slices of a still life, part five

hesperochiron

Hesperochiron

On a beautifully sunny mid-May day in the Black Rock Range, near an aspen-flanked spring teeming with snails and tadpoles, blackbirds and butterflies, Stephanie squeals and prostrates herself before a clump of white flowers on a grassy fen. “It’s a hesperochiron!” she crows, and promptly sticks her nose into one. The volunteers and I stand there, unsure of what to do. “Oooo,” Stephanie coos, an inch from the blossom, “come smell it!” I gladly oblige. The marshy earth yields under my knees and elbows; all I can smell is sulfurous swamp gas and the tannin-dark water. But I do get a good look at the plant, with its minutely hirsute leaves and quintets of delicate, lavender-veined petals. “I…think I can kind of smell it,” I offer, and Stephanie seems satisfied with the attempt.

Chukar

Chukar

Introduced from Eurasia as game birds, chukar appear perfectly suited to the Nevadan high desert. From a distance they’re uniformly dun-colored, blending right in to much of this arid landscape. They prefer open hillsides with few trees—plenty of that tableau here. They get by on little water. In stifling heat they’re highly economical in their movements—rarely does a chukar take wing if a mere sprint will suffice. (Well, a sprint sometimes supplemented with a few lofting flaps.) Populations in North America even favor cheatgrass seeds over native forage, which makes sense in a way: both species emigrated from the same continent. If anything, Nevada and the West in general will only become more congenial to the transplanted chukar with time’s passage. As cheatgrass, tamarisk, Russian thistle, Russian olive and halogeton proliferate, the Great Basin grows more Eurasian in mien, and the chukar settles comfortably into its home away from home.

Hummingbird

Hummingbird

The broad-tailed hummingbirds zip and buzz about, chasing and chiding each other in what I perceive as tiny, angered robot voices, high-pitched and ridiculously high-strung. They thrum with a frantic energy that I find almost impossible to relate to. Four inches long and feisty, broad-tails possess a bald impunity borne of simple ecological fact: No predator can touch them. Nothing even really comes close. They nectar on scarlet gilia, larkspur, various Indian paintbrush species—whatever else they can find still blooming in this high desert herbarium. Through the Black Rock summer the hummingbirds follow staggered flowering intervals up the mountainsides until even those blossoms dry out, and then they fly south, to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, to winter in the tropics.

Kangaroo rat

Kangaroo rat

You step out into the cool desert night, marveling at the air’s palpable stillness. Your soles crunch on the granite-clay matrix that constitutes much of the Great Basin bajada-shrub substrate; the sound is not unlike breaking through an icy crust of old snow. Shadows of greasewood and shadscale loom large under a gibbous moon. Suddenly there is a small skitter of stones, a soft whump as something palm-sized and furred pauses its hop-along gait at your feet. Startled, you beam a headlight onto this nocturnal interloper, which resolves itself into a long-tailed, curiously proportioned rodent. Limpid doe-eyes stare back, bewildered but unafraid. A too-large head perches precariously on attenuated hind legs, its front paws unseen beneath a snout twitching with vibrissae. The kangaroo rat either regards you with disinterest or is blinded by your lamp. Probably a mixture of both. Soon it bounds off, seeking the seeds and leaves that supply its stripped-down provender. A creature that survives on cellulose, metabolic water and little else—a bona fide desert rat—clearly hasn’t the time or desire to tarry with you. Who, you wonder, is the real interloper here?

Buckmoth

Buckmoth

The first time I saw a hera buckmoth, it was flying fast and low over the tall sage in High Rock Canyon, a startling burst of pied wings and ochre integument beelining across the chasm. This insect did not jauntily flutter by; it tore through the air like a moth on a mission. It was big and heavy-looking and probably didn’t have a lot of energy to spare. It had some serious hill-topping to do, no doubt. Seeing its giant plumose antennae immediately brought to mind that staticky radio-scanning sound effect so familiar from sci-fi movies—I imagined the male’s head swiveling about like a satellite dish, tracking those ephemeral pheromone traces as if his genetic identity depended on it. Which of course…yeah.

Sphinx moth

Sphinx moth

Allow yourself to picture this Black Rock scene—a specific locale and moment at the northern edge of the NCA. You’re at the Soldier Meadows campground. Lower yourself into the impounded hot spring, preferably in the dusky twilight of a late summer evening. Try to ignore the swarms of rubicund chiggers that bound across the water’s surface toward your exposed flesh. (Failing that, try dulling the senses with some alcohol—the overall effect is one of blissful, salubrious indifference.) Dismiss the rafts of algae floating near your shoulders, squelching between your toes. They’re totally benign, if a bit unsightly and malodorous. Listen for the meadowlarks, the nighthawks, the crickets tuning up. Listen for the air-churning hum of hovering wings. This is the moment. The evening primrose bordering the spring is beginning to bloom, perfuming the air with a subtle fragrance that beckons to its pollinators: “Come hither…we’re open for business.” Flowers unfurl in a matter of minutes. Soon the air-churning grows louder, closer, as dozens of white-lined sphinx moths home in on the scent. Fat, fuzzy, two and a half inches long, they’re fiending for nectar, bumping into one another at the blossoms and circling around for seconds, thirds, fourths. This flurry of activity lasts until the nectar’s gone—less than an hour’s span. Yet the primrose remains effloresced, lambent and billowing, open until dawn. Maybe the moths leave some for other, later-rising creatures of the night; maybe there are pollen-munching species equally dependent on the primrose’s wares. But the moment is passed—the opening-sale crowd dispersed—and you’re starting to get pruney, anyway.

Myotis bat

Myotis bat

If you were a bat, you’d spend the vast majority of your time screaming ultrasonically at things—bugs, trees, rocks, human infrastructure, other bats—just to feed yourself and get around without smashing into shit. It all sounds pretty exhausting. And the rest of the time you’d hanging out with your family, which doesn’t seem too terrible except that you’d probably be pissing all over each other in your sleep. But if you were unfortunate enough to become infected with white-nose syndrome, you’d never get in a good winter’s hibernation; you’d toss and turn and shiver away all your precious fat stores and die. Bats seem to have gotten short-shrifted somehow: always reviled by humankind (for mostly spurious reasons), and now this horribly efficient fungus to contend with. A plague wrought by human meddling, no less. The bat’s caught a real bad break, and it’s difficult for us to empathize, let alone react. No one can fathom being a bat. Few comprehend the gravity of their plight. We can only dimly anticipate the consequences. Namely: It’s gonna get real buggy in the decades to come.

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