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Birdwatching in the desert

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michaelwolcott | Aug 21, 2009 10:09 AM

Lightning flares in the bruised afternoon sky over the Arizona-New Mexico line. Wind scrapes across the grey-green flats from the west, flinging a fistful of gray birds through the air. Purple rags of cloud stream ahead of the storm.
 
A chill strikes the desert. Thunder claps.  I take cover under the overhung cut bank of a deep wash. Mesquite roots claw at the air where the bank has collapsed. I crouch with my back against the earth, staring at the weather. I have never been here. I am home.
 
I will probably never see this patch of ground again. Habit brings me to such places. Season after season I fill a backpack and walk, grazing the thin pasture of the desert. I never know what I'm looking for till I find it. This morning it was a pale blue trailer out on the flats a mile west of U.S. Highway 70, not far from where I sit. Abandoned trailers always seduce me.


 
So I marched through prickly pear, cholla, and crucifixion thorn for a better look: a rancher's old line shack with the usual broken windows, dull chrome trim and faded siding. A derelict mattress leaned against the north wall. The windmill was rusting, the galvanized steel tank full of tumbleweed, rat turds and bullet holes.
 
I walked to the trailer door and peered through the empty window frame: a few glued-together kitchen chairs, a doorless refrigerator, broken dishes on the floor. On top of the fridge stood a ceramic barn owl — its plumage was painted brown, the face flat, the eyes like saucers.
 
I became possessed by the idea of taking the owl with me. The door was locked, so I reached through the small window frame for the inside knob. When I did, the bird turned away, its head swiveling like the child actress's in The Exorcist.


The flash of terror in my cells was fleeting, but total. I yanked my hand out the window. The owl flapped to another room. I stepped away, flushed with adrenaline, feeling more alive than I had in days. I found myself bowing to the owl in the trailer.
 
Such moments hide in the desert, waiting to happen.
 
Other days, other birds: In the low Sonoran desert, a black-chinned hummingbird sits on a walnut-sized nest in a tangle of paloverde. The thing glares at me from two feet away, daring me to move nearer. In Grand Canyon, two ravens efficiently tear apart my backpack, opening bags of food, flinging powdered drink mixes, piercing plastic water bottles with beaks like knives. At sundown in the Mojave desert, near the apex of a slender, crumbling ridge, 53 vultures rise silently on six-foot wings, drifting past the alcove I've chosen for a campsite. No one else is watching.
 
Almost everything that occurs in the desert is ignored. And truly, not much goes on out here. But what does happen sizzles with meaning. The flick of a bird's wing is a poem; water seeping from sandstone, an entire language.
 
Human artifacts speak, too. Listen:
 
Last April, a few miles north of the Mexican border, I found a tiny blue daypack bleaching in the sun. Inside were a pair of cheap denims (women’s size 4), one lavender acrylic blouse, two pairs of panties (one pink, one white), a brush and comb, and a motel bar of soap. In a plastic change purse were 62 cents and a mass card bearing an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. There were no personal identification papers. No maps. No field guide to the birds. Before closing the zipper, I refolded the clothes carefully. I sat down and stared at the pack, and considered setting up camp there until the owner came back. I wanted to ask her some questions about the desert.
 
Doves coo in the washes, fighter jets scream overhead. Is there any reason to go elsewhere?
 
Like everyone, I love the cool mountains, snow-fed rivers, and the color green. But I belong to the dry places, and savor their offerings: the secretive birds, the hallucinogens of desert light and weather, the broken poetry found in the leavings of my kind. Where else can you go to see a ceramic owl come to life?
 
The sky is weeping now, fat droplets pocking the sand. Rocks glisten. The air blossoms with scent -- the drab and hostile plants are celebrating. After ten minutes, the sun returns.
 
A few anonymous birds flutter through the branches of a catclaw acacia, sending liquid notes through the suddenly fresh desert air. The sound triggers a shudder of pleasure deep in my chest. I make a silent vow to learn the names of more birds. I often plan to apply myself to this task, but never do.
 
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