“This country from afar is synopsized and dismissed as ‘desert’—the home of the coyote and the pocket mouse, the sideblotched lizard and the vagrant shrew, the MX rocket and the pallid bat. There are minks and river otters in the Basin and Range. There are deer and antelope, porcupines and cougars, pelicans, cormorants, and common loons. There are Bonaparte’s gulls and marbled godwits, American coots and Virginia rails…This Nevada terrain is not corrugated, like the folded Appalachians, like a tubal air mattress, like a rippled potato chip…Each range here is like a warship standing on its own, and the Great Basin is an ocean of loose sediment with those mountains standing in it as if they were members of a fleet without precedent, assembled at Guam to assault Japan.”
-John McPhee, Basin and Range (1980)
Last night, at nine o’clock, the thermometer read 97 degrees. A ten-degree drop from midday temperatures. The tranquil air was stifling in its syrupy, magmatic closeness. The moon, a few days shy of fullness, shone over the playa like a spotlight illuminating a grand stage, whitewashed and empty, cleared for intermission. A lone nighthawk swooped in the eerie twilight. In the hot, huddled ranks of sagebrush and greasewood, Mormon crickets refused to chirp, the heat wreaking havoc on their leg-bow (bowleg?) tuning. It seemed impossible that the night could offer so little respite: claustrophobic furnace-air instead of coolness, wan moonbeams defying the dark. The sun was gone, though its warmth remained; a looming, albuminous orb of rock had taken its stead.
In this heat, my thoughts go to the organisms that make do without air conditioning, without municipal groundwater, without cars and gas for transport. They get by without roofs, without supermarkets, without the hundreds of miles of powerline to electrify their homes and preserve their food, without weather-proofed double-pane windows to keep one climate in and the other out—they get by, and they endure. The plants and animals of the Great Basin amaze me with their adaptations. Phreatophytes dot the plains, their ten-foot taproots reaching down to skim off the water table. Ravens, waiting out the hottest hours on fenceposts in a shade-poor country, their mouths agape, their wings ruffled and diffuse. In the lees of rabbitbrush lizards dart to and fro, spending as little time as possible on the baking sands. Rare is the desert shrub without small, succulent leaves, or leaves coated in water-retaining bristles or scales, or leaves that are so far reduced as to appear completely absent. Big leaves catch the rays but transpire so much water as to bleed the plant dry; they are an extravagance in this climate, with its surfeit of sun and propensity for drought.
I enjoy watching the comings and goings of desert life, bustling at dawn and dusk, sedate at midday and lively again come dark. Sometimes the animals seem to utterly disappear at certain hours—take jackrabbits, for instance. It is only with persistent searching that one finds a jackrabbit during the day, and even then, the creature—hidden in some burrow—is first to notice and bounds off like a shot. But wait until dark and the scene is changed. Like cat-sized apparitions the jackrabbits materialize in the gloaming, squatting alongside roads with their jaws working, outsize ears twitching. Suddenly they are everywhere, scores of them, a silent lagomorph retinue to the setting sun. With the rabbits come the rabbit hunters: hawks, owls, coyotes, snakes. In this nightly drama of the desert, the first act comprises rabbit emergence, set to the score of crickets in the orchestra pit; from there the proscenium is set for the spiders, the scorpions, the kangaroo rats and the bats. They appear in varying order, or in no order at all.