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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 23:  the color blue
Devil's Hole, Death Valley National Monument, and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nye County, Nevada

There is a species of fish whose breeding habitat is the size of a desktop. A desktop isn't much space in the world. A schoolroom-sized desk, too, the kind with the chair attached and a shelf underneath where you tuck your books. The habitat is a shelf, really; a lucky triangular bit of stone jutting just so, with two feet or less of lucky water over it. The shelf looks yellow-green with algae and has coppery blotches that may be algae also. One has to look very hard to see that there are fish there: inch-long dark shapes, sometimes curved, sometimes moving.

The fish are Devil's Hole pupfish and this is Devil's Hole. Beyond their shallow habitat is the hole itself, a kind of underwater cave that is, so far, immeasurably deep. Scuba divers have gone three hundred feet down in there and never found bottom. Two scuba divers got lost down there years ago and were never found themselves.

The opening of the hole is fifty feet long and ten feet wide, and the shelf is on one side of it. Otherwise, it goes down. A little way down you can go sideways to a cave, not far from the opening, called Brown's Room, filled half with air and half with water and utterly dark. The fish do go down as far as eighty feet themselves, so the scuba people say; why, no one knows. Only the shallow shelf seems to be useful for most feeding or mating, and beyond that shelf the rock curves out of sight into the depths of the hole like the fundus of a toilet bowl.

In midday that deep water is sapphire netted with black, a clear impossible blue. It lies in a deep setting of gray rock. It has the cool lucency of a jewel. At one edge is that triangular patch the size of a desk, like an imperfection at the edge of the jewel.

All of this -- shelf and hole -- lies at the bottom of a deep, nearly sheer cleft in the rock and you'd never see it at all unless you came close enough to nearly fall in. I fooled around with this, trying to tell how close you'd have to be to see something here besides the gray stones rising at the base of a hill: twenty feet, fifteen, ten, five ... if a fence weren't here you'd have to stop yourself teetering on the brink before you'd look down and see that color lying down there, and then you'd blink, not understanding what it was, for a minute or two.

The water renews itself all the time. It may come from the Spring Mountains forty miles off, or from as far as Pahranagat; from a hundred miles or more, all underground. This is fossil water, again. What it makes possible here is a strange archipelago of life.

Long years ago fish swam upstream through what is dry baking air -- 95 degrees F in April now; presumably Amargosa River water then -- and these fish made a home among the jutting rock shelves around the shallows of what was a lake. When the lake dried they were stranded in Devil's Hole as if it were a kind of tide pool. One is familiar with tide pools. One has seen minnows stranded in them. This one has been here with the pupfish in it for ten thousand years, at least. Left in their island of water they've evolved into a species that is unique in the world: here, and only here they are, with a smaller and more fragile habitat than anything has, anywhere, as far as anyone knows.

***

The gray foothill that wears Devil's Hole in its flank like a sword wound is between the Spring Mountains and the Amargosa range. Below and to the west the ground levels and pales: the old lake bed paved with alkali dust. Scattered in one corner of this lake bed are bumps of shadow; unmistakably trees. Trees in full leaf. Far away, at the end of the dry lake, are the dark bulks of the Amargosa Mounttains. On the other side of the Amargosas is Death Valley, the dry heart of the dry Mojave, which is going into the third summer of drought, after the driest winter in its recorded history. On this foothill slope the creosotes are nearly transparent, their few leaves gone olive-brown. Between them the hemispherical saltbush shrubs are silvery snarls of leafless twigs. Perhaps they are dead.

Those green trees down there are just as strange as the color of water.

Stranger still: the man who is working there, near his blue Ford pickup, with his hands full of grass and a clipboard under his arm, is a fisheries biologist by profession.

***

His name is Doug Threloff and he's been here for less than a year. Ash Meadows is a new wildlife refuge as these things go; there isn't much in the way of funds for it yet, and what I've learned in Vegas is that no one there goes out to the desert much, they're far more likely to hop a plane to Boston than to drive an hour and a half out here, so there aren't many visitors. Doug does whatever needs doing most; he's geologist, botanist, maintenance worker, tour leader, researcher, file clerk, educator. The refuge was established in 1984, and includes just under twenty-four thousand acres of ground. The green trees there are ash, mostly; single-leaved ash, velvet ash.

"Ash Meadows is Nevada's version of the Galapagos," he says, right away, and that's what the story is. This is an isolated archipelago; islands of springwater in a sea of rock and alkali dust.

Devil's Hole is the highest water here, in terms of altitude; downslope there are more than thirty seeps and springs. Where the Galapagos has tortoises, Ash Meadows has fish. They are fish that are unique in the world: three species or subspecies of pupfish, plus Ash Meadows speckled dace. And snails: six species of endemic spring snails, four species of tryonia. And insects: a riffle beetle and a naucorid bug. And flowers: a sunray, an ivesia, a gum plant, a milk vetch, a blazing star, a niterwort, an orchid, a bear poppy; big showy flowers in full bloom, island flowers, flowers found nowhere else in the world. There are at least twenty-five plant and animal species in Ash Meadows that are found nowhere else in the world. That's a greater number of endemic plants and animals than are found in any other local area in the United States.

The story is that no one really knows what's here. It's an archipelago that has hardly begun to be explored.

"The orchid, for instance, until two years ago, no one even knew it was a new species," Doug says, "and three days ago some researchers came out here to see if we had desert tortoises. It was the first time anyone had ever looked. They found what they thought could be a burrow, but no one is sure. And pollinators, beetles ... they'll find more beetles out here. Endemic pollinators. No one has really started looking."

***

We're standing by Crystal Spring, the biggest spring on the refuge. There are others: Rogers and Longstreet, School and Point of Rocks, Jackrabbit, Big, and Bole. All of them are full of fish. There are two small reservoirs: Peterson and Crystal. Crystal Spring is the size of a good-sized swimming pool and is as clear and blue as a blue eye, roiled by the force of water coming in. Water trickles off into a marsh rimmed by reeds and cattails. Three hundred yards away, four horses are grazing; two bays, a palomino, and a buckskin.

"Mustangs," Doug says, following my eyes, "wild horses. A few years ago they fenced off some of the little springs to keep the mustangs out. They graze the vegetation around the springs and get in there to keep cool, especially in summer, and they muddy the place up, I tell you! The assumption was that they were doing damage. So the horses were fenced out. And the vegetation grew in over one little spring and choked it solid and killed all the pupfish in there.

"We have to watch it with assumptions," he says.

***

Among other things, Doug monitors the levels of the springs and the numbers of fish in them. He does whatever other research he can, keeping careful notes on that clipboard. Though there are pupfish in springs and oases throughout the desert, even in Death Valley, each is isolated from the next and is a distinct, unique species. There are three species or subspecies of pupfish here: the Devil's Hole, the Warm Springs, and the Amargosa/Ash Meadows, in that order, coming downhill. As their lake receded, that was the order in which they were left, so to speak, behind. The Warm Springs species has several pools to live in; its habitat can be taken in, from here, by a wave of the hand. The Amargosa/Ash Meadows fish has more springs to its name; a wave of the arm's worth, from here. Of all the springs on the refuge all but two are warm, heated on their underrock journey by geothermal energy. There are three kinds of water habitat: springhead pools, stream outflows, and marshes. All of these are small, by anyone's standards.

Crystal Spring is the biggest one. Three thousand gallons a minute surface here, in a steady push that keeps the pool surface nearly convex. At last count, last autumn, there were between five and six thousand pupfish here, plus twenty-five thousand mollies and three thousand mosquito fish.

Mollies and mosquito fish are aliens, brought in by the ranchers who owned the place and who thought they'd be useful: the mollies to sell, the mosquito fish to eat mosquitoes. The mollies are the plain household-aquarium-style black ones. They live, as the pupfish do, near the pool bottoms. The mosquito fish patrol the water surface. No one knows what effect either one of these have on native pupfish, but the assumption is that it can't be good.

One of the mandates of the refuge is to return Ash Meadows, as far as is possible, to its pre-human-interference state of being. This won't be easy. Creatures once introduced are hard to root out, and the transplants are happy here. There are crayfish in the springs, and bullfrogs. There are the old farm fields, and the weeds in there may prove more vigorous and seed happy than the fragile lovely bear poppies, sunrays, and so on, the wild endemics that have lived here in their island spring-world since the end of the glacial age. Then there are tamarisks -- salt cedars -- the water-hungry aliens with a way of spreading peskily from the roots. Every desert river valley and irrigation ditch and oasis is infested with spreading thickets of these Asian aliens; they're thirsty, efficient water-pumpers, something like mesquite, but can crowd in and drain a spring dry, so they're next to impossible to eradicate. Just the thought of policing the tamarisks makes me tired. It makes Doug tired, too, I can tell.

What this return to endemic purity will mean for the mollies and mosquito fish no one is sure, yet. No one really knows how the three fish species interrelate. No one knows the life cycle of these pupfish, their food sources, behavior. No one is sure of much.

I get the idea that Doug likes this. It's frustrating sometimes, but he likes it fine; he can discover things that no one has.

"For instance, the male pupfish turn blue," Doug says. "Well, anyone can see that. But when it isn't mating season, they're not blue."

They're blue now. In the clear water they glimmer like chips of aqua neon. They're an inch long, plump, zesty. They zip, scoot, hang still. I watch for a minute, two. The females are plain dun gray and seem to be drifting, eating, doing nothing much. The blue males zip, scoot, hang still.

"Are the males holding territories? Defending them, I mean?" I ask.

"Looks like it," Doug replies. He's beginning to grin.

"Are they defending nesting grounds? Mating grounds?"

"Don't know," he says. The grin is growing.

"So. When did they turn blue?"

His teeth are white in his tanned face.

"Six weeks ago. Exactly. To the day," he says, and laughs.

Merriam Bear Poppy:  The dry cracked ground, level for miles, is ancient lake bed, the alkaline flats and dunefields of the Amargosa valley. The springs of Ash Meadows are real islands in this. Near them one can find this rare white poppy, here in bud, bloom, and fruit; its water-storing tuber is deep in the cracked silts, its leaves are furred by long silver hairs for protection against intense light and baking air.

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