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Thursday, February 22, 2018

It's All Mesquite to Me

Cows wander through it

Normal winter temperatures have returned: at night the air here in Dos Cabezas plunges below freezing and by day barely makes it into the 50s, making it much more like the winter we remember from three years ago. We keep the cabin warm with a propane heater and are comfortable indoors night and day, but when I go outside with Sarah, I leave the warmth  reluctantly. I put on jacket and hat and mittens, and on a still morning, walking into the west, I feel chill air on my face, even without a noticeable breeze. And yet — I also feel the sun on my back, and the sun feels warm, warm despite the chilly air, and I relax into my walk, losing any sense of hurry to get back indoors. 

Someone should put together a book of southeast Arizona desert vegetation in winter. This tree by the wash, 15-20 feet in height, with multiple trunks and with a tangled nest of twig-like branches bristling (so many desert plants “bristle,” in one way or another) with small dark orange berries — what is it? The book I have consulted on Arizona plants is very complete as far as it goes, explaining the Latin names, giving economic uses for plants and listing animals that feed on them, and showing photographs of entire trees in full leaf and line drawings of those characteristic leaves. But what do they look like now, in winter, bare of leaves and yet full of last season’s fruit? That’s what I need to know! 

My best guess for the tree in the pictures above is netleaf hackberry, Celtis reticulata, a member of the elm family not at all reminiscent of the stately American elm of the Midwest. My source says:
This hackberry occurs as a small tree, up to 30 feet tall and less than 1 foot in diameter, generally. It grows along dry washes, desert grasslands and river valleys.... Its characteristically scraggly appearance develops because several feet of new growth occur on only a few limbs during years of adequate water.... 

-- from Woody Plants of the Southwest: A Field Guide with Descriptive Text, Drawings, Range Maps and Photographs, by Samuel H. Lamb. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1989
Anyone else want to weigh in?

Then there are the grasses and brooms and other ground plants. There are half a dozen only a few steps from the cabin door, but identifying them in books from their winter appearance is beyond my capability.

As for the many brittle hardwood shrub-like plants, branches alive and, yes, bristling with thorns, they are all “mesquite” to me, though I know there is more than one species and probably more than one genus here in the ghost town. There is even, I find in the plant book, more than one “catclaw”! There are catclaw mesquite and catclaw mimosa. (And no, spelling program, I do not mean “catcall,” so please stop “correcting” my spelling!”) Those I think I could tell apart by their long, pea-like seed pods, similar but distinctive. Both are in the legume family (as are all the mesquites), but the mimosa pods curl. Three years ago I had quite a collection of dry seed pods. This year I can't find a single one near the cabin. Was the drought so severe and food so scarce that cattle and deer ate them all? Perhaps there is another explanation, but I have no idea what it might be.

There was a photo of a small oak in my account of our most recent drive through the Stockton Pass in the Pinaleno Mountains, but learning the various Arizona oaks is a project requiring more ambition than I possess in that direction. Often, whether it’s a question of a tree, a wildflower, or a bird, I’m satisfied if I can mentally attach to it the correct genus. Often, but not always. The sparrows (like warblers, so numerous, various, and confusing!) challenge me to greater efforts. Just the other day I came in from a walk to consult the bird book and felt triumphant when I was able to identify a bird I had seen in the wash as a black-throated sparrow. Understand — black-throated sparrows are far from rare: the book says it is “Arizona’s most widespread and numerous breeding sparrow” (Birds of Southeast Arizona, by Richard Cachor Taylor [Olympia, WA: R. W. Morse Co., 2010). So my sighting, if I want to give seeing the bird a fancy name, is no great event. It’s nothing like seeing, three years ago, the hooded oriole here in Dos Cabezas or the vermilion flycatcher in Willcox. It’s not even as exciting, objectively speaking, as the little loggerhead shrike I saw out at Twin Ponds our first winter here. 

Vermilion flycatcher, Willcox, AZ, 2015

But that’s just it, don’t you see? Excitement has nothing to do with objectivity. My little sparrow triumph made me happy. I’ll go further. I would not give up my excitement over ordinary events for all the objectivity in the world! Do I “romanticize” my life? (I have been accused of that more than once.) Well, if I don’t, who will? And if I were to stop, what would I gain?

Horses! Look, horses!”  Well, why in the world would I ever want to give up the joy I feel at the very sight of them? Let others shrug and roll their eyes and twist their mouths into disdainful, supercilious looks. Their hearts are not swelling with happiness! How would the world be better if any of us were to feel less happiness on a daily basis?

As for the mesquite and all the other dark, unremarkable, bare-branched plants I see every day on the high desert floor, while I regret the way they have overtaken so many square miles, replacing more diverse vegetation suitable to grazing and browsing, and while I would love to see the high desert grassland reclaimed and flourishing, rather than simply used up, it’s also true that as I look out over this scrubby, scruffy, poor, eroded, overgrazed land, I feel an irresistible and growing affection for it just the way it is. The plants and animals here, from mesquite and cow to cholla and packrat, are only doing what every plant and animal species does, including human beings: they’re trying to make a living in the place circumstance has placed them, and we’re all here now, trying to find ways to live together. 

Now, finally, early, early this morning, for the first time this year we heard the familiar chorus of coyote song, a sound we heard often during our first stay three years ago. Arizona is not Michigan, and the ghost town cabin we call home here is not our country farmhouse in Leelanau County, but the coyotes sound the same both places. They sound like home.

I believe this cholla to be Tasajo

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