Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I just read the comments for earlier posts and was dismayed to discover that most of them were spam, including one ad for a timber company that I thought was insulting when posted after a blog entry about a champion tree! So I have hidden all the comments. What an abuse of the opportunity to start a dialogue with a blogger about mutual interests.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

autumn foliage

The last time I wrote about Rattlesnake Springs and its cottonwoods was months ago in the furnace of mid-summer when cotton was flying. I had stopped there for a rest in their shade after a tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave (Carlsbad Caverns National Park). Today I again stopped at Rattlesnake Springs for a visit with my cottonwoods, and today their leaves were dancing gold bangles in a strong but still warm wind.

For most of the day, I had been hiking the McKittrick Canyon trail with five companions. Long before I moved to Carlsbad, I had heard about the fall colors in McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The canyon is extraordinarily scenic all by itself, but it is also home to many bigtooth maples, so bright in the autumn they seem to burn against the cobalt sky in colors ranging from yellow to red to burgundy. They are the stars of the display, but other trees and shrubs wearing fall colors add to the array along the very popular trail.

When my companions and I arrived at the locked gate to the canyon this morning just before opening time of 8:00 am, a line of cars was already waiting. Then the trail was crowded all day with visitors, some local and some who came quite a distance and had planned the trip for a long time, and I heard three languages spoken along the way, so it was a multicultural group. The weather was almost perfect; some would say it was perfect--brilliant and warm--but I would have preferred a proper bit of chill, this being November. Also, the wind was gusty at times. But I was ecstatic at the sight of all the colors along the trail--not only the leaves but also the bright red berries on the madrones and the duller reds of the "berries" on the junipers.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

champion Rio Grande cottonwood

Just north of the little town of Fort Davis, Texas, lives one of the nation's Big Trees. It is the champion Rio Grande cottonwood, Populus deltoides var. wislizeni, listed on the National Register.

Last weekend I was in Fort Davis for a McDonald Observatory shindig for its large group of supporters, known as the BoV, or Board of Visitors. I was there as the guest of some friends who serve on the board. When I was invited to drive to Fort Davis with my friends, I knew this would be my opportunity to see the country's biggest Rio Grande cottonwood. I had been wanting to do it for several years, being a tree hugger of the first degree and one who has gone to a good deal of trouble at times to seek out the company of a Big Tree.

I had a photograph of the champ from American Forests magazine (the photo above, taken by Whit Bronaugh and published in the spring 2002 issue) and a general idea of where it was located from information provided to me by the Texas Forest Service. But once I arrived in Fort Davis, I needed some local help. A real estate office in the hotel where I was staying turned out serendipitously to be the source of exact directions--omigosh, they had the Big Tree up for sale! For only $8000 an acre, I could buy it and its surroundings. I didn't have the money right at the moment to buy it, but the real estate agent was able to tell me how to see it. I couldn't get close enough to the tree for a hug, but I would be able to spot it from the highway, once I knew where to look.

And sure enough, there it was. I pulled off the road just to take a long, admiring look. I could see that it was in excellent company, though it stands off to itself, as a champ might do. Lining Limpia Creek are many Rio Grande cottonwoods, tall and remarkably fine, twinkling, lit up as if from within like green beacons. Fort Davis must have some special environmental quality that contributes to growing exceptional cottonwoods.

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.

Friday, February 18, 2005

on the frontier of spring

February 13 would seem to be much too early to be thinking about spring, but here in the Chihuahuan Desert on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains, spring is beginning. My friend Renee, a biologist with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and I went for a walk in the foothills on Sunday afternoon the 13th. Our purpose was to look for Selaginella, what is known as a "fern ally," but we stopped and peered at anything of interest, especially small plants starting to bloom.

Desert anemones, Anemone tuberosa, had sent up bloom stalks with pink and white buds from the midst of their red-edged leaves. Wild onions, scattered here and there, were pushing up buds. The early-bird mustards, dainty white Drabas and bouquets of yellow Lesquerella, were already in bloom.

I wanted to share with Renee the Selaginella, creeping and forming mats all over the place around rocks and under shrubs. We have had an unusally wet year, so it is flourishing. Selaginella is a fern-like plant that resembles moss--its common name is spikemoss--with leaves so tiny that they can be seen well only under a dissecting microscope. That's what I used to identify the species we were seeing as Selaginella peruviana. The true mosses are also thriving this year, with many clumps of emerald-green tucked under the edges of rocks.

The surface of the desert is not barren; it is covered with plants soaking up the ample rainfall and preparing for reproduction in the spring.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

not only green

While green is the color we most associate with plants, the color most of us think we want to see in a landscape, winter in central New Mexico delights with plants in all the nuances of earthen colors. The whole of the plantscape at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge has become a dried arrangement: muted gold snakeweed in shapely masses; the delicate, remnant red stems of Eriogonum; the whites and grays of composites whose flowers have vanished but left artful receptacles; the whispery movement of tan grasses.

Around the herbs and shrubs and grasses in their bare, architectural beauty, frost sparkles on the sand. Below me and miles away, fog floats like a white chiffon streamer over the Rio Grande bosque. Above the fog rise the blue, snow-dusted peaks of the Manzano Mountains.

I breathe in the cold air and soak in the high-altitude radiance of shape and space. The sky and vistas are large, but the plants around me are small. No soaring forests or sprawling meadows, these are compact and frugal desert creatures. But they are as splendid in the quiet colors of dormancy as they are in the green flush of summer life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

an experiment

This blog is an experiment. I have been a journal keeper on paper pages for 37 years. Now I will try it on an electronic page. I want to learn about blogging because of my own personal, almost evangelistic conviction that journals are important. But also I will be teaching journal writing this semester, and I think perhaps my students would like to try this kind of journal.