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!
The pair of Great Blue Heron are at The Pond, as they have been occasionally over the past week.
A Blue Grosbeak appears to be fly-catching in a spectacular manner, rising and rising and rising, straight up, then long, even faster plummets to its perch. Or is that a territorial display, or courtship? The literature tells almost nothing is known about those kinds of actions of the bird.
As I wander along setting up the length of an electric line that will help get the Botteri’s Sparrow area ready by confining the cattle to get its weeds too tall for the sparrows’ liking knocked back before the birds’ hoped-for arrival (many of the herd love that weedy Kochia, and the young tumbleweed), comes from high overhead the wild twittering of a pair of White-throated Swifts. My Gawd, the male swoops screaming down out of the blue like a Messerschmitt, while she rises slightly and meets him in a crashing copulation of immeasurable brevity. Then they’re off for more very swift Tango de Swift until they’re too tiny to see with the naked eye. They take hardly any time to disappear for after all, they’re as fast as fireworks. And their own kind of fireworks they are certainly making, on the wing yet! That takes “dancing on the ceiling” to a new level.
The range herd has not forgotten my vaquero’s cattle call, which starts out with one long then six short loud whistles–as soon as I begin they moo and lift their back ends to start to wander down The Lane to head towards the Botteri’s area, I in the lead. The Mockingbird in its big mesquite instantly lets out a perfect imitation of the whistle call and then does it again, oh goody, just what I need as an aid in the cattle management!
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.
Five Green-winged Teal dabble in our shallow pond, while on the “dirt tank” of our fence neighbor ranch to the south, a Redhead makes a startling appearance but that pond is deep enough to attract such diving ducks.
A fearless Ruby-crowned Kinglet comes to work over the mesquite tips where I’m still rather frantically trying to reset T-posts and raise wire along Cascabel Road so our cows don’t go on a walkabout this summer to vacuum the sweet, tasty trillion of mesquite beans that will fall on the gravel roadway. For the first time I ever heard one here, a Cactus Wren’s raspy chortling comes from the dry slopes and Saguaros rising from the opposite side of the roadway. It makes me think the mystery bird in there is not some species of wren after all; I don’t know if I’ll ever hear it again to be able to seek it out at last and identify it.
The Cottonwoods oh the Cottonwoods on The River oh how can it be that no, I haven’t been imagining those tiniest of changes coming over them already before midwinter has come? Glances in passing for the past few days have left me wondering, “Are they still bare?” and neighbors are asking, “My gosh, can the Cottonwoods be leafing out??” I wanted to believe they were still bare and would stay that way a while, for one can hardly get enough of the sleeping beauty of the translucent, filigreed crowns and the galleries of white trunks and limbs. But now it’s undeniable: the trees are indeed pale green, the long forests of them are bands of the soft color, the land above them and the shrubby edges below them a gray even softer, with snow high over them white on wilderness slopes.
on opposite horizon,
in dawn-pink sky
against bare cottonwoods,
above penumbral shadow
Just within the fence on Cascabel Road I finally have to stop digging out an old T-post and go search out whatever critter is calling from the canyon and mesa to the east a long descending trill and chatter. I presume it’s a bird I’m unfamiliar with, who knows, something newly arrived from Mexico and, ahem, undocumented, now the climate of Sonora heads north inexorably. A wren? I have no idea what the Sinaloa Wren–a species new for the United States found the more frequently not much south of here–could sound like, and this voice certainly has a wren motif, or should that be a wriff? After scrambling through two sets of fences and into the rough hillside of Catclaw and Saguaros, I arrive near the source of the odd notes as best I can figure just when the hoot of a midday owl silences whatever it is, and I don’t hear it again. I ought to resist the drive to find out every last fact about this place.
Gray Flycatcher, pumping its tail …
A White Tiger Moth comes over, slowly, passes on by. Twenty Javelina bring their babies to the cool and green winter #2 Pasture, and tuck into the vast salad bar.
The balmy air of late afternoon is full of bugs dancing, on what elfin mission? They move in the orderly bounces of a pinball, or zigzag back and forth and back and forth … Phoebes chitter on the posts, then dive and sail into the shimmering horde, the birds’ moves telling me they can outwit and out maneuver any of these insects that know so well how to evade me.
The day’s become so warm that it’s a pleasure to go back to work on the fence in the shade of the old and giant mesquite trees, where I’m somewhat camouflaged. I hope to hear the mystery trilling song again, from those slopes rising steeply on the other side of the road. While I dismantle the fence that Mycha the cow makes shortcake out of when she wants to get mesquite beans on the outside, there comes a huge Accipiter swirling and diving into the road but apparently missing its target. Gambel’s Quail in the sunset light behind me scatter, and purl excitedly as they flee the raptor even though they’re a thousand feet away from us. The hawk is big and brown, with the bright slash of a white eyebrow over the most intense of gazes, lands on an electric pole almost overhead of me: a Goshawk! Is it what had taken down the Cooper’s Hawk whose feathered remains were on the pasture a month ago?
The new day brings an utterly different world: 25 degrees on the ridges, and in the valley below sparkling chips of frost fall from mesquite tips. The bermudagrass pasture stretching out from the window of the Cowboy Caravan all the way to the huge saguaros on the far hill are white, icy, the Rincon above us dusted with snow. Yet the air warms enough even in the El Potrero bottomland for Sulphur Butterflies to come to life, and an azure grasshopper.
Still-green and fresh leaves of the big Hackberries at The Stockpond start falling off their twigs by mid-morning–they never had a chance to turn color before the coming on of a night that was surely in the teens. On the water swim a brace of fine Mallards, their wariness telling they are true wildlings. A Wilson’s Snipe is there, too, and a large sandpiper with a long bill, also extremely wary: a Long-billed Dowitcher. It takes off with a pained, “Pitty peet peet!”, showing a white slash of rump as it vanishes across the fields.
A most pleasant, warm day range riding the Sonoran Desert uplands, basking on horseback in 80 degrees. The season progresses undeniably, though, the colors of the dried and drying forbs, shrubs and grass autumnal. Most everything is fading from whatever color they were, towards a universal straw and bronze–even the Creosote Bush leaves–the Fairy Duster is purple, the Morning Glories are open brown stars holding seeds, they’re a haze of fuzz catching the light and as decorative as when the large blue flowers were open in a wetter time. Wind hisses through thorns in the narrow passages among one Saguaro’s impossible number of arms. Yet, the arroyo floors are bright green, where Palo Verdes and even the mesquites aren’t bothering to ready themselves for Winter. The main bed of the Rio San Pedro, much farther below, is still as lush and Cottonwoods down there as sparkling green as on any Summer day.
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?
Purple Martin ways, they are a-changin’. Though they’re still content as can be, we are given to know that we are to enjoy them while we can. Summer grows long, the year will be growing late, but still it’s 95 degrees this afternoon. Within days the Martin kind scattered over much of the country and Canada should begin passing on their way to another America, America del Sur, and pick up to go along with them our local martin-folk. They are not up there singing any more in the dark before sunrise. In the mid-day they are high in the sky, so high I cannot see them but can hear their chatter. In that richest of late day light, each round separate cloud chimes with bells of Martins unseen, then the birds all drop and swoop and play in the winds low just above my head, then swirl up and around the family saguaro standing on its ridge crest against tall white cumulus that have cried out their Monsoon tears for now.