Gulf of California

Why are we talking about Lewis Carroll in the Sonoran Desert?
by -- April 15th, 2012

This is why. The boojum tree, Fouquieria columnaris.

By the time we approached our campsite near Puerto Libertad, it was already too dark to see anything. Xavier kept going on and on about how we were going to see a “disjunct population” of “strange looking trees,” but we had much more important things to worry about that night: how to keep warm on what had turned out to be a ridiculously cold night. (Solution: sleeping in the van is a bad idea, but stuffing three people in a two-person tent might help.)

In the morning, we set off on a hike in search of the mysterious “boojum trees” that Xavier had promised us. The boojum tree, or “cirio” in Spanish, is endemic to the Baja Peninsula, where most of the world’s population can be found. But here we were on the other side of the Gulf of California – and feeling like we might be on another planet. As it turns out, we had camped right next to a small, disjunct population of boojums in Sonora – the only ones naturally occurring on that side of the Gulf.

A boojum tree, up close and personal.

We were completely fascinated by these trees, as proven by the hundreds of pictures we collectively took of them. Many people have described boojums as looking like upside-down carrots, covered with thin branches sticking straight out all over the place. Boojum trees grow very slowly – in a rainy year, one tree might grow only 3 to 4 centimeters. Individual trees over 500 years old are common, and even a few over 700 years old can be found.

Boojum trees can sometimes grow in loops, arcs, and other strange formations.

Xavier gets serious about boojum trees.

So what do boojum trees have to do with Lewis Carroll? Personally, this might be my favorite thing about them.

In 1922, English-born botanist Godfrey Sykes named the trees after a mythical creature in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” The poem tells the story of a 10-member crew, setting out on a long journey to hunt the mysterious “snark.” But they are warned – if you spot a “snark” that turns out to be a “boojum,” you will “softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.” 

The following is an excerpt from the very end of the poem, when a member of the expedition calls out that he has found a snark:

 

“It’s a Snark!” was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words “It’s a Boo-“

Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
A weary and wandering sigh
Then sounded like “-jum!” but the others declare
It was only a breeze that went by.

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark *was* a Boojum, you see.

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