Desert Grassland Whiptails

 

 

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Every morning when I go out to water my potted plants and the remnant’s of the chamisa bushes that were sacrificed during the process of building I meet the lizards. I have two kinds – sagebrush lizards and the desert grassland whiptails. Both of these reptiles appear to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs, or perhaps they are just waiting for the water to start flowing.

 

This morning when I planted a few coyote gourd seeds in a hole that I had recently dug, a whiptail lizard emerged like magic from somewhere under the house delicately positioning himself at the edge of the water logged hole for a drink. In the early morning light his stripes shimmered in the sun. The annoying thing is that I never have a camera with me to capture these morning antics, but I look forward with anticipation to seeing these lizards scurrying about every single day.

 

Desert grassland whiptails are very long and slim, with a thin tail that is longer than their body length. The most distinct identifying feature of these lizards are the six yellow lines – some very bright – that run the length of their bodies. The remainder of their bodies tend to be olive or brown with tails that are faded blue or gray. Curiously, an adolescent’s tail is a very bright and vibrant blue so I am always on the look out for the young ones. Whiptail bodies are lined with small coarse scales, which gradually get larger towards their tails. The scales on their bellies are larger and smoother.

Desert grassland whiptails are found in the deserts of southern to central Arizona and along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. They are also found in the deserts of northern Mexico. A. uniparens is commonly found in low valleys, grasslands, and slight slopes. Some have argued that the species’ range is expanding due to overgrazing. They are scarce in developed areas, especially where homeowners keep livestock.

One amazing fact is that all desert grassland whiptail lizards are female! Strangely, researchers note that a kind of pseudo-copulation occurs which promotes fertilization during ovulation. The lizards reproduce by parthenogenesis, but offspring do not necessarily have the same chromosomes as their mother. This is because the lizards start off with twice the amount of chromosomes as would be found in sexually reproducing individuals. Diversity is maintained by combining sister chromatids which have the same origin but different functions.

Whiptails eat spiders, termites, ants of all kinds, beetles, and short-horned grasshoppers. These food habits make them very appealing to gardeners like me who don’t use any toxic chemicals to prevent insect infestations of any kind. Whiptails are constantly in motion! They often run upright on their hind legs, giving them the appearance of miniature dinosaurs! They also swivel their heads frequently from side to side, taste the air with slender forked tongues, and use their pointed snouts to probe the ground as they forage.

Their speed, and agility help them outmaneuver predators such as thrashers, roadrunners and snakes. One of my Chihuahuas, Lucy, is fascinated by them and always tries to chase them into the cottonwood leaves! Did you know that these lizards can sprint up to fifteen miles per hour (as fast as a roadrunner)? Whiptail lizards can also escape capture by sacrificing their tails (when grasped, their tail breaks easily along a fracture plane in the vertebrae). The disembodied tail wriggles violently, which startles and distracts the predator while the lizard dashes to safety.

Whiptails are wily creatures, beautiful to look at, and fun to watch. They do seem to enjoy scurrying around my feet as I water. I always talk to them, and when I do they watch me and listen with apparent curiosity. In my opinion, paying close attention to these little characters will bring joy into your day!

Water – Sky Woman

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(Photo taken by Iren Schio at Abiquiu Lake)

I am a woman who is in love with the Water and Sky!

This photo was taken a few days ago when Iren and I went to the lake to swim – it captures the joy of the moment.

Last night we had real rain – the kind that soaks the desert ground and brings even the most withered plants to life.

Here in Northern New Mexico we are suffering a terrible drought that has chilling implications for the future. Living by the river under the cottonwoods I am spared the  visual reality of drought, although it is impossible to ignore the dry cracked earth beneath my feet, or the scarcity of wildflowers.

The light rain we had yesterday morning wasn’t enough to keep me from watering thirsty seedlings and plants… but the birds were taking baths on the wire fence and I had a flock of western bluebirds, phoebes, flycatchers and towhees that all participated. The first fiesty Rufous hummingbird appeared at my feeder.

Last night, as if in anticipation of heavier rains the great horned owl hooted just outside my window at dusk – twice. The nighthawk identified himself  by his high pitched peet.

When the skies opened last night it seemed like a holy thing. This morning on my walk to the river mist rose off the water obscuring the mesas.

The thick gray cloud cover keeps the scorching solstice sun at bay, and all my windows are open allowing inside and outside to become parts of one whole.

Unlike so many this time of year is my least favorite because of the heat of the sun, so to have two mornings of reprieve seems like the greatest of blessings and my gratitude overflows…

Querying in the Context of Religion and Science

 

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How do we respect science – the myth of our time – when it continues to use non – human sentient beings for it’s own gain?

How do we respect religions for the harm or damage that these beliefs may cause for animals, plants and people who live on the Earth?

These are important questions, and for me the two are intimately related. Science and religion are two lenses used by humans to perceive the world.

The other night I watched a brief video on mushrooms and how they could be grown to serve as a substitute for leather hides stripped from the backs of animals… how wonderful for animals I thought instantly – privileging animals over plants and temporarily – and forgetting that Fungi/mushrooms are fantastic and ancient life forms that appeared on this planet somewhere between plant and animals between 450 – 350 million years ago. They may be some of our most ancient teachers. Fungi have characteristics of both plants and animals and even have a kind of external skin made of chitlin that is insect-like. (They are also phenomenal communicators in the plant world, another fact I forgot in my enthusiasm during this video). I allowed myself to be seduced by science until my friend Iren made a comment that startled me.

She queried, “I wonder how the mushrooms feel about it.” This question caught me unawares in my own snare, because once again I had strayed into the mind of science without my feeling body attached.

How do these beings feel about being stuffed into plastic bags and grown under artificial conditions? They are probably deeply distressed I concluded ruefully, sadden by my own insensitivity and grateful to my friend for “Earthing” me in such a respectful way.

Recently I had a dream that told me “there is no religious way through, there are just people’s opinions.” In the dream I was somewhat startled when the dream maker finished “the way is not choosing a way.” Puzzling over this apparent ambivalence I came to the realization that staying open to possibilities was the position I now hold with respect to both science and religion. It is clear that I still get caught by my western conditioning, a position that privileges “the god of science” without appropriate questioning, as so many people do with organized religion.

And yet with this much said, I believe my relationship with Nature has opened a door to Universality in a way that science, religion, philosophy scholarship etc. could never do on its own. Nature just is, and at 73 I give the Earth and non – human sentient species full credit for teaching me how to become a loving and compassionate human being.

Is animism a religion? I don’t believe so. There are no rules, no practices, no injunctions… there is only what is… I may be in love with the wilderness, each stone and sunrise each dove coo and loving look from my dearest canine companions, each bear, owl, deer, and elk, and yet I fall into the same traps that other humans do. Sadly, as already stated, none of us are immune to privilege of one kind or another.

I accord Nature my deepest respect acknowledging that most of the world does not see/feel what I do. In Nature I find countless mirrors for what I see and feel and like the trees that are now heavy with spring buds but present to the threat of frost, I stay as much in the present as I can.

Both science and religion are limited by the belief systems that people develop within these disciplines and traditions. I find that I can respect people who are genuine seekers that attempt to question and work within their respective worlds although I do not agree, support or accept those practices that harm others or continue to support a patriarchal system that is hell bent on destroying us or the planet when I see what is happening. Human visioning is so limited.

Today I do hold other people accountable for the harm they do/have done to themselves/others/the planet, just as I hold myself accountable; we are all participants.

What helps me the most is returning to my Naturalist self, the part of me that keeps me grounded in a present that allows me to find peace in the present moment. Perhaps this “no way” is some way after all.

Turn, Turn, Turn…

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We are approaching the Fall Equinox, a time of year that is perhaps more poignant than any other, and also my favorite season. As the days shorten and the trees are heavy with golden or rosy apples, with every kind of maple turning a different shade of crimson, rust, gold and olive green, with papery brown beeches rustling in light wind, and white pines dropping needles in abundance as I prune back the juniper that lines my woodland paths for another year, I am thankful simply to “be.”

 

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The Datura plant that has now gone into the ground (with my help – I never thought I would get this plant out of its pot!) surprised me with a shower of ripe seeds falling from bright green prickly pods just two days after I dug it in. I covered the windfall with soil hoping that some new seeds will sprout along with their year old sisters after a long winter’s sleep under a blanket of thick mulch and snow. I am still collecting nasturtium seeds from my seemingly impossible patch of ever blooming flowers, whose peppery blossoms I love to eat, if only I can bear to spare them from becoming a riotous bouquet for my table! The last of the scarlet runner beans have giant pods almost ready for harvesting for next years seed.

 

On quiet nights I sleep with my head under the open window closest to the brook whose waters are barely tr, audible and yet the drought seems less threatening because it is normal to see the brook low this time of year (unfortunately this is only illusion). My vernal pool is finally drying up and I am delighted to see that no wriggling tadpoles are left…all have transformed into amphibians that live in two worlds instead of one (rather like me!) Tree frogs trill throughout the night singing love songs and everywhere tiny gold wood frogs hop through grass that I deliberately leave unattended so that they, and the small slower hopping toads, are not killed by a mindless mowing machine.

 

I revel in the spreading carpet of emerald green moss that is gradually replacing the grass in most places because shade dominates my little patch of woodland around this house. My pearl white hydrangea blooms on and is a joy to behold, she is so full of bumble bees. I could stand under her for hours counting different varieties of this one species. After a summer without bees I am in love with these humming blossoms.

 

The squirrels are caching nuts, during this year of acorn and pine cone abundance and even their chittering seems less annoying. I can smell the fermenting apples outside my window and at night listen for the sound of creatures coming in to feast… Last night, the source of the great thud I heard as some animal hit the ground from the apple tree remains a mystery. Why anyone would bother to climb this tree now is a question that remains unanswered. There are so many apples covering the ground that I need to walk under the drooping boughs with care. I note with pleasure that many small native bees like these sweetest of wild apples as they begin to rot on the ground. This year, instead of raking them up I will leave the fruit to fertilize the Earth for next spring. In time, the deer will return to feast on fermented apples and crabapples that pepper the ground under their various trees.

 

What a season this has been! Never do I remember such abundance but perhaps there have been other years almost as good as this one. It may also be that each year my appreciation deepens. I am still waiting for the first partridge to appear in one of their favorite crabapples, and daily I watch for the flock of cedar waxwings that lay over here for a feast on their southern migration. The flickers have yet to arrive for a stopover but two mornings ago I heard the first flock of geese flying over the house. Some Indigenous tribes call this this month the time of the “ducks flying away” and some are already on the wing.

 

The fox grapes are ripening in great globular clusters just outside my window, although a hard frost will be needed to sweeten them for my taste. The birds aren’t as fussy and neither are the foxes.

 

The time of natural harvest is particularly special to me because I know that I am providing much needed food for my non – human friends – a gift to those who have both witnessed and loved me… Every plant and tree on this property was planted with the idea that someday animals/birds/insects would find an abundance of food here, while in other more manicured places, it might become more scarce. I am glad to have lived long enough to experience this dream coming to pass.

 

As I lean into the coming darkness, I do so with gratitude for this season, and for the few moments of balance that we will experience as the equinox moments pass by, moving us from now pale early morning light into quickening dark nights, and the coming of the winter months…I remind myself that moments of balance are always temporary in Nature and in myself and that both need to be cherished.

 

As fall begins so does the hope for soaking rain – precious water that will nourish the earth, fill brooks streams, rivers and dug wells. Trees caching fire and gold in their leaves are also preparing for winter’s sleep. Hopefully high winds won’t take the flaming canopies too soon.

 

Lily B is usually quiet not singing until mid – morning. I sleep late, the mourning doves and finches don’t appear until after 7 AM, and my dogs are reluctant to leave our warm bed. All of us are turning with the wheel as Nature prepares herself for another winter’s sleep.

The Woman Who Listens

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Oh, the sun is burning up the sky

turning it white under smoke heavy air.

Crackling tree bark keens but no one listens.

It’s just another “burn.”

 

I am a woman who listens.

 

Twilight lays down her starry blanket.

A half moon floats through the sky.

Desert air turns cool.

The Canyon towhee and white crowned sparrow

Converse, quenching thirst at a shallow well.

 

I am a woman who listens

 

Hummingbirds

dive and climb, wildly whirring wings

speak to a multitude of avian presences.

Fierce and vulnerable in the extreme,

humming and buzzing they call my name.

 

I am a woman who listens…

 

A long guttural trill breaks the silence.

He sounds like a tree frog!

Is he singing a song for his lady,

under sun warmed stones?

A desert oasis is a holy place,

for a woman who listens.

 

Working notes:

Yesterday, the sun was fierce and the air thick with smoke that didn’t clear until twilight. I ached for burning trees. It was so hot that I went for a dip in the river. And then after dark I heard him singing from the little pond. I don’t know what kind of frog sounds that long guttural trill but just knowing that he was out there singing allowed me to sleep.

Spring Rain

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For the last couple of days we have had cloudy weather with a few irregular cloudbursts bringing much needed rain to our Juniper clustered high desert…When it rains earth tones deepen and the stones that line my paths standout like people. Perhaps they are Kachinas, after all.

Katchinas are on my mind because these holy people come down from the mountains to help the Tewa invoke the rain – gods that will help the crops grow. Squash, corn, and beans remind me that the Three Sister’s technology lives on. The Katchinas have been around since the winter solstice but they stay hidden until the spring dances begin…

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Acequia (above)

Some fields are already plowed and the acequias are brimming with rapidly flowing water. Every morning I awaken to the sound of my dove Lily B’s cooing and as soon as I step out the door I am serenaded by the song of flocks of red winged blackbirds and the rasping sound of cactus wrens. The cacophony is so intense that it drowns out the mating songs of the white crowned sparrows, finches, chickadees, nuthatches, canyon and spotted towhees, white winged and collared doves. But the magpie announces himself in a startling way, not just by his stark black and white coat, a dress with tails, but also by his sharp staccato call. It seems as if the birds take over the earth as the seed moon and spring equinox pass by in March. Last night’s crescent moon sliced through a midnight blue night sky.

I am obsessed with frogs because at this time of year the wood frogs are already croaking if winter in the northeast has been mild. This one has not. Last year I arrived in the desert too late to listen to the frogs that only appear during the first monsoon flooding of early summer. Frogs and water are intimately related, and all frogs and toads begin their lives in still pools, as eggs that hatch with the heat of the rising sun star. May the frogs live on!

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Red Willow river overflows her banks, whitecaps whirl in spirals as she rushes by in the morning mist. This river brings precious moisture to germinating seeds who will soon be emerging from winters’ sleep.

I am preparing Datura seeds for planting, imagining the lavender tipped trumpet shaped flowers, glowing pearl white at twilight while thanking the sky with their scent. Every drop of water that falls from the sky is a prayer for life.

Below: Sunset

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I weave bits of big sage into my braids so the perfume wafts into my nose, even as I breathe in the sweet scent of spring. I am filled with gratitude to be living in a place where the songs of birds, the planting of seeds, a warming sun, and the greening of sage and desert scrub fit together like a mosaic whose pieces complement one another with such perfection. Nature is the artist whose cycles of creation never cease to amaze me. Filled with wonder I give thanks for life.

Postscript: When I finished this post I went for a walk along the river and on a bench sat two stones that weren’t there before. I think the Katchinas must approve of this prose because they left me evidence of their presence!

Eagle Day

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It was zero on my outdoor thermometer when I took the dogs for their early morning walk under a brilliant January sun, grateful that today there would be no wind because Bruce and I were going to spend at least two hours outdoors on a look out point spying for eagles.

The drive to Abiquiu lake was stunning. All the hills were covered with a fine coating of snow that seemed to etch and pull each rounded peak forward, highlighting the layers upon layers of mountains that lay behind one another – creating an undulating earth tapestry. Here and there patches of red were visible. As always the colors of the stone cliffs that lined the highway on one side captured my attention. Bruised purple, lavender, pink, ochre, buff and red rock provided a continuous visual feast for hungry eyes.

Below: red hills and mountains from look out

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Many people turned out for this bird watching/counting event, and a brief power point presentation inside the Core of Engineers’ office discussed some of the reasons for this event. I recalled that southern bald eagles were smaller than those in the northeast, but neglected to ask what the differences amounted to in weight. I learned that no one knows why there are so few bald eagles in New Mexico. I puzzled over this conundrum because there are many areas of open water and the Rio Grande flows through the state. I was discouraged to hear that eagles were still being shot in this state and that lead poisoning was still the second cause of death for these majestic predators. We were also told that eagles were quite “lazy” a word I wouldn’t use to describe eagle behavior because I know from personal experience that these birds are opportunistic choosing to steal fish or game that has been caught by others if they have the chance, in order to conserve precious energy, but who also hunt extensively on their own. I think this flexible attitude of theirs speaks to eagle intelligence. To cite another example – it is well known that Corvids like crows and ravens all use the same techniques for hunting if they can get away with it. These birds also use tools and have been studied extensively for intelligence (see Biologist Bernrd Heinrich’s work).

Before the group dispersed – some went on two boats and the rest of us were directed to look out points on land – we got a chance to meet Maxwell, a captive adult male eagle who could not be returned to the wild because of a wing injury. I have spent a lot of time in my kayak watching the eagles on North Pond (in Maine) raise their young, but I had never been this close to a live eagle before. Poor Maxwell seemed very nervous, and who could blame him? We were all enthralled, and busy snapping too many pictures for his comfort. A couple of times he tried to fly up and away. His great talons looked deadly and I was surprised to learn that he could only carry two pounds of prey. I knew for a fact that northern eagles made away with unsuspecting cats and adult loons who often weighed much more than two pounds! I had personally witnessed an adult cat capture on a neighbor’s field in Maine, a few years ago.

Maxwell’s sharp curved beak was huge (and larger than that of the golden eagle whose territory overlapped that of the bald eagles in this area) but it was his ice blue eyes that bored holes through me when I looked into them. The other thing that struck me forcibly was the sight of his pure white tail feathers, which fanned out both times Maxwell tried to escape. The feathers were Sangre de Christo mountain white, the color of newly fallen snow. Almost blue.

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Dispersing to the look out point that Bruce had chosen I felt excited by the prospect of sighting eagles soaring in the air. When we reached the top of the knoll (almost) about ten or fifteen of us we all began to scan the horizon. We were in radio contact with all the other folks and it wasn’t long before the first eagle was spotted. I found it difficult to find this particular bird that was perched on what seemed like a very low snag. He looked small in the distance. We had seen a couple more eagles when someone spotted a female mule deer running down below us. I was thrilled. I have lived here since last August, and although I have seen tracks, I have yet to spot a mule deer in the flesh. I had forgotten how mule deer bound – almost bounce along – because it has been 20 years since I last saw one in Arizona.

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Above Abiquiu lake from our look out point

To my utter amazement, a few moments later we glimpsed a male mule deer, with a full set of antlers, enter the water just below us and begin to swim. I was dumbfounded! The Park Ranger remarked that he was trying to get away from us and I concurred. People hunt both deer and elk and because of that they both have learned to fear humans. (I just hoped that men hunted them primarily for food, as the Tewa do). Watching the buck through binoculars, I was riveted by the sight of this majestic animal almost completely submerged except for his rack of antlers. I tried to count the number of points but he was swimming across the lake to the other side, and my eyes simply couldn’t keep focusing long enough to see. But it really didn’t matter. The sense of wonder I experienced was overpowering. I have lived around white tailed deer in the north most of my life and feed about 30 during the winter but I have NEVER seen a deer swimming across a lake before! When the buck reached the other side he seemed uncertain as to where he was going next. By this time my binoculars felt too heavy and I stopped watching him, just grateful to have been part of this astonishing experience.

What a day full of adventures! All in all 12 eagles were counted and this seemed like a respectable number to me. When Bruce and I drove home we saw two more of these birds sitting in a cottonwood down by the river.

Later, reflecting on the experience as a whole, I was struck by the sense of balance inherent in the sighting of the eagle, a magnificent predator of the sky, and the male buck with his beautiful rack of antlers. It seemed to me that both sky and earth had conspired to gift us with the sight of two animals, both of which are held in great esteem by Indigenous peoples and by others of us who are not.

Close up shots of Maxwell taken by Bruce Nelson

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