Desert Musings

“The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound” from “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

From the very first time that I visited our Southwest, it became clear that the “barren” deserts were far from barren. Not unlike the areas of the eastern coastal plain that are dubbed “pine barrens”, the label is as inaccurate and misleading as it is evocative. And with a few notable exceptions, the southwestern desert does not resemble the dunescape depicted in old movies about the French Foreign Legion, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even, well, Dune. There is a lot of life, beauty, majesty, and yes, heat, in our deserts.

I recently spent some time camping before monsoon season, under the open skies in the area of the country where three of our four major desert systems, the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan converge. That geographic and ecological merge takes place in the ”three-corner” area where Nevada, Utah and Arizona come together. This area covers from portions of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, northwest through the Valley of Fire, and northeast towards Zion National Park. Flora and fauna representative of all three eco-systems can overlap here, making it an extremely interesting destination for a desert naturalist. Although daytime temperatures quickly soared into triple digits, once topping out at 127 degrees, it strangely enhanced the experience of spending time in these environments. In this type of heat, there are not herds of critters thundering down most arroyos. However a quiet approach and practiced observation can reveal not only uniquely beautiful landscapes and vegetation, but the birds, animals and insects that inhabit the region. Add a good pair of binoculars, and a cooler (read shady) place to rest and scan, and you can check off even more boxes on your life lists or field guides if so inclined.

Author's son by desert wilderness signThe Colorado River and it’s impoundments, Lakes Mead and Mojave are the best known and most popular recreational water in this region, and with good reason. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers water-based sports and eco-tourism opportunities surrounded by desert habitat remote enough to be inhabited by the occasional Gila monster. But this is not the only water here, although fishable options require a little more exploration. You can find fish in various parks in or near Las Vegas, like the oasis that is Floyd Lamb State Park near Tule Springs. However, my favorite spots in the region are near St. George in southwest Utah. In the foothills above the town, it was a unique experience to catch a few largemouth bass in 114 degree temperatures on my last trip. Obviously water temperatures were much lower, but the lack of cover and discernible structure left few options for places where fish might congregate. In this case, it was a few floating weed mats that provided secure ambush points for the bass to forage from. Terrestrial creatures similarly seek out protection and cover in their sun baked desert home. And although the sighting of a Gila monster or even a desert tortoise is rare, there are plenty of other critters scurrying about, hiding in the mesquite and creosote or scrambling amongst the crevices in the sandstone rocks.

On this trip, we hiked up to and camped on a high butte in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Recreation area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the Parashant, dispersed camping (primitive/backpack) is allowed, and we spent our nights in the Mount Bangs/Paiute Wilderness portion. The view on all sides of seemingly endless desert was serene as the light faded, the grub sizzled in the fry pan, and the temperature moderated somewhat. The air would began to stir, and the first of seemingly endless waves of cooling breezes arrived. Aromatic winds of varying velocity and sound would sweep up and onto the butte with us all night. As the desert disappeared beyond our immediate campsite, small creatures like pack rats, whiptail lizards and geckos could be seen in the beam of a lantern at times.

And far away from the light pollution, and unobstructed by an overhead tent roof, the magnificent June night sky presented itself. As we laid back on tarps and accordion sleeping pads, our entire field of vision was consumed by stars. Clusters, constellations, the Milky Way and even three meteors, provided the evening’s entertainment. The display was almost surrealistic, and it seemed as if a giant talking head of Neil DeGrasse Tyson might suddenly materialize to help explain exactly what we were witnessing. But in a way, no explanation was required to savor the experience. The visual art of the southwest night sky in this setting was visceral. Perhaps somewhat like walking into a room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and confronting a wall size Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. Just seeing and feeling can be enough in both cases.

campsite in desertAs dawn approached, the waning wind and the morning calls of the birds worked like an alarm clock, stirring me off my sleeping pad and coaxing me to the east facing edge of the butte. Sitting on my haunches with my arms wrapped around my knees, I sat waiting for the world, as far as I could see, to awaken. Of all the beauty that you can encounter in the desert, this time of day takes a back seat to none. As spectacular as the red rock formations or distant peaks and neighboring mesas and buttes can be bathed in full sunlight, this is something else yet again. The light of false dawn through daybreak offers an opportunity to see this desert world revealed through yet another magical and incremental lens. As the sky begins to glow over the farthest ridge line, you can imagine you feel the warmth rise up the slope towards you. As the sun crests the rocks and begins it’s slow pursuit of the shadows across the valley floor, you no longer need to imagine the heat, increasingly an unmistakeable but pleasant warmth at this hour. The few places that will hold shade during the sunrise are now becoming clearly defined. Picking my way carefully down the rocky slope, I sought to find footfalls that would not disturb the somewhat delicate crust of the desert soil.

On the desert plain surrounding our butte, chuckwallas and banded geckos were present, probably in greater numbers than The few I noted among the brush, small cacti and rocks. Being quick enough and pretty well camouflaged, horned lizards were even more difficult to spot, and unfortunately not a hint of a Gila monster. No tarantulas either, but a few scorpions scouted the terrain much the same as I did. Voles darted in and out of a few sagebrush varieties, and a raven called from a small juniper bush. The birds were wary and distant, but the one phainopepla I identified was the first I’d ever seen. It was feeding on the random buzzing flies that popped up occasionally in the area. That wasn’t really too surprising, but the number of whitish, gray and muted brown colored butterflies was unexpected, considering the relative scarcity of plants in flower. Exploring slowly around the buttes where we camped at night in the relative cool of dawn and early morning, always revealed a varied mix of interesting desert species.

I found it interesting that the yelping and howls of coyotes were not among the sounds we heard in the evenings, although they were certainly present. Our major encounter with a larger mammal came on our final day, when we sought out the relative cool of the mountains in Spring Mountains Recreation Area, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. I say relative, because although the trail to the summit of Mount Charleston led to snow and ice fields, the trek upwards began at the trailhead lot where the afternoon temperature read 101 degrees. It was nearby in the Willow Creek section of the Spring Mountains that we encountered the megafauna of our trip, a herd of six mustangs. Slowly moving through a sea of scrub some fifty meters in front of us, the largest mare led four of the wild horses on their pre-selected vector. The large roan stallion slowly walked in our direction, positioning himself between us and the the rest of the herd. Calmly, but alertly watching us watching him. When the other horses had made their way deeper into the desert, he turned and followed them down a dry wash, around a hillock, and out of sight. A horse with no name perhaps, but he will always be “Unforgettable”, a fitting enough moniker, my mind.


Photos by the author

What Does It Take To Make Her Happy?

woman in garden reading tablet

Her calendar is clear, like the sky on her one day off. She positions her lawn chair next to a side table, and plants herself in the back yard to bake in the sun; sparkling water with lemon slices within her reach. For a moment, she listens to the chorus of birds singing in different keys and rhythms. A dove coos a lonely sound, nearly drowned out by the brisk drum roll of a distant woodpecker. The sun’s heat grows intense, but a mild wind provides the perfect balance.

She opens her romance novel, but is quickly distracted. First, the terrier in the yard behind hers starts barking nervously. A man one street behind her revs a very loud power tool…How to ruin a perfectly relaxing day. Just as the heat begins to feel a little too intense, irritation seems to pour over her as sweat breaks out on her flushed face. She notices a fly circling the area, and just like that—everything is annoying.

Nothing makes her happy. In her quest to define herself, she asks a lot from life, from God, from everyone around her. She holds her breath for an epiphany. Her prayers are impatient, as if she’s owed answers. With her long list of should-haves, she sees the present as one big disappointment. Sometimes she doesn’t see the present at all.

Disgruntled, she folds up her lawn chair, grabs her book and walks back into the dark house. A few minutes later, all is quiet in the back yard, except for the birds, who put on a concert, that she is not there to hear.


Shelley Ouellette is a mother of three who lives and writes in Rochester, New York, US. She is employed in higher education, and is completing a degree program in English with Writing.

The Parsley Sandwich

Water hemlock is said to be poisonous, and as luck would have it there was some growing outside the door of the house I was staying in that summer. I went to the library to find out more about it, unsure of what I was looking for. Here is what I found:

Water Hemlock Cicuta maculataWater hemlock goes by many names, including cowbane, beaver poison, spotted parsley and Nebraska fern. The word hemlock itself means shore plant, a reference to its preference for boggy conditions. The Indians of North America called it musquash, for the muskrat, the little animal it frequently killed. One or two slices of the tuberous root, which resembles sweet potato, is enough to kill a man. A mere eight ounces can kill a horse. With its umbrels of white flowers, it looks like parsley, parsnip, wild carrot. It looks like wild fennel too, but it smells, not of licorice, but of mouse.

Poison Hemlock Conium maculatumFor a long time it was confused with poison hemlock, which the ancient Greeks used to execute malefactors humanely, most famously Socrates. One of its names, conium, comes from the Greek konas, meaning to whirl about, because its victims stumble like drunks. Socrates’s death, as reported by Plato, was quiet and painless, and left Socrates lucid into his final moments, when he reminded his friend Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius in thanks for his peaceful departure. The signs of water hemlock poisoning, by contrast, are anything but peaceful, beginning with rapid, tetanic seizures and ending in respiratory paralysis and death. In its violent action it resembles strychnine, another deadly alkaloid.

Water hemlock, poison hemlock. Both are ubiquitous, both deadly, though very different in the death they produce. Two words in Plato, long misconstrued, suggested the more violent action of water hemlock in the case of Socrates. What was the truth about the great teacher’s death? Had it been more troubled than posterity liked to suppose?

Poison Hemlock Conium maculatumIn 1845, something happened which seemed to clear the matter up. The children of a Scottish tailor made him a sandwich from some wild parsley they found growing in a field. Duncan Gow was the tailor’s name, and he ate the sandwich gratefully because the family was poor and often foraged some of its food. Fifteen minutes later his legs began to numb, as Plato reports of Socrates. Socrates walked about for awhile until his legs grew heavy and he was invited to lie down. Duncan Gow tried to walk too, but when his legs became useless he fell down. The paralysis crept up his body as it had Socrates’, so that in two hours all of his limbs were affected, and in three his respiration began to fail. Three and a quarter hours after eating the sandwich, he was dead, having according to witnesses experienced exactly the same, slow, creeping but nevertheless painless death that Plato reports. With the confusion about that ancient event fully in mind, a doctor at the Edinboro hospital where Gow died removed his stomach. It proved upon examination to contain poison, not water, hemlock.

I thought about Duncan Gow all that summer. I thought of him in his many guises: poor Gow, tailor Gow, father Gow, and plain Duncan Gow, whose fate it was to unscramble the mystery of a great man’s death. He was an itinerant tailor, surely, too poor to own a shop in posh Edinboro. I saw him travelling from house to house with his wooden box of tools and his children, his only wealth. Perhaps he was a storyteller, like so many of the travelling tailors. Perhaps he sat on a rock by the side of the highway and told the children a story while they fed him the deadly sandwich.

Outside the door, the water hemlock lengthened, lifting its deceptive flowers and bringing into view its red-spotted stem, the red spots mistakenly called, I knew now, the blood of Socrates.


Michele Stepto lives in Connecticut, where she has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years. In the summers, she teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, which is where she first laid eyes on the beautiful water hemlock. “The Parsley Sandwich” is one of sixty-five brief stories written in as many days, one per day, in the summer of 2007. Some of the others have appeared in Mirror Dance Fantasy and Lacuna Journal. Her poems have appeared in Jewish Currents and online at Verse-Virtual and What Rough Beast. She is the translator, along with her son Gabriel, of Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.

Top photo of Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata): Wikipedia Commons
Photos of Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) by Olha Solodenko

 

The Empress of Flowers: Peony

“Had I but four square feet of ground at my disposal, I would plant a peony in the corner and proceed to worship.” –Alice Harding, The Book of the Peony, 1917

Colorful peonies in vasesWhen my mother died a few years ago, I planted her ashes at the base of my peony plants. The peony was her favorite flower, as it is mine. I have seven peony plants but only five bloom – the five that have her ashes. Today those five are in bloom but because we’ve had weeks of rain, I picked many of the buds in the early morning and now, in the house, they are blooming profusely. Peonies fully opened are heady in scent and profoundly beautiful — bowls of beauty. I’ve placed them all around my house – kitchen, living room, dining room, on top of the wood stove, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. I’ve two glorious bouquets next to me as I write this.

Peonies nearly make me swoon with their luxurious bounty, health and exquisite form. When I wake in the morning, I lay my face in their blooms, inhaling their luminous scent, and feel the silky, cool petals on my cheek. I can’t get enough of them.

Even the names of peonies are delightful and varied: Abalone Pearl, Angel Cheeks, Crinkled Linen, Princess of Darkness, Solange, Ursa Minor, and one of my favorites, Sarah Bernhardt. She is deliciously fragrant, and has a rose pink double bloom with a violet tinted center interspersed with salmon. Peony experts describe her as “very floriferous.”

Peonies are hearty, flourishing even when neglected. I like these kinds of plants best. Dandelions, wild chervil, milkweed, sumac – all these so-called weeds thrive no matter what we do to them and to my mind deserve to be respected and revered. When humans are gone, I imagine these plants will thrive, along with returning bees, bats and even more coyotes — creatures that are adaptable and thrive on diversity.

peonies in vasesMy peonies in vases last for weeks for two reasons. One is because I won’t let them go and leave them until the petals lace their way to the floor and the stems are bare. And two, because I change their water every other day with a homemade preservative, as well as shortening their stems slightly at an angle with a sharp knife.

This recipe I found years ago (but I don’t remember where). 1 quart H2O, 2 TBLS fresh lemon juice, 1 TBL sugar, 1/2 TSP bleach — I keep the mixture in the refrigerator.

I have a friend who grows her own peonies for florists and weddings. She can keep her peony buds in the cooler for four weeks as long as she picks the buds early in the morning and plunges them directly into cold water.

bright pink peony in a vaseA few months after my mother died, I bought a Félix Crouse peony, originally from Somerset, England. This peony has ruby red flowers with a silky luster — just like my mom. She had a hedge of these at her home in Connecticut with literally hundreds of blooms. I renamed the flower Fehr Judith, after her. Her maiden name was Judith Fehr (pronounced fair). Today my single plant has nine enormous blooms and more to come. I always try to leave blossoms on each peony plant so when I walk in the garden, my mother is everywhere.

And now, because of the rain, I’ve brought her into the house, to every room, gracing my world with enchantment.

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open —
–from “Peonies” by Mary Oliver


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; kayaking, gardening, and recently completing a short story collection.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Artificium

Photos by the author of peonies from her garden

A Tryst with Nature at Chilika Lake

island in chilika lake, Orissa, IndiaSometime back, when I travelled to Chilika Lake, a lagoon, I got a unique chance to educate children as well as experience nature, both of which I adore. It was a nature camp and I was sent there officially to educate the children about nature and its significance. It is always cool to teach children, especially those at elementary and secondary school level. They are charming, inventive and most importantly, mischievous.

As part of the nature camping programme, we are advised to stay within the limits of any protected natural landscapes, viz-a-viz wildlife sanctuary, reserved forest or national park. We stayed in the midst of a lavish green backdrop encompassed by a variety of species, resident of Chilika. The ever-soothing early morning breeze flowed alongside the twittering and chattering cries of birds and little creatures.

Chilika Lake is the biggest tidal pond of Asia found along the Coromandel Coast of peninsular India. Being declared one of the six wetlands under the Ramsar convention, it offers a great deal of scenic beauty. Furthermore, this picturesque locale is a safe haven for diverse aquatic life forms such as birds (both waterfowl and waders), fish, crabs, etc.

Illumination of sky
With a crack of dawn
The never ending horizon
Never to be missed

We organized a birding trip to the nearby island, Nalbana. Boats were arranged for the trip. Nalbana is a wonderful island with vast life forms situated at the heart of Chilika Lake.

The children jumped in joy as the boat surged through brackish water and moved forward. We tried to arouse their interest by showing them some beautiful creatures like Irrawaddy dolphins, seagull, gull-billed tern, pied kingfisher, white-bellied sea eagle, etc. The children were given binoculars to observe the birds. Some of the kids were curious, questioning the open-feather stance of a bird. It was a cormorant. Unlike other water birds, cormorants do not have wax coating around their feathers. So it stays under the sun with its feathers open to get dry. This in turn looks striking and attracts students, birders and photographers. The children were so thrilled watching the hunting behaviour of terns and kingfishers.

Hovering along the airstream
With her eyes glued
Dives and captures him in a flash

As we paddled through the lake, we saw a huge flock of ruddy shelducks taking off, sensing us (strangers). Northern pintails, shovelers and gargeneys accompanied them shortly. It was beyond belief to spot all these wonderful creatures at the same time. The children looked absolutely thrilled.

After an hour long journey, we reached the island. The forest officials briefed us about the island and its significance. Nalbana Island was declared a bird sanctuary in 1973. It serves as a massive wintering ground for birds. One can see over thousands of birds systematically foraging the mudflats during the season. The best part about this island is that it vanishes during the monsoon season due to heavy showers and resurfaces back once the water recedes.

The children were taken to the watch tower, where they got to watch the birds through high range spotting scopes. Watching the peculiar behaviour pattern of larger and smaller birds, the children’s curiosity was aroused. The larger birds include greater and lesser flamingos, herons, egrets, pelicans, storks, ducks and ibises. The smaller birds include stilts, terns, sandpipers, ruffs, snipes, lapwings, coot, teal, etc. They even saw a few raptors like sea eagle, kites and falcons.

Brahminy Kite flying over the waterAs they were curiously screening the birds through the spotting scope, one of the children shouted out in alarm. He informed us that he had spotted a bird which had a white head with dark eyes and sharp beak pointed downwards, brownish feathers and pale yellow coloured legs with talons. It was clear that the bird he was describing was the Brahminy kite; we were startled by his acute observation. He continued further that the bird had repeatedly fallen into the water while attempting to take off. He sounded very concerned about the bird and its condition. We responded quickly by taking a look at that bird through the scope and witnessed the same scene as narrated by the boy. Immediately, we informed the forest officials, who after observation told us that the bird was injured. The feathers were wounded because of which it was struggling to fly. Without wasting much time, their team rushed to the spot and rescued the bird.

Book of Indian Birds coverThe Forest Ranger and Divisional Officer appreciated the boy for his intuitive observation and quick thinking. They presented him the famous book The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali and encouraged him to do bird watching regularly. It was pleasant surprise for the boy and also for the entire group.

Overall, it was an enchanting experience in Nalbana both for the children and us educators. It was one of my most unforgettable experiences of my life with children and nature.



T R Gowthama: An Environmental Educator by profession, writer by passion and a nature enthusiast by heart. He is a creative lad, serious researcher, an avid learner and traveller. In fact, most of his writings are inspired from his real life and travel. He loves writing and writes on topics that inspire and interest him, which can be accessed here (http://creatikaa.blogspot.in/). He is also an amateur photographer, whose lens doesn’t stop to click moments of life, which can be accessed here (http://www.snapometer.blogspot.in/). You can reach him at creatikaa.blog@gmail.com

Photo of Chilika Lake, Orissa, India by Dr Ajay Kumar Singh

Photo of Brahminy Kite by Jitinatt Jufask