The Dunes of Samalayuca

by Jim Conrad

In northern Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, about half an hour south of the US/Mexican border between El Paso and Juárez, a Fronteras bus pulls away leaving me standing alone beside the highway. The bus's curtains were closed while a gringo movie with car chasing and gun shooting played on eight video screens above our heads. The bus's darkness smelled of industrial strength disinfectant, nachos, and aftershave.

Leaving the bus is like stepping from the dim lobby of a theater into full afternoon glare. As the bus pulls away I squint through a cloud of black diesel fumes.  The growl of the engine dies out, the fumes' odor drifts away, and the desert materializes around me

The last landscape I got a good look at was from a Greyhound bus entering Dallas late yesterday afternoon on I-30, coming in from the northeast. There'd been low rolling hills and scrubby forests of oak and hickory. During the night there were stops in Abilene and Odessa, and we got into El Paso sometime around 4 AM. I walked across the International Bridge at dawn, bought some bean tamales, and ate in a little park in Juárez while Great-tailed Grackles screeched and scraped among the palms overhead.

There's no traffic on the road right now, just my own breathing, and the thumping of a light breeze around my ears. All this sunlight, the broadness and blueness of the sky, and this silence... I just stand for half a minute or so, looking around.

The village of Samalayuca lies to the west, a fifteen-minute walk down an arrow-straight, broken-asphalt, treeless little road. To the east, white sand dunes rise above a level plain of waist-high scrub. Because in this dry air haze doesn't obscure distant objects, I can't say how far away the dunes are.

Are the dunes huge and far away, or small and nearby? For the first of what will surely be hundreds of times this trip, I dig out my binoculars and take a closer look: Nothing jives with how things usually announce themselves and fit together.

I pick up my backpack, walk across the highway, and embark on a sandy, two-rut track leading toward the dunes.

After about twenty minutes I can judge by how the dunes have grown that they must lie two or three hours away. My trail passes a low-strung ranch house built of rough boards, rusty tin roofing and with only two or three tiny windows with heavy, dirty towels covering them.

Presently the sand road jags hard to the left, though the dune field looms more and more to the right. I abandon the road and take wildlife trails snaking through the scrub.

***

Scrub. I walk through this scrub rolling over in my mind different ways of thinking about it. I can think of several:

Scrub: A picture-painting perspective:

The sky is blue. The white sun shines in it, the sunlight stinging the skin. Without haze, the sky reaches all the way to the jagged, stone-gray, ridge-horizon frame.

But, where is the picture? Is it the blue sky and white sun framed by the ridge-horizon, or the scrub with me in it also framed by the ridge-horizon, or is it the scrub and the sky and the sun and the ridge-horizon framed only by what I fail to see?

So, all around, on the horizon, jagged and gray prominences jut from a sea of scrub, the scrub's greenness hardened with blue-gray dry-wash, the scrub with spines, all this scrub harshness appropriately balancing on the canvas the white sun's severity.

The dunes glare so violently that they are almost white, even ghostly, so spectral that maybe they hoover over the blue-gray scrub with its spines.

Therefore, all these elements of composition are complimentary and balanced, with the dunes' lightness something to admire. But there's more, and this is the thing that makes the picture transfixing:

A clear randomness has set these dunes the way they are, their heaped-up irregularities like so many circus tents held up by poles of no particular lengths, except that the highest tent lies more or less in the middle. It is easy to imagine that an outrageous God-hand, bored with the usual order and manners of things, simply dumped these dunes here from ennuied, adolescent-like maliciousness.

If this were a painting of an Alpine meadow, these phantom dunes would be a sun-bleached cow skeleton with disarticulated jaws sprawled on an off-green meadow.

Scrub: An ecological perspective:

Two shrubby species comprise this scrub, Mesquite and Creosote Bush. Both grow waist- to head-high, and as I walk among them I notice this: in some places Mesquite grows in pure stands; in others there's nothing but Creosote Bush, and in other places the two species mingle indifferently.

The curious thing is that the reason or reasons why the two species occur where they do is by no means clear just by looking at the landscape. The ground here is flat to very gently rolling, and I cannot see that one species prefers more than the other either depressions or rises, or a rise's northern or southern slope.

I can come up with a good-sounding theory. For example, I can suggest that the two species have the very same ecological requirements, and that right now they are in combat with one another for this spot in the desert. Mesquite is winning in some places, Creosote Bush in others, and in the mixed zones there rages the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.

However, I don't believe this. I am an old naturalist with many years of field experience, and I know the ecological principle that no two species can occupy the very same ecological niche for long without one species eventually exterminating or driving out the other. Therefore, if this is virgin scrub that's never been disturbed by man, so that the vegetation is in equilibrium with its environment -- and it seems to be so to me -- then these patterns represent distinct niches, the Mesquite dominating in one, Creosote Bush in the other, with transition zones between them.

The differences in the placement of these two species on the landscape surely result from subtle features of soil chemistry or hydrology not visible to the eye.

Maybe not far below the sand there's a buried landscape. Maybe one species thrives best where its roots reach the buried landscape's limestone rock, while the other is happiest if its roots penetrate alluvial soil where once an ancient stream flowed. I know there's a buried landscape here because I've seen a couple of low places where all the sand has been blown away, leaving an  almost polished bed of hard-baked mud.

Scrub: An energetics perspective:

This bright sun in the blue sky's concavity covering the blue-gray-green desert with its barren, jagged frame-horizon and its diverse plants and animals brings to mind this profoundly simple, elegant equation:

sun --> plants --> animals

In other words, sunlight leaps into space carrying energy from its mother, the sun. After flowing through nothingness for 93,000,000 miles this radiant energy rains onto the earth. Green plants -- mainly algae in the seas and green plants on land -- capture some of this energy through the magical biochemical process known as photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, green plants store sunlight's energy among atomic bonds of carbohydrates, which are chemical compounds that become incorporated into the plants' own substance.

Eventually this sunlight-energy-stored in plants is utilized by the earth's living things in three main ways:

  • by the plants themselves, when they draw upon the stored energy to fuel their own life functions such as growing new leaves, flowering and fruting
  • by animals who eat the plants and thus confiscate the plants' stored energy, and use that energy for fueling our own life functions; once the energy is taken into the plant-eating animals, those animals may themselves be eaten by carnivores, so the sunlight energy leaps one more step, and there can be steps beyond that, even to us humans
  • by decomposition organisms such as fungi and bacteria, which break down once-living tissue into simple constituents, in the process releasing into nature the energy stored among the atomic bonds, plus using some of that energy for fueling their own life functions

With regard to the second of the above energy usages, if it is accepted that the thoughts expressed by these words you are reading right now are a consequence of an investment of my energy, and it is known that I am a vegetarian, then the above simple formula can be changed to this:

sun --> plants --> me --> energy fueling my effort --> these words

Therefore, if something in this book strikes you in a particular manner, then the impression it makes is the result of my having used second-hand sunlight energy to express myself. Confronting these thoughts, your own second- or third-hand stored sunlight energy steps forward to fuel your reaction to what I have written.

Our respective sunlight energies dance with one another through dimensions of time and space in which you and I are ephemeral.

Scrub: A law-of-nature perspective:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics relates that the universe is running down, becoming more random, less complex, less ordered, more chaotic -- increasing its measure of the ultimately ugly essence defined as entropy. But here in this desert I see and sense all around me something opposite to entropy. I see and sense myriad blossomings, myriad crystalizations, and I am absolutely alive to the reality that I am here thinking these thoughts, one thought leading to another, me visualizing you reading this.

This sun-earth-desert-me-you blossom-crystal, then, constitutes a beautiful exception to what's generaly happening elsewhre in the universe. The Second Law doesn't apply to our sun-earth-desert-me-you formula because we constitute a closed system momentarily being powered from the outside, by sunlight, and the potential for this gorgeous state of affairs will continue for as long as the sun sends its energy.

How lucky I am  right now to be free and healthy and sensitized to what is taking place on this perfect spot of our little planet as, for the moment, it hangs suspended in the full chaos of the unwinding universe all around!

***

The yoga who meditates may stare at a flame, having a point in reality serve as an anchor. In such a way, now I focus on the Creosote Bush in this desert which every moment seems more abstract to me.

Creosote Bush is a member of the lignum vitae family and bears leathery, evergreen, thumbnail-size, three-lobed leaves. During long dry periods, to cut down of evaporation of water from its body, it sheds leaves and even whole twigs and branches, but when rains return things resprout. Sometimes Creosote Bush dominates vast stretches to the exclusion of Mesquite and other species, so one Mexican name for it is gobernador, or "governor," because in these pure stands it's obviously the boss.

Another Mexican name for Creosote Bush is hediondilla, meaning "little stinker." The bush smells like medicine, even if you're just standing near it. Late one night years ago I pulled my car into a Creosote-bush desert in Texas and slept lying next to the car. When I awakened the next morning the odor of Creosote was so strong that I thought someone had doused kerosene over the car and was about to set it ablaze. I rolled over fast, right into a cholla cactus, then came to my senses, and lay there like a fool grimacing and laughing.

Creosote Bush's resin contains camphor, which is both an antiseptic and an antibiotic. Camphor is bitter, so many animals won't browse on the plant. However, as often is the case in nature, some animal species have evolved absolutely relishing camphor's taste; a scale insect infesting Creosote Bush's stem secrets "lac," from which shellac can be prepared. Lac can be heated and used as glue and as a sealer for waterproof clothing.

***

Plants other than Mesquite and Creosote Bush comprise this scrub, including several smaller bushes, especially knee-high Sagebrush with its ash-colored leaves, a few mostly nonflowering desert wildflowers, and several kinds of grasses. As I walk through this scrub, I am having a problem with the grass called Sandbur.

Sandbur grows about halfway to the knee and produces straw-colored fruits smaller than peas and bristling with hard, needle-sharp spines. Each spine is hooked at its tip, and that hook is almost too tiny to see with the naked eye. These spines latch the fruit onto passing-by furred animals and wandering naturalists' socks and trouser legs, and that's the way the plant disseminates itself.

Several Sandbur spines have worked themselves through my socks and they're pricking my ankles. To remove them I sit down -- absentmindedly right onto some Sandburs -- and instantly I'm reminded of the most vicious thing about Sandbur spines: Their hooks are so tiny that they don't hinder the spine entering your skin, but when you try to withdraw a spine, the hook will rip your flesh, and this hurts even more than when the spine entered. By the time I recall the old trick of removing burs from clothing with a comb, it's too late to save my fingers.

These Sandburs remind me that in this desert my own comfort and well being lie far down on nature's list of priorities. Here, nature's main interest is in having an animal such as myself transport her Sandbur fruits into new territory. Nature doesn't give a damn that by my being the Sandbur's dispersal agent, my ankles, fingers, and ass get hurt.

But, it's almost always that way, nature mainly focusing on the abstract task of helping Her species reproduce,  while basically neglecting the dignity and comfort of us individual organisms comprising our particular species.

For example, now that I'm beyond the age when I can be expected to father and care for offspring, nature has so little regard for me as an individual that she lets my teeth and hair fall out, my eyes lose their ability to focus, the discs in my lower back to rupture, my skin to wrinkle so that I'm no longer sexually attractive, and my joints to freeze with arthritis. Now that I no longer stand a chance of contributing to the human-animal gene pool, to nature I am essentially irrelevant.

Yet, even now I can see that there is a kind of austere beauty in this single-mindedness of nature.

I'm thinking all this as I stupidly stick my fingers again and again, even using a comb, trying to detach Sandburs from my socks and pants.

***

Now that I'm entering the very edge of the dune zone, I see that this scrub grows on old dunes, and that these dunes have apparently been stabilized, their sand held together by the scrub's roots growing within them. I visualize the forking and reforking, ever reticulating roots inside the dunes' darkness, holding sand grains in place almost like bones holding my own flesh together. In thinking this, I emphasize not just with the scrub and its roots, or the dune with its sand, but rather the scrub/dune/root/sand system. If there is something here aware of itself, it is that scrub/dune/root/sand system, or something even greater, not any one thing.

The scrub-stabilized dunes are low and wide based, figuring on the landscape like lazy swells at sea. As the dune field is approached, the swells gradually increase in size from less than knee high to higher than the head. Ultimately they give way along a well defined boundary to dunes occupied by plants only on their lower slopes.

Inside the main dune field, vegetation grows sparser, then completely disappears, leaving just windblown, shifting, glaring sand. From inside the dune zone, the impression is that there's just one magnificent dune, perhaps five to ten stories high, but up the sides of this mother dune there orbit scores of house-size dune children. I'm guessing that this mother-dune zone is two to four miles across and ten to fifteen miles long.

On the naked sand I just wander around, the wind blowing hard in mid afternoon, making my backpack's loose straps flap hysterically.

The starkness around me, the blinding sunlight, the heat, the choking clouds of sand and dust, stun me.

But what troubles me most is this: I think the landscape itself is uttering an ultra-base ommmmmmmmmm not unlike like the sacred word the yogis use when going inside themselves.

***

Two specks plummet from the hollow sky toward the dune field's dead center. Through the binoculars and a growing sense of shock creeping over me the specks are barely identifiable as a Harris' Hawk chasing a Kestrel.

I know it's a Harris' Hawk because of its thick wings and tail and I can barely see in the sky's overwhelming brilliance a dark tail with a white rim and even patches of chestnut on the shoulders; I know it's a Kestrel because of size relative to the Harris', and the typical streamlined falcon shape, with swooped-back wings.

I know these birds, have seen them often up close, and at home I have many books with their pictures, so the instant I know who they are, inside my mind there's a blossoming of close-ups of Harris's heavily streaked, buff underparts and chestnut thighs, and the Kestrel's rusty colored back with narrow, black, tigerish baring, and, more than anything, the Kestrel's peculiar and striking marking on the sides of it head, baring that has always reminded me of the cowl worn by medieval executioners in cartoons; I can almost feel the slickness of the paper holding this glossy, full-color photographs and I can smell the paper... and these are the thoughts and associations I am using to help me deal with this mighty landscape as it dazzles and disorients me, and more than a little frightens me.

The little kestrel, with half the Harris's wingspread, seems to be easily outmaneuvering its adversary, but the Harris' keeps up the attack. The drama lasts no more than a couple of seconds, for now they drop behind the mother dune's crest and do not reappear, and I am left to deal alone with the wind, the sun, the heat, and the blowing sand.

***

One dune after another, the sand pouring into my shoes burning through my socks, the heat, wind, and glare, and all I want to do is to set up my tent and crawl into its shade.

But pegging a tent in this wind is impossible. Again and again it billows and tries to fly off like a kite, more than once dragging me onto the searing sand. I peg one end and go to work on the other, but the pegs pull loose and the tent rages into my face. Gathering the tent into my arms, I go huddle next to a knee-high Sagebrush and simply wait.

An hour before dusk the wind lays enough for the pegs to hold. I enter and lie panting and sweating on my back, feeling burning, banana-size sand ripples beneath me. Gradually the wind subsides more, then the temperature plummets and finally a raw chill creeps into the air. Black shadows pooled in troughs between dunes swell until they overflow the tent.

When Jupiter hangs suspended in the western sky the air is like crystalline glass holding everything in suspended animation. Though no Creosote Bush is in sight, its medicine odor suffuses the air. I fall into a stunned, empty sleep.

***

At daybreak I peep from beneath the tent's flap to see what kind of day is dawning. In this first week of October the temperature stands at 57° F, the sky is clear, and the air is calm.

The passage from night to day takes place fast. In a matter of twenty seconds sunlight breaks over the eastern ridge and floods dune tops all around me. One moment the desert is slate-gray and somber, the next, dune tops flair alive.

For a minute right after this high-speed dawn, from the Mesquite/ Creosote-bush zone surrounding the dunes, a pack of coyotes calls -- not with dignified, lonely howls, but with silly sounding yelping and squealing, like half-drunk teenage boys trying hard to act crazy.

As soon as there's enough light in the tent to read I pull out my map. The elevation here is about 1,300 meters (4,300 feet). That ridge to the east, I see, is the Sierra el Presidio, and according to the map it's only fifteen kilometers away (nine miles) but, to the west, the ridges with clouds heaped around their peaks, they are the Sierra Boca Grande and Sierra las Lilas, a hundred kilometers distant (sixty miles). This western ridge had seemed much closer. The desert has tricked me.

The map shows between here and the western ridges a vast plain of sand dunes interspersed with temporary lakes. I know the lakes are temporary because on the map the blue lines delimiting them are dashed, and the map says that that's the symbol for "intermittent lakes." Streams leading into the lakes also are dashed, so they flow only after rains.

I love maps, their colors, symbols, the strange place-names they bear, and the unexpected information they impart. I'd never have known about the dunes of Samalayuca if they hadn't been on my map, symbolized by closely spaced brown dots. I like the idea that right now I can tell you that I'm at latitude 31° 21'N, longitude 106° 27'W, and if you're interested you can consult your own atlas or map of Mexico and see exactly where I am.

I laugh when I realize that at this remarkable, long-awaited moment I'm lying in a tent rhapsodizing about maps, something to be done in a library or a living room. It's as if my mind were toying with the fact that hardly anything in the world is more appealing to me right now than unzipping the tent's flap, pulling myself outside, and beginning this new day!

***

With dune crests blazing, I walk along chilly, blue-shaded dune slopes. With immense satisfaction, before having even crossed the first dune, the desert's silence is shattered by a piercing, almost startling whit-wheet, enunciated like the "Hey, you!" whistle some people use to get attention. The call comes from a car-size thicket of yuccas atop a sand ridge connecting two nearby dune peaks.

Despite my slow approach to the yuccas, the whit-wheeter spooks and escapes to the crest of the next dune, landing silhouetted against the glaring eastern sky, then fairly galloping onto the ridge, kicking up silhouetted sand.

The silhouette belongs to an eleven-inch long songbird with a curved bill and a longer-than-usual tail. Anyone familiar with American birds would know that it's a kind of thrasher. Circling the dune for a look at the bird's sunny side, I'm ready to say which thrasher it is after catching a glimpse of nothing more than its eye color, for it's the only thrasher in this part of Mexico with reddish-orange eyes; it's the Curve-Billed Thrasher.

Except for its queer orange eyes, it's a very drab bird, entirely a shade of dark gray-brown, like the color of a white rag that's been used to wipe off a very dirty car. Filthy House Sparrows in sooty Third-World cities are this color. Indistinct streaks on the bird's chest show like curdles atop sour milk.  Despite it's drabness, this is a bird with a quick ferocity of spirit and a remarkable agility on sand. And  that piercing whit-wheet call... In terms of liquid sharpness and loudness I think I'd place this bird's call among the top five percent of all calls I've heard.

This Curve-Billed Thrasher pleases me greatly. Even though it's common in these parts wherever sparse desert scrub occurs, I would never have seen it when I first started birding as a farmboy in Kentucky. The closest these Curve-Billed Thrashers came to Kentucky was central Texas, some 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) to the southwest. Therefore, this bird still strikes me as a bit exotic.

This is something I've always done -- relate plants and animals seen during my travels to the species I knew so intimately when I was a kid. The plants and animals around me always let me know how far I am from "home." When something like this Curve-billed Thrasher comes along, not found anyplace in Kentucky, yet a genus I know (this genus of the Thrashers), I feel that I'm certainly on the road, yet not completely in another world.

With an immense sense of satisfaction, I bring out my notebook and write:

October 5 latitude 31° 21'N, longitude 106° 27'W

MEXICO: Chihuahua; ±10 km NE of town of Samalayuca, Elev. ±1,300 m; sand dunes with some sparse herbs, grasses and low shrubs in dune troughs, a few yuccas on dune slopes

1: Toxostoma curvirostre -- Curve-billed Thrasher

***

Flying away like a skipping stone striking upon every dune-wave crest, the Curve-Billed Thrasher departs for the Mesquite and Creosote Bush zone, and once again the desert is very quiet. In this dawn silence there unfolds a shadow show.

The sun surges into the open sky and the dunes' shadows withdraw into their troughs, metamorphosing as they do so into vivid abstrctions. During the time taken for the aesthetics on my right to be absorbed, shadows on the left have created a whole new theater so that now everything there must be reexamined, and then the right side also must be reexamined, and on and on.

Sand grain by sand grain the wind has sculpted the dunes' crests, slopes and troughs, as well as the entire dunes' general streamlined and graceful configurations. Shadows lie around these forms like patches of black silk jigsawed into long, sinuous patterns. This blending of shadow-and-light curlicues and long sweeping lines puts me into the mind of arabesques.

Recalling the relationship between Arabs and their sand, it's clear that such scenes as these inspired the Arabs' lovely script.

***

Footprints in the sand show that during nights a broad community of animals came and went. There were jackrabbits, mice and rats, a kit fox, lizards, insects, and critters I can't identify.

Sometimes pencil-thin ridges above shallow tunnels begin nowhere, wander aimlessly across a small expanse of fine sand, then suddenly end, and I have no idea who makes these ridges, or why. Most tracks of small animals procede briefly in one direction, then jag for no apparent reason in another direction, zigzagging across the sand. The kit fox, in contrast, traveled in a straight line, over dune crests and into troughs.

It must be good strategy for a fox to pop over a dune crest, for among sparse grass and wildflowers of dune troughs there might be gamboling rabbits, rats, and mice.

***

At 10 AM a raspy call erupts from the next dune's slope. Something white perches there on a brown, decaying flower-stalk emerging from a wastebasket-size cluster of bristling, bayonet-shaped yucca leaves. The binoculars show an old friend, a bird I've known since I was a kid on the Kentucky farm, the Loggerhead Shrike.

It's a handsome bird.

Handsome not because of colors, which are merely gray, white and black, but because of the boldness of its patterns --: mostly gray with a white throat and black tail, and with black wings flashing white patches during flight. Shrikes wear black face masks like those cartoon characters use when robbing banks. For beginning birders, it's the black mask keeping Loggerhead Shrikes from being Mockingbirds.

It's a curious bird, this shrike, for it is a songbird behaving as if it were a predator such as a hawk or an owl. Loggerhead Shrikes prey on insects, rodents and birds smaller than themselves.

You can recognize predatory birds such as hawks and owls because they have hooked beaks for ripping their prey apart, and powerful feet with stout talons for pinning their prey in place while the dismemberment proceeds. Songbirds aren't supposed to have these features, so it's interesting to see how Loggerhead Shrikes have evolved compensations for their handicaps.

Songbirds aren't supposed to have hooked beaks capable of tearing flesh, but even from thirty feet away this morning I can see that this shrike's upper mandible is equipped with a conspicuous, downcurved hook. I stand in a dune's blue shadow reflecting that apparently among predatory birds a hooked beak is a kind of perfection, a form and a structure crystallized from millions of years of evolutionary trial and error. It's like a certain melody appearing by chance among an eternal jumble of tones, a melody that when it's heard strikes the ear as perfect, is remembered, and perpetuated.  The hooked beak, a perfect melody in the song that is a Logerhead Shrike.

Shrikes don't have powerful feet and talons the way that hawks and owls do, yet shrikes, like all other predatory birds, are faced with the problem of keeping their prey stabilized during the prey's dissection. The shrike's solution is this: When it captures its prey, it may impale the victim on something sharp such as a spine or thorn. The victim thus spiked stays in place as the hooked beak tears at its body.

Here in the blue shadow I remember something else about shrikes. Sometimes shrikes leave their prey stuck in place when they fly off elsewhere, keeping in mind that they have food stored for a later meal. I've often found mice and grasshoppers suspended at the tips of cactus thorns and barbed wire spines, clearly the work of shrikes. 

So, there was that theme first seen among the hawks and owls, the need to hold prey in place while tearing it apart. Then there was a variation on that theme, and that was the evolving of the impaling behavior in lieu of using strong feet. Finally, shrikes came up with something new, the storing of prey for later use, and that's ornamentation.  And this is the recapitulation.

Further, if there is a tonal key for this moment, it is the shrike's obsessiveness for environments with sharp points. In the field, if you spot a shrike, just look around and almost certainly you'll see something with sharp points. The blade tips of the yucca our bird is perched in today are sharp enough for impaling a grasshopper, and more than once I've seen just such a thing.

Once in Mississippi I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike perched on a fence surrounding a suburban home's backyard garden, and I thought I'd finally found a shrike away from all spines. But then I noticed that the bird was perched on a chainlink fence with the top border wires snipped off, forming sharp spikes jutting into the air every inch or so.

Here in blue dune-shadows, the Loggerhead Shrike is a sonata in the key of sharpness.

***

Except for birds on and around bodies of water, and for all birds during nesting season, it's typical that the busiest time of day is early in the morning and right before dusk. Here this routine is accentuated to the extreme. Once the shrike departs, still quite early in the morning, all is quiet. As the sun mounts into the sky, I wander among the dunes, then at mid morning return to my tent, for already the glare and heat are oppressive.

From 14° C at dawn (57° F) the temperature rises to 28° C at noon (82° F) and 33° C at 2 PM (92° F). These temperatures are recorded waist high, in a sliver of shade next to the tent. Keeping the thermometer in the shade but lowering it to fifteen centimeters (six inches) above the ground, 38° C (100° F) is recorded. Holding the thermometer in sunlight at waist height, the mercury rises the column's full length so that it reads 54° C (130° F). Now I put the thermometer away, for fear of damaging it; as it rose, its mercury had given every indication of not stopping its ascent at the top.

At noon, a Pyrrhuloxia, a bird like a female Cardinal with overactive sex hormones, alights for about two seconds on the yucca flower-stalk on the opposite dune, but immediately it flies away not to be seen again. A couple of times four or five Mourning Doves zoom low above the dunes, as if the devil himself were after them, their wings whistling that fast-pulsating, wheezy sound, but those incursions lasted only seconds. Occasionally throughout the day the Loggerhead Shrike erupts with its burry call, but it stays hidden, probably deep inside the shade of its yucca thicket. Once a few Turkey Vultures circling far over the Mesquite/ Creosote-bush zone more or less wander over the dune field's perimeter, but they never come close.

Mostly, between dawn and 2 PM, there's just been the sun, the wind, the sand, and me.

***

At 2 PM I walk among the outrageously glaring dunes, my skin tingling in the unrelenting sunlight, the wind like dry heat from a just-opened oven door. I know I'm sweating, but the sweat evaporates so quickly that my skin stays dry. I hear myself breathing, breathing shallowly as I shuffle across the sand, but the air inside me feels artificial, like plastic air, doing its job but not the right way, and I'm a little dizzy, all the dunes crooked, not much sense of what's truly up and down.

I head for a high dune possibly half an hour away, where a small, isolated gathering of trees spotted with the binoculars lies surrounded by naked sand. There I find ten Quaking Aspens, their sparse, stiff leaves rattling in the wind but affording little shade. On one trees' smooth, white bark someone has carved his initials. I look around, know that there is beauty in these trees gathered so unexpectedly, so impossibly, but I can't feel that beauty, can't see anything beautiful about this, can't decipher any paradigm, have to count several times just to see that it's ten trees and not more or less than ten.

For a long time I lean on the tree with initials in its bark. I feel more alone here than out among the dunes. Maybe it's because as I approached these trees I saw how isolated they were, here with nothing but sand around them. I know that to the trees I looked the same, but I didn't have to see myself; I just saw these trees, and it was awful.

By the time I make my way back to the tent I am anesthetized to everything, everything except the heat, and it's hotter inside the tent than outside, and outside there's no shade. Hunkering next to a knee-high Sagebrush for company, I try to keep the exposed skin on my hands and face covered with bandannas, but the wind always blows them aside. I sit trying to figure out whether this strange feeling is physiological or psychological. The landscape is ommmmmmmmming again, now so loud that it's like overhead wires in a hard wind.

But, I had to see what it was like among the dunes at this time.  But, it is just I among the dunes.

By the time the sun sinks low enough for a hint of coolness to return to the air, a certain oscillation inside me has harmonized with the landscape's humming and I am absolutely aloof, untouchable, like a flake of ash drifting among the dunes.

***

Here is my Official List of birds spotted on my Official Birding Day among the dunes:

October 5
latitude 31°21'N, longitude 106°27'W

MEXICO: Chihuahua; ±10 kms NE of town of Samalayuca,
elev. ±1,300 m; sand dunes with some sparse herbs,
grasses and low shrubs in dune troughs, a few yuccas on
dune slopes

  1. Turkey Vulture
  2. Mourning Dove
  3. Ash-Throated Flycatcher
  4. Curve-Billed Thrasher
  5. Loggerhead Shrike
  6. Pyrrhuloxia

Of the species listed, only the Loggerhead Shrike gives the impression of being at home among the dunes the whole day, and for most of those hours it remains hidden, apparently deep inside yucca thickets. The Curve-billed Thrasher and Ash-throated Flycatcher seem to spend nights in yucca clumps, but during most of the day they remain in the Mesquite/ Creosote Bush zone. The Turkey Vultures, Mourning Doves and Pyrrhuloxia were clearly "just passing through."

***

Wherever sand grains are finest on the dunes' lower slopes, animal-dug pits averaging three inches across and three-quarters of an inch deep appear. Around these pits there are no tracks indicating what animal has been there. Obviously something flies there, digs, then flies away. But the pits are surely too large to be excavated by any insect, and I've never heard of any bird or bat digging such holes. This is one of the mysteries I think about during my walks.

An hour before sunset as I wander across the lower slope of a dune where the wind hardly stirs, I spot a black and white, thick-bodied wasp measuring one inch from the tip of its head, not including its short antennae, to the tip of its abdomen, and it's digging the very kind of hole just described.

"Digging" is too mild a description for this creature's activity. It's engaged in what seems to be a mad rush to eject from the pit as much sand as possible as quickly as possible. With its two back legs anchored far apart, again and again the insect lunges forward, thrusts its two front legs into the sand, and jerks them back so spasmodically that a nearly continual spray of sand flies from the pit, landing three inches away.  With each thrust forward the insect's head and short antenna butt into the sand. If a human worked liked this, one would say that that person appeared to be hysterical.

The wasp clutches a fly in its two middle legs below it. I think that this is a sphecid wasp, a species which deposits its eggs near or inside animal prey such as caterpillars. When the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae then have something to eat. I'll bet that this wasp plans to bury the fly, then lay one or more eggs next to it or inside it.

However, the wasp seems unable to get the pit the way it should be. It digs a few minutes, stops and looks around, flies away, returns, makes a loud buzz that first strikes me as insect cursing, and then it either continues work in the same pit or starts a new one. Several times this cycle is repeated; sometimes the sand ejected from a new pit lands inside a pit already mostly finished.

As darkness grows, the wasp's behavior becomes even more frenetic and seemingly erratic. During a paroxysm of lunging and leg-jerking it loses grip on the fly, the fly is cast from the pit along with a spray of sand, and quickly buried. Again the insect gives up, flies away, returns empty handed, buzzes, and starts another pit.

Finally it just stops digging and for half a minute stays frozen in the growing darkness. Then, slowly, it drags itself from the pit, and drones away. A change has occurred in its nervous system imparting to the wasp a whole new demeanor. I'm tempted to call the new slowness a sign of the insect's having accepted defeat. This time the wasp does not return.

The brain of an insect is hardly at all comparable to that of a human brain. For example, a grasshopper's brain can be removed, but the grasshopper will still be able to walk, jump and fly. Therefore, it's absurd to make anthropomorphic comparisons when talking about insects. Probably it's true that insects don't think at all; they are practically little machines responding automatically to stimuli.

Yet, I feel strongly that I have just witnessed something of myself in this wasp.

***

Dawn began clear, except for a few clouds clustered over distant western ridges. At 10 AM white cumulus clouds materialized in the open blue sky and the wind started to stir. By mid afternoon and until around four o'clock, about a third of the sky was occupied by ragged, dark-bottomed cumulus clouds, and the wind blew briskly. Then in late afternoon the clouds thined out and by dusk they practically disappeared.

In other words, precisely when the day's heat was greatest, that's when clouds were thickest. Of course this happened because mid-afternoon sunshine heated up the land, hot air swirled upward in convection currents, and when this hot air cooled high in the sky, what little moisture was present condensed into clouds.

The lovely thing about this is that shadows of these clouds cooled the hot ground that spawned the clouds in the first place. It was a kind of negative-feedback situation preventing the desert from becoming even hotter than it was.  It was beautiful, this.

***

An hour or so before my second dusk among the dunes the sun plunges into a thicket of clouds heaped around the black-silhouetted ridges to the west, there across the vast plain of dunes and ephemeral lakes. Clouds that all afternoon have been white with slate-colored bottoms now grow purple and take on pink linings. Here among the dunes, everything takes on sunset's strawberry-sherbet hues, especially the dust and fine sand blowing horizontally across the desert floor between the sun and me.

Most of this fast-moving dust and sand constitutes a cloud not rising over knee-high. The cloud does not move like a diffuse carpet being dragged horizontally, but rather in fast-moving waves behaving like excited snakes tangling and disentangling and rolling one over another across the dunes. This makes the sand seem effervescent, these arid pulsations being life bursting forth, releasing itself promiscuously after bearing the full, domineering weight of the sun all day.

Inside this hypnotic display on the opposite dune's leeward slope a black object heavily and deliberately creeps into view. It's a tarantula. But no tarantula could be this large, surely at least the size of a dinner plate. My mind still buzzing from the day's heat and glare I walk through the pink dust-oscillations toward the lumbering black spot.

Up close, in the dune's wind-shadow, to my profound relief, not only is the air's agitating pinkness resolved to a more manageable grayness, but also the tarantula measures only four inches from tip of front hairy leg to tip of back hairy leg.

The tarantula, much like my own mind today, wanders aimlessly, changing directions frequently. It begins to enter a Sagebrush but ants inside the bush stream out and attach themselves to its legs. The tarantula shakes them off, backs up and goes elsewhere. I follow it across several dunes, until darkness sends me to the tent.

The wind drops to hardly a breeze, the desert grows dark and somber, and chilly currents creep into the air, exactly as on the previous night. When I close my eyes, something within me is heat, glare, wind, blowing dust and sand, and a surreally wandering, impossibly large tarantula.

Return to the Mexican Subject Index
Return to the Literary Zone Menu
Return to the MAIN MENU