a still life, any way you slice it

frog

Chorus frog

Yes, there are frogs in the northern Nevada desert. And no, they’re not all warty and bug-eyed and fossorial, like those of the spadefooted Scaphiopodidae family. Some of them are Granny-Smith green, with sticky toes and shrill voices and a knack for hacking it almost anywhere along the Pacific, from sea level to 10,000 feet, from alpine tarns and suburban ponds to the intermittent desert spring. Where there’s water in the West, you’re liable to find the chorus frog: chirping away, plump and clammy, clinging vivaciously to life.

goshawk

Goshawk

I’ve never seen a goshawk. It’s not for lack of trying, either. I’m typically pretty argus-eyed when it comes to birds—it’s compulsive, like a bad habit—but I also have a rather excitable imagination (especially when it comes to birds). I can get carried away. Oftentimes this combination works to my disadvantage, much to my crow-eating chagrin. Despite my best intentions, I’m notorious for trying to morph various raptors (substitute any bird family here, really) into species they are not: red-tailed hawks transmogrify into Swainson’s and ferruginous hawks, Cooper’s become sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels turn into prairie falcons, harriers into whatever I feel like at the time. At least I’m quick to correct myself. I just want so badly to see cool birds, even if it’s a fleeting, phantasmagorical sort of sighting.

So no, I’ve never actually seen goshawks, outside of a couple close (though definitely incorrect) calls. I have seen gashawks, however: airplanes flying so distant as to appear avian to the naked eye. That’s an unequivocal species for me.

grasshopper

Grasshopper

To walk through shrub-steppe here is to see substrate spring to life: expertly camouflaged Acrididae grasshoppers pop up and crackle with every footfall, flashing wings of black-on-yellow that whir like a sprinkler head rotating about its axis. It can be startling, watching these pseudo-stones explode into being, their abrupt brightness and loudness and aliveness a jarring contrast to whatever reverie you had previously lost yourself in. The grasshoppers remind you that even as the desert bakes and desiccates under a late summer sun, all the little live things persist, latent and waiting.

iris

Iris

Growing tall along the far-flung perennial creeks and seeps in the Black Rock region, wild iris is a most incongruous plant in the desert, a little too leggy and lascivious to fit in with the rest of the xeric flora. One of its other common names, Western blue flag, seems more apt in this setting. More…suggestive, at least. Stiffly raised, hound-tongue petals flapping in the breeze, the iris fires off a flippant salute to its less ostentatious soil-mates: “Pledge allegiance to the flag, bitches, and maybe I’ll deign to notice you.”

owl

Burrowing owl

On a lonesome, tumbleweedy stretch of Nevada’s Highway 447, just north of the now-dry Winnemucca Lake—between mileposts 53 and 54, on the west-side shoulder, to be more precise—there’s a little hole sunk into the sandy berm. Or at least there was, until a highway grader scraped away the brush encroaching either side of the road some months back (to reduce fuels for fire safety), burying the hole. That little hole belonged to a burrowing owl. I’d see it hanging outside its den not three feet from the road, hunched and swaying slightly in the wind, seemingly at ease with the traffic flying past at seventy-five miles per hour. It worried me. “Couldn’t you find a nicer, safer spot to live?” I asked it, in passing, incredulous and perhaps a tad too concerned for its well-being. But finding that owl standing there in broad daylight always enlivened my drives to and from Gerlach. No longer, sadly. I wonder what became of it.

squirrel1

Ground squirrel

White-tailed antelope squirrels are hilarious little fuckers. Manic and miniature, they run around in the searing midday heat with their tail curled over their backs like a weird full-body pompadour—apparently this serves as sunscreen—scaring up seeds, leaves, and the occasional grasshopper or lizard for vittles. Sometimes they splay out, Superman-style, in spots of shade to cool off; sometimes they combine this state of repose with a little vittle-noshing, like reclining on the couch with a bag of chips. I think perhaps I see a bit of myself in these varmints.

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