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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 13:  honey, juice, badlands
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The Tierra Blanca Mountains in the foothill country of the coast ranges are made of crumbling white granite. If you should ever doubt the extremes of temperature here, note that the rocks are peeling away in layers like giant onions shattered by shotgun blasts. This whole landscape is made of broiled and busted stone.

Below the last slopes a white gravel plain is inhabited by lumpish shapes of cholla, lace bushes of creosote, and bunches of gray sticks. It is not a comfortable landscape. It is strangely arresting, like a kind of art form: Strange Shapes on White. The white ground is pocked, as all desert landscapes seem to be, by varmint holes.

In the distance there are mountains with badlands harsh around their knees. The world ends in mountains everywhere; the low mounds of the Fish Creeks, the Vallecitos to the west, the Coyote peaks to the east, but the foreground is badlands: meaning that it is country eroding so fast that nothing much gets a foothold, that it is so hard to travel in that hardly anyone tries.

In the pale stone, the spareness of event means that each event is magnified. Event being all and anything to do with life.

At dusk a coyote crosses just below camp. He is slim, pale, with a dark tail tip, his pelt more gold than gray. His pace is an even trot. He stops now and then to look, listen, breathe. Then he goes on with his light gliding trot. The varmint holes are (or were or will be) home to mostly rodent but sometimes reptile coyote food that can be had, perhaps, by diligent patrol. The next night the coyote comes through camp again at the same time in the same way. The impression he leaves is of lean body, thin nose, scant pelt, long legs fine and fragile as porcelain sticks, eyes almost white.

***

Canyon Sin Nombre leads into the badlands. The name means canyon without name, a kind of joke. This canyon is steep-walled and flat-floored and, at first, nothing much grows on its alluvial floor except for neatly spaced groves of smoke trees. These trees are cloudy in form and their twig ends dissipate into the air. Like the paloverdes of the uplands they have no leaves to evaporate quantities of water, the twigs and branches are where photosynthesis goes on, and each twig ends in a thornlike point. As protection against ferocity of light the whole tree is a waxy reflective gray-green; in different lights it turns into a cloud of silver or gold.

On the flanks of the dry watercourse there is an odd catclaw acacia, leafless and black. These trees stand out against the pale gravels and in their naked state you can't miss this: they are infested with desert mistletoe.

Desert mistletoe is related to the kind that grows on live oaks or junipers, the familiar mistletoe with green spoonlike leaves and white berries sold for Christmas decor, but the desert kind is functionally leafless and its berries are red. It is a parasite of ironwoods, acacias, mesquites, paloverdes.

The smallest mistletoe clumps look like a posy of dark sticks. Something wrong, one thinks; no tree would grow that way. Larger ones look like heaps of twiggy trash or collapsing nests. Sometimes trees are so weighted by these clumps that their branches have broken.

Red berries decorate this mistletoe from November through April. If you squish one in your fingers you find out that the juice (they are full of juice) is as sticky as hide glue.

A number of birds eat these berries -- mockingbirds pluck them, Gambel's quail scratch for them under the trees -- but one bird, the phainopepla, depends on them for food and water all winter long. A phainopepla looks like a cardinal except that the males are glossy obsidian black and the females are the color of gray flannel. Their eyes are as red as the mistletoe berries. Wherever you find desert mistletoe you'll find one of these birds in the top of an infested tree, keeping watch over his or her resource. Their song is a sorrowful rising whistle: Whoooeep ... whoooeeep ... , and when they fly from tree to tree they flash white panels of wing feathers. One year, when an early frost killed most of the crop of mistletoe berries, phainopeplas died by the thousands.

Mistletoe seeds come out the far ends of phainopeplas nearly as sticky and red as they went in. Since the birds spend most of their time sitting up in trees, many of these seeds land and stick on branches where they can sprout and burrow into their host.

There is this neat symbiosis of mistletoe and phainopepla, with the tree in question pumping the water up from a deep aquifer and providing the physical support. To come on this arrangement, entire, complete, self-contained, tree and mistletoe and bird, in the middle of a badlands wash in January, is to see one piece of life cut out clean and simple. At first. And then just when you think you've got it neatly figured out there is the unexpected. What's this? ... a thick sweet lovely smell in the air! ... and you follow your nose ... to the mistletoe. It is in bloom. The flowers are flecks of yellow, the wash smells like a May morning in an apple orchard, the collapsed nest clumps are being rummaged by thousands of ecstatic bees.

Here it is: Sensuality on White. Cloud of scent, hot buzzing and cool song, yellow bees and ebony bird and red berries, and the winter sun warm on your head.

Desert Mistletoe:  With mesquite tree, male phainopepla, and bees

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