I own a small parcel of land separated from my house by a few miles. I was once going to build a home on it but gave up the idea…or at least shelved it. It is a little further out in the desert and somewhat isolated but civilization is slowly encroaching. I wanted to be a pioneer but it costs too much these days. They are building a new water tank about a quarter mile away so I guess people will follow. I have given thought to selling it but I’ll wait a while.
I enjoy going up there a few times a year just to look the place over. By “up” I mean vertical distance…it is a few hundred feet higher than my home place near a hill called Loma Barbon. I guess it serves as sort of a lab in the sense that I see it as kind of a control — a piece of desert that is not subjected to development. My home place has been sterilized and mucked up a bit by the previous three owners. I blogged here earlier about trying to reintroduce cacti to the place and I’d like to see more yucca. I’ve got a lot of sage and saltbush but no Junipers.
The other place, higher up, seems to have some added moisture in the soil. It has a bunch of Juniper trees struggling to survive and some interesting plants that don’t seem to grow lower down the slope. There is a sort of Zen-like quality to the undisturbed desert. Sadly, we have been in a serious drought — maybe the worst on record — and some of the old Junipers are dying off. You almost never see a young Juniper seedling — conditions are not right for them to grow and the birds are desperate to eat the seeds.
I took a mid-winter walk up on the hill and noticed how things were changing. There is a busy animal population up there. I saw tracks and dens everywhere. The coyotes seem to be in possession of the place based on the tracks but there is an abundant population of rabbits and desert rats and mice. In warmer weather there would also be lizards everywhere and probably a snake or two, although I’ve never seen one. There are lots of birds and the hawks and owls will take their share of smaller animals.
The coyotes have been busy. I found where they caught a rabbit. Rabbit fuzz was everywhere. To my amazement I found another spot where they must have tried to take down an Elk. There were bits of Elk hair strewn around but I think they were unsuccessful. I’m astonished that there would be an Elk that far down from the mountains and reasonably close to civilization. Testimony to the serious drought, perhaps. I suppose it could have been a deer but they stay close to the river and I’m somewhat familiar with Elk hair from tying trout flies. I’m still puzzled. There are Pronghorn Antelope that might be close by but I don’t think they have the same kind of hair and I’d be surprised if a coyote could catch one.
My ancient Juniper, Carlos Rey, seems to be hanging on in spite of the drought. That tree once belonged to the King of Spain and very possibly witnessed Coronado’s trek through the area. Coronado and about 2,400 conquistadors and Mexican Indian allies spent the winter of 1540 a couple miles down the hill. They generally made a pest of themselves for a couple years before going back to Mexico City. Desert Junipers grow very slowly — taking 100 years to grow a branch as big as your forearm. I consider Carlos Rey to be the local champion but there are others that are rivals. They probably were there when Governor Juan de Onate arrived in 1598 to colonize Nuevo Mexico. They were there in 1680 when the Pueblo Indians rose up and drove the Spanish back to Mexico and they witnessed the return of the Spanish in 1692 and the establishment of local settlements along the Rio Grande. They managed in good times and bad but the drought is taking a toll. As you can probably tell, I get irritated when developers bulldoze the Juniper trees instead of trying to save as many as they can.
The Prickly Pear and Cholla cactus suffer through the winter as best they can. Rabbits and Desert Rats will nibble on Prickly Pear if they have to and cause a lot of damage. Chollas are taller and seem to be struggling from the drought more than anything. When they die, a Cholla cactus reveals a skeleton made of interesting lattice work that supports the plant’s stalks and is covered with spines. Chollas bloom in the spring with large rose-like flowers and they develop a bright yellow fruit that stays on the branches through winter. I understand that the fruit is edible but I’m not going to try eating one.
There are roads up into this undeveloped area and I’m seeing where people are using some accessible spots as dumping areas. Not a good sign. Some folks use the area for off-road joy riding. A couple years ago there was a rash of brush fires set by a local fire-bug in the area. I guess that is civilization’s first calling card.
I’ll make another trip up here in the spring to see how things fared. We are actually on the downhill side of winter. Days are getting noticeably longer and temperatures will slowly start to climb from now on. This is desert so we will have freezing temperatures at night well into April but the days will be sunny and warm.