Monthly Archives: June 2006


Over the next couple weeks I’ll be guest-blogging along with the estimable Lindsay Beyerstein, for Michael Bérubé, who will be out of the country until July 17, assuming they let him back in, which I wouldn’t if I were them, whoever they are.

This means I’ll be attempting to come up with vaguely postmodern and more or less literary things to say while in the desert studying the ecological effects of illegal immigration. My first planned post: ‘We Don’t Need To Show You Any Stinking Hajjes!: Desert Migrations in the Old and New Worlds And Their Respective Semiotic Characteristics In An Age Of Shifting American Scapegoats.” OK, not really.


I want to thank everyone who commented in the previous thread for the truly generous things you said about this blog. I am humbled.

And I’ve learned one or two things, including the fact that I’ve been remiss in answering comments. How can I expect people to keep commenting if I don’t respond? An ironic realization given the post that engendered it.

I still have a lot of thinking to do about the role the blog plays in my life. I’m not making any rash decisions — in either direction. A few days in the desert might be break enough. We’ll see. I am taking the comments to heart. I’ve fixed the bloglines feed (see syndication links on right, at bottom of sidebar.)

And as a token of gratitude for your incredible generosity, here’s Zeke.


Echo in here

Ron has this story she tells about a parish priest who wrote a sermon in which he lamented declining church attendance. Thus he lectured the people who were still showing up about the sins of those who weren’t.

I don’t want to do that here, so to those of you who’ve been attending my CRN sermons here, my fervent thanks. Reading your comments, even the critical ones, is usually the high point of my day.

But I’m curious. My site visits have been declining, comments have gone slack and there are quite a few regulars I haven’t heard from lately. Combine this with my growing sense that the kind of writing I want to do is not really suitable for a blog: CRN’s gotten lots of generous links from prominent bloggers, not to mention an exceptionally gracious mention in the last Koufax Awards, and yet traffic and comments are still slack, which leads me to believe that I’m not really a good fit in the blog world. I’m starting to get the feeling of winding down here, and wondering whether my time might not be better spent at other pursuits.

Which is fine: all things come to an end.

But I like this blog, and I like the relationship I’ve had with you the readers, and so I thought I’d ask for some reader feedback before I make any decisions. If you’ve stopped visiting CRN quite so much, or stopped commenting as much, do you have a reason? Have I been too snarky? Not snarky enough? Writing self-indulgent poetry or thoughtless political rants or content-free links to other blogs too much for your liking? Have you all just been on vacation without telling me? Let me know. And don’t worry if your feedback is negative. I got a letter yesterday saying that the Earth Island Journal has declined significantly in quality since I took over, and I expect none of you will phrase things quite as harshly as that guy did. And he just made me laugh. So give it to me straight.

Aphelocoma californica

Saturday in Back Creek Canyon, a shard of sky lay on the ground. It was a feather. A scrub jay shed it there, in a narrow escape or during molt. I thought of Kat, and stuck the plume in the webbing of my backpack’s strap.

I will send it to her, I thought, tucked into the outgoing package with the bits of California juniper and the bag of roasted corn, “Maiz Gigante de Cusco” the label says. If she were here, I thought, we would by now have adopted “Maiz Gigante de Cusco” as an exclamation of surprise. She would find some poetry in the feather, clear blue on one side of its meridian and dusk on the other, left for me by Raven’s colorful cousin, a dichotomous ephemeron woven of keratin and meaning and light. It is the outer web that shows the blue, a million prisms refracting sunlight. Scrub jays likely planted these small oaks, I thought, drilling acorns into the hard, hot soil, and this plume a calling card.

A thousand feet in one hundred four degrees through chamise and manzanita higher than my head, and I came out on the road through Murchio Gap. Out of the brush, the thin breeze off Moses Rock Ridge felt cool, and I looked at the little thermometer on my backpack strap: a mere 98 degrees. I shivered. and then saw that the feather was gone, worked out of the webbing with my ragged climbing. Ah, well.

Two days passed, and I rifled the mailbox coming home from work, and Kat had sent me a letter. I opened the envelope and out it fluttered, clear sky blue on one side of the meridian and dusk on the other.


Smell of sagebrush
sagebrush and juniper
juniper and dry red dirt
and water off the haze-hidden peaks

Or lodgepole pine
and sun-baked Stanislaus soil, the taste
of cool granite still slick
with snow,
June melt meadow spray
off the dog’s kicked-up feet, a
coruscation of glint, and apricots
and oranges in the pack.

Or the deep dank odor of tules
harrier hangs low over the pond, and we have
four hours’ driving before home.

I stood one day on a mountain of glass,
broken clinker chimes with each footfall,
pumice dust and my heart
of black obsidian.
The slope was impossible, a few shards
shed from solid block,
a hot flow frozen.
We were at altitude. My breath
rattled as glass shards. A voice
from below, and I peered over the edge
and down. She would not follow.

Imagined scent of sagebrush and
of juniper, and she tracks red dirt
beneath her. A building near me
sat vacant for a year
its windows dark cavities and
the sparrows flew in and out.
This week the glass went in. It is
a steep sheer monolith now, and today I nudged
still and broken wings that fell to earth
shattered without warning.


I did not reach the summit of Mount Diablo today. The reason: I am weak. Weak! I lack stamina and drive, gumption. There is a hole in my soul the size and shape of competitive instinct. I let the mountain best me. I am the Joe Lieberman of hiking.

Also, it was 104 degrees in Back Creek Canyon. The trail I took climbed twelve hundred feet in a mile. I took three or four rest stops within that mile, a couple of them spent laying on my back in mid-trail. There is a point at which the sweat cannot possibly coat you any more completely, a point at which it does not matter that thistles line the path and that the ticks that live in them are eyeing you and licking whatever they have in place of lips. Chelicerae, I suppose. I pulled a couple of them off me, before they had imbedded their heads in my flesh but not before they had grabbed hold of my skin with the above-mentioned chelicerae: I felt a bit of me come off with them, to sail with them over the edge of a little cliff.

I carry six pints of water with me, enough (on a day when the temperature is a safe and sane 85 Fahrenheit) to get me to the summit and back down. I drained it by the time I got to Murchio Gap, the high point of today’s hike, the point where the mountain declared victory. It is a fortunate thing that some forward-thinking person had put an extra six-pint bladder in my pack, or the hike back to the truck might have been a trifle arid.

The canyon was full of wild grape, and I lay down between a vine and a monkeyflower in full bloom and watched the turquoise dome above for a time, humid thoughts accompanying a rapid, fluttering heartbeat. Back Creek gurgled a hundred feet below me. I was comfortable, aside from the stream of salt water coursing down my neck. I dozed, a little. California Sisters and Lorquin’s Admirals fluttered above, and I can never remember without looking it up which one’s orange patches meet the margins of the wings and which one’s white bars form a U rather than a V, but I saw dozens of butterflies of both species for sure and a hundred yellow swallowtails. And blues leapt up from the path ahead of me like kicked pebbles.

And an odd roar from the chaparral above me, up on the declivitous slopes of Eagle Peak, where the only possible trail follows the knife-edged summit and a wrong step brings a thousand-foot stumble. Puma? or feral pig? The voice lacked the classic decrescendo of the puma’s holler, but was not at all pig-like. Chupacabra? Wrong time of day. It may have been nothing more than an externalized desire, a wish brewing in me for the mountain to distill some mystery, something wild to fill my heart with something besides heat-thickened, insufficiently oxygenated blood. A paltry seven miles hiked today, a weak seven miles, and 2130 feet ascended, more or less, and that’s 243 miles and 56,000 feet ascended for the year, and more than 600 miles worn into my bootsoles now.

The border fence

In 1994 Becky and I drove a long, dusty road through the Sonoran Desert, to a spring-fed pond fringed with tules and cottonwoods. It was January, and so the air was cool, a mere 80 degrees or so. I had watched the dashboard temperature gauge all day. Becky’s little yellow Corolla had a bad head gasket, and we moistened the desert with tailpipe steam.

The pond was still in the afternoon sun, its birds silent. If there were birds. There must have been! That much water in the desert, there were almost certainly dozens of birds snoozing in each tree. Coyotes likely lurked in the shade of ironwoods, perhaps pumas. The wildlife had made itself scarce and silent as we walked, but they were certainly there.

When the National Park Service took over what became Organ Pipe National Monument, they evicted all the residents. The land had belonged to the Tohono O’odham and Hia-ced O’odham people, then called “Papagos” and “Sand Papagos,” respectively, after a Pima word meaning roughly “bean eater.” The O’odham (which word means, basically, “people”) did eat beans. They grew — they still grow — tepary beans on fields made of flash flood debris, irrigated by winter rains and summer monsoon runoff and not much else, ten inches or so of precipitation annually. And they tended the plants around that pond as well, the wild amaranths and fruiting vines and trees. Similar oases still in O’odham hands boast a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life. The pond we visited that day is depauperate by comparison.

But it was peaceful, and cool after miles of sun-baked dust two-rut, and we walked around the little lake taking deep draughts of water-scented air. It was all the respite we needed, and we drove on refreshed to a little valley filled with senita cacti, the northernmost population of their species. At roadside I saw an “elephant tree,” Bursera microphylla, the first I’d seen after reading about them for years. I pulled the little car over to the shoulder, walked to the tree, touched it gently.

The border paralleled the road we drove, and trucks roared past on Mexico’s Route 2 less than a quarter mile away. At the pond I walked to the frontier: two flimsy strands of barbed wire strung between wildly canted metal posts, and a stone monument just beyond, one point on the line defined under the terms of the Gadsden Purchase. I slipped between the strands, walked to the carved stone on the border, walked past it, an illegal immigrant into the state of Sonora, Mexico. I turned back to Becky, who was standing there still in el Norte, and I waved foolishly.

In a grove of trees that straddled the fence, the top strand of barbed wire had been cut. A sheet of cardboard from a refrigerator box covered the bottom strand. A path led to the pond, and across the desert. A jornada, a hundred miles of bone-dry desert, with water handy for those who know where to look in hidden rock tanks with only a day or two of walking between them. and then, if you survive, your reward? Picking lettuce for $5,000 a year.

That was the year of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. That was the year of NAFTA. That was the last time I visited Organ Pipe. Since then, one in six Mexicans has lost his or her home. That border fence, hardly a deterrent to foot traffic, was useless against the coyotes and the smugglers who drove trucks right across it and into the desert. 300 miles of illegal roads were gouged into the fragile soil of the National Monument between 2000 and 2004. When a ranger was killed by pot smugglers there in 2002, the monument finally won the funds for a vehicle barrier — and the damage moved to the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which has had almost 200 miles of illegal roads created since 2004. Not a square mile of Cabeza Prieta is unscarred.

It’s not the migrants themselves doing the damage, really. Oh, they leave cumulative tons of trash, plastic water jugs and diapers and clothing and their personal possessions and on startlingly frequent occasions, in addition to the trash, they leave their corpses. They drink the smaller water holes dry and spook the pronghorn. Still, the damage they cause is negligible compared to that caused by the tires of the coyotes and the smugglers.

And now Bush’s border fence is going up between Yuma and Lukeville. It will be all but impassable to vehicular traffic, and harder for solo hikers to cross. The illegal crossings will be shunted to a less-defended section of border: the Big Bend country, perhaps, or the stretch between the Chiricahuas and Deming. And the Sonoran pronghorn will suffer one more insult, unable to migrate or mate across the border fence, one more injury to a species on the brink. Likewise the bighorn and the jaguar.

And all of it, the whole deadly, desert-destroying problem created because we have made the natural points of entry to the US impassable. What migrant wouldn’t rather come up Interstate Five to the San Joaquin Valley, or I-17 from Nogales, than struggle across days of searing desert, watching his friends die one by one? Let them come and work, I say. The old bracero abuses can be avoided. A guest worker program need not be exploitative. Protect their rights not to be abused once here, pay them a fair wage and charge us more for a tomato to pay for it if you have to, and then let them go home and come back again freely. If people know they can come back without risking death one more time, they are far more likely to go home, which is where most of them want to be anyway. Those ignorants who gripe about swelling numbers of illegal immigrants miss the point. Open the border to them and they will go home.

You cannot drive to Quitobaquito anymore, as Becky and I did twelve years ago. Two thirds of Organ Pipe is closed. Travel there is too dangerous. The stray immigrants might steal your water in desperation. The coyotes might carjack you twenty miles from the nearest phone, in mid-day, in July, and they probably won’t think to toss you a canteen as they drive off.

I have been speaking on the phone the last few days with the Border Patrol, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife. 

I’m going in two weeks. I’d like to see Quitobaquito again. Turns out that might be doable.

Whitebark pines

(Clark's nutcracker, USGS photo) On the desk here, a cone from a single-needle piñon pine. The pine’s species is a matter of some debate, either Pinus monophylla or something else, according to the author of the field guide I have in hand, which author showed me the tree from which she picked my cone when I visited Prescott. There were pine nuts in the cone when I opened the box. They were still edible, if a little stale. There are three or four nuts still in the cone.

I camped at Walker Pass about ten years ago, and families drove up from Ridgecrest and Bakersfield with rakes and garbage bags, walked off into the pinyon and juniper. It took me a bit to figure out what they were doing. “¿Se buscan piñones?” I asked one grandfather, and he smiled and held up a gallon ziplock bag full of the pine nuts he’d gathered. It was a mast year. Nut pines put a lot of resources into setting seeds, enough to sap (so to speak) the vitality of the tree. A tree needs a season or two to recover, typically, between heavy nut years. Whitebark pines, those stoic denizens of the sub-alpine forests, put more effort into their seeds than about any other pine: each pound of whitebark pine nuts holds about 2700 calories. In Yellowstone, and probably in other subalpine settings as well, whitebark pine seeds provide most of the body fat that gets grizzlies through their cold winter sleep. Not that a bear would turn down carrion, mind you, but pound for pound the pine nuts are the most economical way to gorge.

There is some thought that griz maulings may coincide, roughly, with lean pine nut years. Only when the crop fails do the bears turn to their less-preferred meal, the American Tourist.

Bears don’t necessarily take the cones off the trees themselves. They’re more likely to raid middens collected by red squirrels, a.k.a. chickarees, who put a lot of effort into stacking pine cones conveniently at ground level. Chickarees harvest cones from the whitebarks, though at times they themselves may raid caches of seeds collected by another animal, the Clark’s nutcracker (no relation), Nucifraga columbiana.

Without the nutcracker, the whitebark would eventually die out. Without the whitebark, the nutcracker would have trouble surviving. Clark’s nutcrackers can eat other pine seeds, but they don’t do well on them: either the nuts are too small and collecting a calorie more inefficient, or the other pines’ cones open up early to let their seeds flutter away on the wind. Whitebark cones stay closed until a nutcracker — or a chickaree, or a grizzly — pries them open to get at the seeds.

Many other species of pine have seeds that grow little membranous wings. The Pinus sabiniana I napped under this weekend, alive with Steller’s jays, opens its huge baroquely recurved cones in season and its seeds flutter out like maple samaras. The whitebark pine’s seeds have wings as well. They simply grow attached to a Clark’s nutcracker. The cone holds its crop tightly. A Nucifraga must shoehorn the seeds out of the cones with its sharp beak. The bird then tests the seed by clacking it in its beak, discards undeveloped or rotten nuts, and flies the good ones off to cache them in the ground.

Clark’s nutcrackers are well known among behaviorists for their astonishing memories. They birds can recall the location of hundreds of individual caches for more than a year. Researchers have demonstrated that the birds use visual cues to relocate their food stores. A nutcracker might cache a few seeds a meter south of a distinctively shaped rock, and it will look for them a year later a meter south of that rock, despite the meddling scientists having moved the rock a meter north. Prodigious memories allow the Clark’s nutcrackers to eat archived seed through years of sparse seed set. And they archive a lot of seed: up to 100,000 seeds per bird per year.

But some seed caches are, inevitably, forgotten. Alone among eaters of whitebark seeds, the Clark’s nutcracker buries pine nuts at a depth conducive to germination and long-term survival — an inch or so deep. In fact, the birds may use pine seedlings as a cue to locate forgotten, unsprouted seeds in that same cache. As each cache generally contains a number of seeds, and as whitebark pines do not have their seeds dispersed successfully other than by way of nutcrackers, the trees tend to grow in clumps. This itself aids in survival of the trees at altitude: the clump helps blunt the blasting, drying wind. Hike up to timberline in the west, and where you see a small grove of whitebark pines, there an ancestral nutcracker cached and eventually forgot some seeds, a century or five ago. The birds seem to seek out marginal locations for their caches, away from most competitors for the seed and — coincidentally — away from most things that would compete with the new trees for sunlight and water. As the trees mature and modify the local climate, other trees, subalpine firs and such, often germinate in their lee.

Which brings us to the image that’s been haunting me the last few weeks.

There are pines with a long, distinguished ancestry in North America. There are corvids, mainly the jays, whose roots in the Western Hemisphere run deep. Neither the whitebark pine nor the Clark’s nutcracker can make this claim. Both species have numerous close relatives in Eurasia. Both have relatively uniform genomes: the kind of thing one would expect to see of populations that have expanded dramatically from a small founding group. Neither can reproduce without the other. The birds plant trees in marginal locations, often some miles from the parent tree. After some years, fifty or a hundred, the new trees produce seeds.

The Bering land bridge opens as ice sheets usurp the water supply, lowering sea levels. The ancestors of Clark’s nutcrackers work their way into the area from Siberia, planting whitebark groves on land now buried under 50 meters of seawater, and move yet farther into the Yukon basin. Thousands of years pass. The great ice sheets begin to recede. As the strait floods behind them, the birds are suddenly presented with a corridor between two major receding ice sheets.  The Laurentian ice sheet, over the Eastern two-thirds of the continent, and the Cordilleran sheet over the western mountains have parted, and a band of alternating dry land and muskeg and tundra stretches from the Mackenzie Delta to Montana. It is about 12,000 years before the present day, perhaps 13,000.

A slow tsunami of bird and forest rolls south from the Arctic Ocean to the Rockies. That is the image that has flitted through my consciousness this month. Birds plant trees, which grow and make seed for the birds to plant farther on, and other species follow in their wake. Subalpine firs sprout, and chickarees, and in the growing leaf litter sprout grassses, and hay-harvesting pikas.

And now, of course — of course! — that partnership is threatened. An imported rust fungus has weakened white pines, including the whitebark, throughout North America. Increasing alpine temperatures spur fatal outbreaks of bark beetles in whitebark groves. The silvicologists were among the first to warn of climate change two decades ago, bark beetles uppermost in their minds. The world is coming undone, and yet the nutcrackers still scold people away from their precious remembered treasures.

Diablo yesterday


A hundred yards in, a quail, backlit topknot quivering, ran across the fire road, then his mate, legs pumping, followed and I saw a pebble near her, but the pebble ran as well. A baby, backlit and in silhouette, almost beneath the female’s breast it ran, and then another, kumquat-sized (a kiwi far too large) it ran across, and then another, and five more, and by the time I stopped counting, hand held involuntarily to heart, a full two dozen hatchling quail had crossed the road before me, visible in outline only, black against the blazing canyon.


Ninety-five degrees in that canyon, and I stopped now and then on the switchbacks to cool. Eight hours of hiking, and in the sixth the sand was in my eyes and I wiped it away with a fingertip, and then more sand in a few moments. I wiped again, and then again some minutes later, and then I looked at my finger after the fourth daub and saw the pale white crystals, sharp, and tasting of salt. My shirt was streaked with white. The straps of my pack were streaked with white, and at the summit the tourist women watched me eating and drinking, head down and oblivious to them, and from the corner of my eye I saw them gesture at me and smile to one another.


She stood under Moses Rock Ridge, attention fixed on something on the ground, and did not hear me coming from behind her. From thirty feet away my eyes rolled across her shapely flank, saw the small hairs stand up on her neck under the slight breeze, and her coyote ears cocked toward the ground, listening for whatever gopher or ground squirrel she was after, and the moment stretched out languorously long and I wondered at last when it would break. I am not so clever yet to surprise a coyote by my own stealth, I thought, my breath too ragged and the chafing straps squeaking at the thermometer ring, but there we stood. And there we stood a minute longer, cicadas clicking furious in the blue oaks, until a cricket jumped and her gaze followed, and she saw me streaked with white standing not far away at all and slipped down into the ravine in fluid sidelong panic.


The Back Creek Trail is not a trail for going down. It is a trail for climbing, steep sections paved in tumbled gravel, drop-offs on one side and then the other steep enough to break a leg, with no one coming by for days. So i descended it, 13 miles into my hike, a summit gained and then down a ways on the other side, and up a steep section of trail back halfway again to the summit, a thousand feet of climb added to my usual hike, and then four inch shuffling steps, an hour to walk a mile, thighs near burning with the slow descent. Head-high chamise, and then bay laurel, and after a long hour with sweat stinging my eyes I reached the creek, a lurid trickle beneath the elder, and I longed to lie prone in it, to let it flush the salt from my eyes. My strides broadened. The wind picked up. At last I came down off the mountain, into broad tawn fields of dry oats, a savanna of sparse blue oaks, and only two more miles to the truck.

Note to self:

…find special “tongue in cheek” font for sardonic passages in any post that might include them here at CRN, especially those relating to cult religions such as Mormonism, spaceflight, or the Dave Matthews Band. Excessively literal adherents of those faiths seem not to clue in to the stray Brent Spiner strangulation reference as a marker of partial humorous intent.