995 with a promise of ‘no new roads’. Red Cliffs is home to 20 threatened species including the Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), a keystone species that has adapted to harsh desert conditions over millions of years and is now critically endangered because of habitat loss from human impacts and overdevelopment. Their burrows provide refuge for many other animals and help preserve the fragile soil.

Now this protected area is threatened with highway construction and further sprawl; the proposal blandly discusses the Tortoise ‘take rate’. So far a group of dedicated citizens have stalled this short-sighted project in the face of constant pressure from the profit motive. This poem is some thoughts about what the Desert Tortoise might have to say, if they could speak, to the local government officials who reneged on their promises. –RW

Desert Tortoise Addresses the Washington County Commission About a Highway Proposed Through the Red Cliffs Reserve

Where vast sagebrush sea
laps the uplifted edge
of cliffs, the red rock plateau,
yucca and live oak grow
in clumps, sparse in rain shadow
of the Sierras, perfect
zen garden of xeric shrubs,
cacti and deep-rooted trees
that reach hidden water.

Over years I’ve come to know
how it pools in stone – tinajas
that reflect heaven’s face,
each who drinks, a way the cosmos
attempts to glimpse itself, its nature –
and dewdrops gather on leaves;
composed a mental map of best
locales to burrow in sand
eroding down mountains
in alluvial fans
to survive swelling heat,
avoid coyotes, snakes
and fox.
Like you, I hope
to live my three score and ten
in prosperity and peace. Here
in shade of silvery green mesquite,
feathered as a flight of birds
that return to roost every year,

I wait out the drought, allayed
in sudden flare of petrichor,
ozone and creosote oil,
the velvet earth after rain.


We share the resplendent sky.
From these hills streams run
to rivers, passerines praise
across valleys, borders
are just lines on maps
but a highway is a wall –
incursion of expansion,
facilitating sprawl.
Some cultures invade;
others are invaded.

Forgive my native tongue
that tastes the air of one place
season after season
to learn it – no language
exists for this knowledge.

Rachel White

Mojave Desert Tortoise. Photo by Adam Elliott. Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah.


Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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