LOOKING FOR GOD IN THE CENTIPEDE AND THE GRAY FOX
When Edmund C. Jaeger came to Palm Springs in 1912, he was a pious 25-year-old preaching the virtues of temperance and cleanliness. Though eager to influence people, he was just another young man full of ideas—with no one listening.
That changed when Jaeger made camp under a fig tree on the property of Palm Springs pioneer Pearl McCallum.
By the end of his Palm Springs years Jaeger was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most influential philosopher-naturalists. Often compared to John Muir, he has done more than anyone to inspire love and protection of the Southwestern deserts through his books such as "The North American Deserts" and "Desert Wildflowers."
His is a classic Palm Springs story because so often people find their way here and are remolded in one way or another. And yet if you want to know more about Jaeger you’ll have to do some scrounging. Most signs of his importance locally have been obliterated. As far as I know there is no tribute anywhere in the Coachella Valley to the man who’s been called The Dean of the Deserts. Surely we can spare a star for Edmund Jaeger on Palm Canyon Drive? Or is there a street or fountain somewhere that can be christened to revive interest in this man who brought so many converts to the desert?
Among those inspired by Jaeger is Palm Springs Desert Museum curator of natural science Jim Cornett. "He was the person more than anyone else who got me excited about the desert," Cornett once said of Jaeger.
The Nebraska-born Jaeger taught for 30 years at Riverside Community College, but it was his Palm Springs years that were pivotal in his development. He immersed himself in the area in 1914 when he decided to go on a desert and mountain walkabout, emulating his hero John Muir and his famous thousand-mile walk to the Gulf.
Traveling with burro, knapsack and sketchpad, Jaeger wandered for months over the San Jacinto Mountains. "Sometimes my path was the trail made by the rangers of the forest service, some-times an old Indian trail," he wrote. "But more often my only guide was the path of the deer or coyote—all paths of inspiration and joy to me."
Later Jaeger would call the adventure "The most precious and instructive year of my life."
The 700-mile hike may have been educational, but it also wore out the nomad’s legs. Needing a rest, Jaeger took a position teaching in Palm Springs’ one-room schoolhouse. He rested his feet by riding his burro, Nellie, to and from school. On off hours he taught himself botany.
Salvaging redwood from an old aqueduct, Jaeger built himself a shack up against the mountain and not far from downtown. Cost: $13.47. His neighbor was Carl Eytel, a Palm Springs artist who influenced Jaeger’s life as much as the desert itself.
Eytel taught the footsore teacher every-thing he knew about the desert, especially how to observe it and draw it. Eytel and Jaeger were perfectly suited to encourage each other’s passions—and eccentricities. Jaeger never married (there were accusations he hated women), detested beards and ran around naked on the dunes despite his conservative religious beliefs.
As he spent time with Eytel, Jaeger’s thinking shifted. Eventually he admitted he preferred naturalists to preachers because they are "generally shorter-winded and more genuine." More and more he looked for God in the centipede and gray fox.
Jaeger evolved into one of the last of the old-time field naturalists, according to Richard Jones, who has created a website dedicated to the desert conservationist at www.jaeger.ws.
Jaeger’s scientific reputation was crowned with his discovery of the hibernating poorwill. Until 1946, scientists suspected that some birds hibernate, but no one had ever found proof. In December of that year, Jaeger and two of his students were exploring a narrow canyon in the Chuckawalla Mountains, 50 miles east of Indio, when they came upon a bird resting in a rock hollow.
By returning to the site repeatedly, Jaeger discerned this was actually a poorwill in hibernation. The site of the discovery was dedicated by the Nature Conservancy in 1964 as the Edmund C. Jaeger Nature Sanctuary.
When Jaeger died in 1983 at age 96, his friends and students scattered his ashes in the canyon of the hibernating poorwill.
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