You see a lot of black-tailed jackrabbits here in the desert. Especially at dawn and at dusk. They’re big as cats and they explode silently out of the shrubbery like furred rockets, covering several feet in each bound across the hardpan, disappearing altogether in seconds, in swirling clouds of dust. I’m always reminded of a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, in which the army veteran Troy relates a gruesomely hilarious jackrabbit story to the young yet seasoned protagonist, Billy Parham:
“…Well there was all these jackrabbits in the road. They’d set there and freeze in the lights. Blap. Blap. I looked over at Gene and I said: What do you want to do about these rabbits? He looked at me and he said: Rabbits? I mean if you were lookin for somebody to give a shit I can tell you right now it sure as hell wasnt Gene. He didnt care if syrup went to thirty cents a sop.
We pulled into a filling station at Dimmitt Texas just about daybreak. Pulled up to the pumps and shut her down and set there and there was a car on the other side of the pumps and the old boy that worked there was fillin the tank and cleanin the windshield. Woman settin there in the car. The old boy drivin had gone in to take a leak or whatever. Anyway we pulled in facin this other car and I’m kindly layin there with my head back waitin on the old boy and I wasnt even thinkin about this woman but I could see her. Just settin there, sort of lookin around. Well directly she sat straight up and commenced to holler like she was bein murdered. I mean just a hollerin. I raised up, I didnt know what had happened. She was lookin over at us and I thought Gene had done somethin. Exposed hisself or somethin. You never knew what he was goin to do. I looked at Gene but be didnt know what the hell was goin on any more than I did. Well here come the old boy out of the men’s room and I mean he was a big son of a bitch too. I got out and walked around the car. I thought I was goin crazy. The Oldsmobile had this big ovalshaped grille in the front of it was like a big scoop and when I got around to the front of the car it was just packed completely full of jackrabbit heads. I mean there was a hundred of em jammed in there and the front of the car the bumper and all just covered with blood and rabbit guts and them rabbits I reckon they’d sort of turned their heads away just at impact cause they was all lookin out, eyes all crazy lookin. Teeth sideways. Grinnin. I cant tell you what it looked like. I come damn near hollerin myself. I’d noticed the car was overheatin but I just put that down to the speed we was makin. This old boy wanted to fight us over it. I said: Damn, Sam. Rabbits. You know? Hell. Gene got out and started mouthin at him and I told him to get his ass back in the car and shut up. Old boy went over and told the woman to hush up and quit slobberin and all but I like to never got him pacified. I started to just go on and hit the big son of a bitch and be done with it.”
I awoke to rain pattering the canvas roof, saw it pooled in the slight earthen depression beneath the zippered canvas door. I glimpsed through mesh-screened windows a pale silver light against the sky, of indeterminate age—it could’ve been dawn or four in the afternoon. Turns out it was dawn. The day promised to be damp and somber, the kind of day that stays opaque no matter how one looks at it.
When the rains descend upon the desert, disbursed from matte-gray clouds in wide, flat sheets, they wipe the sky clear like a chalkboard eraser, washing back to earth the dust and smoke that can float thick and listless over the basin like a haze. As the motes are dampened, so too is the howling wind: a hushed spell falls across the newly wetted land, squelching it. Birds perch mutely in the scrub, as if awaiting some elemental cue. Stalks of sage and spindly greasewood stall temporarily in their swaying. Like glass, puddled rainwater reflects flawlessly the argent sky above. The lull is short-lived. A whisper here, a leaf-rattle there, as the stilled air rouses from its stupor. It starts and stops, sputters a bit and then catches. Before long the wind regains its forceful bluster, sweeping the scuds eastward like an Aeolian deckbroom, smearing and stretching and distorting in the process. Utterly spent, rent asunder, these clouds taper off and are lost to the troposphere. Patches of blue sky appear in the thinning, balding overcast. The overall effect is not unlike defogging a cloudy windshield.
And with the re-emergence of the sun, the birds find their cue. “Warble, warble,” sings the warbler, and you’re lucky to catch a glimpse before he dips coyly back into the foliage, lost from view.
The bumblebees in Nevada can be huge, Bombus nevadensis in particular. Its drones are more than half an inch long. They’re heavy enough to bend flowerheads over in their full-body nectar- and pollen-seeking grapples. Yet they seem so polite and friendly and fuzzy about it, the flowers couldn’t possibly mind. I happen to think bumblebees are pretty fucking neat. Not that anyone asked me, but this is sort of my forum to do and say whatever I want. So there.
Watching a golden eagle lift off from its perch feels akin to witnessing a primeval event, a scene straight out of the Mesozoic era, or at least the Late Quaternary. (Ever heard of the extinct flightless moas in New Zealand? The Maori weren’t the only ones eating those giants.) There’s something about an almost eight-foot wingspan that brings to mind long-vanquished fliers like the pterosaurs, creatures that seemed almost too big to loft heavenward. But loft they did, as do the eagles and condors and albatrosses of today, pushing and maintaining the limits of muscle-powered flight.
The only woodpecker I’ve ever seen in Gerlach happens to be a species I see just about everywhere in the West. I wrote about them while living in Seattle, and as far as I can tell, they do pretty much the same things here in the desert. Which is to say, they hop on the ground and flick shit and swoop about with their characteristically insouciant wingbeats, screaming “Ki ki ki ki!” into the heretofore-calm morning air.
I seem to be linking to a lot of older material in this post. Here’s one more, for good measure.
If there has been one overarching lesson gleaned from my tenure in the desert, it is this: Never underestimate the gravity of stress. It kills. Keep things manageable, as much as humanly possible. Find time to unwind. Surround yourself with people you care about and love. Go outside a lot. Learn to know what you’re looking at while you’re there, then write about it. Realize the intrinsic specialness of the place you inhabit. It’s a lesson I’ll not soon forget.