The Joshua Tree

Posted on: January 23rd, 2018 by Nathan E. Lilly

As preparation for launching Space Westerns magazine I began researching Western-genre fiction. I wanted to be familiar with the tropes, plots, themes, stock characters of a Western so I’d recognize them in a Space Western story. So I read John G. Cawelti’s The Six-gun Mystique, and David Mogen’s Wilderness Visions, and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything, and Matt Braun’s How to Write Western Novels. Now when I watch Star Trek, I don’t just see colonists and Starfleet and Klingons; I see homesteaders and the U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican Army. When I watch Star Wars I don’t see Han Solo and Chewbacca and Boba Fett; I see The Lone Ranger and Tonto and The Man with No Name. It dawned on me: this is just another example of designer Robin Williams’ The Joshua Tree Principle:

Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parents’ home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.” So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes—at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before! Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.

I see “Joshua trees” everywhere now.

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