Packrats and Possum Trot

A giant 28,000+ year old packrat midden under an overhang at Capitol Reef National Park. Photo: USGS The Desert woodrat (Neotoma lepida) aka Packrat. A Desert woodrat midden in Joshua Tree National Park's Wonderland wilderness. Intervention C, Antelope Valley, CA. Photo: Larissa Nickel/Hinterculture Intervention B with Jennifer J Moxyfofo, Antelope Valley, CA. Photo: Larissa Nickel/Hinterculture Ruby Black of Possum Trot, Yermo, CA. Photo: Seymour Rosen. ©SPACES The dolls of Possum Trot, Yermo, CA. Photo: Seymour Rosen. ©SPACES Possum Trot, Yermo, CA. Photo: Seymour Rosen. ©SPACES Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum,  Joshua Tree, CA. Noah Purifoy on the cover of The Tuesday Magazine, August 1968. Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum,  Joshua Tree, CA. Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum,  Joshua Tree, CA. Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum,  Joshua Tree, CA. Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum,  Joshua Tree, CA.. A Prairie falcon nestling in one Purifoy's assemblages.
A giant 28,000+ year old packrat midden under an overhang at Capitol Reef National Park. Photo: USGS
The Desert woodrat (Neotoma lepida)—more popularly known as the packrat—is by design not well suited for desert living. Compared to other rodents of the Mojave Desert, such as the kangaroo rat (Dipodomys deserti), they do not tolerate high temperatures well, requiring ample water and succulent food sources to survive within their arid environment. To prosper, these desert denizens must construct elaborate multilayered dens called middens (an archeological term for a domestic trash heap) where they can escape the heat of the day or perhaps a hungry predator looking for a late afternoon snack.

Compared to its packrat cousins living in more temperate climates, Neotoma lepida is rather small in comparison, ranging from eleven to fifteen inches in length, including its tail, and weighing in at around a third of a pound. With their dark eyes and tawny brown coats they are quite handsome. Their geographic range is vast, extending far south into Baja California and northwestern Sonora; northward throughout the deserts of the Great Basin; and east into western Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Neotoma lepida is, for the most part, a nocturnal and solitary creature, which hoards for very practical and specific reasons.

Instead of burrowing underground, packrats construct dens in a variety of locations—for instance, a protected ring of woody yucca, or better yet a rocky outcrop located in a cave or under a shady boulder overhang. Given the opportunity, packrats will build nests in human castoffs like a car engine compartment of a vehicle that has remained in one spot too long. Within the one-acre zone surrounding the den, packrats—as their name designates—gather materials of all sorts of desert debris. Their assemblage is a collection of mostly organic materials, including cholla cactus bits which serve as a prickly deterrent to those before-mentioned predators, as well as twigs, leaves, fruits, rocks, bone, seeds and on occasion a few shiny human-made mementos when they happen across them. Much of what they collect provides sustenance and what they do not consume becomes part of the midden along with the rat’s own fecal pellets. Together this collected assortment of material helps to protect, insulate and maintain a comfortably humid climate for the packrat inhabitant in the upper reaches of its nest.

Packrats have a profound tendency to use former midden sites to the extreme; paleontologists have documented middens of desert woodrats, protected from rain and elements, which have persisted over thousands of years with some of the oldest confirmed by radiocarbon dating at more than 50,000 years old. The fact that Neotoma lepida does not conserve water like other more evolved desert rodents is the primary reason why their midden nests have endured over time. For example, packrats relieve themselves frequently in a not so sanitary manner; they discharge their highly concentrated urine within their living quarters, where it then permeates into bottom layers of the den forming a tacky dark residue known as amberat. This resin-like substance hardens into a blackened shellac, cementing the midden and its entombed contents over time, layer upon layer (reminding me of the black wax that artist Bruce Conner used to encase his controversial 1959-60 assemblage CHILD). The amberat’s natural antibacterial properties, along with the dry desert climate, help to preserve varied and continuous repositories of vegetal and climate changes in diverse (and now nonexistent) former microclimates. The study of ancient midden formations constructed by Neotoma lepida has supplanted pollen records used for climate research where available. Functioning as ecological time capsules, these ancient middens “provide a complex and continuous fossil record in parts of the world where fossils are scarce and continuous records unheard of.”

The paleoecological value of desert woodrat middens was first recognized by botanist Philip Wells and mammalogist Carl Jorgenson while doing a field survey in 1961 for the Atomic Energy Commission on Aysees Peak in what is now the Nevada Test Site. While hiking, the two men spotted a large formation among the rocks above and proceeded to investigate the dark, resinous outcropping. Jorgenson, aware of its origin, broke off a piece that surprisingly revealed preserved juniper seeds and twigs encased within the amberized material.[1] The specimen was sent to a lab at UCLA and ran through Carbon-14 analysis, which dated the sample at nearly 10,000 years. Their initial finding and consequent research established how examination and radiocarbon dating of Neotoma lepida middens—some up to 50,000 years old—could provide “a very powerful tool for reproducing past biotic communities at a specific site.”

Far earlier accounts of encounters with middens of Neotoma lepida include a curious, if somewhat revolting, tale told by William Lewis Manly when his group of starved and possibly delusional travelers in 1849 stumbled upon what they thought to be some sort of Native American delicacy previously cached away in a rocky outcropping near Papoose Dry Lake about seventy miles northwest of where now lies Las Vegas.

Part way up we came to a high cliff and in its face were niches or cavities as large as a barrel or larger, and in some of them we found balls of a glistening substance looking something like pieces of varigated [sic] candy stuck together. The balls were as large as small pumpkins. It was evidently food of some sort, and we found it sweet but sickish, and those who were so hungry as to break up one of the balls and divide it among the others, making a good meal of it, were a little troubled with nausea afterward. (Manly 126).[2]

Interestingly, some websites suggest that amberat is the source of the Ayurvedic folk medicine variously named shilajit, shilajitu, moomiyo, mummie or mumiyo also alternatively referred to as “mountain tear,” “blood mountain,” or “balsam of rock.”

Like packrats, humans more often than not seem intent on either collecting or discarding what is around them, especially when they reside in the desert. Perhaps these activities are more noticeable here because everything seems so much more exposed. Rusted and discarded machinery from abandoned mining claims with other forgotten remnants of habitation, common trash and illegal dumpsites are common and readily observed throughout the Mojave Desert.

Hinterculture, a creative collaboration between Larissa Nickel and Karyl Newman, through an associated project called DEHSART, has documented and transformed assemblages of trash throughout the greater Antelope and Victor Valleys since spring 2013. This particular region of the western Mojave lies in both Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties—areas where the native desert landscape has been particularly disturbed by excessive agricultural and military use, suburban sprawl and just poor planning. Indeed, some of this “desert” is hardly recognizable depending on where you stand.

DEHSART is an acronym for “Desert Engagement: Hinder Swill Achieve Recycled Trash” or TRASHED spelled backwards. In a recent email exchange, Larissa clarified the “Hinder Swill” part of the title: “Swill is a term for pig feed, which was a kitchen waste product for people, but can also be considered as a vital resource for the pig.” The duo’s aim is to transform discarded human waste into something of value instead of simply moving the refuse from one repository to another; e.g. organized community cleanup to local landfill. They suggest that human-generated waste is “not just an environmental problem, but a process and a convergence of humans and nature, of rejected material, cultural, social value judgments, infrastructural and economic challenges, and most potently a source of creativity.”

A Doll Show for People Who Like Art

Arrangements of discarded stuff in the form of folk art roadside attractions were numerous throughout the Mojave Desert and much of the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century. One of the more unique installations found along California’s Interstate 15 was Possum Trot, located in Yermo just east of Barstow, created by Calvin and Ruby Black, southerners from Tennessee and Georgia respectively, who met while Calvin was working for circuses and carnivals down South. After marrying in 1953, the couple decided to migrate west suspecting that the dry desert air would improve Calvin’s overall health. They purchased their land for $25 down with $10 monthly payments, sight unseen.

Using lumber found at the local dump, Calvin with the help of a neighbor constructed his home and outbuildings (including a rock shop) to take advantage of tourist traffic along the newly constructed Interstate-15. Additionally, he built a whimsical train, stagecoaches and merry-go-rounds along with the “Birdcage Theater,” featuring over 80 automated dolls whose heads and bodies were lovingly carved in wood by Calvin and dressed in finery by Ruby. It is said that Calvin would consult with Ruby to determine the particular personality and appearance for each figure, which individually fetch $80,000 or more in auction today. Ruby designed and sewed each doll’s costume, fitting them with wigs found at the dump. Harnessing ample desert winds, these kinetic folkart sculptures welcomed and cajoled visitors into donating money to buy a doll’s favorite perfume while the figure rode a bicycle. Calvin, through ventriloquism and later using tape recording devices housed in the dolls’ heads, performed the “Fantasy Doll Show” with music that he himself had scripted and scored. After Ruby’s death in 1980, the site was completely dismantled and no trace of their creation remains at the original site. Many of the dolls are now part of private folkart collections.


Artists have continued to source “obtanium” scrounged throughout the desert for diverse creative works. Assemblages of bottle trees and other vernacular ornamentation are viewable in many roadside compounds and home sites.

Noah S. Purifoy, a latecomer to the desert, did not arrive here until age seventy-two when he constructing his Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in north Joshua Tree in 1989. Having trained early on as a social worker, Purifoy attended Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) during the mid-1950s, later designing modernist furniture for a wealthy clientele. By 1964, after tiring from commission work, he and several others had founded the Watts Towers Art Center alongside Simon Rodia’s magical landmark installation. Purifoy became the center’s founding director, which brought together his own interest in social causes with community art making.

After witnessing the 1965 Watts Rebellion firsthand, Purifoy was moved by the physical aftermath; he and others began collecting artifacts and detritus resulting from the historic event for use in sculptural assemblages. This body of work formed the basis for his seminal effort, 66 Signs of Neon, a landmark group exhibition that Purifoy coordinated, which combined the energy and frustration of the rebellion with postwar creative sensibilities found in the art of contemporaries Bruce Conner, David Hammons, George Herms, Ed Keinholz, Robert Rauschenberg and others. This exhibit traveled to nine venues between 1966 and 1969.

Apparently frustrated with the limitations of the fine art world, Purifoy returned to social work during the mid-1970s only to be appointed by then-Governor Jerry Brown to the California Arts Council, where he initiated the Artists in Social Institutions program, bringing art into the state prison system.

Short on funds, Purifoy had taken up an offer from a female artist friend and moved permanently to her ten-acre north Joshua Tree property in the late 1980s where he began constructing his large-scale site-specific sculptures and tableaus from scavenged materials and objects found across the desert. He was said to enjoy how the harsh desert climate aged his works and wasn’t bothered by the various animals and birds taking up residence within them. He prospered here until 2004 when he died from complications resulting from a fire at his home.

Reflection on Noah Purifoy’s late career sculptures and tableaus found at his outdoor museum in Joshua Tree brings us full circle. This body of desert work harkens back to folk-art traditions of vernacular roadside assemblage along with the sophisticated urban conventions of postwar American Art, suggesting that both humans and other species are purveyors and taxonomists of discarded refuse, inorganic or otherwise. This opportunity to reflect on what the desert preserves, these artworks alongside the Neotoma lepida’s complex nesting and survival strategies with their urine time capsules (which mirror the human urge to collect, organize, transform and preserve), grants us insight into the creative impulse and a share in the value of everything around us.

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada was on exhibit at LACMA from June 7 – September 27th, 2015. For directions to the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum click here. Seymour Rosen’s photos of Possum Trot courtesy of SPACES. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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[1] Because Wells and Jorgenson’s field survey involved the mapping of juniper trees and other area flora and fauna, this particular finding was of great interest to them.

[2] Donald K. Grayson, The Desert’s Past—A Natural Prehistory of the Great Basin (revised and expanded edition) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 135.

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