Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In The Absence of Hawks

Drive out in the darkness and turn the dial until you find the preacher. The one who spits fire. Turn him down to a low flame. Take only the fire and leave the fuel for others.

Head east until the exit where the bloated bovine lies between the off-ramp and the interstate. A sandy road winds north from the large pullout at the end of the ramp. A popular spot for long haulers to spend the night, as evidenced by the dozens of plastic bottles filled with piss strewn about. Trucker bombs, the colloquial term. They begin to peter out as you move further from the pavement. A final cluster of them at about the distance a grown man could throw a quart bottle filled with liquid. Head north.

Now it is just the sand and the preacher. An occasional nighthawk erupting from beside the path and twisting in the headlights.

Bump out along the creosote as the mountains around you begin to take form.  Change the station. Find the cantina horns that stumble woozily out of the speakers, swaying with the truck. Attempt a sip of coffee. Scan the area for your mark. There, the stake and the flag. The chair in the dirt. Cut the engine but let the horns sway some more.

It is early May in the Little Colorado Desert, and somehow someone is paying me to watch hawks from this particular point on the earth. There has been a proposed energy project for this area. Two large towers, 300 feet tall and topped with bulbs full of oil, with mirrors surrounding the towers and aimed at the the bulbs. The concentrated heat of the mirrors boil the oil and turbines are spun and energy is generated, stored, sold and distributed. This is the plan. But first the land and sky must be studied.

The authorities that grant permission for this type of commerce require data. There is concern that this area is within a migration corridor, that great rivers of hawks and songbirds use it on their movements to and from breeding grounds. There is concern that golden eagles, a bird not endangered but still heavily fortified by law, nest in the nearby mountains and hunt this patch of desert. There is concern that the mirrors and the boiling bulbs will interfere with these movements, this hunting. There are disconcerting rumors of raptors perching on the bulbs and their talons fusing to the glass.

Rumors that the overhead travellers mistake the mirrors for water and descend into the superheated air mass and are baked to exhaustion or death and plummet into their reflections...

Have another sip.

All is calm at this primordial hour. Indistinct forms coalescing into Something. Speciation. The articulation that light brings. Hear the kit foxes yipping, the den we found earlier in the month only a few hundred feet away. Jeez, look at all these holes. A conspiracy of burrows. And then two big ears and eyes staring from out of an opening. You’ve watched this family come and go, heart aching at the sounds of their calls, the magic trick of their disappearing into the earth. The wish to do the same as the sun climbs up and looks at you with all its might. The Grand Inquisitor in the sky, forcing confessions as it tracks westward. Eventually, you will tell it everything.

Exit the truck and start the hawk sit. Eight hours to go.

Every couple minutes scan the sky, interrogate the horizon. Repeat for the rest of the day. This is the elemental core of the job. To be a pair of eyes looking through a pair of eyes. The basic tool and assumption of scientific inquiry. To be eyes cut away from the heart. To be the eyes beyond your eyes. An eye distilled.

No hawks yet, as is normal for this hour.  A short walk to stretch the legs, achy from the time in the truck. An irregularity in the sand right below the next foot fall. On my knees and a fringe-toed lizard is blanketed under the sand, sister witness to the dawn, her eyes and mouth exposed periscope-like. This was another magic trick I saw the other day. A lizard darted across the sand and I gave chase. It crested a small dune, I did the same...and it suddenly wasn’t there. No bushes nearby to hide in. Bolts of sand rolled out in all directions. You simply saw it and then you didn’t. There are its tracks and there they are not. Scoop up the sand at the end of its trail and there it is. Rabbit in the hat.

Scan the sky. Trace the ridge with your binoculars. Dopplered sound of shifting rocks, maybe borregos picking their way through the skyline. Search the mountains face. A fissure of small cobbles, pebbles cascading down a steep ravine and terminating in a rubble pile. Lazy column of dust climbing out of the pile. The top becomes the bottom.

You feel it, the first rays of sun. The verdins voice, wilted laser, is this suntouch put to sound.
The soft, disembodied call of the LeConte’s thrasher, mimid of the sand barrens, starts up. Slight breeze and the sound of dunes moving against themselves, grating their grains into even smaller pieces. My shadow is thrown behind me long and skeletal. Spindly alien, marooned and starving, reduced to bones.

The sun is welcome and warming at this hour. A sip of coffee as the palo verde trees burn pink.

The first vultures of the day begin to move. They are floating off their night roosts and heading towards the carcass near the freeway. It’s been a project of theirs for days now, this roadside windfall. A favored breakfast stop before the real heat begins and rising thermals make flying easier.

A train of Swainson’s hawks is spotted about 300 hundred meters away to the southeast. Count them, gauge their height, scribble down the numbers, their direction of movement. Soak up their company, their beauty as they drift north. Impossible to sever the eyes completely from the the heart. Who would want to? I know many who have. A dark bird leads them, light morphs follow and another dark bird brings up the rear. Much melanin in these bookends. Intrepid travellers nearing the end of their northward migration. Perhaps the pampas of Argentina lie at the other end of this eternal loop as this species follows the bloom of grasshoppers across the hemispheres.

Pour another cup of coffee as you consider another traveller that passed through this desert, Juan Bautista de Anza and his band of friars, families and cattle. Road signs commemorate this hero and his historic trail throughout this area. A freeway now runs where he once rode. A car ride of a few hours takes you from Nogales to San Francisco, a journey that took him and his crew three and a half months to complete. On his trek, occasionally a bovine falters and is left behind, expired and bloating in the sun. Vultures wobbling above the carcass, learning that food sometimes follows in the wake of these strange, helmeted men on horseback. The party continues through the desert, encounters a tortoise lumbering amongst the wiry shrubs. In an attempt to lift the spirits of the expedition, Juan Bautista halts the party and has them surround the animal. The captain removes his helmet and places it on top of the ancient reptile. The sight of this slow moving beast capped with the high-ranking officers military hat brings delight to the party, the women giggling and the children bright-eyed and renewed. Juan Bautista makes a comparison between the devotion of their chore, to bring true religion and superior meats to San Francisco, and the nature of this unfaltering and consistent beast. The armor on its back that protects it from predators akin to the Faith that each person in the party holds close to their hearts that helps them thwart the temptations of the Devil in all its forms. Bautista ends this weighty moment by removing the helmet from the tortoise and placing it on the head of a small boy. The crowd erupts in laughter and grows hysterical as the explorer picks up the boy and puts him atop the tortoise. Vayan subiendo! Bautista cries and a great release ripples through the crowd as the difficulty of their task, the solemnity with which they are executing it, is leavened with humor. Later, another tortoise is encountered and promptly slaughtered by the soldier at the rear of the guard, it’s meat served to the people in its own shell.

A low flying falcon shakes me from the time travel. She veers off her course and loops high in the air, peeling off south. Down the data goes. A quick scan and the vultures are moving in all directions now. Some go north, bound for Oregon Territory, unwavering in their course, others move in groups floating over the washes and along the highway. Locals. At this distance they look like giant black butterflies tottering against the mountains.

The heat is real now. The sun well above the horizon and my shadow grows squat. Walk back to the truck for a drink of water, maybe a little snack. Can’t find either of my half gallon jugs. Small flame of panic as I tear through the truck. Not a drop. Only what is left in my thermos, another half cup of scalding coffee for the remaining 6 hours. Not a problem, really. I’ve got gas in the tank, I can always leave early, compromise the data, seek hydration. No problem to stick it out either. Juan Bautista and his company weathered much worse. Hell, they didn’t even have the coffee. I pour a cup and let it cool in the shade behind the tire of the truck.

A long period of low activity follows. Mandate of the desert. The hours of siesta. The morning movements and dawn chorus give way to a hot baking silence that lasts until the late afternoon. An occasional murmur from the interstate. A harsh, hand-buzzer scold from the resident shrike, Lanius, the butcher, as it drifts past.  On the hunt, looking to build it’s larder. Macabre collection of small birds, rodents and insects impaled on the thorns of an ironwood tree or barbed wire fence. The conquistadors would’ve found a kindred spirit in this animal, its larder decorated with perforated victims. It’s inquisition era mode of meat curing. The gentle and welcome breeze begins to build, not yet a fury. Soon though, the plastic bags in the surrounding shrubs will fly sideways in the windwhip. Skeletal bushes will cartwheel past comically, just like tumbleweeds in an old western. Someone is mumbling, their voice distorted in the noon heat. It was you talking, to yourself.

I go to drink the cooled coffee. It is full of grit and still warm. I pour the last cup and put it in the truck to let it cool in there.

Four hours to go.

Take your mind off the water concerns and stretch the legs a bit. A vague path continues away east from the truck. There are parallel paths, spaced a few feet apart. In the more compact soil, the faintest suggestion of treadmarks. These are Patton’s tank trails, now some 70 years olds, the movements still readable on the land. This is where the great general trained his men for the desert battles in North Africa. For Rommel drives on deep into Egypt. A museum on the interstate nearby commemorates the training, a few retired and weathered tanks visible from the road. This is where Patton came to learn about the desert, to prepare for the heat, the light. To get his head ready for its shifting sands. His men stopped nearby here, where I am standing, in a wash, finding shade under the ironwood trees. Smoking with their backs against the tank. A man spots a tortoise trundling by, takes a long last drag and goes to the reptile. He picks it up and carries it back to the group, the animals face barely visible within its shell. The man holding the tortoise makes a crack about the shared resemblance of the reptile and Churchill. Someone puts a helmet on the tortoise and poses for the camera. The animal is offered a cigarette. Patton strolls up, the surprised men snapping to attention. The General orders that someone find enlistment papers for this new recruit and the men have a nervous laugh. A man offers up the Churchill connection to The General and Patton responds that he sees more likeness with the prime minister’s wife. The men howl, their love for this man and his gruff wisdom and surprising humor and humanity growing with each passing day. Patton comes over towards the tortoise, crouches beside it. He tells his men that their task isn’t too much different from this fella right here. Our duty is to survive in the desert, to persevere. To endure the elements and the enemy. Only we’re gonna have a helluva lot more firepower then our friend here. More howls, whoops. Now back to to it, men. We got a date with some Nazis. The men disperse, their wills steeled and spirits renewed.

Later in the week, during target practice, a tortoise is sighted and the tank turret swivels, the gun barrel leveling on the animal. The slow swinging of the head mirrors the arc of the turret. Laborious chewing of a low growing borage. The boom travels through the washes and up the ravines of the surrounding mountains and the pillar of dust climbs towards a group of vultures rocking quietly above the desert floor.

Occasionally I find tortoise scutes, pieces of the shell scattered in the sand. Old holes, cobwebbed and home now to other critters. Maybe there are tortoises here, underground. Buried timekeepers, made into examples of longevity and stalwart resolve over the centuries. Made into meals. Strange tradition of having metal helmets placed on them. Culinary tradition of being baked in their own carapace.

The last cup of coffee is long gone and my lips cracked from licking them, the wind wicking them. This wind keeps building out of the east. A river of trash floats above the freeway, plastic shopping bags moving erratically above the traffic, spiraling upward in the wakes of the semis. Dust devils build, wrapping up twigs, dirt and plastics in their helices. The sun has baked my head, cracked it as if were made of desiccated clay. Sudden, unshakable truths are allowed to flood into it. These dust devils, they are the departing souls of snakes. Recently dead, this is their spirits departing. But where do serpents go when they die?

And the rising sand itself, it is being deposited back on the top of the mountain. And by combined force of freeze/thaw, the hooves of sheep and The Hours, it will trickle down to the valley floor again. The mountain is turning upside down. The top becomes the bottom. Just as the dune moves, grain by grain, as a slow wave across the flats, the mountain rolls like a terrible cartwheel across the earth. I am looking at a giant hourglass, the seconds and the minutes flooding down all around me.

The crushing weight of time is sudden and visceral. A burden defined. And now that it is named, its tyranny is unbearable. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness, a claustrophobic expanse is tightening around me. An eye boiled.

Beneath the sun, a Prairie Falcon cuts south through the middle of the mountain. Blood dribbles, tick tick, from a desert iguana in her talons. Its dangled body dripping, watering the sand below.


  1. Wow, was not expecting this. Lovely.

  2. wow, almost able to smell the place, great work!

  3. Thank you for sharing a precious taste of the Grit in your coffee cup...

  4. Beautiful. Sent here by one of my sweet readers. Glad to find you. Pleasing shroud of mystery around your identity. Terrific vivid writing. Thank you. Bird on. Mostly: write on!!