I’m beginning this writing after just seeing the first roadrunner hop up on the bird-bath to perch in the tangle of cholla branches that were sticking up all around him. I had to laugh as I watched him fly down as soon as he had a sip of water. He zipped along the ground to the road, and raced down it for a bit before veering off and disappearing into startling clumps of snakeweed bushes.
These plants cover the ground in my front yard and are festooned with millions of diminutive buttery yellow flowers, which have been in bloom all month. I love them. After it rains the branches of the bushes turn lime green as a diaphanous veil settles over the desert. Only the return of the sun can dim the vision. Snakeweed, is used by some Indigenous peoples to treat snakebite, bee stings, headaches, colds and fever.
I love the way my house opens onto the desert floor beyond a few rows of soft pink and sand colored flagstones. There is no separation between the house which sits against the hillside leaning into it from behind and the high desert with it’s reptilian ridged mountains to the southeast that are often partially hidden by clouds, especially in the early morning. A series of little red hills stretch up behind me to the west. I have become part of a whole new ecosystem here and the desert has made me feel at home.
This morning I almost stepped on a red coachwhip snake – the first of his kind that I have seen since I arrived here a month ago today. My guess is that he’s been here all along but has never made his presence known. I glimpsed the long sinewy rust colored body for a few seconds before he slid under the mounds of fragrant Datura or Jimsonweed, whose pointed leaves drape gracefully on the ground. I feel as if I am slowly being accepted by the creatures who live here because more and more of them are allowing themselves to be seen.
Lightening, my sagebrush lizard, greets me each morning as I go out to water the little rocky mountain juniper in front of the house. A few days ago I noted that part of her tail was missing. She had a close call with some hungry predator and I am glad she survived because I would miss her daily visits (sadly, within the next month, she will be going into hibernation). I always converse with her and she watches me with what appears to be some sort of fascination, perhaps because, as far as I know, most folks don’t talk to lizards.
The rocky mountain juniper in front of the house is thriving and has added about two inches of prickly sage colored scales (leaves belonging to an evergreen) to her height and girth from being watered and cared for by Nature and by me. Junipers can live for a few thousand years in the desert because they are not disturbed by logging. As they age some trunks become gnarled and gray often twisting themselves into impossible shapes. Others become dense and bush –like, but all are trees.
Birds love junipers, nesting in their interiors, eating their berry –like seeds, and seeking protection from predators inside their tangled boughs. As a northerner who has lived with the slaughtering of progressively younger and younger trees for 50 years – in Maine a 20 year old tree is now considered to be an adult – I am delighted that this little tree has the potential to live out her natural life –span. I like the idea of being in her life at the very beginning like some kind of tree grandmother. Perhaps the juniper will remember being loved by a human when she was young. A few birds are starting to perch in her uppermost branches, yet this little tree is barely two feet high! As a species, Junipers have my deepest admiration and respect because they can withstand the harshest conditions and still survive. I am dismayed that so few people seem to think they are special. I remember my mother bringing me a small juniper when I was about 40 without explanation. My mother and I didn’t have the kind of relationship that allowed for questioning her intentions, but I had a peculiar sense that she was passing on something important to me…
There is a sculptured circular stone bird – bath in front of the juniper that I began to work on when I arrived to make it more bird friendly. First I inserted a copper bowl in the depression. Next I added cholla branches and driftwood that I collected on my walks to make perches for thirsty birds. Finally I threw seed around the base of this structure and was amazed at the sheer numbers of birds, rabbits, and hares that arrived to eat and drink. The scaled quail run across the desert floor peeping and chipping in their haste to arrive at what has become a miniature desert oasis. The newest arrivals are the roadrunner, and recently, the white breasted nuthatch and Swainsons thrush. In between, I have seen many finches (House and Cassin), pine siskins, a beautiful black throated sparrow, a black phoebe, a sharp shinned hawk, a red tailed hawk, a gorgeous golden headed bird as yet unnamed and three collared doves. The canyon towhee family comes by every morning. They complain about eating with such a crowd so I give them food in the earth house on a little stone table, a structure so named because it is attached to the house on the east side but is situated half underground (It is remarkably cool out there). I was delighted to see the Eurasian collared doves arrive because Lily B. my twenty three year old collared dove has his cage outside where he can watch all the activity. Early in the morning he sings to the other birds as they appear and some perch on the top of his cage. Lily B is a boy but when I got him I didn’t know that. By the time I did it was simply too late to change his name. I added the “B” to remind me of his gender.
A few days after we arrived Lily B had a Cooper’s hawk land on the plywood covered cage one morning. The hawk attempted to bow his head to peer in at Lily who was perched just below the plywood cover without success… at dusk a few nights later another predator arrived in the form of the great horned owl. S/he sat on top of the plywood and turned her head around almost 360 degrees surveying just what, I am not sure, before flying silently to the ground. (I have never witnessed this 360 degree turning behavior in an owl before although I have read about it). I thought my bird would be unnerved by all this unwanted attention from these aerial predators; yet he continued to coo quite contentedly each day so I was not unduly concerned.
At dawn one day last week I approached his cage in shock because feathers were strewn everywhere on the ground and in his cage. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Something had brutally attacked Lily B during the night clawing his neck open. A great gaping wound about three inches long was caked with dried blood and matted feathers making it impossible for me to examine him properly when I removed him from the cage. My poor bird was numb, seemingly in shock. Immediately, I brought him indoors, and soon after, with the help of a neighbor, I had the cage situated in a window. The bars of his cage are so narrow – less than a ¼ of an inch – that it is impossible to offer a plausible explanation for this attack unless something crawled in from below. Most mornings Lily B coos and sings his heart out. His terrible claw-like wound and equally terrible silence turned this morning into a nightmare. Not only was Lily in tremendous pain, but there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation because it was Labor day. No veterinarians were open anywhere.
The pain he was experiencing was palpable. He couldn’t turn his head. I stood vigil for hours, numb with horror, feeling the life force draining out of him, yet he survived the night. Early the next morning my unbelievably kind neighbor finally found a vet in Santa Fe who would treat birds. After a brief exam later that afternoon the vet said she would have to give him pain medication, antibiotics, sedate him and try to stitch up the wound the following morning. If he made it, we could pick him up the next day. I was in a daze. I did not believe he would survive more trauma but he did. When Lily B was brought out to me the next afternoon I winced; his entire neck was stitched up and he still couldn’t move his head. I was given antibiotics, liquid food, pain medication and we drove home. That night I stayed up with him. The next morning he was still in so much pain that he refused all food, but then ever so slowly something shifted and Lily began to improve. It has been a week since this tragedy struck and lily B is finally gobbling down his Havarti cheese with gusto, eating his chopped egg, and pecking away at his seed. Although he will have to stay in a cage for the next two weeks and he will carry a deep scar for the remainder of his life, he is taking great interest in the birds outside his window. He is still unable to groom himself and his feathers are in tatters all over his body. He is so fussy about preening – normally keeping his feathers immaculately clean that it must be very hard for him not to be able to groom himself. I note that he’s also becoming restless which I hope is a good sign. Normally he flies free in the house and he dislikes being caged except outdoors. My 23 year old bird has exhibited an extraordinary will to live. Most collared doves have a life span of 10 to 12 years. I am guardedly hopeful that he will once again be able to fly, bathe, and groom himself. I will be forever indebted to my generous hearted neighbor for her help.
This terrifying experience with Lily has left me walking on air. This desert moves me so and the people are kind, but from the day I arrived I have had problems with this house. The interior was filthy. A dirty oven and a fireplace filled with creosote, screens with holes in them, a broken video, loss of hot water, diminishing water pressure, a gas leak which has left me without a stove to cook on, windows and doors that were broken and won’t lock, barking dogs that awaken me almost every night are some of the issues I continue to face. I came to Abiquiu to write and have been unable to begin my project with all the confusion swirling around me. Consequently, I am slipping into a depressed state. It is only when I am engaged with the desert that I feel peace, and the sense of “home.”
I am doing my best to stay afloat in all this chaos and unsure of what the future holds. I am puzzled by the extremes I am encountering. I have to face the fact that I may have made a mistake coming here.
The most effective remedy for my sleep deprivation and exhaustion has been to get out and walk in the desert….
On our morning walks miniature striped Chihuahuan whiptail lizards with bright green tails flash by disappearing in seconds in the nearest vegetation. Desert cottontails and black tailed jackrabbits astonish me with their sudden appearances, especially when they freeze so that I can pick out individual differences. One morning I watched two cottontails chase each other around the wash that stretched out in front of us. Two baby cottontails visit the bird place every night.
Wildflowers are amazingly abundant especially in the washes. The birdcage primroses are pure white, tinted with delicate pink petals, wild flax wash the landscape in pale sky blue. Sunflowers spring up almost anywhere. The magenta and pearl white blossoms of cleomes are buzzing with bees. Purple and yellow aster bouquets spring out of dry sand. Tiny pincushion clusters of deep purple blossoms surprise me each time I stumble on one. My favorite wildflower is a tiny periwinkle blue flower with five petals and a bright yellow center that I also can’t identify. I never before associated an abundance of wildflowers with the desert in late summer or fall until I came to Abiquiu.
Last week I accidently injured a six – inch juniper that I dug up. It was growing under a nurse tree leaning towards the sun it couldn’t reach. My intention was to give this small juniper a more tree friendly home – young junipers are shade intolerant – but I broke off its taproot while digging it up. I left it sitting in a glass of water and potted it up yesterday. I hope that it lives.
Feeling distressed and responsible for what I had done to this young tree I went for a walk in one of the washes. Suddenly I began to see the differences between each juniper. Previously I had been researching junipers trying to identify them by name and had become very frustrated because I hadn’t been able to discern the different kinds. When I started to perceive the junipers as individuals it was as if as curtain had lifted before my eyes. I understood then that the desert was trying to teach me to be patient and allow the trees to speak for themselves in their own way, in their own time.
How many times did I have to re- learn this lesson I wondered. Nature dislikes naming because classifying does not facilitate relationship between person and tree. In fact it separates and distances us, allowing us to objectify whatever we see. What I needed to do was to slow down and let Nature take the lead.
Yesterday in one of the washes I discovered that the pinon pine was dropping her cones and the desert floor was covered with seeds. I knew that these trees produce nuts on an irregular basis every few years, so I felt blessed to be witnessing this particular dispersal. I picked up some seeds and brought a whole clump of sweet scented cones home and placed them in a basket to remind me that the season is turning…
All the grasses are seeding up, some looking like wispy tufts, and some wildflowers have already gone to seed. The Datura trumpets are producing dusky spiny pods that pop when they open. I am gathering seeds of all kinds to cast on the bare ground around this house in the hopes of repairing the earth damage, and to give to my neighbor for her new home knowing that I am participating in an ancient ritual, because as most archeologists will attest to, Indigenous women have been gathering seeds for millennium. Women invented agriculture with their seed gathering; their handprints are imprinted on the ancient clay vessels they created to carry water and to store seeds and they wove clothing from wild plants and animal skins and fur – All this occurred thousands of years ago and stretches back to the Paleolithic era.
At the Indian market fresh produce is at its peak with luscious tomatoes, pears and peaches, green chilies and buffalo meat all sold at reasonable prices from the Indigenous peoples that grow their produce without pesticides.
Soon the 2nd Harvest moon will be upon us. Waxing full on September 16 the moon precedes the Fall Equinox only by a few days. For a moment the earth will pause, and day and night will be equal in length and then the days will grow shorter. Surely this is a time to be thankful for the abundance the earth has provided.
There is a traditional Navajo expression in this area that states:
“There is nothing the human hand has made. The lake is our church. The mountain is our tabernacle. The evergreen trees are our living saints. We pray to the water, the sun, the clouds, the sky, the deer. Without them we could not exist. They give us food, drink, physical power and knowledge.”
This kind of heart centered embodied thinking allows me to become part of all there is. Growing up I knew nothing of my Native heritage and yet, it was to Nature that I turned for solace. It was engaging with Nature that brought me joy. When I discovered my Native roots I wondered if it was this part of my psyche and body that had been leading me “home” all along. Perhaps home for me is anywhere where wilderness still thrives?