A couple of years ago on a fateful trip down the Green River with Tim we found ourselves on a sand bar on our bellies looking closely at the Sacred Datura plant. Our close inspection put us face to face with a large green caterpillar with large white spots that looked like eyes down its sectional body. Keep in mind we’d been in the depths of Canyonlands National Park of southeast Utah for five days when I tell you that looking at this perfectly plump juicy looking specimen that I had an overwhelming urge to pluck it from its protective roost and eat it. Such is the power of the desert that it can make a jack vegetarian want to be an insectivore.
How is it that in a lunar landscape, shaped by wind and water, the massive sandstone layers that make up the Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau have not all but washed away? This desert filled with plateaus, canyons, slots, cliffs and such wondrous shapes as hoodoos, goblins and sandpipes, hints of ages long since past with dinosaur, plants and ocean fossils, entire petrified forests with old trunks emitting a rainbow of minerals. Thunderstorms fill the summer air and flash floods stir up rivers of red, winter brings snow at higher elevations and yet only 6-8 inches of water on average.
To understand how with all this weathering it manages to still be fecund, at least for those who have adapted to this desert turbulence, you have to watch where you step and maybe even get on your belly. Look closely at the ground. What you’ll eventually see is a community cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, green-algae, micro-fungi and bacteria called Biological Soil Crust or Crypto-Biotic Soils. These crusts take years to form. Shaped but pale in color that crust may be 10 years old, dark thick crusts could be well over 100 years. National Parks like to remind us that one boot print can wipe out the whole thing. In other words “Don’t Bust the Crust”! Crypto-Biotic soil is credited with producing oxygen and pushing nitrogen into the soils. Also know as “nitrogen fixing” which is necessary for plants that need nitrogen to grow but cannot absorb the nitrogen from air. Without the Biological Soil Crust there would be nothing more than the blowing sands and towering stones.
In complimentary contrast the green of the junipers, pinyon pines, cottonwoods and willows only highlight the beauty of the red, pink and tan sandstone walls, stream-beds and soils. With the juniper/pinyon forests dominating the landscape you’re never far from the shade of the twisted, gnarled papery trunks of the Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteoperma). Due to the harsh growing conditions a 50 year old tree might not even top your head and a tree several hundred years older might only be double that height. The blue “berries” of a juniper are actually tiny cones covered in waxy protection. These berries are an important food source for birds, rabbits and coyotes alike. Traditionally the juniper was used as a medicine, fibers for shoes, beds and even toilet paper. The rot resistant wood has also been used for both fence posts and roofing. This strong scented tree manages to withstand the high winds and lack of water. Juniper trees can cut off water to one or several branches in order to keep other branches nourished and still producing seeds in times of drought. So well adapted as it is there are some who might call the juniper invasive, this is really an allowance of normal ecological succession with lack of fire disturbance to hold back the tree’s spread.
Watching the orange glow of the fading sunlight on the steep walls of red I know the best part of this place is coming soon. After the smores are made and the coyotes have begun their call of carnage the night sky begins its show. Far from the city, suburban and industrial lights the milky-way illuminates the sky. Even on a moonless night there is enough light, if you let your eyes adjust, to take a little stroll. Late one night by the embers of our fire we both caught a shooting star followed by a dramatic fire ball.
After we’ve moved on I dump out sand from my boots. Red flakes dot the sidewalk, reminding me that I may come and go from southern Utah but that red sand and orange glow are forever with me.