Pat and I ride our horses across the higher range, forlorn of the company of cows now gone so that the native grasses can grow their flowers and seeds to sow again the hillsides and bajadas. We search out Summer flowers but the land is mostly forlorn of their company, too, the rains have been so scant. There is almost no crop of Saguaro fruit again this year, alas! and we’ll miss gobbling them down. The first blossoms of Barrel Cactus are coming on though (nothing stops them); with their varied colors, and the animated shapes of the plants’ bodies, they make for good reason to saddle and go out on a 105 degree day–as this one will be. As we climb one slope and mesa after another we come on one Cassin’s Sparrow and another singing, each having staked out a territory in this Summer of grass that has responded to and made lush by that one big rain at the beginning of the month. The thunderheads a few days ago started building at last, and the rain in the gauges slowly to rise. How we celebrate this afternoon, when three-quarters of an inch fills them!
Remember that expression, “red letter day”? This was one in my Cascabel birding life, though I couldn’t have expected it to have been, out on the desert and in the now about-roasting heat that was heading towards 100 degrees. Pat, Roby, our neighbor K. (who often joins in on riding for cattle affairs) and I left out horseback for Cascabel Pasture in late morning, which moment finds the prickly pear cactus in perfect bloom in all their variety … they look like roses or water lilies or tulips, are not wilting even if we are, are startlingly clear yellow with glowing green pistil, or the color of creamsicles, topaz, orange-yellow with a red spot at the base of each petal, bright yellow with a hot pink stripe up the centers.
“Hey, is that an eagle on the top of that saguaro?” Roby called out. The rest of us swiveled around, and he volunteered to ride Yaqui across the flat and up a ridge, to get a closer look. “It looks like it has a white head …”, and he left us. Not much later we could see him and Yaqui appear out of the mesquite and flowering paloverdes to start to climb the ridge below what we could see was a strange and very large bird, a bird of prey–it took off, rose up into the air as if it were being assumed into Heaven but then put on a display of aerial grace and ability that took the breath away, a declaration: “I am lord of the ether.” Then it lowered, curved, and came right over our heads and soared and stilled itself mid-air, and soared away. White head, a black cap, white band towards the ends of long eagle wings: a Crested Caracara! Bob Evans and Ralph and Kathleen Waldt have experienced the rapture of this raptor on The River, but I hadn’t expected to. We four on our horses were ourselves riding on air after the sight of that bird as splendid as it is rare.
Snipe on The Cienega, creeping, hiding, like a mammal in green tussocks.
The blue-green Stockpond is lightly ruffled by Spring breezes, on it bob a pair of Mexican Mallards and a pair of Cinnamon Teal. The male teal is a color deep and rich, carnelian and that very rich cinnamon of theirs. The black bill is set off by a red eye startling as a jewel set into the idol, Matrix, the Mother–Nature–from whence we came, to which we go, in which we are.
In what is called “Winter” here this landscape is as richly toned as the great black-and-white Hollywood romances of the 1930s–but that is gone by this last week of February, the Cottonwoods are already a splash of watercolor green and now they remind me of my mother tinting with Easter egg dye the black-and-white kodak snapshots of the 1950s (who could afford color film then?), green for a dress, red for her lips. While Arizonans pride ourselves on toughing out some of the wildest heat on Earth, we also resist letting go of the precious cold, but the season is being overpowered before our disbelieving eyes. It’s sinking in that we are not this year to have the dramatic canvasses to treasure of stark white Cottonwood trunks against a frigid blackening sky as snow flurries sweep in, no, not in this Winter That Never Really Was. There will be no dawn of surpassing enchantment of Silver Fog this year, when a white cloud is snuggled down over the mesquites and rises in level blanket to just above the treetops, each tiny twig and large limb feathered with frost that picks up and holds within it the sunlight sifting down into the mist from an utterly clear blue sky above the roof of that fog blanket. I realize sadly that neither are we to see the high double mountain to the south be draped for a day (or even two) in a stunning and surprising blanket of snow: no, Mae West will not be donning her white angora sweater. It is 77 degrees, on the radio the KXCI deejay tells that orange blossoms are perfuming the air in Tucson, the flower buds of lilacs in Cascabel yards are showing color, violets have been in bloom since December in Pat’s dooryard garden at El Potrero, Bladderpods are in flower in our seldomly used #4 Pasture, and Loggerhead Shrikes are already wandering off and becoming more scarce–been weeks since I’ve seen one–and I expect they’ll move out soon to wherever it is they do go for their own Arizona Summer. I already miss their sass and chatter and their cheery greeting and know that we’ll probably not hear much more of that until about the time the pastures are to be made ready in September for another Winter’s planting. Into the ears of even those whose ignorance of the Earth’s climate change is willful are coming these whispers–and shouts–of the possibility we come to be driven out of this already challenging place that ever has been close to the edge of uninhabitability to begin with. Or … will we find we are going to lose it all through one catastrophic change or another anyway, we who stay on here now and live in the wonder of how this naturalist’s and historian’s and cowboy’s paradise remains what we’ve wanted it to and what we love? Freeway bypasses … bedroom community subdivisions … drone test range proposals … the road getting completely paved some day … and now: SunZia’s massive sets of high tension electric lines tall as a high-rise, the construction effects collateral that will come with the installation of those lines, the ongoing access needs to service them, with the vehicles to do so, the warning lights that will flash atop them in what was once a desert of darkness inviolate. I am emotionally unable to watch this happen yet its coming is apparently unstoppable, with likely its first destruction flowing into this valley through the saddle between Mason Pastures and the Mae West Peaks, after the towers make that wildland pass from Willcox over which year after year we carry our grassfed beeves on the last trailer trip of their lives. SunZia would be a pill deadly to each of us here in personally different ways; for me the gaul in it is that I am expected to surrender with grace and peaceable resignation what is left in my life to love above all things, surrender it to someone else who through power-sucking video games and consoles can only live through a screen’s virtual reality a life as exciting as the one I do in real reality. My ranching existence as it presents in the Contemporary West will be sacrificed to someone else’s artificial existence as it presents in a fabricated Old West of, e.g., the gunslinging and fabulously popular, fabulously and deeply disturbingly violent game (complete with human gore oft-splattered onto the screen) set in an imagined Southwest borderland, “Red Dead Redemption”, which enthusiastic gaming reviews say “expertly captures the Wild West.” What it really captures is the market demographic of young males who are the usual rattlesnake bite victims hauled off to the emergency room. Cascabel and my life under the Mae West Peaks will be sold for a mess of wattage.
Not that I haven’t thought of leaving, or haven’t tried to leave and more than once, but … well, I’ll go, but will this be the year like 2001 when wildflowers bloom spectacularly again, so I ought to wait and see if they do, I mean, that can’t be missed … oh but then the warblers are soon to pass through after that, well, I can stay at least long enough to enjoy migration one more time, and the arrival and singing of our Mexican bird specialties … and calves! who’d want to miss the calves? … and oh yes, scattering the herd on the range, well I want to do that one more year, give one more go at it, I can hang around that long … the sizzling Foresummer, with all the world looking to the sky for the first grand thunderheads to form … the season of delicious and beautiful red Saguaro fruits … no, can’t leave when the Monsoon is about to make every creature human and otherwise happy, and excited, and bring raging washes and flashfloods to liven up the day, or night … wait, the Barrel Cactus are really going to go nuts with flowers this summer, you can see all the buds and it’s so much fun to ride out and compare them all one to the other … ah, no, better not leave now, maybe I’ll go next month, can’t do it with the skies of September about to bless us with their O’keefe cloudscapes and dazzling huge moonrises … oh hell, leaving can wait until after we watch the pastures we’ve seed-planted sprout and thicken and become as emerald as Ireland … got to see the snow return to the high country around us in all directions, then I can go … but look, there are so many millions of wildflower seedlings, this could be the best year yet for The Show though it had better rain damn soon or we’ll lose it … I’ll leave after that!
Sunset is fire, and lilac.
Much cooler today of a sudden (only in the low 70s, hah!) but this makes for a heart-singing ride on range for Pat and me to check on cows whose calves will be coming as Spring progresses. The Ocotillo are in the most spectacular bud we’ve ever seen: “It’ll be quite gaudy!” says Pat … “Sure will!” say I. But all is already become gaudy, with the blues and violets of Lupines, white of Desert Chicory, White Pincussions, yellows of the subtly beautiful Desert Dandelion, Bladderpods, shining golden Blazingstar, Creosote Bush in its own bloom of Chinese yellow, yellow Evening Primroses–most everything the color of Sun who has come home to Its desert fastness. There are splashes of many other colors, too: Three-awn Grass in bloom, and purple Phacelia, the bright green of Acacia coming into leaf, the pale green of “Pale Face” Hibiscus’ new leaves. Both the Christmas Cholla cactus and the low, round Mammilaria are gloriously decked out in their red fruits. The incredibly fleet of foot Zebra-tailed Lizards shoot off in different directions as we help our horses place their feet in spaces between flowers, those lizards popping and whip-jumping their tails around in the air over their backs like cats do when they stare at something on which they’re about to jump. We come to Fenceline Drinker to water the horses (I remember one of my old cow bosses saying, “Never pass water without offerin’ ’em some!”), find the bright green water scattered as with the petals of apple blossoms but what is a-swirl on it are little pink moths, some flapping their spread out wings in sad effort to lift off the surface they’ve fallen into. Most are already still.
In the evening at Mason’s, a bat comes flying down The Lane to The Stockpond I’ve just filled, and laps the fresh water …
Spring in the air, spring in our step as we the more lightly for our joy in the season swing into stirrups, go see what the herd is up to on the mesas and arroyos, and what the drifts and sweeps of wildflower seedlings are up to. The first Vermillion Flycatcher returned from the south burns and flames at a mesquite tip at El Potrero, after a little more than three months absent. On range the Barrel Cactus fruit bowls are beginning to be picked over, and some are even emptied now. Poppies are showing their colors and are unfurled when the thermometer hits 85 degrees, and Fiddleneck is in bloom, and the Ocotillo wands hold masses of porcelain buds at their tips–but the rains have withdrawn, enough to jolt realism into those high hopes that we every year carry for color to blanket the hills and lush Fillaree be there for our wildlands cattle.
The bird who holds “Summer” in his very name and in his hot colors, a fine red male Summer Tanager, is singing in the edge of #1 Pasture but–he takes his season with him today, is the last of his kind I will see at all until the sun comes to warm this hemisphere again in a new year. A Dusky-capped Flycatcher is alone in the mesquite edge a little further along, and it will also be the last. Many kingbirds however are still putting on such thrilling aerial feats that it seems they have no plans of departing, not soon anyway; after all, it’s still 92 degrees today.
A friendly Shrike keeps me company as I dig and dig mesquite from these Augean Pastures, he is perched in lookout at the top of a piled jumble of the despatched mesquite that are to be hauled off. All the while the bird fusses, babbles merrily, calls, scorns his “SHREE Shree shreeee”, or cooes much like a Budgie who sits contentedly with its reflection in a little mirror. That Shrike is of Winter, will not leave us, then, until just about that week when the first Summer Tanagers will return to the bosque of Cascabel.
A late day ride on-range. The sky is Arizona Blue, a darker hue than that palest of blue that arches over the Mojave to the West, but paler than the blue that far to the East will stun the eye over enchanting New Mexico where flickering gold Cottonwoods will soon be set against it. The Light itself is of a different quality now, as it passes through air that through the day swings in temperature from 45 degrees to 95 degrees, air that is soaked in humidity in the morning but by the time a late sun slants through it, comes to feel parched. The clarity of the mountains and the immensely complicated and convoluted canyons and ridges all around us and above us is startling; there is much to distract from the stone piles, nasty Cholla stubs and Catclaw hooks and badger holes we need carefully to guide our horses around. The lands march away and upwards, blue ridge on endless blue ridge, layered, feathered. When we turn for home and our souls have taken in as much beauty as they seem able to bear, Old El Sol has lowered himself to that angle where every drying out plant, spine, fruit, seed and pod is set to incandescence, dangling or held above the golden carpets of Needle and Six-weeks Gramagrass that have now also dried and catch every particle of light. Tall Saguaro are each haloed in this light passing through their spines, the Creosote Bush hold their billions of fuzzy but glittering diamonds, Spiderlings have become drifts of twigs lit and glowing yellow on the ground, and everywhere in the fading mesquite are dense white silk webs that also shine in that low sun in front of us–another beautiful thing in that most beautiful light but I suspect the roving (and dreaded) venomous Burn Worms of the Mesquite Buckmoth have something to do with the sudden appearance of these bright silky tangles. Scattered everywhere are the Barrel Cactus, their flowers gone, crowned in fruit of a green that dances, the color is so bright; they look now more like they’re wearing Carmen Miranda headdresses than they did only a couple months back when in their bright colors of silky petals they looked more like they were wearing Sunday gospel hats. “Aren’t we lucky to be able to see This Arizona?” Pat says with a contented sigh. Though it is still nicely warm (well, outdoor-living Arizonans feel chilly if there comes a drop below 80 degrees …) there are no sounds of Summer, no cicadas, no werping flycatchers–just grasshopper-like tsking of Brewer’s Sparrows that have just arrived and flit from most every lit-up Creosote Bush …
A Poorwill-sung dawn, with a warmth that has Chris E., James C. and I on the early side saddling up the horses we’ll ride today on range–Chris on my Loompy, James on his Clu, and I on Pat’s Nimby. It will be in the 90s before we turn back on the trail home to El Potrero, the Barrel Cactus are still in their center-crown, late summer orange-petalled splendor, and of all the astonishing things that give one to know that Summer doesn’t let go, we find a Saguaro still in bloom. We pick our way carefully down a long rocky slope from a saddle between ridges, and come down into a broad, white sand bottom and when I nudge Nimby up that canyon to continue our ride just a bit further in the direction away from home, that horse I’m sitting decides to go into a run–backwards, towards home where he thought it was more reasonable to be going. Angry he didn’t get his way with a rider with whom he had almost no experience? Did he see a Jackrabbit, which can make him jump so that I’ve come to call them “Jack(theRipper)rabbits” or “Death Bunnies” as Pat calls them? A couple of hard bucks quickly following one on the other and my left foot is lost from the stirrup as the scenery and time fly past me only now in reverse … I’m still somehow upright in the saddle when his croup knows a sudden and violent comeuppance as we hit a deep wall of Catclaw trees and the sharp bank of the canyon bottom they’re growing against. He rears, tumbles, all is dust and billows of shaken-loose acacia leaflets, then I re-materialize out of that bronc-made haboob among splintering thorny branches and more rising dust, sitting in the arroyo sand with my legs spread out as wide as they were on either side of his flanks only a few calm, but very long-ago moments before. I’ve come to a standstill; Nimby has not. His is a body tending to stay in motion … his be-hind thud-lands between my far spread legs as he, continuing backwards, trips over a low horizontal branch but somehow even though it is Friday the 13th the horse hasn’t crushed me yet. Up he rises again, and up and up, towering into the sky or so it looks from my vantage point where I’m still trapped at his rear and flattened out on the ground. I concentrate on getting my right foot from the off-side stirrup, don’t know why it’s still stuck in there, but then every shred of my being comes welded to the vision of a black horse with head straight up, pawing into the empty air as if swimming for his life, he balancing there like that for a slowed-down second or two. The hands on my pocket watch stand still while he does. I stare up the line of his backbone–it’s not a question of whether he’ll topple, but which way will he topple. Something keeps me from getting out from behind him, maybe I’m frozen there in acceptance of my fate: if he comes back all the way it will split me right up through my middle, from stem-to-sternum, lengthwise, with saddle horn sunk into my chest as if I were a vampire. When for half a second that backbone of his begins tottering my way my thought is simple and resigned: “I’m about to be in the dark.” I’m still unhurt I think, but also still stuck, I scream out a long death wail, I know the last noise I might ever make and it’s from a place deeper in my soul than any where I’d ever brought anything up from or that I’d ever known was there to plumb. I guess there will be no more entries made in the nature journal. The scream startles him and he sways forward a bit, just enough that when he does come backwards it is now to the side, and all that wild horseflesh with its four flailing limbs plows into the sweet soft sand a little ways off my left shoulder. I don’t know how he misses me, he rolls away from me, jumps up, and is gone from my sight behind, down the canyon and I presume, home the way he wanted to go the whole time. My regular horse, Loompy, who together with Chris on his back has been watching, must have thought, “God, what a display. Tsk, tsk, tsk.” I wonder what rule of riding, or knowledge of horses I’m still ignorant of, has played a part in bringing about this wreck.
I live. No broken bones that I can feel, and my organs seem to be left whole, too. My spurs are shoved deeply in the sand, but I totter upwards myself and turn to see the horse not far off at all. He’s running in circles trying to get away from a wide Catclaw branch that’s deeply tangled in his tail and whose thorny twigs are poking the insides of both his legs … I give silent thanks when I see his reins didn’t break off, so I grab them but he keeps spinning away from me as I try to reach back for the branch that appears to be hopelessly knotted into his long tail. Finally I can grab the thick, woody end of that branch and yank hard, and the moment Nimby knows it’s gone he comes to a standstill. Nothing appears wrong with him, though myself I’m already feeling like I’ve been rear-ended at a stoplight with my head having popped out a back windshield; I turn him up-canyon and away from home, and with a laughably painful challenge I mount, and then as if not much happened we continue on our way, go to check whether the watergap fence at Saguaro Juniper’s border has remained intact through the flash floods of this Monsoon. “Do you compete in the rodeo?”, a woman once asked me. “No Ma’am, not if I can help it. That’s the kind of thing we pray at dawn Monday morning won’t happen this week, and on Saturday night following give thanks hadn’t …” […]
The morning excitement worn off, I go back to Mason’s to dig mesquite in the to-be winter pasture, and in the golden light of late Summer. There’s a pair of Mexican Mallard on The Stockpond and four Teal, and then I spot a huge turtle–probably ten inches across its shell–sitting on top a rock a bit off the mud bank out in the water. Trying to sneak up on it for a better look is useless, what with those ducks taking wing in an explosion and I am distracted by the splendor of those Teal spinning over me, turning to show blue shoulders, turning then to show their white underwings with black fore-edge. The turtle, which I’m never able to identify as anything native, is gone. How did it get there? I’m never to see it again, either.
Out where I head to start pulling mesquite, a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens are standing aside a cow manure pile, one bird on watch, the other picking apart the poop chunks and as I approach, the one not at work lets out an obvious warning, “Cheese it! The cops!”, and they both fly off squawling. This would not be the last time I’d find the birds doing this, for as long as the herd vacuums up mesquite pods, and shoot the now-shucked beans out their back ends, Ravens will come to pull out those beans the cattle kind have so nicely prepared, and gobble them down–all the fewer seedlings for us to contend with later! There is a reprise of White-lined Sphinx Moth larvae, now scattered over the grasses and larger than any that’ve come before, but I don’t see Ravens going for them.
A flycatcher I might take for an Ash-throated (which species has been strangely sparse here this year), comes for a few moments into the big mesquite edge, just long enough for me to end up thinking there was something … different about it. A Dusky-capped, down from the mountains and thence south far into Mexico, or migrating down from a bit further north in Arizona?
Slept under the sheet again but this time with the window closed. 60 degrees!
We saddle the horses, ride up onto the range, and find the last Summer calendar page of Barrel Cactus bloom has precious few days on it before it too must be torn away: only the inmost circle of flowers on them are open to be admired, after a month of their delighting the heart of a rider. Sun is changing, the world turned, a different glow passes through the Ocotillo wands. We scare up a Scaled Quail, whose “cotton top” catches this wonderful (dare I call it this out loud?) autumnal light.
Through air cleaned and freshened by yesterday’s wide storms a Yellow-billed Cuckoo hoots out a chuckle from the cottonwood bosque at El Potrero. Pat and I saddle up, fit our horses with bits and reins, mount and ride out on the morning to see how waterings have changed life on the mesas and low canyons on our range. If Summer isn’t ending, and Autumn not really beginning, then this must be one of our three Springs that come in the year. A green glow is over everything, from deepest river channel across the valley pastures it spreads up the foothills, over buttes and canyon rims and flows around the knuckle ridges, and up, and up, to ponderosa and high Rincon timberline. We ride through cholla in bloom, Manzanilla del Coyote (or “Chinchweed” in less musical, harsh-sounded Teutonic, er, I mean, English) in their endless golden carpets that let up spice into the air as horse hooves crush their leaves and flowers, white Desert Zinnia, and barrel cactus with their coronets of large brilliant flowers golden, orange, yellow, red, garnet, all with satin shine petals, or rather, “tepals”. (I am reminded of the Wiliwili trees on wild Hawaiian slopes and in the canyons of those islands, individual trees holding flowers that closely match this same range of hues.) “I’ve always thought Easter should be in July in Arizona!” Pat tells with joy in her voice.
It seems I’ve awakened again in Hilo, rain pattering on the window, mists and clouds settled upon the cliffs and hanging valleys above the San Pedro. Pat and I will saddle Nimby and Loompy, go up on the ranges with them and see how nine days of Monsoon rain will have brought change and green and flowers.
I pass under a soaring Swainson’s Hawk on my way north to El Potrero, and once there find Nimby looks surprisingly clean even though he’s black, but Loompy? He looks like a New Guinea [Asaro] Mudman, and it takes a good while to comb him out and get him back to his bright sorrel color. A glorious day to ride, even though humidity hovers around 100% and the temperature hovers near 100 degrees. All is riotous, lush, colorful, fragrant–Loompy chomps off a swatch of Desert Oregano that grows just at the narrow gate that is usually mine to dismount to open. Enveloped in the plant’s delicious spice, I swing into the saddle again, if it can be said that a sixty year old can “swing” at all … […]
Pink Mammilaria cactus in bloom just about everywhere … the vast flats of huisache no longer look furnace-dried and brittle (if not killed outright) by that late freeze and the ensuing drought, but are green with feathery new growth … the sproutlings of yellow Devil’s Claw of a month ago have spread into mounds of shiny green leaves … Three-awn and Muhly grasses are in near complete rebound from the winter grazing of the herd … and the rains have even tempted the Saguaros to push out a couple large and very late flowers.
The rains are coming evenly and are most welcome, but they aren’t giving enough accumulation for the needs of bermuda pasture and so I go to Mason’s to set irrigation for the night. Blue Heron is at The Stockpond, his usual jumpy self. A good number of martins are overhead but don’t give much of a lengthy evening show, male Vermillion Flycatchers are in a rumble of bluff, bravado and defense of the choice real estate–but then come in many more martins, five or six at a time, slicing the water across much of the pond or are more dainty in their approach and drinking, a few others splash onto the water like the Flying Boat landing on a lagoon. Only two nighthawks appear, at 7:30 in the last pink Monsoon light set with thunder from the higher country.