They Tripped Through Its Wires

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “The Joshua Tree”?

I’m just back from a week at Joshua Tree National Park.  I was enormously fortunate to attend a fabulous Jewish Wilderness Spirituality program of Torah Trek, the brainchild of Rabbi Mike Comins.  Comins’ book, A Wild Faith, is the fundamental starting point for examining the connection between religion and wilderness. If you are interested at all in the relationship between nature and spirituality, Torah Trek does it better than  anyone.  Highly recommended!

One strange thing jumped out at me, though, when looking at the National Park Service materials.  For the last year, the Park has celebrated its 75th anniversary: President Franklin Roosevelt created the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, and thanks to the efforts of Senator Dianne Feinstein, it became a full-fledged national park under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.  So of course the Park Service, and the Joshua Tree National Park Association, produced some excellent short histories of the park and the natural history of desert wildlife.

But one thing was missing from every single document: U2, the band that brought The Joshua Tree to national consciousness.  Not in the history of the park.  Not in the descriptions of the park.  Nowhere in any of the materials.  There was even a guitar raffle – and nothing about the Irish rockers.

It’s hard to argue that the band’s album meant nothing to the status of the area. The Joshua Tree  came out in 1987, stayed for nine weeks at #1 and for 35 weeks in the Billboard Top 10.  It eventually went triple-platinum, and U2 appeared on the cover of Time magazine — only the fourth band ever to do so.  Preservationists had fought for decades to upgrade the Monument to a National Park, to no avail.  Seven years after U2, it happened.

So what gives?  How could the National Park Service write a history of a park and ignore the most important cultural event in the park’s history?

It could be simple incompetence.  But perhaps there is some bad blood here.  It should be mentioned that although U2′s members have been quite philanthropic, and Bono has done terrific work on international poverty and global debt relief, it seems as if they have had little use for the park or the area since the album came out.  As far as I know, the band members have never returned, or even mentioned the place.  The Joshua Tree was never really a living thing in the album: it was just a metaphor for spiritual desolation — a metaphor that distorts the vibrancy of the real California desert.

This past week, Rabbi Comins taught us something that will always stay with me: give back to nature what you take from it.  It provides us with sustenance, and we have no right not to repay it.  U2′s members, for all their good work (and better music), may have forgotten this (and in the case of guitarist The Edge, may be guilty of despoiling other natural wonders).  If Joshua Tree really is God’s Country, then The Holy One does not figure to be pleased.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

9 thoughts on “They Tripped Through Its Wires”

    1. LOL! Actually, Cheap Trick’s version on that album of “Ain’t That A Shame” was pretty awesome. But I distinctly remember Tokyo having been a pretty major city even before Bun E. Carlos and the boys went there.

  1. I guess I’m missing something. In this circumstance, what exactly did U2 take from nature that they did not give back? A name for an album? I’m not a big fan of that album, but I’m guessing it wasn’t the name that made it sell a gazillion copies. Kinda harsh to damn them in abstentia in the eyes of God.

  2. What a strange perspective. You start by marvelling at the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park. You then complain the National Park Service makes no mention of the U2 album that, by your own acknowledgement, has little to nothing to do with the area except for the title and the cover art. Then you question the Park Service’s competence in not mentioning an album that has little to nothing to do with Joshua Tree National Park. Next, you take a swipe at U2’s what, spirituality? Good works? And you wrap up this wonderfully whirling-twirling piece by suggesting God is not well please with U2’s use of metaphor. Or maybe He’s mad at the Park Service for ignoring the album. i don’t know; it’s really hard to tell.

    Two things spring to mind. The first is that maybe there are copyright and/or royalty issues involved with using another’s intellectual property for your promotional needs. Secondly, perhaps there was no mention of Joshua Tree the album because the album has little to nothing to do with the area except for the title and the cover art?

    I kept reading your post after you started the complaint about the Park Service’s possible incompetence in this regard hoping for some indication of whimsy. Having found none, I am left scratching my head wondering what it was all about.

  3. It is unusual that there was no mention of the album, but it is explainable because of legal issues, or indifference, or, like you suggest, because of bad blood or incompetence. It is also true that it is important to give back to nature and it is at least worth a blog post that the bad blood may be related to U2 not doing enough for the California desert.

  4. The artist most closely associated with Joshua Tree National Park has to be Gram Parsons. After he OD’d nearby, his body was stolen by a friend who took it out into the park and set it on fire

  5. Ah yes “Joshua Tree” reminds me of that rarest of events — discovering limits to Brad DeLong’s knowledge. He once asked “who was Joshua Tree”. Also I was once shocked to learn that he didn’t know the name of the dictator of Malawi.

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