Monday, July 18, 2005

caves and cottonwoods

I've been writing in my hardbound book journals for a while rather than writing posts here, but I'm back with a brief exploration into darkness and a celebration of cottonwood trees.

At the beginning of this month, I signed up for a ranger-led tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave in the Guadalupe Mountains. The cave is part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (I live in the nearby town of Carlsbad, New Mexico). Slaughter Canyon Cave is not a developed cave like its world-famous neighbor, Carlsbad Caverns, meaning that it does not have an elevator, electric lights, paved trails, signage. There is a trail marked by tape and a rope used by visitors to help themselves up over a very slippery spot, but that's about it for amenities.

In order to visit, I had to make a reservation, pay the $15 fee, drive myself out there to the foot of the mountains, and allow plenty of time and drinking water for climbing up to the cave. The trail to its mouth, which is gated and kept locked, is not long but quite steep, a 500-foot elevation gain in a very short distance. Since we in the Chihuahuan Desert have baked for more than a month now in temperatures around 100 degrees, the hike up was tough for most of us cave visitors. We chugged up a vertical trail carved into blinding white limestone with no shade. However, at the cave mouth we found just about enough shade to allow the group that accumulated there to take off our hats, cool our sweaty heads, and catch our breath while waiting for our guides.

When the rangers arrived, unlocked the gate, and allowed us to enter, suddenly we stepped into a different realm--dark, cool, and humid. For a while, as we carefully descended a long and sometimes slick slope, we could still glance behind us and see the white-hot sky we left behind, a gradually diminishing door of light. But then our guide stopped us and told us to notice that we were about to cross what he called the "curtain of darkness," beyond which we would no longer be able to see the outside world. Sure enough, we passed into the underworld and were enveloped in a darkness unrelieved except for our flashlights. And there we would stay for almost three hours, marveling at what our rather pathetic lights could bring up from the deep well of darkness, from tiny bat bones buried in a pile of ancient guano to large formations, such as the sparkling white Christmas Tree. I was often aware of how moist and cool my skin felt, and that was comfortable, but at the same time, I felt uneasy about my dependence on a few D-cell batteries. It was as if I were tethered to the blazing sunlight beyond the cave. The tether would allow me to wander some distance into the darkness, but not too far.

When we returned to the surface of the earth, it was very hot. It was also lunchtime. Climbing back down the trail to my car, I felt the sun burning a hole in the top of my head. So I tried to focus on the anticipation of having something cold to drink. I had made a plan for what to do after the cave tour. I would drive a few miles to a picnic area, still within the confines of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, known as Rattlesnake Springs. There I would rest under the trees, eat, and drink.

Rattlesnake Springs is a favorite haunt for birders because it is truly an oasis--for people and for birds. Once even I, a plant person, not a birder, spotted a vermilion flycatcher there, and it's easy to see wild turkeys among the cottonwood trees. The picnic ground is shaded by huge, old cottonwoods. The springs are a short walk away, and in September Nuttall's sunflowers grow quite tall all around the spring-fed pond. Outside the magic circle of trees and flowers and water, the Chihuahuan Desert, with its aridity-adapted plants and animals, rules. But inside, shade and water create a rest stop in the midst of a demanding environment.

It was the cottonwoods that I came to visit. They are comforting trees for me, like friends I don't get to see often enough but whose welcome makes me feel instantly at home. Their gray, deeply furrowed bark speaks of the passage of time and their experience in the world, while their bright green leaves constantly shimmer and murmur with a rustling like rain. In the desert Southwest the cottonwood is a sign of water, on the surface or underground. The tree not only whispers promises of moisture, but its handsome, spreading crown offers shade in a country where it's scarce. As I sat under the cottonwoods and ate my lunch and drank a cold drink, I watched the cotton fly, as they say around here. The cottonwood seeds are outfitted for their journey into the world with fluff that allows them to float on the breeze, sometimes fillling the air in early summer with what looks like fat, soft snowflakes. I remember riding horseback in the Rio Grande bosque through drifts of cotton like pillowy snowbanks.

The desert has many faces--hot, harsh, luminous mountains; dark, cool caves; trees that embrace water and wind. And me.