|A curve-billed thrasher (I think) on cane (or tree) cholla overlooking Albuquerque|
or Going Wild
A day for small wildnesses—whiptail lizards, chickadees, scrub jays, the kinds of things you find in the foothills on the outskirts of town in a park where mountain bikers race through and artists stand contemplatively at their easels. The Elena Gallegos Open Space Park in northeast Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains isn't exactly wilderness, but it flirts with it enchantingly. I spent a couple of hours moseying around there last Monday, surrounded by the drone of cicadas, and serenaded by the hiss of lizards passing through dried grasses, rustling through dead leaves:
|A New Mexico whiptail lizard (I think)|
It was a day for remembering what "high desert" really means. Compared with the shady bosque along the Rio Grande, with its cottonwoods and willows, the piñon-and-juniper habitat in the foothills is exposed and inhospitable (though still enjoyable on a June morning). And it's parched. We're holding at 0.19 inches (5 mm) of moisture for the year so far, and up here you know it. The grasses have "kindling" written all over them. Where the cool greenery in the river valley offers an easy beauty, higher up, away from the lifeline of water, things are rougher around the edges. But there's still beauty to be had in plenty.
|The view from a well-placed bench—juniper and cholla, with some prickly pear lurking in the grasses|
One of those beauties, of course, is the sky—the grandest, most spectacular feature of open spaces in any western landscape. I wonder sometimes if mountains seem wilder than plains simply because in the mountains you can't see as much of the sky at once. A huge sky puts things in perspective: a six-inch lizard (plus tail) would be exciting and wildlife-y in the mountains; its presence would hint of larger and more spectacular things out of sight behind the next tree. Under the open sky it's a cute little lizard. Cholla ("choy'-a") can get large enough to tower overhead, but they always look small under the sheer, horizon-spanning mass of sky.
But even among the spines and barbs closer to the ground, beauty is not far away: yucca seed pods, opening up like flowers; the perfect domes of cholla buds; the "swallowed coin" roundnesses in the living stems, and the wind-flute airiness of the dead ones; the way prickly-pears echo the tumbled rocks they thrive on, the twists and turns from one perfectly rounded pad to the next.
|Yucca seed pods, cholla buds (the flowers are magenta), and living and dead cholla stems|
|Prickly pear dribbling down the side of an arroyo, shaded by scrub live oak (I think)|
I've been thinking lately about a comment that Dave, the Anxious Gardener, made a couple of posts back, about how on the one hand New Mexico seems like an alien environment (especially to his own garden in Sussex), but then on the other hand we grow some of the same plants and fight the same pests. Getting out in the open space and taking a good look around made me aware of just how domesticated the gardens here are. I mean, for Pete's sake, in my last post I was rambling on about Easter lilies, and in this one I'm watching out so I don't step on a cactus. We really have wrested gardens (and lawns and shade trees) out of a land where theoretically they don't belong.
|You can see the green(er) Rio Grande valley near the horizon line, about 1,500' below the altitude of the park.|
It's a little nerve-wracking to realize that quite so clearly. Words like "unsustainable" and, well, "unsustainable" keep flashing on and off inside my head. I'm reasonably responsible with water now, but am jolted into thinking about the next step—perhaps "undomesticating" a little bit and planting more really wild things. It wouldn't have to be anything radical—just small wildnesses.
Let the Easter lilies beware...