May 3, 2013

A pair of Mexican Mallard at The Stockpond, but the Solitary Sandpiper has indeed gone as has the Kingfisher. The Cooper’s Hawk gives those kookaburra calls from the bosque offstage to the south. It’s cold again, no hint of Foresummer … the temperature hovering at 40 degrees! Windy, oh so windy, and the single Green-tailed Towhee who’s now getting to be on the late side of hanging out here likely feels still quite in his element, so why would he leave for the North? The hummingbirds are hardly in a cold stupor, three or four male Black-chinned come to cavort in the little waterfalls sluicing from one green algae ring to another floating on the surface, as the riser tall above them splashes water down. We would love to do this if we were their size … hummers are so human sometimes, and we, so hummer. No females play in the algae this way, but one comes flying in and onto the side of that vertical riser and lands in the manner of a Swift, upright and flat on the pipe, her body pressed hard to its side below the opening and in that position she bathes in the dribbles running down from the hydrant joint. I have no idea how she holds on.

Meanwhile, the pickup I’d been sitting in had a rear tire losing air while I was watching the pond. So much for tending to the wheel lines getting them watering again: this was the third flat since yesterday and the usable spares had finally run out. Gggrrrrr, I grumbled and stomped up the lane through mesquites with canopies of leaves still wrecked by the deep freeze of two weeks ago. Eeehhhehhheh I didn’t want to be hitchhiking on this early cold morning on which not many folk would be stirring. Out on the wide open gravel road to Cascabel outside the green ranch gate it was windier still, and dust devils came along down the road edge one after another to take aim at me squarely, one or two forcing open my tightly closed eyelids …[…]

I take a childhood comfort in the sound of Redwing Blackbird calls, between gusts of wind the notes of the bird come to my ears from that sadly wilted canopy of mesquites now getting burned off even more by the wind. The dust is risen to a heaven that has become the mauve color of those grasshoppers’ wings of yesterday, and the details of the mountain ridges and canyons are blurred-out all around. At last a large yellow tool-van appears around the far south bend of the road, coming towards me but by this time I’m wind-blown and shaggy … he slows way down, not to avoid coating me in road dust (that’s already an accomplished fact) but to have a look, and in the end he must decide my shabby ranch clothes make me too iffy and scurvy character in an Old West comic book. He picks up speed and adds more dust to the mauve sky and to my shoulders then all goes quiet again but for the wind as he disappears. The cold does not let up. Strangely, in the moment that I grasp the perfection of this lesson in The Suchness of Things–cold, wind, flat tires, dust, uncompassionate and fearful motorist, lust for hot cowboy coffee, regret that I’d had no more to eat than that one banana–perfection drifts down to me from somewhere impossibly high in the dusty air overhead. “Curlee! Curleeeeee!! Curlleeeeeeeeeww!” … the cry of the ghost of a whole wild continent lost, and the hair on my neck rises. I know what it is, but it can’t be what it is, it just can’t, but then for a few moments the speck appears in a pocket of air somewhat clear of dust, the binoculars find it and I see the splendid long bill and cinnamon wings of a lone Long-billed Curlew, the bird nearly suspended in the headwind …[…]

My experience of The West is somewhat more sober than what was described in this pleasant boosterism that over decades to 1910 evolved into the anthem, “Home, Home on the Range”. The Suchness of Things: had the morning gone as planned and I not been visited by the usual troubles familiar to Dave Stamey if not to Dr. Higley, I’d’ve been long gone from these pastures and on to other chores … without that flat tire I’d have missed that curlew as it was trying to find The River or an irrigated field. It didn’t land in ours though it flew lower for a look. In New Mexico some years back, while I was working in the alfalfa fields of dear friends outside Roswell, I and an ol’ boy neighbor rancher were standing together when a spectacular large flock of Long-billed Curlew swept in and landed at the edge of the irrigation flood. As the birds set about snapping up insects the advancing water forced into the air ahead of it, I asked the man if the curlews had a local name. “We call ’em, ‘Mile-or-more-birds’.” “Mile-or-more-birds?”, I said. “Yessir.” “So why d’ya call ’em that?” “Wellsir, when one o’ those birds shoves that bill up the @## of the one standing next to it, ya can hear that scream a mile-or-more.”

The musing was barely out of my head when [Bob Rogers and a colleague from] The Nature Conservancy appeared around that same bend to the south that the yellow van had, oh was I thankful that another vehicle had come along at last and in it were friendly faces! […]

True to the spirit of Dave Stamey’s song, the temperature had risen by 45 degrees by afternoon when I went back to continue the day’s work in those pastures. The wind, though, was no longer wild enough to be blowing grit into my teeth, and the sky had turned back to Arizona blue over the first pretty flowers of the rather ugly-named but reputedly tasty Hog Potato. Swallows everywhere over Pasture #3: Violet-green Swallows, Barn Swallows, the season’s first Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, and of course many Rough-winged Swallows, all swirled together in a massive flock, gyrating and hunting the insects that have come back to life after the morning’s deep chill … […]