Nature Experience #5 -Desert

As a nature lover, I struggle with desert. Of all the types of ecosystems, I find the least beauty there. What is there to love about desert? So, I’ve put my own theory to the test. Can I “connect” with desert, when I find little of beauty or attraction there?

If asked to describe desert, I would use words like grueling heat, gritty sand, slithering, scrambling animals, zero humidity and absence of water. But I need to look further. I admit that my desert experiences have been from the highway. I look out my car window when I’m traveling. I step out of the car at a rest stop, feel the dry heat and duck back into the air conditioned vehicle.

I have spent the night at a motel in Needles, CA. Mostly, I remember that the door to our room faced west. The summer heat beat down on the door, leaving no room for an evening cool down. Luckily, the a/c worked well, and we used it.

But this didn’t make me feel any more ‘love’ for desert. I have to work harder to connect.
I need to experience desert in different seasons of the year and at different times of the day.  I should investigate the creatures that call the desert home. The arid portions of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California are examples of desert. They are as varied as different types of forest. And, as it turns out, when I reconsider, some of my favorite places to spend time would actually be classified as desert.

I have had a thirty-year love affair with northern New Mexico. Time spent in Red River, Taos, Santa Fe and even Abiqueu are high on my list of favorite memories. I have been to these places in all four seasons, and loved nearly every minute of it. Can I use those memories to build an affection for desert in general? 

Let’s connect with DESERT. (Not to be confused with DESSERT – I have no trouble connecting with that.) The list begins.

For one thing, there’s the sky. Much like in my home state of Oklahoma, the sky is enormous, stretching so wide and endless from horizon to horizon. And the colors, at sunrise and sunset, stretch across the enormity of it, reflecting the rainbow in cloud splashes wherever they may be.

Another thing is the air. Dry, yes — but in desert forests, the smell of pinon and pine is strong. Plant life, herbs like sage and lavender. And that smell is so full of good memories, relaxing around a chimenea, stress-free, warm, safe. In non-forest areas, the scent is more subtle. The drier the air, the less smell there seems to be. In a wind, there is a smell of dust, and tantalizing whiffs of pollens from blooming succulents.
Then there are the animals. Giant ravens – curious and smart – unafraid. Ground squirrels (chipmunks) – curious, fast, ever-hungry. Geckos and other lizards – agile, fast, wary. Small owls and tiny birds, making homes in cactus and abandoned burrows. Mice and other rodents, sidewinding snakes. Each part of the intricate web of life that is desert.
OK – so I haven’t mentioned tarantulas, rattlesnakes, ants. And I’m not sure I can ‘connect’ with them. But, I do recognize their value in this desert habitat. Food chains and webs are complex. Animals are needed to fill all the niches, as predators, as prey, as decomposers, as plants and herbs – the food at the base of the chain of life.

As a scientist, I value that web of life, and understand the necessity of having the many niches filled. I recognize that there are connections between species of animals and plants that humans don’t understand, and maybe never will. But just because we don’t understand them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The all-knowing creator knows it all – the reason behind every creation, the necessary relationships to make all cogs in the wheel work correctly. And the unusual physical and behavioral quirks that allow these plants and animals to survive in their very intense desert habitat. It is a challenging habitat. Extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry.

For those who will take the time to observe, consider all the desert plants, with their strange limbs, spikes and thorns, knubby growths and beautiful blooms. Consider the variety of desert animals, with their camouflaged skin, agile and fast reflexes, designed to blend in and hurry to safety. Consider the insects that scurry over hot sand or fling themselves from bloom to distant bloom.

And those are just the ones that are active in the daytime. Night is an entirely different matter, when the baked rocks and grains of sand cool quickly and the wide sky is full of stars. Spiders, centipedes and scorpions scurry about. Desert rodents like the Hopping Mouse forage for food. And the desert predators, from skunks to small cats and desert foxes, keep the circle of life spinning.

Each living thing has its purpose and each is uniquely designed to succeed in this most challenging of habitats. And I’ve just scratched the surface. Surely there is as much to love about desert as there is to love about grasslands and forest.

I’m eager to learn about your experiences in desert. Please comment.

(To learn more about deserts, check out the chapter on deserts in The Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell, Aflred A. Knopf, New York 1992.)

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