Soledad Canyon

Soledad Canyon                                                                                    January 7, 2019

Our naturalist experience of New Mexico since we arrived here two days ago can be summed up in one word: DRY. All of the rivers, washes, arroyos, ponds? Bone dry! It seemed not to matter what direction one drove in, there is more dry. We decided to  drive up into Soledad canyon this morning from our little apartment in downtown Las Cruces. We had heard that there was water up in the canyon, but with a near super-drought of 19 years and counting, we weren’t expecting any. 

The road to the canyon gradually climbed out of the city toward the mountains, and the houses got sparser and sparser as we went. No sign of water anywhere! Drought-adapted plant life everywhere, but no obvious signs of animal or bird life. Occasionally we’d see a furtive Dove or Raven, and that was it for birds.

The drive took about 25 minutes and we parked in the sun in a small dirt parking lot and read the BLM signs: “Pack in, Pack out” “Stay on the Trails” “Watch for Rattlesnakes”. There was one other car in the lot, and as we began hiking the gradual slope up toward the canyon (which was about 1.5 miles away), we were greeted by a couple with two rather excited Border Collies coming back to their car. The dogs were much more interested in the smells around us than us, which is not surprising given their acute sense of smell and their hyperactivity. After that, it was just the two of us walking on a little rising trail that sometimes merged with, and then diverged from, a sweet, dry, sandy wash, that was leading toward a huge bowl surrounded by gorgeous jagged mountains.

We noticed a half mile farther on that the vegetation was getting a little thicker with more shrubs and small trees, and a Canyon Towhee popped up for a moment before disappearing into the shadows of his chosen shrub. We kept a keen eye out for any movement of lizard, or rabbit, or bird, but saw just the one bird.

Soon after, there was a distinct change. It was almost like someone switched on a light. One moment we were in a fairly barren, super dry place, and the next moment, all the plants seemed a little greener, and the hillsides came alive. First, a flock of about a dozen Dark Eyed Juncos twittered across the path in front of us, then, suddenly, there was flood of Juncos around us, maybe 200 of them moving in every direction, perching, diving, floating, disappearing, reappearing, pump-scratching, cracking  and manipulating seeds with bills and tongues. Mixed in with them were Black-Throated Sparrows, Black-Chinned Sparrows, more Canyon Towhees, White-Crowned Sparrows, Brewers Sparrows, Rufous-Crowned Sparrows, Rufous-Winged  Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows: Sparrow Heaven!! And this all seemed to happen right about at the moment when we started to hear the faint sound of water! Beautiful life giving water!

Since I am a Sparrowphile, I felt happy enough to burst. It wasn’t simply being surrounded by a huge profusion of Sparrows of many different species. It was being filled with the realization that the Sparrows KNEW where to be. Cindy was herself rather taken with the Black Throated Sparrow, so I’ve included a picture of one here.

The waterfall was delicious, if small, and seemed to to be cascading down in to a little shady grotto from hundreds of feet above. What amazed is that where the water fell upon the Canyon floor, it went into the ground and disappeared. Ten, or twenty, or a hundred feet downstream, there was no water at all, and no water anywhere except right there for miles and miles around. And the Sparrows knew, as I’m sure all the other vertebrates and invertebrates did as well. I wanted to come back at night with night goggles and see what other animals were drawn in by truly “the only game in town”. Maybe next time!  A young man arrived at the waterfall while I was climbing up the rocks for a better view of the water, and introduced himself as “Angel”. He looked to be about 20 years old, and said he often hikes up here to meditate. I recognized him as a brother. Brother Angel, brother Sparrow, sister tree, brother mountain, and sister waterfall, thank you!

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Picoides Villosus

Two brilliant black and white Woodpeckers

hitched up and down and circled and peered

and arched and flitted and jerked and bobbed

and crouched and flattened and swelled and lifted

and flaired and elongated and shrank and charged

and retreated and skittered and leapt and floated

around a youngish Sugar Maple Trunk,

never coming closer to each other than

a dozen woodpecker lengths.

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It’s morning. I step outside…and am greeted by warm sun rays and ravishing blue sky. The ground is wet from last night’s rains, and the sun is heating up molecules and atoms in everything around me and in me. This warming is so welcome after days of cool damp Fall. Pine needles on the ground warm up and emanate celestial vapors, which are rising also from fallen leaves, multi-colored flower heads, and the soil itself. My body knows there won’t be many more days like this before Winter, and I bask like a lizard on a warm rock and hold my palms up to the radiance. My blood dances inside me, and everything is perfect, so perfect! Blue sky, green leaves, brown earth, yellow, purple, pink, and red flowers everywhere, so much color for late September, such beauteous radiant colors for my eyes, and such complex perfectly balanced smells for my nose, and sweet music of orthopterans and hymenopterans and avians buzzing and singing for my ears, delicious warm photons for my skin (as I pop a warm ripe cherry tomato in my mouth) and the whole–so much greater than any of its parts–delighting my soul.

I run inside to mom’s house and she’s in the kitchen with several loosely related objects in her hands, obviously multi-tasking early. Her hair is wet from her shower and her feet are bare. “Mom! Have you been outside yet this morning?” “Not yet?” “Ok, Mom take my hand and go slow here over the driveway so you don’t stub your toe, and let’s make our way toward the grass into the sun…” We stand there, in the dirt driveway on a grassy patch, now both of us glowing with light, surrounded by greenery, and we take in the bees going from flower to flower, and all the colors, and the brilliant warmth of the sun, and we celebrate together being alive, and being among natural wonders which smell so good, breathing deeply, and smiling.

Mom shows me some little plants she recently transplanted, and I think about how extraordinary she is. Her life is full and she is a magnet for blessings. She seems to make her own reality, every day, and life smiles upon her, for which I am deeply grateful. I have learned so much from her about enjoying the moment. I learned that from both of my parents. My mom, with her open-hearted embrace of life, and enjoyment of people everywhere, and my dad, with his childlike wonderment about the creation and his insatiable curiosity about everything and everyone (OK admittedly I couldn’t get him excited about House Sparrows–he was a visual person, and was much more likely to respond to a Red Shouldered Hawk), and both of them immensely generous and non-materialistic people.

Both of them believe (well, Dad believed) in god, or a creator, and both of them are (dad was) completely comfortable with their spirituality. My dad liked to say “Look at the universe in all its detail and immensity and structure. How could there not be an intelligence behind that?” My mom doesn’t talk about it much, but she lives as if the creator is smiling and she simply knows it.

I am still learning, every minute of every day. I’ve battled with my own mind about god. On the one hand I think “If there is a god, and he/she/it cares what happens on Earth, then how can god allow children to be raped and tortured?”. On the other hand I think, “Look how many blessings I have been given. I must thank someone invisible!” My wife Cindy believes god needs our help to keep bad things from happening, and I believe she may be right, but here is a question: “Did god create us, or did we create god?”

I can imagine early humans, dealing with immensity, and with the radiant blessing of the Sun without any scientific knowledge about the cosmos. How not to think and believe that some awesome power is making it all happen — the Sun, the stars, the lightning and Moon and thunder and everything growing and changing and providing — life and death, and all of the emotions that come with a living person dying and yet seeming to still be here. I can see early humans coming up with all kinds of explanations which science has now explained differently. There are plenty of mysteries we shall never unravel, but science has shown us that we live in a Solar system, with planets and moons, and that light travels super fast and infinitely. Infinitely? Infinitely?! Maybe there is a God after all (but don’t quote me on that).

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Today we were on a mountain in New Lebanon, NY. We walked a mile up a dirt road, and half way up there was an old (150 years?) slanted heavy stone post in the ground on the roadside that said “NY-MASS state line/ Boston MA 146 miles/Albany NY 26 miles” (or something to that effect), after which the road curved around, and one didn’t know if one was in Massachusetts or in New York. We had driven yesterday from Cambridge to Williamstown MA, (and at one point had to go on a long detour off of Route 2 because part of it was covered with mud in Savoy MA from the heavy rains brought by TS Lee) and had spent four hours climbing around on Mt Greylock before settling into a beautiful Bed and Breakfast for the night. We drove and hiked and slept and drove and hiked and ate and drove, and covered many many miles.

This afternoon though, we were walking along a wood road off the aforementioned dirt road, and I spotted a very small orange Newt, who looks like a Salamander, but he’s bright orange with little spots and his skin is dryish as opposed to a Salamander, who’s skin is wettish. I watched him for a couple of minutes as he moved along a mossy outcropping of rock, very quietly and unobtrusively, surrounded by a big forest and looking so tiny in a big world. I wondered how he got to the spot he was in, and I wondered many other things too. Where was he going? How would he ever find another Newt? Why did the creator make him orange (perhaps to make it easier to find him? or to warn predators that he wouldn’t taste good?) or to put it another way, why did he evolve into a being who is bright orange only in this particular stage of his life (the “eft” stage)? These and many other questions drifted through my mind as I watched him inch a teeny bit forward here, a teeny bit forward there. He would move a leg, and then seem to contemplate for a minute or two whether this was a good idea, then move another leg.

We walked up the road a ways and then walked back a few minutes later , and the Eft had moved a whole foot/12 inches!! He was not on the rocky outcropping anymore, but was making his way out over a Beech twig that had fallen onto the moss beside the wood road and was itself was covered in fallen matted Beech leaves. I realized then that this small being was going exactly where he needed to go, at exactly the velocity he needed to go at, and that almost nothing in the universe would or could change that. I then perceived him as setting a great example for me and for all other humans, especially those caught in traffic jams, and/or who are otherwise beset by forces out of their control which seem to be thwarting them from where they want to be. His world is perfect exactly as it is, and any questions I might pose would only diminish this perfection. I am led to questioning my own mind which is often full of questions and questing, and to see how important it is for me to see myself as just fine, right where I am.

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black-white-black-white-black-yellow, repeat.

Yesterday morning I spent 3 hours at Sachuest Point in Middletown RI talking with  giant waves. They were giant and green and blue and white and gold with beautiful arcs and curves, and they’d crest and crash and spray and thunder and boil and froth and dissolve, and I would do all this with them. I stood as near as I could without endangering myself, wanting to feel their energy and power. I was flooded and transported! I held my arms out wide and danced and complimented them on their beauty. I would say to a wave: “Wow! You are SO beautiful”!

I have total respect for the sea, and for waves, but I want to be near them. I wanted to be the Cormorant, who was right inside of them. Where I was yesterday  I saw a number of Monarch Butterflies floating around Sachuest Point, seemingly flying through the stiff breezes with little effort, almost lazily, which is how Monarchs usually seem. But then two Monarchs found each other. I believe one was a female giving off pheremones, and the other was a Male, giving chase. This was no lazy affair. She was rapidly diving and swooping on a dime with him in hot pursuit, up, down, under, over, tumbling through space. It was a rapid, highly intense, zigzagging dance which seemed to be all there was for them.

They went out over the water and continued this hyperactive pursuit right out among the foam and waves. Several times I saw the splashing foam touch their delicate bodies and was amazed they didn’t get swamped and subsumed. I called: “Look out! There’s another big wave coming!”, but they paid no heed. They only cared about each other as they dangerously and recklessly dove and swooped in among the crashing  and chaotic waters. A big wave (8-10 feet high) came over them, cresting above them, and it looked completely hopeless. Somehow though, one of them emerged from the watery chaos, but the other disappeared into the sea. The remaining one continued to dip and dive over the ever-changing spot where she (I believe) went down barely evading additional waves. I have done things in my life with similar reckless abandon (and have many broken bones and missing brain cells to show for it), but never to the death!!! I admire them deeply for that, and I learned something totally new about Monarchs, which I have loved for many years.

On the walk back to my car I found a Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed, and I ran my finger lightly down its body. Its color pattern was white-black-white-black-white-yellow, repeat. I was glad that a Monarch had made another Monarch, and I want the Earth to always have Monarchs floating upon it.

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