drying out

Some dry, dry mustard

Some dry, dry mustard

A few months back, not long after my arrival into the Black Rock Desert, a group of archaeology students and their professor from the University of Nevada, Reno, stopped by the station to visit. There were four of them: three women—one of whom was the professor—and one man. They were in the area doing survey work, looking for artifacts of prehistoric vintage, something of that sort. When the professor learned where I was from, she gushed, “No way! So is he!” She pointed to the young man, a chunky twenty-something who appeared to be smirking, or at the very least on the verge of spouting something insolent. “Oh yeah? Where in Seattle?” I asked. Now he was definitely smirking. “The Bothell area. Up north, near Lake Washington. You know it?” In my head I thought: That’s not Seattle. I was tempted to relegate all further commentary from him to the rubbish pile. But instead I said, “Yeah, sure—my parents live near there, in Kenmore.” I was going for diplomacy; these were, after all, flesh-and-blood visitors, my raison d’être, and I had better behave myself with company present.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked, still smirking that impudent little smirk. Three weeks, I replied, wishing he’d disappear. I started to describe the contrasts of my experience—the greens replaced by browns and beige, the energy-sapping heat, the aridity in lieu of moisture, the exiguous tree cover, and for a few minutes he stood there nodding his head, not really listening but waiting for an opportunity to interject. So I stopped. Waited for whatever sagacious pearl would produce itself from that stupid mouth. Finally the nodding stopped; he looked up, and with the smarmiest smile said, “You’ll dry out.”

I stared at him. Pretty lame, but fitting, I had to admit. “Hah,” I managed, thinking: Allow me to humor you, good visitor sir, just this once. But his copious wit could not be contained. Bobbing his head again, eyes half-closed in the most self-satisfied look I have ever seen a human assume—it was the heavy-lidded look of a feline who’d maimed several mice and secreted them in its owner’s shoes—he repeated the quip: “Yeah, you’ll dry out.” For a moment his eyes shut fully; I swear his spine arched back as he rocked forward on his heels—such was the sapor of his phrase-turning brilliance. I looked to his companions. Their faces were masks of tolerance, feigning polite amusement but straining under the effort. “Uh huh,” I said, ever mindful of tact, “I guess so…”

With water come the cottonwoods

With water come the cottonwoods

Complacency notwithstanding, the dolt had inadvertently made a point: Without the trappings of modernity and municipal development—shelter, potable and reliable water, electricity to run fans and freezers and air-conditioning—I would dry out in this place, but not in the “acclimate begrudgingly over time” sense that he intended. I would just shrivel up and die. My fluid-filled body, so spendthrift in its vaporous breaths and beading sweat glands and dilute excretions, literally would expire itself to a desiccated husk, blown along by the Washoe zephyr like a tumbleweed.

The plants and animals of the desert have evolved their respective ways around this, of course. Their adaptations to the dry, hot, exposed environment never cease to astound—they eke out lives in the inhospitable, secure provender amid the wastes.  Extreme conditions call for extreme modification.

Consider the majority of xeric plants, caught in the bind of photosynthesizing in the desert: their stomata remain open during the day to admit carbon dioxide necessary for sugar production—it is only with sunlight that the photosynthetic factory chugs along—but in allowing gas exchange the pores inevitably transpire a great deal of water. Almost 90 percent of a xeric plant’s moisture loss occurs through its stomata, the hard-won molecules evanescing into the hot desert air like dollar bills going up in smoke. Thus the plants engage in an austere water economy, developing cuticles, waxes, hairs, spines, and heat-reflecting pigments that cut down on undue losses while permitting gas exchange and leaf-saving evaporative cooling. Profits are measured in picoliters. It is an economy hinged on dew drops and tiny wisps of vapor. It is a volatile marketplace, prone to crashes. Some plants, such as various succulents and cacti, take the adaptation one step further, bowing out of the market entirely. They open their stomata after dark, after-hours, when evaporative loss is lessened by cooler temperatures. Carbon dioxide is absorbed and bound to crassulacean acid, effectively storing it until day when it can be utilized in photosynthesis. They are the night shift, this School of Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, slaving away while the others dream fretful dreams of dehydration.

Consider the xeric animals, physiologically adapted to conserve every precious drop of water procured. Great Basin birds such as the black-throated sparrow and the Brewer’s sparrow will reduce the moisture content of their excrement by as much as 60 percent in times of water stress. In a pinch they will drink brackish water, ever present in the basin, their kidneys sequestering the salts and voiding them with feces. Kangaroo rats similarly condense their excretions but rely almost exclusively on metabolic water from the foods they eat; they very rarely drink. Metabolic water, a byproduct of the Krebs cycle—whereby glucose is converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and a small quantity of said liquid—is the very ordinary consequence of organic-compound oxidation. That is, the digestion of food by all critters creates some water, in an amount directly related to the hydrogen content of the food. Oxidation of a gram of carbohydrate yields more than half a gram of metabolic water. A gram of fat yields just over a gram of water. A gram of ethanol yields even more: 1.17 grams of water. Humans typically meet less than ten percent of their water needs through this internal oxidation. We rely heavily on its importation from elsewhere. But for the kangaroo rat, the basin-dwelling bird, the heat-stressed lizard, metabolic water is the sine qua non of desert life.

In the months since that smug assurance of my “drying out,” I think I’ve adapted somewhat to the arid environs. (No thanks to you, Not-From-Seattle Guy.) It was a gradual, unavoidable process. Black Rock is high and dry, flat in basin and steep in range. Hiking around, I sweat more readily and pee less after drinking roughly the same volume of liquid as before. I run and bike further than I could at the outset. But I don’t think I can countenance the idea of completely drying out—that evolution toward full-blown desert rattiness. I fear it would lead to something drastic, some sort of desertification of the soul. The landscape wearies the eyes before long, to say nothing of the heart. The xeric biota, meanwhile, have tamed the desert. Their resourcefulness remains a font of inspiration to me. They clearly belong here; myself, I’m not so sure. I’m far too enamored of trees and wet, brine-scented air.

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