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Chapter 22:  fossil water
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

When you come from the south there are the fluid shapes of mountains reflecting in dark double form, and the double brightness of must be water, couldn't be anything else -- set like a mirror in a frame of dusty no-account hills.

It is so strange to come on open water out here that at first it looks as if pieces of sky had fallen on the ground, and the frills of greenery around them look entirely false.

This is Pahranagat, an oasis that lies along a crease of the Mojave desert some eighty miles north of Las Vegas. At the south end is a wildlife refuge that runs for ten miles, including in its boundaries quantities of desert scrub, grasslands, meadows, cattail swamps, crops, pastures, and seven hundred acres of open water. Farther north, rich farm fields stretch for thirty-five more miles along the line of ponds and marshes, lush round shapes that lie in their crease of the hills like a string of pearls.

The water is pearl-colored in the evening light. Cottonwoods billow on the shores. Above ponds and swamps and cottonwoods are hillsides of average Mojave, meaning rocks and creosote and bursage with sometimes a spiky yucca. In a "normal" spring there would be wildflowers clothing the rocks and dust in ephemeral color, but this is the third and worst year of drought so wildflowers are out of the question. Their seeds are in the dust, monumentally patient.

This year only dark green yuccas stand out against the pale hills and bleached vegetation. The Mojave yucca tends to grow in clusters, little ones and big ones in cartoonish family bunches, each faceless member made of a substance like pineapples and scissorblades. Every yucca seems to be twisted to one side, like a maimed figure.

I have never been able to get used to the raw rocks lying where they have fallen from some outcrop. There they lie, unchanged over centuries. Somehow this is discouraging; these rocks express a kind of futility.

There are very few cacti in the Mojave. The Mojave is a cold desert, cold in winter, anyway. Not now. The rusty creosote bushes, with their twigs wriggling up and out, look as if they were the skeletons of fires.

So, among all this, coming to the oasis of Pahranagat, one heaves a sigh of happiness; this is a miracle, a wonder, and a mystery. Where is this water from?

On the pale surface of the first big lake is a freckling of shapes like pepper sprinkled: birds. Stopping there, squatting under a cottonwood tree, feeling the dance of water-flecked light on my face, I watch a muskrat paddle by in a wake of silver ripples. I hear the clurks and low mutters of mallards, the clicks clucks, squeaks and rattle-squeals of coot, the bright loud warbles of a marsh wren, the watery flops as one coot chases another, head down like a black awl.

A wren is making a nest in an island of bulrush. He is full of self-importance and his tail sticks straight in the air. He sings with the passion of a diva. There is a caldron of turkey vultures boiling up over the north end of the lake, the dark birds circling slowly in their thermal tower to gain altitude. There are hundreds of cormorants and white egrets perched in the cottonwood trees.

By the time I make camp I've seen numbers of ring-necked ducks and northern shovelers, gadwalls, several pied-billed grebes and a half-dozen great blue herons, and two gulls too far off to identify.

In October, so I hear, serious numbers of ducks come through Pahranagat on their way from Canada to the southern coasts. Then there are thousands of northern pintails, green-winged teals, canvasbacks, wigeons. In winter there are hundreds of swans and Canada geese. There have been white pelicans at Pahranagat, and white-faced ibis, grebes and egrets of all kinds, even greater sandhill cranes. Now it is the tail end of the spring migration, and the coot and mallard are setting up housekeeping.

In the evening I set up mine, on a rocky hill above a lake.


When the sun is down and the air goes lavender and gold, I light a fire. Sturdy dry cottonwood branches the size of my arms make a good bright hot fire; it's the first one in a long time, the first fire larger than microscopic in weeks. It's the first place where there has been fuel for the taking. Now the smoke is coming over my shoulder, one pants leg is warm and one ear, my rump, one arm. The lake is alive even in the dark; there are trills, whistles, rustlings, and splashings. There are coyotes calling from up-country.

Twelve thousand years ago I would have been listening for other things. I would have been worried about a herd of mammoths stampeding over me in the darkness. Or horses, or camels. I would have been concerned about a sabertooth cat or a pack of dire wolves scenting me out, or a three-hundred-pound Shasta ground sloth or a giant beaver the size of a black bear blundering into my tent.

In the valley of Pahranagat there was a river in those days, it was called the White River, and it ran all the way to the Colorado. This was a semiarid steppe with juniper trees and grasses instead of the yucca and the creosote.

Speaking of rains -- this is the odd thing. The rains of that time charged the underwater aquifers, and gently canted impervious layers of rock have since guided that water for dozens and hundreds of miles, out at last into the light. A series of such ancient springs now feeds Pahranagat; there is no upstream of the White River anymore. What water is here now comes from long ago.

This is a fragment of Eden pinched off and saved.

The cottonwood trees have been saved, and the coots fussing, and the silver world of the muskrats.

This water has been down in the rock for a long time. According to experts in desert hydrodynamics, the water that fills Pahranagat now is from rain that fell twelve thousand years ago. It is known as fossil water. Here it comes. Here it is.

Pair of Ring-necked Ducks at Pahranagat

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