Trout Stream Through Mars
by Ellen Meloy
HOW TO COMBAT IMPENDING DESERTIFICATION
1) Heed the warnings.
When Monument Valley tries to enter and take over your living room, consider the season to have turned truly grim.
Fine red sand covered every surface inside and out, blown in by violent sandstorms. In Monument Valley to the west little but scattered scrub and photogenic sandstone monoliths held down the open desert, so it and Arizona dropped on our heads. We sent our top-sand to Colorado.
Each year, in a nest high in the eaves of our portico, a pair of Say’s phoebes raises its clutch. This year, one by one, the baby birds leaped out of the nest when they were older than the plucked-chicken look but too young to fledge. The first two hit the stone deck and died instantly. The third survived the plunge, but when I gently returned it to the nest it rolled over until its legs stuck up like twigs. The nest still holds a tiny skeleton.
In many years of phoebes raised in the eaves, none had jumped overboard prematurely. In decades of dry, windy seasons, no sandstorms had been as violent or frequent. Conditions escalated from dry spell to drought to disaster, the region’s worst drought in decades.
It was easy to envision monster sand dunes swallowing us up until only Phoenix high-rises protruded from a sea of pulverized quartz. What was clear was that it had not rained for a very long time. Scant vegetation held the earth in place. The heat and wildfires were fierce and the sandstorms were biblical in fury. Soon it would be more than birdlets who flung themselves to the pavement.
The extreme conditions kindled serious conversations about desertification. Drought is extreme lack of moisture. Desertification is soil death, biological and economic soil death—the irreversible decline of drought-prone lands. By themselves droughts do not desertify. Drought implies cycles and recovery. Desertification is revealed by drought. Desertification is drought from which land cannot recover.
Revelation was precisely what alarmed and intrigued me. It incited as well as confounded bold acts of resurrection.
2) Forget the Pleistocene.
If you know what to look for, you will find in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau the evidence of wetter epochs, of thick forests, grassy plains, gleaming lakes, giant beavers and skunks, and lumbering gaggles of hairy Elephantidae.
On top of a mesa near my home lay an expanse of scraggly pinyon and juniper trees and parched shrubs separated by patches of sand and gravel. While the air burned at 115 degrees I stared at scattered logs of petrified wood and laughed hysterically at the mere concept of forests and mastodon gaggles. I held a chunk of woody tissue mineralized by silica and iron and tried to imagine the lakes and seas that gathered these logs as debris, so much water that its line on the horizon was the earth’s curvature itself.
The sun beat down unmercifully. Shrubs wilted. Rocks melted. Anything hairy was delirious with heatstroke. The lead dripped out of the end of my pencil. I tried to conjure a climate known as pluvial. One’s brain cannot make the ecological leap of so many thousands of years between wet times and dry.
3) Blowtorch your goatheads.
My husband and I have long worked to restore our land from an overgrazed monoculture to a humble patch of botanical diversity, but we harbored no delusion that we could return the land to a Pleistocene wilderness with us lost in the foliage like a couple of smart, happy apes in Eden. The land had been used up long before we arrived. Bearing in mind the limitations of an arid environment, we sowed native seeds, checked eroded slopes, shaded our sun-fried noggins with desert-hardy trees that grew as slowly as continental drift.
The plant ecology of this river valley had been influenced by human activity for several thousand years, first by Anasazi farmers and gatherers, then by Ute and Paiute, by Navajo pastoralists, and, for the past century, by Anglo farmers and ranchers, dams and other reclamation projects, and the invasion of exotic species. Six or seven hundred years ago whole areas of the Southwest, including ours, were abandoned by indigenous farmers. Repeated droughts, possibly exacerbated by political strife and the exhaustion of arable land, uprooted the scattered populations. This history soberly informed our shaky tenure in this harsh land.
With variations in scale and degree each group of inhabitants used existing plants and deliberately or accidentally invited weedy camp followers, intertwining biology with culture. The Euro-American era has seen particularly voracious weeds, the incursion of “aliens” from other parts of North America and from Asia and Europe.
Unlike town our land escaped a chronic infestation of one of the aliens: goatheads, a low-growing terror of a plant that bears rock-hard seedheads laden with sharp spikes. Tribulus terrestris, also known as puncture vine, is named for a Roman tribulus, a pronged iron implement used to impede enemy horsemen.
Whenever the goathead seeds arrived, on bicycle tires and the soles of shoes, we plucked the pioneering shoots out of the ground and burned them. We barely kept ahead of their game; in some ways surrender was easier. Navajo neighbors used Tribulus in ceremonies like the Evil Way and Bead Way. They call it béégashii bitsiits’iin, “bull head.” The local bluegrass band once called itself Ralph and the Goatheads. We stockpiled the barbed orbs in case some upstart horsemen from New Mexico invaded us.
Most of the time we were observing what happens when you abruptly fence out large domestic herbivores. Here is what happens: knapweed and tamarisk, both exotics, are so invulnerable, they could survive nuclear winter. Toads return to restored patches of wetlands to sing and copulate in monsoon season. Rabbitbrush, ricegrass, silver sage, saltbush, and aster, thatches of pesky cheatgrass, too, reoccupy what were once barren slopes.
There would be successions of plant communities that we would not live to see—one fence did not constitute a return to the pristine. We had to love some of the weeds and murder the worst with hoes and shovels and uprooting tugs that made us lose our balance and fall over backwards. As time passed I had come to see our land restoration as a rather insane act of weed horticulture. This year’s drought posed new challenges.
4) Surface creeps will annoy you.
Walls of darkness rolled toward town and engulfed it. The dust clouds obscured the sun and blanketed the valley in a granular, rose-colored fog, reducing visibility to less than a quarter of a mile. The wind pushed coarser sand grains at ground level in jerky movements: “surface creep.” On a nearby dunefield the uneven motion etched ripples in the coral-red sand.
The sandstorms became irritably predictable. When we saw the pink cloud to the west we shut our windows and turned our backs to the blast and tried not to act like the wind was driving us nuts. One of the neighbor kids spotted the wall of dust and ran ahead of it, at the seam between clear sky and red veil. He quickly disappeared amid the ghostly skeletons of airborne tumbleweeds, and I feared for the weight of air on him. Sometimes the gusts were so fierce and the sand so thick, it was a wonder the earth was not laid bare, stripped to bedrock, the tops blown off graves, the rest of Monument Valley swept out of our living rooms and sent clear to Oklahoma. Soon no one was thinking “Southwest.” This was Mars, right before all life ended.
5) Shoot the bunny.
Since we began our vegetation resurrection, wildlife had flourished—lizards, bats, toads, moths, butterflies, songbirds, raptors, rabbits, gray foxes, kit foxes, coyotes, and a fat bullsnake named Isis. There were only two rules: they could not come into the house unless invited, and they couldn’t eat the gardens.
Our compatibility rested on the acres of nongarden around us; the creatures took occasional garden bites but moved on to the surrounding plenty. The black-tailed jackrabbits hopped past succulent lettuce as noticeable to them as whipped cream in Antarctica. Instead, they ate plants so thorny and dry, you would think they would gag. These rabbits are simply so natural, we thought, they eat only natural plants. Perhaps they were a bit dumb. I loved the dumb bunnies. I would not let anyone harm a hair on their head.
The drought changed everything. It left little food for any creature. They had nothing to eat but us. They moved in closer, with little how-could-we-have-been-so-stupid slaps to their foreheads. The antelope squirrels, chipmunk-like rodents about as big as a Twinkie, sneaked onto the deck, stole bright blooms from the wild primrose, then scampered off with silky yellow petals between their teeth like flamenco dancers.
Soon the plants were stripped of blooms. Soon the rabbits slipped through the fence and clear-cut the chile pepper plants, then started on the melon leaves. Coyotes left teeth marks in the winter squash then moved into town to eat poodles. Mark called the squirrels stupid little pricks and, in my best Bette Davis voice, I told him: Shoot the bunny.
The Hopi tell a tale about prayers for rain that went a bit awry. Instead of rain, kwasis, or penises, fell from the sky. “Obviously,” says the tale, “the chiefs had not prayed for kwasis. Hitting the ground one after the other, the organs were making weird noises. Soon they were floating around in the puddles there.” Obviously, the single women of the pueblo were delighted. Who needs a man, they said, each carrying a kwasi home. The single men prayed for rain and sure enough it rained löwas, or female organs. They took them home instead of wives. No one was getting anywhere relationship-wise, so Badger, a powerful healer, set things right. Everyone threw the kwasis and löwas off the mesa and lived together as before.
As the monsoon season approached with its hope for relief from the wretched drought, the Mormons prayed and fasted for a day, then called for more days of the same. The Navajo medicine men sang for rain. The Hopi danced and sent their prayers back to the San Francisco Peaks with the kachinas, certain that song and a thousand years of feet pounding the ancient plazas would lure the gift of moisture.
The rain did not come. A neighbor said, “I don’t know, we Navajos aren’t doing much good in this drought. Maybe you white people oughta start dancing.”
7) Read about Greenland.
June’s sandstorms gave over to July’s hell: sandstorms and fierce heat, 110 degrees in the shade. With extreme fire danger and wildfires already burning, the Forest Service closed national forests in three states. We could not escape to nearby high country to cool off. Through waves of heat, smoke, and dust I could see the Colorado mountains on the horizon: blue, cool, and unavailable. Books about the Arctic fed me snow, polar ice, rime frost, light as sharp as a razor’s edge, icebergs the size of cathedrals, my forehead pressed against their walls of blue sapphire.
8) Call in the social workers.
Sunlight scalded. The moon poured down warm custard. The air shocked lungs and skin with the force of fire. The unrelenting heat strained relationships in town, and several marriages imploded. The challenge was to not let heat stress turn pathological.
Because the spring rains never came, there were few wildflowers, no splashes of crimson and scarlet, indigo and gold, across the redrock desert. Wildflowers gentle us. Their exuberant burst from rock and sand, inside slivers of canyon and atop the high mesas, leaves a reservoir of remembered beauty that lasts through the harsh summer. As emotions unraveled, I wondered if it was because we never saw the bloom.
9) Consider a career in camel husbandry.
Late July pulled in thunderheads and rafts of clouds with steel-blue underbellies. It rained in the region but not on us. Weatherwise, we were in a donut hole. The ravens panted. Livestock ate dust. The scrawny feral cows that haunted the riverbanks looked like coat hangers. Terrible drought! we rasped through parched throats.
Denizens of green, leafy, rainy places—hydrated people—looked at us as if we had been licking doorknobs. They took in the sand dunes, the scorched redrock, the solar brainmelt, the stubby, thorny, stressed plants, and they sighed: Duh. Permanent aridity, rain deficit—the desert, by definition, is drought.
In times of extremes, the mind cannot easily grasp the long term, the frightening irreversibility of desertification. Yet, in our desert, it was as difficult to imagine the return of wetter times as it was to imagine another cycle as dry as this one. Instead, the mind worked its way to hope, to faith in drought-tolerant plants and phantom water, to trust in the desert’s deepest pulse, its slowest resilience.
10) Don’t let the river dry up, even if you have to overthrow the government.
Beyond our remote outpost the world was falling apart. Swords rattled. Hubris swelled. The president asked us to bear with the long fight. The president asked us to keep on shopping. No more liberal doughball ideas like clean air, public schools, trees. The twin poles of American life were now clear and certain: militarism and commercialism.
I was the world’s last remaining practitioner of Riparianism.
Moving from fret to fascination I watched nature respond to the season’s extremes. New pads grew on cactus that looked like shoe leather. Despite the lack of rain the native perennials were not dead but deeply dormant, still alive inside dry, brittle bundles of sticks. A seed bank, the detritus of wetter times, lay somewhere in the promise of dirt.
Several of our fruit trees died, but the cottonwood grove on our bottomland, a rare, precious treasure fed by a deep reservoir of groundwater, showed little sign of stress. Time and change and four hundred tons of pink sand falling on our heads gave new insights into xeriscaping. We scaled back the gardens and misered the drip irrigation. We blessed the artesian well. We spared the bunny’s butt.
Our river ran through the drought, strained to the edge of its life. Spring runoff never came, and the upriver dams and diversions quickly sank in their straws, then sucked away all summer long. Without its volume to keep the khaki water opaque, the river flowed as clear as anyone could remember. Through pink dust and russet cliffs it ran sky-mirror blue. It looked like a trout stream through Mars.
Clear water should not make anyone edgy, but it did. Sediment—load, deposition, storage—had shaped the river’s physics for millions of years. A desert river that was not colorado, one that suddenly revealed its seldom seen bed through clear water, felt uncomfortably naked.
The fierce sun warmed the shallow, sluggish flow. Clarity encouraged photosynthesis; thick beards of algae bloomed on the rocks and gravel bars in shocking green. Resident Canada geese raised their broods on it. Osprey, usually a winter visitor, flew in from the mountains and hunted fish that they could see through the unlikely clarity. The great blue herons, too, grew fat on easier hunts. Such shifts in food-chain dynamics hinted at opportunity. Through the river, the thin and bony river, the drought may have offered its subtlest revelations.
An ascetic river and the hellacious drought heightened the sense of a worn-out land. They also hinted at—and I had to believe this—an underlying capacity for recovery, the desert able to restore itself without human help, only the cessation of human harm. In our imperfect and stumbling efforts to resurrect self-sustaining plants to the piece of earth on which we lived, this was the best map.
One hot summer evening, thunderheads bloomed on the valley’s horizon. The sandstone cliffs glowed red under a bruised sky. Mark and I sat on the deck as a light rain shower passed over us, a teasing sprinkle into the donut hole. Instead of bringing its own smell the scant moisture raised a choking dryness from the parched ground. A few huge drops fell on our heads.
We were too stupid to move—a hesitancy to trust, a reluctance to offend the gods with any sort of unholy behavior that might not bring order back to our dried-up world.
After all, sometimes you will pray very long and hard for rain and you will get nothing but penises.