Commonly when folks talk about the desert the words formidable, harsh, dry and dull come into the conversation. And sure, it can those things but, the desert is also breathtakingly beautiful and I have the utmost respect for those that call the desert home. On a clear day in the desert the horizon is the only thing stopping your eyes from seeing further. Once one gets to know the desert it’s anything but dull. It’s a land of creative evolution. A desert is defined as a place that receives less than ten inches of water (on average) per year. So the birds, animals and plants had to adapt to get and store water as best as possible as soon as it comes and then make it last as long as possible. Birds, like the roadrunner, often only get water from what they eat. This is the same for the kangaroo rat who also doesn’t sweat in order to keep as much water as possible. Birds and animals are usually active at night when temperatures are cooler. This is also true many of the plants that call the desert home. In order for photosynthesis to take place plants need sun light, carbon dioxide and water. However, the sun is also very drying. Some plants wait until night to absorb carbon dioxide (CAM photosynthesis). They can also “idle” in that they can go for periods of time with no photosynthesis production during very dry times. Plants will have protective waxy leaves and some lean into the sun so as little as possible will be exposed during the day. Many of the plants employ roots that spread out along the desert floor so that when it rains they can soak up the water where it lands. Others have long roots deep into the ground or only grow by seasonal streams. The creosote bush has both deep roots and long shallow roots. The hard part for these plants is not necessarily waiting for the rains it’s protecting the stored water from thirsty predators. Shrubs, like creosote, tend to taste very bad and don’t get munched on unless animals are feeling pretty desperate. Other plants, a good many other plants, developed spikes, spines and claws. Walking through the desert there is no avoiding them try as we might. As your probably read poor Tim really got it good. After spending the last four weeks in the desert I have gotten my fair share of pokes, stabs and grabs. Even the trees have thorns. One fella we met back at our volunteer day at Saguaro mentioned how he could tell it was a mesquite tree that got him while walking in the dark by the way it stabbed him. Reading the Big Bend park paper a quote from an old rancher on the mesquite went like this “It’s the devil with roots. It scabs my cows, spooks my horses and gives little shade”. On a couple of our walks Tim could tell where I was simply by where the direction of my “ow f@*#!” was coming. Whether it was a cholla, a prickly or the very grabby cat’s claw shrub (also known as the wait-a-minute) poking at me. I thought I’d best this little sticky shrub by wearing jeans instead of hiking pants and all I managed to do was give it more to grab onto. Some yuccas have serrated leaves like a saw and agaves that have us both convinced that it kill ya if you landed on it. I also read that while spikes are an obvious protection against predation, some spikes are so thick they help shade the plant as well. Many barrel shaped cacti spikes squeeze together as the plant loses it’s water and so the spikes offer a thicker armor in a time of need.
This doesn’t really stop predation though, in fact the Javalina’s hard palate make prickly pear refreshing snack. Many birds can get between the spikes to both nibble away at and nest in a cactus. The cactus wren can even remove spikes as needed to be able to fly in and out of their home cholla with ease. Tim and I even saw a cow nipping at a cholla. For Native Americans living off the desert they not only ate many of the plants they used their fibers for weaving and sewing, roots for soap, saps for medicines, and flowers for teas. The Mescalero Apache take their name after a sweet, fibrous treat called mescal made from baking parry’s agave. They made a beer like drink from it and a liquor (fondly known as tequila now). When they weren’t eating or drinking from the plant they dipped their spears and arrowheads in its juices. The juices can cause extreme and immediate dermatitis. As long as there was a known water source the desert was a place of abundance for those willing to be intimate with its subtleties and appreciate its extremes.
Driving from the Mojave, to the Sonoran and now into the Chihuahuan deserts we’ve seen the sometimes slight and sometimes great differences. From low desert to high desert to up into the juniper and oak forests and back down again, even in winter, the desert is hardly dull and I’m a little sad we’ll be leaving it behind soon.