Monthly Archives: September 2008

Quick pointers

1) I have a submission up at Postal Poetry. Go check it out.

2) On Saturday, October 4, I will be joining a few other desert writers at the Riverside Public Library, 3581 Mission Inn Ave Riverside, CA, in a reading to celebrate the release of Issue 2 of Phantom Seed Magazine. It starts at 1:00 pm and it’s free and you should show up.

3) Michael Bérubé Online is back in business.

4) So is the Theriomorph.

Letters from the desert: Crotalus scutulatus

Were one to insist on a strictly rational, actuarial accounting of the risks involved, one would of necessity admit that the little meeting The Raven and I had Saturday with the most dangerous snake in North America was not the riskiest thing either of us did that day.

There was our drive to the spot where we hiked, for example. There was our wading through a cloud of possibly Africanized honeybees engorging themselves on a yellow-flowering desert shrub. There was our post-hike driving of The Raven’s Little British Convertible to a Baskin-Robbins south of Las Vegas. There was our eating at Baskin-Robbins. Any one of those things entailed more risk, on a strictly statistical basis, than our enjoying a bit of face time with a Mojave green rattlesnake.

Still, you don’t meet a Mojave green every day, and a novel risk does offer a bit of excitement. We were walking up a wash in the Wee Thump wilderness near Nipton, heading in lazy meandering fashion back toward the Little British Convertible and chatting about nothing in particular, and then I yelped not more than a quarter-second after I heard the rattling. A familiar serpentine silhouette peered at us, backlit by afternoon sun, caught in mid-slither as it tried to cross the wash.

After the usual second of shock I decided the snake was about 20 feet farther away than it could strike, and I exhaled. “That,” I said too didactically by half, “is a Mojave green rattlesnake.”

The Raven got her eyes narrowed back down from dinnerplate size. “Uh-huh,” she said. “So… should we”

“It’s the most dangerous snake in North America,” I added.

“I really didn’t need to know that,” she agreed.

The snake peered at us, rattling furiously. The Mojave green has a reputation for aggressiveness. This reputation probably stems from the tendency exhibited by individuals in this species to stand their ground, metaphorically speaking. Where other rattlers would retreat, the Mojave greens tend to stay put and get angrier and angrier.

But they’re not actually aggressive. This one wasn’t. It didn’t charge us or bluff-strike or rise up cobra-style and hypnotize us. It just made it very clear to us that there was a circle of desert wash about six feet in diameter where The Raven and I were very much not welcome, and that that circle had a loud buzzing snake in its exact center.

We looked at it. It looked at us. The Raven was not making any suggestions, evidently deferring to my desert-expertise-informed judgment as to how we might best proceed. I swallowed.

“It can’t strike at us farther than it is long, so let’s just go around that way.” I pointed at a sandy channel in the wash that ran around and behind the snake, with about eight or ten feet of buffer. “Can we climb up out of the wash?” asked The Raven, sensibly enough. But I wanted a good look at the snake. Crossing my fingers that I’d gauged its length accurately enough, I walked behind it, feeling suddenly vulnerable in the shin-to-groin region.

The snake, until now stretched languorously across the sand, leapt to coiled attention. It rattled even more furiously than it had been, its tail poking rakishly up out of the coils. Tongue flicked and head moved, tracking us as we passed.

And then we were past it, and we retreated another twenty feet and stopped, and after a few seconds the snake stopped rattling. It had been what the diplomats call a frank and honest exchange of views with significant progress made toward a non-aggression agreement.

Which is really all the snake was after. Mojave greens do bite humans on occasion, and there are fatalities. Like other rattlers, Mojave greens possess a potent hemotoxin component to their venom. Many populations of the snake also possess a second, somewhat more insidious toxin in their venom: a slower-acting neurotoxin that can cause respiratory failure, among other things.

But it’s worth noting that the majority of bites by Mojave greens are suffered by males, and that young adults are more likely to be bitten than any other age cohort, and that the majority of deaths from Mojave green bites follow episodes in which, according to one description cut and pasted across the web, “the bitten individual was interacting intentionally with the snake.” Whether most such bites are preceded by the phrase “hold my beer,” as The Raven guessed later, is not known.

I imagine that’s what the snake thought, and perhaps The Raven as well, when I took a few steps back toward those wary coils. The rattling started up again, and did it seem a trifle more exasperated? I may have been projecting. “All I wanted was a photo” does indeed merit inclusion in the collection of Famous Last Words, just before the snakebite or the bear mauling or elk trampling, or the plunge off the scenic overlook into the canyon. But it worked for me this time, just one pace toward the snake with my cameraphone extended, still three times farther away than the snake could possibly strike and a reminder always to bring my long lens when hiking in Mojave green country.

And of course then comes the hike after seeing the snake, a day or two later. If there is a better way to make every single twig and stone seem alive and breathing beneath your feet, I do not know it.


Take my fingers, split nails to the quick,
tear off this sallow skin from nail and bone
and scatter all of it among the rocks
to feed the creosote. This back long-bent
could be reduced to vertebrae and flesh
to jerk and desiccate, this pliant hide
made hard and leathery. Coyote’s teeth
would work to gnaw at me. A decade hence
some poor sun-addled soul will find my bones.
Long femurs splintered. Cranium sand-glazed,
its contents barely changed. Take these pale eyes,
ensky them, blue rimmed with dark violet
and clouded white, as I have cast them up
and skyward on ten thousand days like this.

Phantom Seed reading, October 4

I’ll be reading some of my work, appearing along with other contributors to the second issue of Phantom Seed, the desert literary journal.

Saturday, October 4, 1:00 p.m.
Riverside Public Library
3581 Mission Inn Ave
Riverside, CA 92501

Hope to see some of my SoCal pals there!

Letters from the desert: Tortious Conduct

Thunderstorms rolled in this morning, one or more from each of the four directions, and the smell of wet creosote was thick on the wind.

I decided to go get my mail. This involves about a forty=mile round trip. My mail tends to pile up in the box as a result. Heading down Nipton Road toward the dry lake I got a better view of the storms, one astride Kessler Peak and another stuck atop the New York Mountains near Caruthers Canyon. A particularly dark patch of storm covered the small canyon where Ivanpah Road heads through the New Yorks into the Lanfair Valley. “I need to see a flash flood today,” I thought to myself, and missed my turn onto Morning Star Mine Road in favor of heading into the storm.

At the little railroad-siding ghost town of Ivanpah — not the one for which the valley was named; that would be the other ghost town of Ivanpah, near Yates Well — the road bent leftward to follow the tracks for a few hundred yards, and then curved back toward the mountains again.

It was just after that second, blind curve that I ran over the tortoise.

I was doing about forty, I guess, and didn’t see him in the road until it was too late to stop. It didn’t exactly dart out in front of me. I was probably a bit distracted by watching sky. But I cursed, and I swerved and held my breath.

I felt no thump as Jeep went over turkle.

I pulled off the road and ran back to see what the hell I’d done, awkwardly walking across a wet cattle guard in my Tevas. Tortoise seemed uninjured: shell intact, no sign of blood or fracture of anything but peevishness.

Just after I ran it over

The rain started to come down fairly hard. I crossed the cattle guard again and ran back to put the camera back in the Jeep, and then ran back to the catle guard, crossed it yet again, and started speaking softly to the Tort. He was not happy with me. I hefted him gently anyway, put him on the side of road for which he’d been headed when I ran him over. Crossed the cattle guard again, ran back to the Jeep, got my camera and returned to shoot a photo to reassure myself later that he’d survived my vehicular assault.

He was in no mood to pose.

a few minutes later

I turned back around and headed for the Post Office. My mailbox was full. I have credit card bills to pay. My copy of High Country News arrived. There was a check from UCSF.

The whole valley was filled with storm as I drove home. At about 30 miles per hour. It took a while.

Regarding The Raven

I walked out into the desert today after an afternoon of thunderstorms. The sun set, as it will, and I sat in the darkening on the gravel berm of the unmaintained road I’d walked along for a half hour or so.

The night desert sky, pale northward with Vegas’ diffuse light, shifted overhead with the wind. Stars winked on and off. After some time there came a bright white glow beneath the eastern sky, and clouds illuminated from beneath by a full moon not yet risen.

A message came: she longs to watch the moon with me again.

My vision is clouded these days. I must back up a few hundred miles to see things clearly, and then i long to reach out, to touch the thing remotely beheld. Everything I was has sloughed off, fallen away, and all that has come in its stead is spare sustenance, save her. The writing comes slowly, the desert I sought only lately accessible without risk of heatstroke, the loves that were replaced by their absence. The home I left looms in my mind green and cool, populated with ghosts.

Friends take pains to remind me that no one is responsible for any others’ happiness. Insults like poison harm only if you accept them, they claim, and if those insults do not come labeled with skull and crossbones what then? (I have been bled by daggers emblazoned with hearts and flowers.) No one can make me happy, they claim. That’s my job.

The Raven makes me happy nonetheless. It is an odd happiness, and friends once worried write me with sighs of relief. I am unsure what to do in the absence of drama, unsure how to react to the fact that I can tell her anything, the only eggshells anywhere near piled neatly to one side as I make her breakfast. My life is still asunder, and The Raven does not fix that. The Raven will not fix that.

A message comes: she must sleep. She will see me in a few days.

Life alone and yet not alone and I have no shred of clue where I will be in two months. We speak of hypothetical futures and claim impatience with uncertainty. Even the present is uncertain.

The Raven makes me happy nonetheless.

The sun was low in the west today, a heavy rain descending between us. A trick of the light: the storm a mirror. As I talked to her the whole eastern slope of the Ivanpah Range was bathed in improbable green light, sun rays reflected and refracted around the mountains. We hung up and I watched the light fade through blue to indigo and then to black.