The Zero Year

April 26, 2021

March 16, 2021 marked one year since I packed up my office at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and retreated to my guest bedroom, hastily converting my drafting table into a computer desk. My computer has been there since. I, however, have not. As an ecologist, spring brings the field season, when data is collected from the vast desert I lovingly get to call “my other office.”  So as the world shut-in, I journeyed out by myself or with my field partner (who drove himself per DRI COVID-19 policy).  

I use three words to describe the desert: stark, subtle, and sublime. It’s an unforgiving landscape, but one that rewards those willing to look a little closer. It’s the desert landscape that brought me solace in the first months of this pandemic. I devoured news from around the world, feeling helpless in the face of something I studied in early biology courses, now lifted from those pages and raging in real life. Once out at my field sites, immersed in the natural world, I understood I was at the mercy of the elements. In the field, all I can do is come prepared and keep moving, one foot in front of another. For the pandemic? All I could do was listen to the scientists and support the community around me. As much as I wanted to do something, help everyone, there are many things in this world out of my control.  

As the spring flowers disappeared and the heat of summer turned up, so too did the rage of the pandemic. Then, it hit close to home. My beautiful cousin died after childbirth in an overwhelmed hospital in Little Rock. I couldn’t go home to be with my family. There would be no memorial. The desert, as it often is, would become my temple and refuge, the backdrop for my grief. I looked forward to the annual summer monsoon rains to bring life and healing to myself and the desert. 

They never came.

For the first time on record, there was no measurable monsoon precipitation in Las Vegas. The summer annual plants never had a chance to bloom, and I entered the fall and winter stage of the pandemic with a sense of foreboding and dread.  

As the pandemic raged on, I waited for the rain. Finally, after 240 days, another record, it came to Las Vegas. I should note that precipitation is not ubiquitous across the landscape, it comes in patches with some areas receiving more or less. However, I knew it would not be enough. Like walking through ruins, ecologists, botanists, and lovers of the desert landscape made their way out into the far reaches of the Mojave Desert and found…nothing. No annual flowers coming up and even perennials were looking rough. I called a mentor and asked what a species like the threatened desert tortoise would do. The “zero year,” he said, they happen every 10-15 years; it’s not pretty, and if it happens more often, it could be devastating. 

This is my first. My first zero year and my first pandemic. The former I expect to see again. The latter, I hope to never revisit in my lifetime. The lack of fall/winter rain coupled with the darkness of the pandemic took a toll on my mind. But, as winter turned to spring this year, the vaccines arrived for a broader swath of people. They are a powerful tool to bring us out of this long dark tunnel. I finally feel hopeful. 

But what of the desert and the zero year? As scientists we are here to record the good, the bad, and ugly. And the desert, being the unforgiving landscape it is, rewards those with patience.  The plants that live herein are also armed with powerful tools.  Many desert annuals have large seed sets, which lie dormant in the soil, waiting patiently for the right environmental cues to bring them to life. These soil seed banks are what bring hope for the future even though the present is less than optimal. Perennial plants are opportunistic, able to take advantage of resources that may come at varying times. A recent storm brought a decent amount of rainfall to the region. While it may be too late for the annuals, it might just be enough in some areas for perennials to liven up. Lastly, just like the spirit of humans through an unprecedented time, the species here can survive. I’ve started this year’s fieldwork and there they are, a few hardy specimens thriving and blooming without a care in the world, a sight that nearly made me cry.

In spite of a zero year, they can make it. We can make it. I can make it.