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Nature Offers a Lesson for Educators

“California’s Mojave Desert ... is in fact anything but barren. In every direction life blooms, with budding green Joshua trees next to mature ones, next to fallen ones. This desert is surprisingly regenerative,” journalist Kartrina Woznicki wrote in a recent article describing a vacation to Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua trees are found exclusively in the southwestern United States, including Arizona, Southern California, Nevada and Utah as well as northwestern Mexico. Found mainly in the Mojave Desert, these “trees” are considered an indicator species for the Mojave Desert.

According to The Enviromentor’s Tree Guide, an online blog, the Joshua tree once had a far wider range than it does today. Its habitat likely stretched from Death Valley in California all the way south to the Colorado River delta in Mexico. At that time, 25,000 years ago, the landscape looked very different than it does today. Climate changes have impacted the landscape and temperatures of those regions.

While there are several stories regarding how the unusual tree got its name, the most popular is that the name was given by Mormon settlers as they crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800s. The shape of the tree reminded the settlers of the story where the biblical Joshua reaches up his hands to the sky in prayer. By the 1870s, some Mormons were referring to the Yucca Palm as “The Joshua.” But the exact origin is a mystery.

Joshua trees depend on a web of ecological relationships with other species for their continued existence while providing food and habitat to animals and insects such as the Yucca moth pollinators that lay their eggs on the flowers of the tree and later the caterpillars that eat the tree’s fruit and begin a life cycle again.

This web of relationships allows Joshua trees to survive in the present day Mojave. If you make the Mojave less hospitable or threaten these relationships that enable trees to survive, the trees may suffer greatly. If you do both, it’s even worse. There is a lesson to be learned as we explore the history and resilience of this succulent palm. These trees have adapted to their unique needs, supported other species and plants as best they could, and along the way consistently offered respite in a dry and barren landscape for adventurers.

Growing to their full potential is a time-consuming process as they grow only 2 to 3 inches a year, yet, they may live 500 years and some have lived for 1,000. The idea of regeneration looms largely in their narrative.

As the landscape of education is constantly changing, headed toward a future that is often difficult to identify, we, as educators, and our students could learn a lesson from the Joshua tree.

We must discover how to survive in the barren deserts, anchor ourselves with strong roots that connect us, embrace symbiosis as we exchange knowledge and experiences with each other and at the end of the day, reach up our arms to embrace our shared process of learning and leading.

With persistence, we will achieve a future in education that is as Woznicki said, “anything but barren,” and assuredly regenerative.

About Author | Dr. Sherry Durham is Head of School for St. Cyprian’s Episcopal School. Her email address is The column was printed in The Lufkin Daily News on June 22, 2022.

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