Creek Running North

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December 10, 2004

Cima Dome

How many times have I made my bed next to this particular tree? How many times woken up in the night, tracked Sirius across the sky, shivered against the white gravel? At least fifty mornings fumbling with the stove to make coffee. At least fifty nights watching pocket mice and woodrats explore my pans.

They took the cattle off the range here a few years back. Before, the steers would wander through my campsite, notice me, sidle away politely. Now the grasses are back, ungrazed except by rabbits.

Grasses make seeds, seeds make mice: I heard coyotes here last year for the first time, singing at Sirius.

Grasses make leaves, leaves make insects: now, desert night lizards swarm the road to Teutonia Peak. I camped here for years before I ever saw one. Now I must tread carefully lest I pinch off a tail. Night lizards are the smallest in North America. They are blackish, with jaunty blue spots like portholes. They cock their heads at trailside, run across as you approach, and cross again on your way back.

The holes you see in the upper surface of the limb were drilled by ladderback woodpeckers. I have seen maybe two here. Scott's Orioles are here in summer, but I am usually not. Flickers wander by, their long flights between the Joshua trees a sinuous series of swoops. When Joe was here we set out in search of the Bendire's thrasher, a vacancy on his lifelist. The bird popped out obligingly before we had walked a thousand yards, ran from beneath a copse of blackbrush into another across the road. Steller's jays aren't supposed to live here but do. I should visit some summer, when the heat is a mad blanket and the trees waver in the distance, and the Scott's oriole warbles its iambic verses.

Elsewhere in the Joshua tree forest, about two hours' drive from here, I watched a ladderback hammer away at a fallen Joshua tree fruit. The Tegeticula moth lays eggs in the Joshua tree flower, and then pollinates it. Fertile seeds develop, and the moth larvae hatch and eat some of them. It is a textbook case of mutualism: moth cannot reproduce without yucca, yucca cannot reproduce without moth. The moth places enough pollen to ensure sufficient seed set, so that there will be some left when the larvae finish eating. And a ladderback swoops in to drill out a worm or two.

One morning I woke here sick, dizzy and nauseous and alone, unable to drive. I walked to the middle of the dirt road, lay face down, and watched a nest of red ants for an hour or two. When I felt ambitious, I would take a sand grain and drop it in the hole, then watch as it was carried back out.

The woodrat has its midden in the fifteen-foot heap of rounded boulders in my campsite. It is bedecked with cholla stems, prickly pear pads, juniper twigs, joshua tree leaves and stray camping litter. It is a luxurious home: exposed to the sun in winter, hidden in the cool rock in summer. No coyote could get within four feet of the midden. Still, there are likely a few snakes in this pile of rocks.

I left a cast-iron pan out one night, a half-cup of corned-beef hash scorched and stuck to it. At six in the morning, it was clean and shiny. I put it away.

There are calochortus in the washes, bright orange spotted blooms I've seen only in books. A single corkscrew leaf coming through the sand gives them away in late winter. Barrel and hedgehog cacti and the euphonious Mojave mound grow among the rocks. The cryptobiotic crust, that melange of algae and bacteria that knits the desert soil together, is tattered from a century of hoofprints, but it still grows beneath the scratchy blackbrush, beneath the Joshua trees. It grows an inch a century, or thereabouts. I should come back in five thousand years to see how it's doing.

This is the ninth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Posted at December 10, 2004 08:33 PM | TrackBack


This series is turning out really well. Could we persuade you to preserve it in some way, maybe as a chapbook or at least a PDF document? There's almost a coffee-table book quality to the series. Definitely something I'll want to come back to.

Posted by: Dave at December 11, 2004 05:51 AM

Thanks for sharing your fieldtrip experiences. Reading about nature well written is almost as good as experiencing nature itself. I wish I could say I taught you how to take pictures, they are very good. What do you take the pictures with, and have they been edited?

Posted by: dr at December 11, 2004 02:48 PM

Is this the night lizard of your experience? Apparently their appearance is quite variable.

Posted by: fred1st at December 11, 2004 05:33 PM

i love this chris! it is as if i am nested in my own little tent next to you.

Posted by: Anne at December 12, 2004 09:28 AM

That'd be the one, Fred. The darker of those two photos most resembles the Cima Dome lizards.

Night lizards, by the way, are apparently so-called because they sleep at night. They're diurnal. Go figure.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 12, 2004 02:54 PM

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