Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sledding, Shifting Sands: White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument, view from top of a dune
If you stand stock-still at the top of a gypsum sand dune in the two hundred and seventy-five miles that make up the White Sands National Monument, and stay there for a year, your bleached bones could move, depending on the location and type of the dune within the park, up to thirty-five feet from where you succumbed to the heat.

The gypsum sand will stay cool to the touch, however, so if you choose, as many do, to instead buy a round plastic sled at the gift store and spend a day sledding in sand, you'll likely have more fun.

A few days ago, I spent the day wandering in the mid-afternoon blaze and then returned, post-hydrating, for the cooler sunset ranger walk to hear more about the gorgeous, alien landscape.  

Toppled yucca plant
Thanks to Ranger Carmen, on our barefoot stroll through the dunes I learned that yucca plants adjusted to the dune movement by getting taller and taller faster; a soaptree yucca that looks tiny above ground can have 30 feet of plant underneath it, evidence of a growth spurt of up to 12 feet a year that keeps it from being swallowed up by dune. As the dune moves on and exposes it, the yucca will topple over, but even then, undaunted, it will adjust, rearrange itself, and keep living.  

The beginning of sunset.  Part of a sumac pedestal
to the right. 
Desert survival is like that: slow down, speed up, adjust, move on, adapt. 

The sumac adapted by holding onto the dune as it moves through, creating rock-like pedestals of roots and sand that serve as condo homes for the many creatures that burrow into it.  During monsoon season, the sumac pedestals become islands, with prey and predator seeking higher ground during the floods.

Don't let the sand fool you. Dig anywhere in the park, and you will find water, lots of it, underneath. The cottonwood trees grow by the largest caches, something the coyotes figured out when they moved into the area. They dig for their water by those trees, creating nice attractive pools to lure prey.

The kangaroo rat will not be lounging by those pools; they are so adapted to the desert that they do not drink water. They get all the moisture they need from the food they eat.

Pale lizard
Long shadows in waves of sand.
Desert creatures in White Sands are slowly getting paler, natural selection at work; blending in with the sand leaves them less obvious to predators, giving them more time to procreate. Lizards that are dark brown only a few miles away are white, some with blue markings that further allow them to disappear into the sand and brush.

It is the sand itself, the quantity and quality of it, that leaves you stunned though.  High winds periodically remove all the footprints, sweep the house clean. Some sandstorms are so massive they can be seen from space. Delicate gypsum, softer than a human fingernail, breaks down into the softest sand, providing a canvas for creatures to decorate as they amble or scurry, from the crazy circling prints of the darkling beetles (aka stink bugs), the waggling feet of lizards, to the barefoot tromping of groups following a ranger.

Just watch out for missiles. Periodically, White Sands National Monument is closed to the public when the missile range next door runs drills. No matter how fast your sled ride careens down a dune, you're unlikely to outpace an errant missile.
Sand and footprints in hot midday sun. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

La Mesa Living

My new home
I'm a week into my new life in La Mesa, New Mexico, and loving it.

As with any relationship, building a true understanding of the 106 acres of the property will take time.

I've run the perimeter in the cooler morning air, wandered the lane of pecan trees, explored the shrinking lake, and followed the path poetically named Lovers Lane from my adobe house to the older white house on the property, but I still sometimes get turned around.

The Organ and Franklin mountains provide some guidance, but with the fire burning in the Gila National Forest, sometime the smoke shrouds them from view.  On the day I was up on the roof helping the owner fix the swamp cooler and repair some stucco cracks, we could smell the acrid odor of the fire despite its distance-- the largest fire in New Mexico history is busy rearranging the terrain according to her new rules.

Although I've heard tale of the rattlesnakes and javelinas on the property, and seen the water bowl the javelinas opted to toss over one evening, I've yet to those local residents. But the hummingbirds, swallows, doves, quail, starlings, bats, lizards, crickets, mellow bees, less mellow wasps, and spiders galore have all made appearances.
One of the black widows.
 Sure, she doesn't look
like much in a specimen

On Tuesday, the curator of the NMSU Arthropod Collection stopped by and removed two black widow spiders from the garage (one a big, strapping girl), along with a few other spiders. The black widows will now begin their life of fame as they tour through in classrooms -- and I will be less jumpy in the garage eyeing every black dot I see.

Rita and Lucky, the ranch dogs, serve as wagging guides across the terrain and happily, have yet to find the bird (a sandpiper, perhaps?) nesting on the front lawn. Turtles have wandered up to the back door, and so I give them a bit of a bath with the hose -- it's a tough drought in New Mexico, and even sturdy desert animals are beginning to feel it.

I am just beginning to ease into my role as caretaker of the land, flora and fauna. Watering the pecan, mulberry and plum trees, playing with the sprinklers and tending to the lilies and pots of roses and sedum, refilling the hummingbird feeders and the water tub for the bees, keeping an eye peeled for thirsty turtles and, of course, giving dinner to the pups and my aged, well-traveled, purring felines -- all of this provides a level of peace and purpose sorely lacking in my cubicle dwelling days in Takoma Park, no matter how green the running path by Sligo Creek.

The homesteader farmer in me thrills with my new knowledge on how to drive the Kubota tractor to mow the tall weeds by the hacienda. And the remaining urbanite in me rejoices in the speedy Internet that will continue to allow me to work as a writer and connect out in the world.

I packed up my home and life in the Washington, DC area with the idea of changing my life. And while I fully understand that the external doesn't change the internal (the world, however different looking, is still filtered through my skewed subjective view), I do feel as if all the newness and change has woken up my senses, given my eyes and ears and nose and hands something new to feast upon.

My photography already reflects new light and obviously new subjects. My, as yet, brief attempts at painting here have suggested that I best learn to paint faster; 2% humidity dries acrylics up mightily fast, no matter how much medium I stir in. I expect deeper changes in my art and writing to seep in more gradually as I settle into my new home and explore the surrounding areas.

I'm not clear how my New Mexico love affair will develop; as with all love affairs, there are no guarantees. I do know that on this sunny Thursday, I'm enjoying the rush and blush of infatuation and drinking in the joy.