Entries in desert (7)

Wednesday
May172017

Day 229: Mountain time

Imagine this.

You start by driving away from the city, into the desert. A few flat, hot hours go by. You are surrounded mostly by cactus. The only signs of water are the dry washes carved into the ground by summer storms.

Eventually, you begin to gain elevation. Cactus dwindle, replaced by grasses. There is less bare ground between plants. As you continue to climb, you begin to see more trees—short, twisted oaks and junipers that are still more shrubs than trees. Farther up, these get taller, now providing a little filtered shade. Yuuca’s outnumber the cactus. There is dry bunchgrass everywhere.

When you run out of road, you park the car and start walking. The steep trail ascends rapidly up the side of a vast, craggy mountain. You begin to see views of the valley and the city you started from in the distance. The oaks are taller, especially in the ravines, but there is still no visible water. Here there are manzanitas and little forest flowers—heuchera in the shade and paintbrush where it is sunnier. The trail is steep and dusty. The sun feels like a hot bulb suspended directly overhead. Every scrap of shade from the scattered trees on the ridges is a relief.

After over an hour of climbing you are high on the mountain. The valley below spreads away into distant haze. There are real trees here—mostly pines. The trail levels off close to the rocky ramparts of the mountain peak. You traverse a ridge then drop down into a fold in the mountainside.

As you enter the bottom of the ravine the world changes completely. For the first time in all these hot miles, a little stream gurgles up out of the ground. The air is quiet and cool. Long-needled pines and a Douglas fir tower an impossible height above you. Huge, white-trunked sycamores glow in the lighted shadows. Light-green ferns grow thick on the duffy ground. Moss covers the rocks. Even a little purple violet blooms in the stream. Sunlight slips through the leaves in sparkling patches on the water.

But most magical of all, the air above the stream is alive with wings. Hundreds of butterfly-like moths are rising up from the short stretch of flowing water in a loose flittering cloud of color and light. Each moth’s hind-wings are shiny metallic blue, their thick bodies are a soft powder-blue, and their round heads glow vivid red. At rest, with their orange-veined wings folded over their backs, they blend into the needles, but they are not often at rest, but are in constant twinkling, sparkling flight.

As I watch this swirl of colored wings, I feel like there should be music. The creek purls and trickles and crescents down over the wet rocks. The sun shines silently. I ask humble forgiveness for all the times I scoffed at fantasy movies in which the forest air was filled with fluttering, gossamer drifting stuff, as being “unreal.” This, too, feels unreal, but it is right here, moths rising and falling, tumbling and circling, landing on mud, opening and closing their wings, taking to the air again. This is also reality: as real as the long, hot walk to get here; as real as the fast, hot city in the distance.

And like most of reality it is fleeting. By the time we leave the stream late that afternoon, many of the moths have either dispersed or are stuck and drowning in deeper pools, littering the shore of the creek. Over the next weeks we see them many times in ones and twos, but never again in such numbers, even back at the same spring.

From what I can tell, these are Veined Ctenucha or Ctenucha venosa, a moth of the southwest that is active by day and whose larva feed on grasses. Why was there such a swarm of them? There must be some good reason—there always is—but I don’t know what it was. All I know is that it was memorable, as was all of Mt. Wrightson, its richness rising island-like out of the sea of desert.

One thing this trip is about, is time; and having time allows a different perspective. With this kind of time, watching a flight of moths might be the most important thing I do all day. And with time I tend toward a certain kind of watching—not observing so much for the sake of knowledge or understanding, but simply for the delight of it. The kind of watching that is a kind of homage or a prayer to what is, in all its magnificent detailed variety.

-----------

We spent a week and a half at Madera Canyon on Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, walking and working and writing and being amazed at the incredible variety of plants, birds, lizards, and insects who make their home on this “sky island.”

Wednesday
Apr262017

A little love letter to Cascabel

   Secret cliffs stand silent in dry canyons.
   The sun stretches from horizon to horizon.
   Every rock is hot.
   Still, some places keep their names close,
   and hide plants there that love shade.

   In the mornings, mountains wake up first.
   Like cats they are alert watchers.
   The plants mostly endure.
   Contained for years they wait 
   for exhibitions of dazzling excess.

   Ants build fantastic homes in the worst soil.
   Beetles multiply even in dusty pastures.
   Snakes thrive.
   At night the toads suddenly bend the darkness
   with their wretched love songs.

   And the people? They too endure,
   holding something rare away from the wind,
   keeping watch—
   and like the bees, gather the slightest slips of sweetness
   into a golden labor of honey.
Sunday
Apr232017

Day 178-224: Cascabel finale

I have been struggling to figure out how to write about our time in Cascabel, and in the end, I have decided to keep it simple.

There is so much I could talk about. There is the community history, things like Jim and Pat Corbett’s work in the 80’s that began the Sanctuary Movement. There is the commitment of the Saguaro-Juniper covenant to conduct human activity in partnership with everything else that lives here. There are projects to restore native grasslands. There is the hermitage program which supports solitary retreat in desert wildlands. There is the community center built by volunteers from recovered materials, and the community garden with its cadre of fun-loving gardeners. There is the eclectic mix of people who live lives that are both highly independent and closely associated. Amongst those people, there is enough creativity, advanced education, and international experience to start a small college. And most important, there is the land itself that grounds everything else—the San Pedro River Valley, a rare, vital, relatively-intact, desert river ecosystem, whose miles of willow-cottonwood forest and mesquite bosques provide food and shelter for a staggering number of local animals as well as being an essential migratory corridor for many of the birds who summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Like I said, there’s a lot. But whenever I try to focus on any one of these things I find myself caught in generalizations or comparisons, or tangled in some kind of “educational” language that does not do justice to my actual experience.

So in the end it comes down to this: that both Tom and I came away from the last seven weeks with a deep affection for this place—the people and the land—that is like the bonds we feel with our family and friends. This affection comes from something greater than the accomplishments of the people or the beauty of the plants or the variety of the birds. It comes from the spiritual soul of this place—the wholeness of it, the spaciousness, the vast wild network of creatures connected to the vitality of the community.

   If I am still—
   if I let my hands rest, my heart broaden
   to the width of the valley, to the height of the mountains,
   then on to the next range beyond,
   to the cities, the rivers, the sea,
   then I too may find my place here,
   if I can stop grasping long enough
   to remember how to be vast.

   Of all the places I could be
   how did I end up here, in this moment?
   I mean in this very moment—
   at sunset, the cusp of night reaching out over the wide valley;
   the white cliffs at my back and the rangy peaks of the Galiuro Mountains
   pushed up in the distance; the whole wide green body
   of the valley laid out in-between in low rolling hills
   of creosote and saguaros; the little houses of people I know
   folded into them like nuts spotting a batter;
   and below, the cottonwoods assembled along the river
   like cows trailing loosely toward fresh pastures.
   The sky is about to reveal its stars.
   The moon is a ghost disk in the periwinkle wash.
   The barest threads of clouds mottle the air from east to west,
   and here I am—
   here I am with nothing but the wind
   and all this space
   to speak with.
Monday
Apr102017

Day 178-216: Cascabel, part 1

Two years ago in April, Tom and I rented a 100-year-old stone cabin in Cascabel, Arizona, in the San Pedro River Valley, a couple hours east of Tucson. To the uninitiated this might be considered the middle of nowhere. The nearest grocery store is 45 minutes by car, the best road here is unpaved, water is scarce, and a census might have to include cows to break 300.  It didn’t take long, though, for us to realize that Cascabel is actually somewhere, and not only that, it is somewhere special. Even after just a week we knew that we wanted to come back. It took us two years to do so, but on March 1st we arrived for a seven-week stay.


Downtown Cascabel

There is so much to say about this place—both the land and the community— that I get tongue-tied just thinking about it, so I am going to come at it through the back door. Instead of painting the grand picture, I am going to start with some humble bits, sidling up to it with a little whistle, as I have seen some people here approach a cow they needed to move.

--------------------------------

After having been in the desert now for the last four months, we are getting used to the "don't touch that" rule, whether it is the furry-looking cholla cactus, or the cat-claws of the acacia, or the long spikes on the mesquite trees. It seems best to just assume that rule applies to all plants and, well, pretty much anything that moves. Having grown up in the soft-and-friendly Pacific Northwest, I like to touch things, and I have to be reminded to keep my hands in my "Haydn-pockets" here.

Every Wednesday there’s morning coffee at the community center, followed by a work party at the community garden. Our first Wednesday here, the guy who sits down at our table is recovering from a scorpion sting on his foot. I am talking to someone else and can’t hear the details, but the length of his story and the size of his gestures suggest that he has been in a lot of pain.

I heard about fire ants on my previous visit, so I am careful to avoid ant mounds when I am walking. When we are visiting a neighbor here, looking at the native grass plantings he is tending in his restored pasture, I stop for a closer look at some unusually large black ants swarming in and out of a hole in the ground. "Oh, those,” he says, telling me the name, which I can’t remember now. “Don't mess with those, their bite is way worse than a scorpion sting!" Move along, in other words. Maybe over by that prickly pear cactus or in that stand of velcro grass. Or in a patch of that bristly plant with the yellow flowers that someone warned me would give me hives if I touched it without gloves.

Javalinas look like small, vertically-flattened, pointy-toed pigs that wander around in packs looking for mud. Mostly they seem interested in hiding, and the few times I have seen them it was from the rear as they ran hysterically away from me. But one woman mentions that she doesn't like to walk along the river in a place where the javelinas gather, not so much because they are dangerous, really, but because "javelinas don't have a sense of humor." Woody, the ranch's herd manager, tells a story of one angry javelina waking him up from a nap in the fields and chasing him into the stock pond. His description of the smell of the sludge he stirred up from the bottom of the pond when he fell in made me think that being bitten by the javelina might have been preferable.

After moving cows one day we sit in a little house next to the corral having cookies and cheese and I notice a good-sized spider (a solid inch in diameter with all the legs pulled in) on the wall over our host. Spiders aren't a trigger for me the way snakes are, but I think she might like to know about it so I mention it. Oh yeah. That guy is just a baby. It is deadly poisonous, of course, and moves really fast, so I am waiting until I can focus on it to catch it.

Oh, and I have now seen my first rattlesnake. I should have been forewarned, as Cascabel means “rattle” in Spanish, and refers in this case to the tail-end of a rattlesnake. Sure enough, our first night here I “discovered” a good-sized rattlesnake coiled up by the end of our trailer, and get my first lesson in snake catching and moving.

A few weeks ago most of the community gathered for a memorial service for a very dear friend of theirs who recently died. After a spacious hour of silence, meditation bells, and remembrances we sit for potluck lunch. The woman next to us asks us how we are doing here, and we tell her how much we are taken by the valley, to which she responds, “Well, with the warmer weather, you will need to watch out for the Kissing Bugs." Kissing Bugs! What? No one told us about Kissing Bugs. Turns out these are stink bug look-alikes that hide behind your cushions and come out at night to bite you while you are asleep, attracted evidently by the smell of your breath. Their saliva has a little anesthetic in it so you don't even feel them when they "kiss" you and they are able to fill to exploding on your blood like a leech. Great. Bed leeches.

The next Wednesday I am back at the community garden when someone walks by the young man who is helping with our tomato transplanting team. "I hear you got hit by a burn worm," he says in the sort of somber tone you might use for someone who has had a limb amputated. Burn worm?!? What now? Turns out these are some kind of caterpillars (also known as mesquite stinger caterpillar) covered with stinging hairs, that fall out of the trees and feel, as the unfortunate young man reported, like four bee stings at once. At least now I know how to treat it, which is to apply duct tape to the burning spot and then rip it off to pull the little stinging hairs out of your skin. This is also supposed to work with cholla glochids, though my previous experiences with sports tape make me wonder if this cure might add insult to injury.

I say all this to emphasize how amazing this place is. That even though the list of poisonous, prickly, and painful things to be avoided is longer than our trailer, I still wake up every day feeling like I have landed in paradise. Perhaps the threat of harm makes me pay more attention and take less for granted. Perhaps there is a kind of awe at the lengths things go to survive in harsh environments. Perhaps there is a longing to be as at home in this wide, arid land as the creosote bush and the cactus.

All I know is that this land feels deeply, vibrantly alive—an understated aliveness mirrored by the people who choose to live here. I have experienced a profound gentleness in many of the people here, coupled with a willingness to act decisively in service to what they believe in. There is a commitment to being partners with the land, rather than the land being a possession or only a means to making a profit. These ideals seem to arise at least in part from the desert itself, which is absolutely unforgiving and absolutely itself, while also offering an intense spiritual aliveness.

Not everyone who lives here ascribes to these ideas. There are many different faces to Cascabel, and what you see depends on where you stand and who you talk to. What is clear to us, though, is that we are here to learn—about generosity, about community working together, about how to live in challenging circumstances, and most of all about the land.

--------------------------------

Tom and I are staying at a ranch which is the central location for Saguaro-Juniper, the cattle-raising part of this community, and have parked our trailer amidst the welter of houses, trailers, corrals, sheds, horse trailers, trucks, and the kind of equipment and raw materials that accumulates on every farm. We feel so lucky to be here. To the west we can walk to the San Pedro River and can get to an area where the riverbed has year-round water. To the east we can walk for miles out into the saguaros and creosote bush of the desert. Our hosts are some of the original founders of this community and it has been a pleasure to get to know them and hear their stories.

This is also the location of the Sweetwater Center, the organization that I am volunteering for while we are here. I am helping with some pasture improvement projects as well as caring for two new plantings of pollinator plants. What this really means is I do a lot of weeding, which is something with which I have loads of experience. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying it. I think it feels good to just do something familiar, simple, and rote after six months of so much change.

When I am not weeding or walking in the desert with Tom, I have been immersed in the busy social life of this community. Coffee gatherings, Quaker meeting, potlucks, horseback riding, folk dancing, meditation group, writing group, road cleanup, cheese making, game night, celebrations of all sorts of things, committee meetings, mesquite-pulling work parties, conservation work, and tending the community garden all somehow get squeezed into the short weeks around here. The result of that, though, is that after only six weeks here, I have met just about everyone who lives along about a ten-mile stretch of the dirt road.

There is so much more to say about this place, but it will have to wait for another post. I am still digesting the incredible vastness of the desert, the life-giving presence of the river, the principles of the people who have been drawn together in community, and the work of the organizations that have formed around the intention of tending this valley and its inhabitants.

In a week we will pack up our trailer and move on. We aren't sure where we are headed or what the next five months will hold for us. We don't know when we might come back here. But the people and the land are in our hearts now and give us strength. We feel different after being here—a little more relaxed, a little more aware, and warmed by many memories.

Saturday
Feb182017

Day 166: Poem for the day


I love books. As someone who has yet to acclimate to the Kindle-Age, I mean by this, real books. The kind you can smell and feel. The ones you have to struggle to hold open while you fall asleep at night. The kind you can underline, dog-ear, loan to a friend, and return to over and over again as they soften and grow sway-backed.

So only being able to bring a handful of books on this trip seemed like one down-sizing I wouldn't like. I thought I would miss my library and the freedom of having options. However, to my surprise, I have found that this limitation has been a benefit. I actually do like it—a lot.

Mostly I like being able to focus. For example, one book I brought is the selected poems of William Stafford, which I had owned for years without reading. I started at the beginning and read all the way through. One poet. One lifetime. One way of seeing the world. Then, because there wasn't another book waiting in line, I started over and read it again. This way of reading allowed his words to sink into my mind in a deeper way than usual. I am beginning to have a sense of the scope of his worldview. I can feel the change in his subjects as he aged. I can ponder the poems he wrote during his last months. I have never been good at memorizing poems, but when I read this way I find his words settling down and making homes for themselves in my mind. I often find them rising up at just the right moment, as we pass through many of the same places he wrote about. Things like these lines from his poem about Malheur:

An owl sound wandered along the road with me.
I didn’t hear it—I breathed it into my ears.

Or the opening lines of “Lit Instructor”:

Day after day up there beating my wings
With all of the softness that truth requires…

Or from “Inheriting the Earth: Quail”:

And anyway, little quail, your job is
to go out there and lose, when the time comes.

Or from “Outside”:

The least little sound sets the coyotes walking,
walking the edge of our comfortable earth.

Now I am reading Frances Mayes' Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, another book I have owned for many years and never gotten around to reading.  I brought this for the opposite reason—instead of depth, this is about breadth, a chance to see the work of many different poets juxtaposed together. Whereas reading Stafford’s body of work connected the life of one man, reading this connects many different poets speaking to each other across hundreds of years.

All this is just preamble to say that I would like to share a poem from Mayes’ book today—a poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly. It gave me pleasure and the kind of hope that can come from art—whether words, pictures, movement or music.

        Allegro

   After a black day, I play Haydn,
   and feel a little warmth in my hands.

   The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
   The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

   The sound says that freedom exists
   and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

   I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
   and act like a man who is calm about it all.

   I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
   “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

   The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
   rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

   The rocks roll straight through the house
   but every pane of glass is still whole.



----------------------

Spring is beginning as we work our way slowly across southern Arizona. The Fairy Dusters and the mallows are blooming, the Black-throated Sparrows are starting to sing from the bush tips, and Tom has found two Verdin nests. We spent a week at Organ Pipe National Monument, touched the border of Mexico, crossed the Tohona O’odham Nation's land, spent a week west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park (where the above photo was taken) and plan to head down toward the Patagonia area next. After that we will turn toward Cascabel, a small community on the San Pedro River east of Tucson that we visited several years ago, where we plan to spend the month of March. More about that later...

Sunday
Jan152017

Day 114-132: Rest

In the past month and a half—spent mostly in the Mohave Desert—we have settled into a habit of hiking. Whenever we have free time, we go out first thing and spend the day wandering through washes and along the network of desert trails and roads. Sometimes we talk about what we are seeing: rocks, birds, plants, tracks, butterflies, a view. Sometimes we discuss what route to take when we come to a junction or lose the trail altogether. But more often than not, we are just walking in silence, often each at our own pace, settling deeper into ourselves as the miles pass underfoot.

This quiet is deeply healing for me. It gets in my bones. I can feel it, down in my core. As these long silent hours accumulate I can feel space opening up inside me in places that I didn’t even realize were full. I can start to see all the ways my mind keeps busy—thoughts and emotions, all the little pushes and pulls of a lifetime of experiences, the activity of life with other people. These long quiet days in the desert have made me think that perhaps the main purpose of this year for me isn’t “being open” or “learning,” as I thought before I left—perhaps the point is simply starting to rest.

A dear friend of mine gave me a book for this trip called The Relaxed Mind, Dza Kilung Rinpoche's thoughts about deepening meditation practice. I am drawn to the language of this book, as it is so different from the constant subtle pushing that is always in my own mind: that perpetual effort to achieve a goal, plan for the future, evaluate something, be more efficient, or learn and grow. This contrast is helping me see clearly the ways in which my mind is nearly always active.

When I was talking about my plans for this year with people before I left I could hear how even my best intentions had a partially false note to them. I knew that at times I was saying something not because it was completely true, but in part to justify myself or to do the right thing. The idea that the only point of this year is for my mind to learn to rest—that everything else is optional—is perhaps the first idea about it that has felt true for me all the way to its core.

I can see that this rest will make my actions more sustainable. Like a plant, I am stronger when firmly rooted in something still and solid. When my mind reaches far down into the earth for nourishment it can also stretch up into the light with flowers and fruit.

And that stillness is also where I find my source, that link to a deeper and broader wisdom than my own small perspective. In order to address the kinds of issues that face myself and the world, I need this kind of spaciousness inside me, or even my best intentions will likely mirror and perpetuate the difficulties around me. If I want harmony outside, I need to start with harmony within.

It would seem that resting would be simple. But when I see the barriers between me and real relaxation of mind, I can understand how it can be a lifelong goal. I feel grateful for my friend who understood that I needed this book, for Tom’s ability for silence and his willingness to share it with me, and for the time and space to just be alone and begin to listen past the everyday noise of my mind to the spaciousness we are all a part of.

 

          DESERT WALKING

     Blown clean by the wind
     of my future plans,
     I can feel the emptiness
     I was born to.

     Worry drained out.
     No where to go. The past
     just some grass 
     in a far field.

     That thought gone—
     just this hollow body
     making this music,
     this slow life-song.

--------------------

(After we left Lake Havasu, we spent three days at Mohave National Preserve, a couple days exploring Barstow and surrounding areas with Tom’s sister and family, then moved to Joshua Tree National Park and stayed eleven days exploring the rocks and hills and washes. We then moved down to a resort community in the Coachella Valley for showers, laundry, groceries, a haircut, and a place for Tom to get some work done. If I could only pick one place, Mohave National Preserve might be my favorite so far. It is more subtle than Zion, but I loved its wide open spaces and the varied terrain and plants. Oddly, I don't have any pictures from my time there that I like well enough to post, as I found it hard to capture its spacious, dry beauty. All the pictures in this post are from Joshua Tree National Park, except the fourth and sixth which are from the Coachella Valley Nature Preserve, and the fifth which is from Bill Williams NWR.)

Tuesday
Dec272016

Day 93-113: Desert wonderings


Under the stars at Valley of Fire

We left Zion on December 5, spent a day at St. George trying to fit in too many chores—laundry, groceries, and cleaning out the truck bed to discourage the rodent who had moved in while we were at Zion—then moved on to Valley of Fire, Nevada for two nights; then to Topock, Arizona for a week; then to Lake Havasu State Park in Lake Havasu City for six days; then farther south on Lake Havasu for Christmas. My thoughts this week are something like our travels: wandering and not staying in one place for very long. We have touched on so many new things and my mind is still trying to make sense of it all. 


Valley of Fire in the Mohave Desert

Great Basin. Mojave Desert. Sonoran Desert. These names are beginning to mean something to me. After Zion, we left the Great Basin behind, with its high-elevation sagebrush and cold winters. From there we entered the warmer Mohave Desert, the driest of the US deserts, with its signature Joshua Trees. And now at Lake Havasu we are on the border of the Sonoran Desert, the warmest desert in the US, home of saguaros and mesquite trees. We are experiencing one of the characteristics of the Sonoran Desert this week, which is that in the winter, storms from the Pacific Ocean sometimes blow in bringing widespread rains. Though the hills around us are mostly piles of dry gravel dotted here and there with a few scraggly creosote bushes, the steady drizzle all night and the low clouds slung around the mountains this morning make it easy to pretend we are back home in Seattle.

This trip is helping me realize how profoundly we alter our environments. This is not news, and I don't know why this is more obvious to me out here than it was in Seattle. In a way, when you live in a big city for a long time it can come to seem like a kind of ecosystem of its own. The streets and buildings and people begin to organize into their own system and I sometimes forget that it is all constructed. But out here where so much is still raw land, the contrast is more obvious.

As an individual I feel pretty puny most of the time. We hike out into the Havasu Wilderness south of Topock, which has no developed roads or trails, and follow the burro paths out to the jagged barren mountains of broken rock and then down to the Colorado River in one of the few places where it still runs wild. It is a hot day, for winter, and it is clear that without planning and supplies we wouldn’t last long out here. The desert feels so much more powerful than us, something that could never be mastered or tamed.


Colorado River in the Havasu Wilderness

However, when I see the miles and miles of solar grids being installed in the valley south of Boulder City, and the great towers of the power lines marching away from Hoover Dam, and the immense amount of water dammed in Lake Mead or Lake Havasu I wonder if even the desert will survive us: if we can appreciate its beauty, or recognize its inhabitants' lives as important, or really understand that we are embedded in a matrix of life on which we depend.  


Havasu Wilderness

One of our neighbors at our campsite in Topock was trading stories with another man about favorite guns and talking about a cabin he owned and how great it was to sit inside the cabin and shoot coyotes. I got nine of ‘em last year, he exclaims with enthusiasm. Our RV Park is at the edge of a small square island of houses in the desert bordering the Havasu NWR, and every night we hear packs of coyotes yipping and yowling as they hunt the bare gravel hills around town and lope through our campground. Our first night there something peed on the back window of our truck cab. I assume a coyote must have jumped up on the tonneau cover to investigate the tent we had stored there and decided to remind us whose home we were in.

Then there was the day we drove from Valley of Fire to Topock, through some of the most spectacularly disastrous country I have ever seen. I do not understand the geology of this area yet, but clearly there has been some serious upheaval and the mountains are great rifts of rock, broken and tossed into near-vertical ridges and crazily-tilted crags in every color of brown, red, and black imaginable. Everything here is dry, dry, dry. Very little vegetation, and mile after mile of bare rock and brown washes and the smallest plants eking out whatever moisture they can from the coarse soil. In the distance, down the long, bare slopes, we get glimpses all afternoon of the great body of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, and see turnoffs advertising boat launches in a place where I would expect only the fossils of boats.

Then around a corner we come upon a vision so surprising I don’t even know at first what it is. Lake Las Vegas, like a little diorama of a city plunked without warning in the middle of the desert. Its brilliant blue water is surrounded by glass resorts and palatial Mediterranean villas in a tropical verdure of palms and grass and flowers. A mirage? A Hollywood set? A little research and I find that, no, it is “real” enough. A several-times-bankrupt business venture, the 320-acre “lake” and surrounding development was originally the brain child of actor J. Carlton Adair, though he was not able to see it through to construction. Other developers took it over and the lake was created by building an earthen dam on the Las Vegas Wash in 1988. The ambitious project has struggled though multiple bankruptcies, lawsuits, and economic downturns. But new investors are hopeful…

Now we are further south, camped on the shores of Lake Havasu, the lake created from the Colorado River by Parker Dam. It is beautiful, it provides water to many households and farms, and many people (including us) enjoy kayaking and fishing and boating here. However, it and the other lakes along the Colorado have drowned nearly all the cottonwood forests that used to line the whole lower Colorado. The Bill Williams NWR just south of us is one of the last stretches of original cottonwood habitat left, and it's nine-mile length is home to 11 species of butterfly that no longer live anywhere else.  

Yesterday, I spot three huge rafts of Eared Grebes in the middle of the lake in front of our campsite. The lake is so big they are tiny specks even in my spotting scope, making them difficult to count, but I decide that a conservative estimate might be something like 5000 birds. I read in a book published in 1991 that Eared Grebes don't usually number over 2000 here in the winter, but then I find a December 10, 2011 report of over 5000 birds, and a December 7, 2014 report of over 30,000 birds (yes, that is the right number of zeros) on the lake, so perhaps my numbers are low. Would these grebes be here without the dam? I don't know. But I enjoy seeing them, and if I am very quiet I can just hear their whistling calls and the far rustle of their wings and feet as they move around on the water.


The Colorado River behind Parker Dam has become Lake Havasu. This is where I saw the Eared Grebes.

What we do is just as "natural" as these grebes.  We are only doing what all animals do—living our lives, looking for food and water and shelter—only we have bigger tools and a greater reach. Many creatures alter their environments to suit them. The problem is just that we are very, very efficient at this. We can kill all the passenger pigeons. We can excavate an entire mountain for coal. And we can divert an entire river like the Colorado so it no longer reaches the ocean.

It is hard to realize as I sit on the shoreline here watching these lovely grebes and the other diving birds that feed here, that this lake is one of the reasons that water has not reached the Colorado River Delta in Mexico since 1998. (See link.) Same for the wonderful warm shower I can take for free in the campground, or the cool water in my pack, or the lettuce I bought at the store.  Everything we do takes water, and unless we treat it like the precious resource it is, it can disappear.

Finding these things out first-hand hurts. I feel grief at all the things I didn't even know existed that are already gone. Cottonwoods, butterflies, pupfish, desert tortoises, whole ecosystems. And I also feel inspired by the resilience of what is here, and by the way life is continually adapting. The pain is worth it, because in return I have a larger, more inclusive view.

It is not about trying to make things stay the same. Change is happening all the time, with or without us. When you take the really long view, much of this area was underwater during the last ice age. Do I feel grief also for the lost Lake Bonneville? For the dinosaurs? And after all, we need power, we need water. I am very appreciative of both in my little home. But how much do we need and what do we use it for? How much is enough? Who decides? And who pays the price of those decisions? These are the agonizingly difficult questions that people have been worrying over for decades here, where water is scarce, and getting more precious all the time.

Perhaps not having a permanent home for now is helping me see how we are really always visitors in this world. How short our time is here; how limited our view; how much we do not know. I am inspired to respect this place I am visiting by becoming more aware of the water I use and try to make wise choices.  And I am reminded of good traits for all visitors faced with the unknown: some humility, some patience, and a little stillness. I have been reading William Stafford—who is one of the best advocates I know for all three of these traits—and his words infuse the land around me.


Pintail Slough in Lake Havasu NWR. A manmade marsh.

The earth says have a place, be what that place
requires; hear the sound the birds imply
and see as deep as ridges go behind
each other.