DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Kangaroo Rat and Night in the Mojave: Kangaroo rats are completely nocturnal. There are several species of them ranging from Idaho and Oregon to Colorado and south into Mexico. This is a Merriam's, a common kind in the Mojave and through all the "hot" deserts. At night they sometimes came into our camps. This one took bits of tortilla from our fingers and was fond of beans. It was gold and white, smaller than a chipmunk, and it popped in and out of the circle of firelight at our feet, zipping off to carry its prizes back to its burrow store.
Once the sun had set it became very cold; when you looked up there were the silhouettes of ocotillo, teddy-bear cholla, and creosote against the stars. You will have to imagine the stars and the tarry camphor smell of the creosote, the smell of desert night and desert rain.
Chapter 11: after the flood
This is a funny story if you tell it right. It's a backward version of most modern tales of natural things, all of which tend to have the same plot in which Man figures as the villain. So, I want to tell a story about a flood in the desert.
When I first heard this story I was reminded of that biblical flood in which Yahweh erased villainous folk by means of too much water. Too much, ironically, of a good thing. Closer to home, the Tohono O'odham Indians of Arizona and Sonora (their name means People of the Desert) had a similar figure in the hero I'itoi, who survived a morally cleansing deluge to be a father to his people. Perhaps it was the same deluge.
It's what came afterward, after the flood, that interests me. You have this virgin landscape. Muddy, true; but empty. Desert. Uninhabited. What can happen? If you let loose the animals two by two into this tabula rasa what will happen?
The flood that came to southern California was recent and relatively small. The causes of the thing were familiar human frailties: greed, short-sightedness, ignorance, and the like, along with bad luck, and the result fell short of disaster; we weren't drowned for our sins, we were made to look like fools. Afterward, some interesting things happened.
A bit of history: in the 1870s and 1880s the Southern Pacific Railroad built its southern route through the part of California that lies just north of Mexico. Between the Chocolate Mountains bordering the Colorado River and the buttresses of the coast ranges, the railroad crossed a broad low salty basin. Exceedingly dry, with less than three inches of rainfall per year, horrifically hot in summer, lying as much as two hundred and seventy-three feet below sea level, it was known as the Salton Sink. A tiny saltmarsh at its navel was all that remained of what had been (a dozen thousand years ago, no more) a modest inland sea. This sea had lain in the arms of the rift that is slowly tearing this western piece of continent; the San Andreas fault runs through the Salton Sink and is one reason for its low-lying nature. In its day, the inland sea, called Lake Cahuilla by geologists, had been surrounded by rustling forests of desert fan palms. It makes a pretty picture.
The pretty picture dried up along with everything else as the glaciers and their bordering jet streams retreated northward, and by the time the Southern Pacific Railroad brought its first dusty hopeful settlers into the Salton Sink, nothing was left except that little marsh.
What to do with this over-hot, rainless, and enormous basin? Someone started a salt mine in the sink in 1882, but that was small potatoes, and in 1896 some aggressive development muscle focused on the real possibilities of the place. In that year, the California Development Company was organized to finance and control the construction of irrigation canals from the Colorado River to ... well. You can't really call the place the Salton Sink anymore now, can you? Need a name with a ring to it. Something with size and, and ... what's that? Aha! Yes. We'll call it the Imperial Valley.
By 1904 there were seven hundred miles of canals in the Imperial Valley and seventy-seven thousand acres under intense cultivation, and twelve thousand people settled in the place, when some unruly silt from upstream happened to block the headgate of the main irrigation canal. There was, suddenly, no water at all. It was 108 degrees in the shade of wilting date palms, orange trees, cotton fields, grapevines. Twelve thousand people screamed bloody murder and the California Development Company dredged a temporary bypass channel, and, lo, there was water again in all the miles of canals and acres of Imperial earth, and while the company pundits were mopping their brows and telling their engineers that, yes, get the headgate fixed folks but no hurry now, it rained in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Then it rained again, and then it rained more.
So the river rose. And as the river rose, more and more water poured into that temporary irrigation channel. And the channel widened. And pretty soon the whole Colorado River up and headed west and spilled down into the Salton Sink cum Imperial Valley, and there it was. The flood.
Farms, railroad tracks, saltworks, and towns were under water. The powers that were in Mexico were hopping mad, the Norteamericanos had stolen the Rio Colorado; the only thing that ran into the Gulf of California was a river of sand.
The sink is an enclosed basin. With the whole Colorado River pouring in, it began to fill up right away and kept on filling up. Once decided on a course of action a major river is no easy thing to turn aside. The Colorado River ran into the Salton Sink for three years.
By the time the Southern Pacific Railroad had spanned the flow with trestles and dumped eighty thousand tons of rock and debris into the gap, and the water consented to travel on down across the international border again, it was February of 1907.
Where the old palm-ringed sea had lain in the time of the glaciers and the mastodons lay a new and glittering sea. It was forty-five miles long, seventeen miles wide, and was eighty-five feet deep at its deepest point. It was named the Salton Sea. There it lies to this day.
Since the flood, this sea has been discovered and colonized by a peculiar patchwork of creatures. It has the feel of creation half finished, of something new and wonderful under the broiling sun; chance and opportunity beckon, it's a world in the raw, ripe for exploitation.
It's full of fish, for starters. Mosquito fish and the mollies familiar to tropical aquarium aficionados patrol the shallows along with squads of native desert pupfish. Longjaw mudsuckers from the San Diego area and threadfin shad from the South Atlantic states breed in astounding numbers, along with sargo from Mexico and tilapia from Mozambique. There are orangemouth corvina that hail from the Gulf of California, and these have been known to grow to a bigger gamefish in the Salton Sea -- to well over thirty pounds -- than has ever been seen in their native waters. In the early forties someone introduced the humble barnacle, probably by mistake, and the bars and beaches of the sea are made almost entirely of the shells of barnacles, shells that are uniquely large and pink.
Aside from the barnacles, the most visible pioneers are birds. Unlike the fish, all these birds discovered the place on their own. Mind you, this is near the southern terminus of the Pacific flyway, so it's on an avian route to begin with. In season, sandhill cranes and dunlins fly down from Alaska; common terns and snow geese come from the Arctic coasts of the Northwest Territories; canvasbacks and pintails fly in from the East; wood storks, magnificent frigate birds, and blue- footed boobies come up from the Gulf of California. This is a sampling. More than three hundred and seventy-five species of birds have been sighted in and around the Salton Sea. Between November and February this is the winter home for as many as thirty thousand geese and sixty thousand ducks. Most of the winter goose pasture consists of alfalfa, sudan grass, and winter wheat and rye; the farm fields of the Imperial Valley.
North and south of the sea are four hundred and seventy-five thousand acres of agricultural land made possible by a Colorado River tamed, shunted, respectfully controlled; the Imperial Valley to the south and the Coachella Valley to the north. In the winter one can sit on the shelly beach looking over a bogus sea in a bogus landscape -- there are rustling date palms planted in rows, the species imported from Arabia -- and the whole gleaming surface of the water is sprinkled with birds. There are thousands of eared grebes, with fluffed tails and red eyes. Each one dives down with a curl like a folding wave.
Before the Gadsden Purchase made it part of the United States, and this officially became the Salton Sink, the Mexicans had named this part of their desert La Palma de la Mano de Dios, the Palm of the Hand of God. Now it's filled with the lap of wavelets, the keeek keeek of black-necked stilts, the kwaaawks of ring-billed gulls, the peepings of killdeer, the throaty kitikee of willets. This is the sound of the industrious adaptability of fish, bird, man, and barnacle, proof positive of the shifts and quick turns, disasters and victories, the everlasting neverthesametwice Glory of the Flood. Amen.
January Spring: Birdcage evening primrose in the Algodones Dunes, between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains