Bird-watching in the Desert

Bird Watching in the Desert

Abandonment is the great white fact of the desert

— Scott Baxter, Southwestern climber/poet

The desert smells like rain.

— Tohono O’odham child, quoted by ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan 

In a dry wash north of Lordsburg, New Mexico, a skeleton dances. The bone man’s feet grind into the stony ground, dimpling the creek bed. Wind scrapes across the grey-green flats from the west, flinging sand into the eye sockets, through the slender gaps of forearm and ribcage. A fistful of gray birds surfs the wind.

Lightning flares in the bruised afternoon sky over by the Arizona line. Purple rags of cloud stream out ahead of the storm, dragging trails of virga. Silver light splashes the low hills to the east, at the southern end of the Gila Range. (The Gilas, you will recall, are where Aldo Leopold shot his wolf, where the wilderness prophet had his vision of green fire: I am walking in the bloody Holy Land.)

The dancer doesn’t care about the mountains or the lightning, or about the founding of the Wilderness Society. He dances. He executes a gritty blues shuffle, something mid-’60s Chicago, trenchant and full of longing. His fingers clatter like castanets; his feet strike the cow-burnt earth like hands working clay into something beautiful, and perhaps useful.

Thunder claps. A chill strikes the desert. I take cover under the overhung cut bank — infrequent storms have carved this wash ten feet deep. Mesquite roots claw at the air where the bank has collapsed.

I crouch with my back against the earth, light a hand-rolled cigarette and stare at the skeleton, still dancing. Something gnaws in my belly. It never goes away. I don’t need to see a doctor. The CAT scans and barium dye, the blood and tissue samples — none of it is necessary. All along, I’ve known what this thing inside me is. I don’t need a medical opinion. For years, I’ve been walking in the dry places, following unpromising washes, looking under rocks. I sleep in the mouths of played-out copper mines and stare at sunrise over the rim of a charred steel coffee cup, sure of my self-diagnosis: terminal hunger.

Walking in the desert is my preferred treatment for this malady, a basic ingratitude for the ease and abundance of my life. I am patient. I hope it takes a hundred years to kill me. Season after season, I fill a backpack and walk, grazing the thin pasture of the desert, sustained by this practice. I never know what I’m looking for till I find it. This morning, it was a pale blue trailer out on the flats a mile west of U.S. Highway 70, not far from where I sit.

Abandoned trailers always seduce me. So I marched through prickly pear, cholla and crucifixion thorn for a better look: a rancher’s old line shack with the usual broken windows, dull chrome trim and faded vinyl siding. A derelict mattress leaned against the north wall; a set of bald truck tires lay decomposing in the yard. The windmill was rusted, the galvanized-steel tank full of tumbleweed, rat turds and bullet holes.

I walked to the trailer door, kicked aside the remains of a rotting wooden step and peered through the empty window frame: a few glued-together kitchen chairs, a door-less refrigerator, broken dishes on the floor. On top of the ’fridge stood a ceramic barn owl — smooth brown feathers, flat face, eyes like saucers.

I became possessed by the idea of taking the owl statue with me. The door was locked, so I reached through the small window frame for the inside knob. When I did, the bird turned away, its head swiveling like the child actress’ in “The Exorcist.” The flash of terror in my cells was fleeting, but total.
I yanked my hand out the window as if it were the maw of a tree shredder. The owl flapped off, into another room. I stepped away, feeling more alive than I had in days. I did what one does in these situations. I bowed.

Such moments hide in the desert, waiting to happen.

Other days, other birds: In the low Sonoran Desert, a black-chinned hummingbird sits on a walnut-sized nest amid a tangle of paloverde. The bird glares at me from two feet away, daring me to come closer; I stare for one long moment, then step away. In Grand Canyon, a pair of ravens efficiently tears apart my backpack, opening bags of food, flinging powdered drink mixes, piercing plastic water bottles with beaks like knives. At sundown in the Mojave, near the apex of a slender crumbling ridge, 53 vultures rise silently on six-foot wings, drifting past the alcove I’ve chosen for a camp. No one else is watching.

Almost everything that occurs in the desert is ignored. If truth be told, not much goes on out here. But what does happen sizzles with meaning. The flick of a bird’s wing is a poem. Water seeping from sandstone is an entire language.

Human artifacts speak, too. Listen:

Last April near Yuma, a few miles north of the Mexican border, I found a tiny blue daypack, bleaching in the sun. Inside were a pair of cheap denims (women’s size 4), one lavender acrylic blouse, two pairs of panties (one pink, one blue), a brush and comb, toothpaste and toothbrush, a motel bar of soap. In a plastic change purse were 62 cents and a mass card bearing an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe.

There were no personal identification papers. No maps. No field guide to the birds. Before zipping the pack shut, I refolded the clothes, making sure everything was exactly as I had found it. I sat down and stared at the pack. I considered setting up camp there until the owner came back. I wanted to ask her some questions about the desert.

Doves coo in the washes and fighter jets scream overhead. Is there any reason to go elsewhere?

I of course love the cool mountains,
snow-fed rivers and the color green. But I belong to dry places and savor their offerings: the secretive birds, the hallucinogens of desert light and weather, the broken poetry found in the leavings of my kind. I cannot imagine a life apart from this practice of walking in the desert.

I cannot be sure that what emerges from hiding is real. I know you find it hard to believe this matter of the skeleton. I too have doubts — if I look too closely, the dancer may disappear. But for now, there he is, sleet rattling off his skull. The bones are slick with moisture.

I think he was here last week, too, when the boys from town drove up in their jeeps, smashed bottles and were cruel to their painfully thin girlfriends. He was out on the Navajo Reservation during the uranium years, so I’ve heard. I suspect that this dancer knows every turn in each dry wash we set foot in, and follows the thirsty when they look for water. Certainly he watched fifteen years ago when I tumbled sixty feet down a scree slope in Hance Canyon. I just didn’t see him.

Until today, I had never seen a ceramic owl come to life, either.

Until today, I had never witnessed an early monsoon near Lordsburg, New Mexico. The sky is weeping now, fat droplets pocking the sand with black stains that multiply and merge, saturating the ground. Rocks glisten. The air blossoms with scent — the drab and hostile plants are celebrating. The dancer throws back his head, collecting raindrops in his grinning mouth.

Another storm comes to mind. Late in May, after a week of dusty hundred-degree days in southwest Texas, the evening air was thick with heat and moisture. I lay on the
desert floor, waiting. When the storm came, it slapped the land with sheets of water that sent flash floods down the washes into the Rio Grande. Lightning tore at the darkness. After an hour of this violence, a million stars emerged and the air grew perfectly still. The joyous reek of creosote and ocotillo kept me awake for most of the night. By the next afternoon, the creek beds were dry again.

Today, the storm spends itself as quickly as it began. My cigarette burns down, leaving me mildly sick and dizzy, an ashy film coating my mouth. I don’t care. I loved lighting the cigarette, inhaling its empty promise. I field-dress the butt, flicking brown wisps of tobacco from my fingers, pocketing the tarry paper.

I look up and the bone man is gone. The windmill creaks slowly.

After a few minutes, the sun returns. A few anonymous birds flutter through the branches of a catclaw, sending liquid notes through the suddenly fresh desert air. The sound triggers a shudder of pleasure deep in my chest. I make a silent vow to learn the names of more birds.

Michael Wolcott believes in the wisdom of bones. He watches the birds and looks for water everywhere he goes. Northern Arizona is where he gets the mail.