Thursday, August 11, 2011

In the Desert

We live in the desert, a world so quiet and calm that folks passing through briefly on the way from their cars to their houses might think it was peaceful. In fact, it’s a constant battle for survival.

In early afternoon I spot an unusually large bird flying low down an arroyo behind our house. Dael says it’s one of the golden eagles who nest higher in the foothills of the Organs. As we watch, the eagle dives suddenly and comes up with a rabbit. The rabbit is heavy enough that the eagle lands to enjoy his meal, so I wander out that way with my camera. 

I don’t get any particularly good shots of the eagle, but on the way toward him I spot a desert tortoise, upside down and long dead in the arroyo, so close to the house I’m surprised I haven’t seen him before. On the way back I turn him over, and look closely. The shell is intact, and rather an appealing pattern; and his head still stares out from the front of it, though the eyes are now just huge holes, like the eyes of the mummies in Guanajuato.

It has been a difficult year: record drought more than 200 rainless days surrounding a near-record freeze. Did the turtle die of thirst? Heat? Cold? Did a coyote toss him around in a vain effort to break through his shell? (I don’t think so.) In any case, he has a certain dignity, in death. Most of his body has dried out, or been consumed by ants; but those eye-holes keep on staring.

Hours later I’m standing on the old wooden deck out back, watching the late afternoon light catch Scott’s Orioles and make the yellow parts of them explode with brightness. Just below I spot a rabbit, just lounging around like a cat or a dog. The light’s lousy, except for the way the late sunlight back-lights the rabbit’s thin ears. But I’m laughing as I shoot the picture.

Next I pass the hummingbird feeder just as one of the birds pauses to fuel up.
The sun, even lower now but still bright, turns the bird’s throat a bright purple. As I walk, I glance at the screen on the back of the camera to see how the focus was.

Suddenly there’s someone else just in front of me, looking at me, motionless:
a snake, seven or eight feet of snake. He isn’t the young rattler I saw a couple of weeks go. I think he’s the local bullsnake. After a startled moment, we just stare at each other. He flicks his tongue, I flick my camera, and we both know neither means the other any harm. (Bull-snakes, it turns out, are among the continent’s largest. They sometimes use their similarities to rattlesnakes as a defense mechanism, beating the ground with their tails to simulate the sound of rattles; but sometimes people shoot them out of fear that they’re rattlers.)

I call to Dael, and tell her to join me but not pass me. The two of us stare at the snake. He’s beautiful and strong. He stares straight ahead, not much caring that we’re there, and then I realize why: hardly a foot in front of him, so still that I’ve been standing here a couple of minutes without seeing it, a baby bunny stands beside a small cactus. Apparently he hopes his stillness will deceive the snake. It ain’t working too well.

We watch awhile, wondering how it will turn out. Finally the bunny, afraid of us or the snake or both, jumps and tries to run, but bumps into the rocks, and the snake strikes and misses. The bunny, scampers away along the bottom of the rock pile. The snake turns and follows, but it’s not a close race.

We follow too. The snake slithers along through the rocks in the direction of the bunny. His sinewy form catches the reddish late-afternoon light. We feel glad the prey escaped – but apologetic for the snake’s disappointment. Maybe our presence distracted him at the critical moment.

We’re also grateful. It’s too bad something usually has to die, in order for something else to live; but it’s a fact of life, and – as with most facts of life – it’s better to see it clearly than turn away.

The deer eat the leaves off the pomegranate tree for which we dug a hole in this difficult terrain just a couple of weeks earlier. The coyotes’ nocturnal howling and the occasional scat of bobcat remind us to keep our cat inside. The occasional scorpion, tarantula, or black widow reminds us to pay a little attention even in the house. But these inconveniences also remind us we’re a part of something.

P.S. Below is a 47 second video of the bull snake on his search for the escaped baby rabbit:

1 comment:

  1. striking photo of the dead turtle, and interesting account of the snake and rabbit. nice use of the material at hand.