Joshua Tree: An Image Journal


This semester, I tried something new with my community college students. I challenged them to lift their noses from their cell phones and pay attention to the world around them as it unfolded. To spend each and every day of the semester searching for one moment that they could record and describe in a sentence or two because it was fascinating or pretty or comical or heartbreaking. I called this their Image Journals, and they were required to write 100 entries,  one point each, over the course of 16 weeks.

It was my own riff on Project 365, the former Instagram challenge to keep a photo diary by snapping one picture every single day for a year. This was the literary equivalent.

Some students loved it and went above and beyond. They printed actual pictures from the Internet and described them underneath. One wrote a single sentence about the sadness he felt while watching his girlfriend cry. Another described the sounds of drunk people laughing at parties as glass bottles clanked against each other in the background. They wrote about watching the sunrise during a morning run, or how bizarre it felt to notice that their baby cousin was now looking and acting like a grown up.

Not everyone engaged with this assignment, of course, and not all were able to come up with 100 entries, but one or two actually thanked me for helping them pay more attention and requested that I give them their journals back after I finished grading them.

Ultimately, I felt challenged to take my own advice. And so I did.

I have begun keeping an image journal, and one of my favorite entries is from May 25 when Paul and I went with our friend Mark to Joshua Tree for Memorial Day. We listened to the U2 album all the way there and Paul told stories of how the whole national park was actually submerged underwater millions of years ago -- a fact that both startled and fascinated me. How could a desert have been covered by the ocean?

As we hiked, I looked for clues of this phenomenon. Upon closer examination of the rocks, I found they actually had a rough, sandpaper-like texture that is similar to coral. These towering boulders gathered in misshapen clusters like mountain ranges, tall and firm. When I stood on top of them and peered out into the vast layers of cactus and planes, I pretended there was an invisible water line covering everything and that I had dived off the rocks and into the watery abyss.