slices of a still life, part four



Thrust up on spare, slender stalks from the wasted rubble, the satiny blossoms of mariposa lily are an act of defiance, a lavender-hued acuminate-sepaled flouting of the desert’s austerity. They sprout between dumpy clumps of low sage and Idaho fescue as if determined to strike as jarring a contrast as possible. One morning near the High Rock Canyon Wilderness, jostling along at twenty miles per hour, my coworker Stephanie spots one from the driver’s seat of our Polaris. “Ooooh!” she squeals over the engine’s droning, stomping the brake and startling everyone on board. “What?? What is it?” Without a word she shifts into reverse and hops out with a camera to photograph it. Bees and wasps and flies swarm around the filigreed petals, clambering under anthers caked with yellow pollen, emerging gilt as jeweled scarabs. They revel in the lily’s opulence like sybarites at the bacchanal, drunk on beauty’s excess.



No family of birds would be complete without its black sheep, and for the Charadriidae that distinction falls glaringly on the killdeer. Why is this plover, this ostensible lover of the water’s edge, frequenting landlocked locales (in the desert, no less), nesting on gravel parking lots and running pell-mell across lonesome Gerlach streets screaming, “Tyeeeee deew deew deew-deew-deew-deew!” into the night? Why, indeed.



Pronghorn are superlative creatures. Fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, they lope along the longest migration route of any North American mammal; they’re one of a scant few remnants of the Pleistocene megafauna. They possess a 320-degree field of vision. With top speeds nearing sixty miles per hour, they can outrun damn near anything yet they can’t jump fences. They gear up to at least 13 observed gaits, including one that covers more than twenty feet per stride. Pronghorn are a great many things, but they are not antelope. The sole surviving member of the ungulate family Antilocapridae—of which there were twelve other North American species before Pleistocene’s end—pronghorn’s closest extant relatives are the giraffes, and they are distant kin at that. I love admiring them from afar, bounding up hillsides and across plateaus with indifferent, almost facile celerity, until their semaphoric hindquarters disappear over the yonder ridge. “Look at those sexy white butts,” Stephanie likes to say, jokingly, and for the umpteenth time I do, and always I laugh.



Recently at Frog Pond I saw a willet hanging out with a white-faced ibis, stalking the shallows side by side. Both were the only representatives of their respective species for many, many miles around. Their association looked dubious, uncertain; they appeared slightly ill at ease with one another. At one point the ibis spooked and took wing, circling around the marsh—this prompted the willet to follow suit, and both flapped a pointless, shrieking loop over the cattails before landing and resuming their nervous congress. I wondered: Did they feel a sort of phenotypic familiarity, owing to their shared lifestyle of leggy wading and long-billed rooting about in the muck? And were they mutually lost, confused, perhaps forlorn or disconsolate? They made for an odd pair, but it was easy to see why they might’ve chosen to stick around. Perennially warm water, tons of macroinvertebrate vittles, and a good chance that spring would bring back more of their ilk from wintering grounds in Bolivia and Peru, Chile and Argentina. Together, incongruously, the willet and ibis would bide their time in the interim.


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