American Nature Writing 1997by John A. Murray, Oregon State University
This first collection encompasses a variety of genres, including fiction, journal writing, poetry, personal essays, and feature
Inaugurating a new annual series devoted to selecting and presenting the best in contemporary American nature writing, this initial volume includes some of America's most distinguished nature writers as well as some promising new talents.
This first collection encompasses a variety of genres, including fiction, journal writing, poetry, personal essays, and feature articles. Readers will hunt for peregrine falcons near the Great Salt Lake with Terry Tempest Williams; sneak into Cuba with Bob Shacochis to observe the Ernest Hemingway International Classic Billfish Tournament; and explore the botanical and paleontological wonders of the Central American land bridge with David Rains Wallace. Also included are an excerpt from Annie Dillard's novel, The Living, and a previously unpublished selection from the journals of Edward Abbey. At last here is nature writing at its boisterous, gritty, and lyrical best.
"Nature writing is poised at the beginning of a period of wonderful exuberance. All of the excitement that attends the beginning of a new century, and the start of a new millennium, together with a growing awareness of the interdependence of nature and culture, cannot help but fuel this historic genre. I believe that as the genre attracts more and more gifted young writers, and addresses increasingly the compelling political and social issues of our time, it will gain in stature and maturity, offering what Barry Lopez so eloquently called 'a literature of hope.'"
John A. Murray, from the Introduction
John A. Murray is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the author/editor of eleven previous books, including Wild Africa: Three Centuriesof Nature Writing from Africa, Nature's New Voices, The Great Bear: Contemporary Writings on the Grizzly, The Islands and the Sea, and A Republic of Rivers.
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All landscapes have a history ... There are distinct voices, languages that belong to particular areas. There are voices inside rocks, shallow washes, shifting skies; they are not silent.
Joy Harjo, Secrets from the. Center of the World
This is a sacred place, please behave accordingly.
Sign in the Cathedral of Saint Francis, Santa Fe
In Memory of Elsie Johnson (1915-1994)
On the first of April in 1918, Robert Lewis Cabe boarded a train in tiny Hampton, Arkansas, bound for Crossett to see a doctor at Crossett Hospital. Reverend Cabe, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, had been ill for months. His parishioners, concerned about his deteriorating health, had convinced him to see a doctor and had taken up a collection to pay for a two-month recuperative vacation.
After what Reverend Cabe's journal describes as "a most extremely thorough examination," Dr. J. E. Sparks of Crossett Hospital delivered the verdict: "Tuberculosis in a very active form." His advice: "Go West at once if you expect to live." The doctor recommended New Mexico. Although the elegant script in Reverend Cabe's journal does not reveal his feelings, the diagnosisessentially a death sentencemust have stunned him. He was in his thirties and his life was going well; he loved his work. He and his wife, Sarah Della Hope, who was then six monthspregnant, had five young children and a comfortable house with a big garden and a cow.
Reverend Cabe took the 5:30 a.m. train home to Hampton the following day. Two weeks later, at noon on Thursday, April 18, having sold their house and most of their belongings, the family boarded a train "in a great downpour of rain," on their way to the desert Southwest. The following night, my husband's grandfather and his family reached El Paso, Texas, in the Chihuahuan Desert where Texas, New Mexico, and Old México meet. There they stopped.
The remaining daily notations in Reverend Cabe's journal, written in a sprawling and feeble hand, are brief and poignant. Saturday, April 20: "Ill day at the Hotel." Monday, April 22: "Too ill to write, but hunted for a house." The following Sunday, his terse note reflects his depression at having no spiritual flock to tend for the first time in many years: "A lonesome Sunday." Monday's entry is no better: "Nothing worthy of note." The diary ends two days later on Wednesday, May 1, with these words in a barely legible hand: "For the past month I have been so ill that nothing was of interest to me. I hope this month to be better." Reverend Cabe's hopes did not come true. He died of tuberculosis in El Paso three months later on August 13, 1918, leaving Sarah Della Hope on her own with seven children, including two-month-old twin boys, one of whom is now my father-in-law.
Until Richard was offered a teaching job in Las Cruces, we had paid little attention to Cabe family history. We did know that Richard's grandfather was buried in El Paso, Texas, just forty miles south of our new home, but we didn't know why. On a visit to Arkansas before we moved, Richard questioned his parents: Why was his grandfather buried in El Paso when his father had grown up in Arkansas? How long had the family lived in the Chihuahuan Desert? What had taken them there, so far from home? (Sarah Della Hope packed up the children and their belongings and took the train home after Reverend Cabe's death, and there they stayed. Arkansas remains home for this branch of the Cabe family.) In answer, Richard's mother dug out Reverend Cabe's diaries. Richard stayed up long after bedtime turning the pages of the clothbound ledgers, reading the faded handwriting: lists of sermons prepared and the dates they were used, columns of expenses, and page after page, book after book, of daily entries in neat handwriting on thin blue linesthe details of the life of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher. I was fast asleep long before he read the last few pages with their poignant story of Reverend Cabe's diagnosis and the family's desperate flight to the desert Southwest. I woke when Richard crawled into bed next to me, his face wet with tears. I held him close as he told me the story of the grandfather that he never knew, the man who died when Richard's own father was just an infant.
After we moved to Las Cruces, I read Reverend Cabe's journals again. Reading of the Cabe family's journey made our own difficult move to the desert seem infinitely easier. It put my acute feelings of dislocation and discomfort in perspective. Imagine how it felt, I thought, for these Arkansas natives, used to trees and rain and green, to be plunked down in this endlessly tan desert landscape. How in their dry-as-dust yard could they plant the huge garden that had fed them in Arkansas? Did Sarah Della Hope miss her flowers? Imagine them learning to cope with the musical cadences of Spanish instead of familiar Arkansas accents, with a culture as much Mexican as American. Imagine Sarah's feelings of despair as she gave birth to twin boys and cared for her ailing husband and their other five children while Reverend Cabe, her partner as well as her means of financial support, sank closer to death. The fact of their journey and their months in El Paso made our own move easier. Richard's family left footprints for us to follow. Reverend Cabe's grave down the valley gives us roots heretenuous roots, but roots all the samemaking this foreign landscape seem more like home.
When Richard first read his grandfather's journals, we wondered at the odd coincidence that sent the Cabe family to the same part of the Chihuahuan Desert where we settled seventy years later. Actually, their story was a common one. Reverend Cabe and his family, like hundreds of thousands of people suffering from tuberculosis, came to the Southwest in search of a health sanctuary in the hope that the dry air and mild climate would perform miracles that medicine of the day could not deliver.
For generations born after antibiotics revolutionized medicine, it is hard to imagine the magnitude and effect of tuberculosis. Dubbed the "White Plague" for its virulence (in contrast to the Black Plague of the Middle Ages), tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in nineteenth-century America. By 1890, tuberculosis killed 150,000 Americans each year: or about 1.5 people out of every thousand. (By comparison, AIDS in 1990 killed almost one per ten thousand.) Medical historians estimate that, for every death, there were ten to twenty others seriously affected by the disease. At its height, tuberculosis claimed one-third of all Americans who died between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.
Tuberculosis is caused by a tiny, airborne bacterium, a parasite on human cells. As the bacteria grow and reproduce, they burst the walls of their host cells, forming lesions. In the most prevalent form of tuberculosis, the bacteria infect cells of the lung linings, causing the lungs to fill slowly with fluid. Soon the sufferer is literally gasping for breath, her or his lungs barely able to absorb oxygen. The common name of tuberculosis, "consumption," reflects the result: without oxygen, food cannot be metabolized and the victim simply wastes away; flesh is seemingly "consumed" by the disease. Until the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics in the middle of the twentieth century, there was no cure. Some consumptives recovered. But in many cases, a diagnosis of tuberculosis condemned the sufferer to a slow, lingering death.
When Richard's grandfather was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the most promising treatment was just what Dr. Sparks of southern Arkansas's Crossett Hospital prescribed: Go West at once. Altitude Therapy, as this regimen was called, relied on the thinner air at elevations several thousand feet or more above sea level to give sufferers' afflicted lungs a rest, and on arid climates to dry out the tubercular lesions. The healthy air, reasoned adherents, would allow sufferers' lungs to heal. Fresh air was considered crucial. Patients spent hours at a time outside in all seasons, often lying on chaise loungeshence the popular phrase, "chasing" the cureand even slept outside. (The fashion for screened porches dates to the rise in popularity of altitude therapy.) The mild climates of the southern Southwest were thus especially popular destinations for tuberculars. Dr. Sparks most likely aimed Reverend Cabe and his family toward New Mexico because of the hundreds of tuberculosis sanatoriums that had sprung up in the state and because of glowing recommendations from tuberculosis specialists like Dr. J. F. Danter, a Toronto physician who visited New Mexico territory in 1891. Danter grandly reported that New Mexico was superior "to any other part of the United States or the world in helping to cure the consumptive."
Claims like these propelled hundreds of thousands of "lungers," as tuberculosis sufferers were called, west. The flood of health-seekers began around the 1880s after the railroads made Western travel more comfortable and affordable, and continued until the 1940s, when antibiotics began to be widely distributed. One of every eleven New Mexicans in the early 1900s came to the state seeking a cure for tuberculosis, according to Dr. Ernest Sweet, author of a U.S. Public Health Service study published in 1913 and quoted in Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico, by Jake W. Spidle, Jr. (Family members accompanying health-seekers, such as Sarah Della Hope and the couple's seven children, swelled that number considerably.) Like my husband's grandfather, most of the health-seekers were in their twenties or thirties, and most were also men. Dr. Sweet surveyed a thousand health-seekers in El Paso and found 715 men and 285 women. The disease wasn't prejudiced. Women were just as likely to contract tuberculosis as men, but their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters kept them tied down, less able to move west to chase the cure. If Sarah had been the one diagnosed with tuberculosis, would the Cabe family have come west? Most likely not, since that would have meant sacrificing Reverend Cabe's livelihood. But since it was Reverend Cabe who was ill, his income-earning potential was already lost, and so the family might as well chance the move west. They had nothing left to lose.
Tuberculosis was a big business for the desert Southwest, ranking equal in its economic benefits and in the numbers of new residents that it attracted, say historians, to agriculture and mining. Towns competed to attract lungers, advertising their healthful qualities. Hospitals, convalescent, homes, and sanatoriums sprang up to serve the flood of lungers. Doctors moved in by the hundreds (incidentally, according to Spidle in Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico, greatly improving health care for all New Mexicans). The hotel and boardinghouse trade boomed; rental properties were jammed; lungers even sought sanctuary in auto courts (early motels) and hastily erected "tent cities." According to Sweet's study, anywhere from twenty to eighty percent of the households in New Mexico towns sheltered a tubercular boarder in the early 1900s. Moving and storage companies sprang up to serve the consumptive migrants, as did other businesses including, of course, funeral homes. Even colleges jumped on the health bandwagon: Our own New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now New Mexico State University, advertised "Health" as one of three reasons to attend the school. In an 1899 advertisement, the school boasted that its site in southern New Mexico was "the healthiest locality in the world," drawing "hundreds of invalids" each year. Indeed, the college's first president, Dr. Hiram Hadley, came to Las Cruces to visit his ailing son and stayed to lead the fledgling college.
Sadly, the outcome of the Cabe family's journey west was also common. Going west was not an infallible cure-all. Between 1903 and 1912, 1,419 people in Albuquerque died of tuberculosis, according to Spidle, at a rate nearly ten times the national tuberculosis death rate. (Albuquerque's total population at the time numbered just ten thousand people.) Ninety-one percent of those deaths, according to Dr. Sweet, were lungers who had recently emigrated to New Mexico. In other words, for many people like my husband's grandfather, going west was futile. Still, the lungers kept coming. Before antibiotics, no other treatment promised so much hope.
After antibiotics became widely available in the late 1940s, the tuberculosis boom fizzled and was quickly forgotten. Tuberculosis sanatoriums closed their doors or converted to other uses. Doctors specializing in the lunger trade retired or changed their practices. Hospitals converted tuberculosis wings to other purposes. Towns no longer touted themselves as sanctuaries for health-seekers.
One of the first sanatoriums for tuberculosis sufferers in southern New Mexico was established at Dripping Springs, a canyon in the Organ Mountains visible from our house. It is a beautiful site for a health sanctuary. Named for the spring itself, which slides down a smooth channel worn in a rock wall at the canyon's head, Dripping Springs is one of the largest canyons cutting into the Organ Mountains. At its upper end, where the spring is, its bare, red-purple rock walls rise steeply above a narrow valley bottom studded with short, twisted hackberry trees and evergreen oaks. The spring, a gush of water after summer rains or rare winter snows, a clear trickle the rest of the year, is one of only two year-round water sources on the west side of the Organ Mountains. From the cool shade of the valley, some two thousand feet above Las Cruces, the hot desert seems far away.
Dripping Springs has served as a sanctuary of sorts, a refuge from the searing heat of the desert, for millennia. Tools, pottery, and other evidence show that people have sojourned in the Dripping Springs area since at least forty-five hundred years ago, during the time that the pharaohs in Egypt were building the first pyramids, according to Mike Mallouf, Bureau of Land Management archeologist. But as far as we know, says Mallouf, there were no permanent settlements in the valley in the 1880s when Colonel Eugene Van Patten, a Las Cruces businessman and community leader, began to build Mountain Camp, a summer place, just around the corner from where Dripping Springs splashes into the valley bottom.
What Van Patten planned for Mountain Camp is not clear. Starting out as a summer retreat for family and friends, it was later advertised as a tuberculosis sanatorium. But Mountain Camp soon evolved into a different kind of sanctuary, an outpost of elegance and generous hospitality in the harsh expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert. By the early 1900s, Mountain Camp had become a gracious resort, one of the places to see and be seen in southern New México, far west Texas, and northern Chihuahua, México. It boasted a lovely stone, two-story hotel and a cluster of more rustic tent cabins, which housed tuberculosis sufferers and their families. The hotel included over twenty guest rooms, a dining room large enough to double as a dance hall, and shady, wraparound verandas. A contemporary photo of the dining room shows a linen-draped table set with silver, china, and crystal; in the background is an upright piano; above hangs a chandelier. Beautifully landscaped grounds surrounded the hotel and cabins with green lawns, flower beds, an orchard, and even a wrought-iron bandstand. Entertainment included concerts at the bandstand, ballroom dances, and Indian dances by residents of nearby Tortugas Pueblo. The Rio Grande Republican carried weekly news about Mountain Camp: details of improvements and additions, reports on weddings and other social functions held at the resort, and names of vacationers and visitorsMéxico's Pancho Villa and Sheriff Pat Garrett of Billy the Kid fame among them.
Franklin Hayner, a Las Cruces lumber magnate who later built his own summer retreat in the lower part of the Dripping Springs valley, recalled Sundays at the hotel, when it was fashionable for "belles in flowing skirts and beaus in flowing whiskers" to ride several hours up from town just to take Sunday tea in the dining room with three or four hundred other guests. Van Patten's, Hayner said, was "the showplace of the country side," attracting local and El Paso guests plus "wide-eyed Easterners." Mountain Camp was a favorite destination for students and faculty of the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as well. References to "pik-nicking at Van Patten's"poems, stories, reports of group outingscrop up regularly in the Collegian, the college magazine, and the Swastika, the yearbook, from the 1890s until the World War I years.
Unfortunately, greed shattered the idyll and, in the end, caused Dripping Springs to be closed to the public for many decades. During the resort's boom years, Dr. Nathan Boyd, a physician and officer of an English company that was organized to build a dam on the Río Grande, summered at Mountain Camp with his wife and family. In 1904, Boyd rented a side canyon from Van Patten to establish his own tuberculosis sanatorium and cash in on the lunger boom. Van Patten built Boyd's sanatoriumperched on stilts because of the steepness of the canyona house for his family, and supplied meals from Mountain Camp's kitchen. Then Dr. Boyd discovered that the land description on Van Pattens title erredit included neither Dripping Springs, Mountain Camp, nor the side canyon containing Boyd's sanatorium. Boyd immediately filed a claim to the whole area. Van Patten refiled. Boyd sued for ownership. The dispute went through the New Mexico courts and all the way up to the United States Land Office and finally the secretary of the interiortwice. Although each jurisdiction reaffirmed Van Patten's ownership of the property, the final time in 1909, Boyd refused to budge or to pay his debts to Van Patten. Finally in 1917, the year before my grandfather-in-law and his family came west, Colonel Van Patten, eighty years old, broke, and worn out, sold out to Dr. Boyd for the sum of one dollar.
Neither elegant resort nor antiseptic sanatorium survived much longer. Boyd, nearly bankrupt from the failure of his dam company, sold Dripping Springs and his sanatorium in 1922. The new owners allowed picnickers for a fee and rented summer cabins, but Mountain Camp never regained its former glamour, the sanatorium closing for good. In 1940, the 242-acre complex went up for sale again. A group of forward-thinking Las Crucens tried to raise the four-thousand-dollar asking price, hoping to open the area as a public playground. Their ambitious plans included restoring the buildings, and constructing picnic units, foot and saddle trails, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a golf course. They failed to raise the funds. As the tuberculosis boom faded from popular memory, so too did the memory of Mountain Camp and the tuberculosis sanatorium. During World War II, the whole area was leased to the army as part of White Sands Proving Ground, now White Sands Missile Range, and officially closed to the public.
Closed to the public it stayed, until the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving plants, animals, and natural communities, bought the whole valley in 1988 and traded it to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the surrounding public land including much of the rest, of the Organ Mountains. The Bureau of Land Management had spent the previous decade futilely attempting to find a way to protect the Dripping Springs areathen part of the Cox Ranch, a large family ranchand reopen it to the public. Finally, with the Nature Conservancy's help, the bureau succeeded. The same qualities that had drawn others to Dripping Springs for millennia also attracted the bureau and the Nature Conservancy: its rare permanent water source, high elevation, and rocky remoteness make this valley a sanctuary far removed from the harsh desert below and from the metropolitan area creeping near. Not just any sanctuary either, Dripping Springs shelters eight kinds of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.
The geography of the Organ Mountains is part of what makes Dripping Springs so unusual. Just eighteen miles long by one ridge wide, the Organs are not a big mountain range. Although small in area, they loom large. The Organs are the tallest mountains visible from Las Cruces, rising five thousand feet above the surrounding desert to peaks as high as nine thousand feet above sea level. Their soaring height transforms the Organs into a world far removed from the hot, dry landscape below. Since the average air temperature drops about 4°F with each thousand-foot elevation gain, when the thermometer in our backyard records 106° on a sizzling June afternoon, the mercury is not likely to rise much above 90° in the Dripping Springs valley. At the site of Mountain Camp, tucked in the narrow upper canyon around the corner from Dripping Springs itself, the temperatures are moderated further by the shade and thermal mass of the towering rock walls.
Height also equals more moisture. As moisture-laden air rises in order to pass over the range, the air cools and drops some of its water. The Organs thereby snag precipitation that never reaches the lower desert. Las Cruces averages just under nine inches of precipitation per year, while Dripping Springs averages more like fifteen inches. The high ridges above Dripping Springs catch even more, funneling moisture down the chute that feeds the springs. With cooler temperatures and increased moisture, mountain ranges such as the Organs, isolated by the formidable expanses of desert surrounding them, indeed merit the name sky islands.
Geology is the other reason for Dripping Springs' uniqueness. Born of a volcanic caldera, the Organs are a bipolar range, split into dramatically different north and south halves. The south part of the range is formed of rock layers spewed forth when the caldera exploded several times some 34 to 33 million years ago. The violent explosions built up layers, two miles thick, of dark, reddish-purple rhyolite and orange-red tuff, which now form the skyline of rounded, hump-backed ridges that characterizes the southern part of the Organs. The north half is as different as can be: a fluted skyline of pale gray rocky pinnacles, the "organ pipes" for which the mountains are named. This half of the Organs is comprised of a nubby kind of granite with large quartz crystals formed when the magma was trapped deep underground and cooled slowly. Its geological split personality gives the Organs a wide variety of soil and landform types in a relatively small area, resulting in lots of different niches for many different kinds of plants and animals.
Some of the species that live on sky islands like the Organs are relics, survivors of more temperate climates during the ice ages several tens of thousands of years ago. As climates warmed and dried, these species survived only in the more clement environments of the mountain slopes and canyons. Over time, some, isolated by the miles of desert between sky islands, evolved into unique species, known only from their own particular island mountain range. Most of these endemic species are plants and small animals. (Large animals and birds are more mobile and therefore less likely to be stranded, more likely to be able to migrate from island to island.) The Organ Mountains, although small in area, are home to an unusually large number of such endemic species: two kinds of land snails, a subspecies of the Colorado chipmunk, a small clump-forming cactus, a nodding cliff daisy, an aster, a figwort, and a spectacular evening primrose.
If I were to pick one plant to epitomize the magic that attracts people to Dripping Springs, it would be this last, the Organ Mountain evening primrose. Found nowhere else in the world, these perennial plants epitomize life's astounding ability to adapt to changing conditions. While most desert plants evolved water-saving adaptations as climates dried out, Organ Mountain evening primroses instead staked their survival on growing where the water is. This raises problems. For oneand it is a big onewater is in extremely short supply, even in the Organ Mountains. All of the "streams" draining ,the Organs, even Dripping Springs downstream from the springs itself, barely deserve that title. They only flow above ground after summer rainstorms or occasional winter snows. But many drainages carry water below ground throughout the growing season. Organ Mountain evening primroses have adapted to take advantage of these underground streams, growing smack in the channels of the half-a-dozen or so larger drainages, between about 5,500 and 7,500 feet elevation. The scarcity of appropriate habitat limits their numbers; the entire population of Organ Mountain evening primroses totals only around two thousand plants.
Not only is water in the Organs, as in all desert mountain ranges, limited, but the supply is erratic, oscillating between long drought and sudden deluge. After months of no rain, intense summer thunderstorms may drop as much as four inches in an hour, transforming the dry stream channels where Organ Mountain evening primroses flourish into roaring flash floods carrying a deadly slurry of rocks, mud, and boulders. Such catastrophic floods alternately scour streambeds to bare rock or bury them Linder several feet of debris. Most plant life is uprooted or smothered. But Organ Mountain evening primroses survive. Their above-ground parts, mounds of numerous flexible stems, may be ripped off, but the perennial part of the plant lives on under the surface of the stream channel, protected from the catastrophic floods. After a flash flood passes and the channel dries out, the roots simply sprout a new crop of above-ground stems.
Their ability to thrive in the catastrophic environment of flashflood channels is not Organ Mountain evening primroses' only magic. These plants look quite ordinary for most of the year, forming green mounds up to three feet high and twice that across, tinged with rust from a sparse cover of sticky hairs. Then, after the first summer rains, each mound of stems sprouts an abundance of long, pointed flower buds. The buds burst open by the hundreds after dusk on summer nights, revealing huge, lemon-yellow, fragrant flowers. But that is not all. Organ Mountain evening primroses have evolved a food-for-sex partnership with two species of giant night- flying moths.
Plants go to great lengths to avoid inbreeding. Unable to wander around freely and thus to find sexual partners to whom they are not intimately related, plants have evolved a wide variety of tricks to accomplish sex while maximizing the mixing of their gene pool. For instance, evening primrose flowers, including those of the Organ Mountain evening primrose, are designed to prohibit self-pollination. The stigma, the sticky tip of the female sexual part that collects pollen, protrudes above their stamens, the pollen-carrying organs. The heavy golden pollen grains cannot make the upward leap from stamens to stigma. Organ Mountain evening primroses take the prohibition against self-pollination one step further: they are self-sterile. Fertilization only occurs with pollen from a different Organ Mountain evening primrose plant. Since the blossoms open in the darkness of late evening and each lasts only one night, this makes exchange difficult. Hence, Organ Mountain evening primroses, like many flowering plants, depend on a partner to ensure reproduction.
In order to entice partners, Organ Mountain evening primroses offer food. Like all evening primroses, they have evolved nectar glands, deep inside the flower, that secrete a sweet, honeylike fluid much sought by insects, hummingbirds, and bats. When these nectar sippers visit the flower to drink, their bodies touch first the protruding stigma, depositing pollen grains collected at other flowers, and then the pollen-laden anthers. As the diners fly from blossom to blossom, they crosspollinate the flowers.
How do airborne diners find night-opening Organ Mountain evening primrose blossoms? Smell and sight; the flowers broadcast a sweet, come-hither fragrance on the night air. And the blossoms' light color makes them visible in even the faintest moonlight.
Unlike other evening primroses, Organ Mountain evening primrose nectar is not available to just any nectar feeder. These unique evening primroses have evolved a pencil-thin, seven-inch-long floral tube, the longest of any evening primrose. A pollinator must possess a very long tongue indeed to reach the sweet food at the base of the tube. Although other nectar feeders attempt to drink from these primroses, only two kinds of night-flying sphinx mothsbig oneshave evolved tongues long enough to sip at the nighttime feast provided by Organ Mountain evening primroses.
When Richard and I learned of the partnership between the rare evening primroses and the giant sphinx moths, we determined to watch this example of evolutionary magic. Thus, one Friday night in early July found us driving out of town and up the creosote-bush-clothed bajada sloping steeply toward the base of the Organ Mountains. Past the gravel quarry and around the north side of Tortugas Mountain, its grassy slopes tinted pale green with new growth, and then onto the washboarded gravel road where the pavement ends, we headed up, up, and up through the desert toward the spare slopes of the Organ Mountains and Dripping Springs. The sun slanted low by the time we reached the preserve gate, which was locked now for the night. The caretakers let us in.
We parked the car in the empty gravel parking lot, unpacked our picnic dinner, walked over to the botanical garden in front of the visitor center, and settled ourselves on a low rock wall next to a spring sprouting two huge mounds of Organ Mountain evening primrose. Our perch gave a splendid view westward over the Chihuahuan Desert. Below us, the bajada sloped downhill, stippled with olive-green creosote bush, its even expanse broken only by the rounded, tortoiselike hump of Tortugas Mountain. At the base of the bajada, the Mesilla Valley cut a wide north-south swath through the desert, checkered with farms and orchards. The town of Las Cruces sprawled across the valley, edging toward the glimmering thread of the Rio Grande. Past the valley, the desert took over again. Cumulonimbus clouds above West Mesa, across the valley thirty miles away, leaked lavender streamers of rain. A hint of cool breeze trickled down the Dripping Springs valley behind us, heralding the beginnings of night.
The two nearby mounds of Organ Mountain evening primrose, each five feet across and three or so feet tall, bore hundreds of thumb-length, slender, sharply pointed flower buds poking up through their leafy canopies. Each bud looked ready to pop. The previous night's flowers were wilted into wads like so many wet tissues.
The air was still warm, the early evening light still bright. Crickets chirped nearby. The humming of honeybees filled the air as they traveled from wildflower to wildflower, their hind legs trailing yellow globs of pollen. Black-chinned sparrow and canyon towhee songs echoed from all around. The sun slipped out from behind the lower edge of the storm clouds to the west, tingeing the slice of sky below the clouds ruddy red.
We watched for the opening of the first blossom, betting on the flower buds closest to the ground, where pools of shade merged. Soon, a lengthwise slit appeared in one bud near the ground. Moments later, the case suddenly split, as if slit by an invisible zipper. One edge of a lemon-yellow petal, freed from its tight spiral in the bud, peeked out like a miniature flag. In a minute or so, the force of the unfurling petals flexed the bud case downward, like a banana peel pushed back. I grabbed Richard's hand and pointed at the bud. He turned to look just as the petals unfurledthe flower was open! Its four lemon-yellow petals slowly unwrinkled and spread into a wide, flat, cross shape. Eight golden stamens with pollen grains hanging off them stuck up from the center, and a sticky stigma protruded above. Fascinated, we watched for more opening blossoms. Soon, buds were unzipping all over. Within fifteen minutes, we counted seven dozen open blossoms on just one plant!
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