A Desert’s Tale

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A shadow took me in, flew right over, causing enough of a distraction for me to stop my climb. Gratitude for shade in the desert is not unusual. This was different. I turned to scan behind; the sun was to my front. The apparition had cruised right over my head engulfing me for a second until my synapse snapped and I sensed a presence. I hoped for a raptor, though that would have been odd. My altitude would not warrant a visit from a healthy raptor. So what might it have been?

Then I spied the Roadrunner, my friend seemed to have lost his fear of me as he spied on me from a cluster of lava flow just 20 feet behind me down the mountain. His crest was flexing. He was hunting and no doubt I had disturbed his mission on this side of the mountain. In his book, I was just another foreign object, a competitor of sorts, in the way of lunch. I admired him a minute and continued my climb. I love Roadrunners.

Here beneath a cliff, amidst sheared rocks of old, geologists seem to have polished a pour-out out just for me. The cleft of the cliff face I rested against, hinted it might be my impromptu burial place. The shade it offered and the smooth back against which to rest my bones enticed me to take the gamble. Perhaps these words will serve as a clue one day if people must go looking for me. Look under the rocks. But please leave my bones there to stay. Please.

It had been an interesting morning hiking in to my office. I came across a hatch of tarantula hawk wasps atop the ridgeline, a swarm of them exploring an area that must have been a nest. I have never seen tarantulas on this mountain, but the hawks tell me the gentle scary spiders are here. I will keep looking.

The desert is blooming rich with spring. It has been a couple of weeks since rain, but the temperatures are still mild and earlier rains have created a palette of Sonoran colors. Yellow is the trend with sprays of the sunny color covering entire mountains. There are purples too and reds in the form of berries of the Wolf’s Thorn, which is laden with these juicy desert fruits. One of these must be host to the tarantula? As desolate as this desert is, an unforgiving furnace of heat even on moderate days, it still is home to so much wildlife right in the middle of the city.

I ponder this over a sandwich and lots of water in the solace of my office and it occurs to me that I am due for another Chuckwalla sighting. It has been a year. Now that I know there is a species, or variation, unique to South Mountain I have become a fan. Chuckwallas have found me a few times over the years, but only the one time last year here in the largest city park in the country. They are relatively uncommon compared to other desert reptiles I have encountered.

Last spring, I spied a kerchief of orange, or so I wondered, resting on a varnished ledge of granite last spring. I moved closer to inspect. Still at a distance, it occurred to me that kerchiefs do not do push-ups. There just across the bend was a stout lizard doing push-ups, not for me but for his girlfriends I am sure. This is common behavior for the lizards, either to attract mates, or to regulate body temperature or perhaps for some other reason we have yet to discover. What was uncommon, at least for me, was the brilliant reddish orange tail he displayed. Had he dressed for me?

So today, I wondered if I might be due for another spring sighting. It was a daydream really. Still, I resolved to be vigilant on the rest of my walk. Even then, the way you do when resolving to apply yourself, I began to inspect my surroundings carefully. My office is beneath a granite shelf on the shade side of a pre-anthropocene billboard, an early testament of the Pima’s or the Anasazi’s, perhaps even some splinter Aztec peoples. Their hieroglyphs remain on display and relatively intact given their public reputation and despite their 1000+ year provenance. They change shape and color and even visibility as the shadows of the day change. They mastered 3-D long before we could even imagine it. One of the images they glyphed often was the chuckwalla. I know this now.

These powerful granite tumbles of gigantic boulders, varnished with millennia old dustings of pacific salt air or from residual clouds of giant meteor crashes glazed, and baked on in the kiln-like intensity of the desert heat, are the ideal habitat for the chuckwalla. They love the infinite tunnels and cracks that make a custom village maze of life for them all within crawling distance of their favorite desert fruits. There is no water, or very little for great distances of time.

So it was no surprise to spot a chuckwalla on that day. But the red tail was brand new to me. I have seen chuckwallas much further south, and east as well. They surprised me and my daughter when she was much younger at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum where we spotted one lumbering across the trail in front of us before lodging himself head first in a narrow crevice where his patience easily topped ours. He had been grayish or chalkish white all the way to the tip of his stout tail, which was all we could inspect as we stalked his secure hiding place.

They are like a two year old, imagining that if they can not see us, well then, they are invisible to us too. Too funny. Since that time I have surprised dozens of chuckwallas, and their red tails are not bashful at all. I would take a bet that I could find the tell-tale red tail of our chuckwallas for you within no more than a few hundred yards of the trail head. Take me up on the bet and I’ll buy you lunch with my winnings.

This one had an orange tail though? Was it just that I was closer, was it the gender? Was it mature or juvenile? It had been smaller than the first one we had seen. So I looked it up and was mortified. Not too strong of a word. I was mortified.

Damn google. Just damn google. There are things to learn there, or things you already suspect but hope against hope that you will not be reminded of. It seems there is chuckwalla research that is being conducted under the auspices of the largest university in America. It calls itself variously the New American University, or a Modern Research Institution, or some puffed up vision of an ideal future. Generally it is well run, and Dr. Crowe has even written a book about it. But the science department? It seems to be an outlier, a speck of shit in the pepper so to speak, as its conduct is redolent of the wild west of the idiot savant it would seem.

At least one of the researchers has interpreted this vision to a perverted extreme and embarked on a quest to understand the answer to the universal and eternal question,

What is it exactly that attracts females?

 Let’s stipulate to the importance of the question, without necessarily endorsing the specifics of the research project. Apparently some aspiring scientist is madly capturing chuckwallas and taking them to his suburban back yard where he has constructed his idea of habitat. Habitat enforced by chains, fences and cages to ensure these wild prehistoric creatures do not escape back to the home God granted.

Cinder blocks piled high and arranged in separate jumbles is how his experiment works. Chain one chuckwalla to the blocks on one pile and chain the other to a separate pile close by. Release a female into the competition to see which male she selects. Oh, the crucial research question, what attracts a female, is teased out by iteratively painting each male’s tail in varying shades of orange.

Really you can look up the study yourself if you want to be depressed. Since that time I have had many opportunities to spy the unique red-tailed south mountain chuckwalla. If you know where to look you can find them, especially if you are willing to tolerate the heat. You see they like to sun themselves and present their beautiful iridescent red tails to the world, and of course the girls.

Recently I spotted a flash of orange below me as I climbed. He was about 20 yards away. I sensed it was the tail of a chuckwalla so I settled in and patiently waited for him to move. Sure enough he took over the flat black surface of the rock pile down the hill. And he had a friend. Who else shared the stage with him? Why of course, it was a smaller female, better camouflaged resting off to the side.

They lolled about for over an hour. I guess we would call it ‘hanging out’. Occasionally the male would do a rotation, just parading around in a circle of his own circumference. His pirouette seemed designed to show off his tail. At least he had my attention. The female seemed bored with his movements. She remained completely motionless, or as close to it as you can be for this length of time. She was unmoved. Perhaps they were waiting on the famed Arizona animal scientists’ permission or some kind of official decree.

You see Arizona scientists of the natural world are a rogue’s gallery. It has been going on forever. Some idiot imported buffalo long ago into the geologically enclosed area of House Rock Valley, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. They have taken over the area, overgrowing their cramped prison. For years canned hunts for wannabe men were organized to profit off the buffalo’s predicament. The public conscience finally shut that down. But now what do we do as they tear up a virgin area they were not meant for?

Now the scientists are at it again, tracking the reclusive jaguar in the Santa Ritas. He is probably dead now, murdered like his predecessors here in the Gadsden Purchase by overeager trackers and trappers. They want to study him, so they manipulate him, they will tell you they are studying him, with traps and bait and cameras to haunt his natural life with an all too natural human malice. This is all done in the name of science and state governments uninhibited by judgment or moral center. The news is talking about the tentative return of the jaguar to its normal range north of the border. It was never going to be possible in the evolving modernity of our world. Now there is this nonsense about a border wall with no thought given to the disruption this will cause in the migratory habits of wildlife. Case closed.

The Apaches were forced on to reservations in the late 1800’s only to be robbed, again and again, of their ancestral lands. Now their history repeats in the same cruel motif as Flake and McCain and their band of conspiring pirates have gifted the Apache’s sacred Oak Flats over to Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, a network of foreign terrorists officially sanctioned by money and greed, euphemistically known as leaders in the mining industry. Have you ever seen Oak Flats in the gorgeous high Sonoran wild? Have you seen the Ray Mine? The Pinto Mine? Mining has turned the most beautiful desert in the world, the 100 mile stretch from Aravaipa Wilderness to the Superstitions Wilderness into one continuous yawning armpit of desecration. God is dead and gone.

Next up on McCain’s list of sacrifices we make to his fraudulent career is to bring uranium mining back to the Grand Canyon. This wonder of creation where groundwater is a miracle if you can find it, is now to be drilled and bombed and blown up and dredged and dragged for a substance that is only poisonous when we remove it from its natural placement. We have machinery that can move mountains. We do not have the grace to move our hearts. We may as well sacrifice virgins over the side of the Grand Canyon. Considering sustainability requires an open mind, not a poisonous mine.

Soon elephants will join the buffalo and the beaver as nearly extinct artifacts living in fantasy zones of natural habitat designed by the cruelest of animals. Salmon and whales are in our cross hairs too as salmon runs in the northwest have been long demolished by the helter-skelter placement of damns even as cruise ships and pirate garbage ships dump their poisons in our vast oceans. The world is not so vast that humans cannot destroy it.

No the scientists are surely pre-occupied in their laboratories today like every other day. Surely the love doctors are locked in their offices, or perhaps their back yards. The extinctions they study, all but our own, are all salaried endeavors with recognition and honoraria and maybe even a Nobel for those who play their cards right. While the planet gasps for breath, we salute our erudite domination.

Finally my buddies lost their bashfulness and as a pair let their nature take over. I have no idea of their reproductive behaviors – mating for life, or if this was just a one-off liaison, or perhaps they were even parent and child. I was beginning to lose shade, and patience too, when the male approached the female’s side of the rock and they rested side by side for the first time during my observation. I watched now deep into my second hour of silence.

Until now, the discreet distance they kept from each other was at least a yard of separation. Then the smaller female crawled up, snuggled really, upon his shoulder. She was about half his size, so it looked like she was giving him a little hug from behind. It seemed very affectionate. It was almost like the embrace you share with your spouse while one is doing the dishes. They rested like this for a while. Then he made another slow rotation, with her still mounting him from the top. Somehow she held on as he crawled beneath her with his tail the last to brush her underside. Had I seen chuckwallas mating?

I cannot know at this point. It does not matter. All that rattles around in my brain is the story of the misguided ASU doctoral candidate. Really, are we wondering what attracts females and then declaring this silly question research worthy? And really, a guy wants to know what attracts females? A guy? You cannot make this stuff up. It is better than a late night standup routine. And he, an aspiring ASU scientist no doubt, is so driven to understand sexual attraction from the special vantage point of the chuckwalla that he traps them, imprisons them in his suburban back yard with piles of cinder blocks as their prison? And he chains them up and paints their tails and then spies on their sexual habits? Really?

A guy wants to know what attracts a female. He deduces it to be related to the tail. How many stereotypes must science exploit? This is insane. What are the research protocols and ethical structures that allow the manipulation and enslavement, perhaps even torture of animals, not to mention destruction of life and habitat just to further speculation about the mysteries of sexual attraction? Should we re-visit these corrupt foundations of civilized thought? I think so. Soon, if we care about survival. Theirs the animals, and ours the superior humans.

What an afternoon! Almost a front row seat to take in a Sonoran spring with one of its more mysterious and magical serpents. One that is unique to this desert mountain range smack in the middle of the Sonoran desert. The red-tailed chuckwalla is found nowhere else! South Mountain is a forbidding furnace devoid of water. Yet it is a paradise of castles and confections just for these shy and wondrous creatures. We should respect them.

Rarer still than my observation this afternoon, is death by falling rocks in the Grand Canyon. Exceedingly unusual as the canyon is so sparsely inhabited. The millions of visitors every year are well-managed and herded into a few narrow zones of millage. The Grand Canyon is largely intact and unexplored through great expanses of its grandeur. Thanks God. Yet there are occasions where a rock slide or a small temblor will loose a boulder that falls until it finds a bottom, its angle of repose. Very occasionally, perhaps in all of history, such repose is directly on top of someone’s wanting karma.

The red-tailed chuckwalla occurs alone in a single small geography in all of the world. A gift of natural selection. Lightning strikes naturally too, selecting each touch at random. So do rocks come tumbling down suddenly in the grand canyon, even taking a life on rare occasion. No doubt chuckwallas and their lovers find each other in the same magical way? How many must die before we discover that beauty and love are more random than science. Natural selection is more natural than science too. How many must die before we respect love and beauty as the superiors to science? How many rocks must fall in the desert before this study is randomly silenced and science finds a maester?

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