Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Predator

NOTE: a memory from today's freewriting.

Up a gravel road from my trailer in the shadow of the ragged Chisos Mountains in South Texas, lies Mouse Canyon. It is discernible from my front steps in the mornings when I watch the sun illuminate the mountainsides and every dark stone and pale green Sotol seems to glow with an ethereal light. In that rich winter sunlight, a dark cleft can be seen; a wound in the face of Panther Peak, where the dry wash that curls around behind my temporary home is disappears, swallowed by the mountain.

One midwinter afternoon, I set out from my house beneath the blazing South Texas sun and walked the wash toward the mountain. It curled this way and that, cobbled with water smoothed stones and walled in by eroded walls of desert earth. At one bend in the wash stood a stooped cottonwood shimmering with the leaves of the previous summer that still clung to its time-sculpted branches.

I sat to rest in its shade and looked out onto the blasted landscape of jagged rock and thorny plants. Everything here was shaped by the desert around it. The landscape was vigorous in itself defense. Over there was a patch of Shindagger, and at my back stood the globular mass of a Sotol with last year’s flowerhead looming high above and casting a narrow strip of shadow upon its serrated leaves. Cacti come in all shapes and sizes here; from the tall rose-hooked Devil’s Claw to the low and lethal Horse Crippler, the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert are both beautiful and terrifying at once. They invoke a deep respect and admiration in me; one does not travel lightly in this country.

As I round a bend in the wash, the dark walls of the stone cleft loom over my head and I enter the narrow coolness of the canyon. Everywhere is the trace of water’s passage in through this deep defile, dead plants layered with sediment wrap the up-canyon side of each tree trunk and beneath boulders lie the concentric rings of slowly drying pools. Each day having taken a little more of their precious contents leaving only the dessicated bodies of the ephermeral pool-dwellers to rise again with the next rain. Water is so fleeting here, more-so than any other desert that I have found myself a part of. It has not rained here since my arrival.

Yet I smell water. A wet coolness borne on the sweeping downcanyon wind. Does it come from a spring in the heights of the Chisos? Unseen from my vantage point, the only thing I can descry of the world outside the confines of the canyon is the pale sliver of the winter moon riding high in the unbroken azure ribbon between the towering walls.

As suddenly as the canyon began, it came to an end, and a pile of smooth boulders lay piled below the twist of a high pour off that lay at the utmost end of mouse canyon. Beyond its lip I could see the broad expanse of Sotol grasslands leading up the mountain side to the cliffs ringing Panther Peak. Off to my left, another pour off beckoned, darker and narrower, its end unseen and unknown. I clambered up the boulders to its entrance and eased myself gently into its cool embrace.

As my eyes adjusted to the light and the echoes of my clumsy passage died away, I became aware of being surrounded by the strong smell of water; cool, clean, and strong. At my feet lay a deep pool cut from the solid stone of the canyon. It was small, no more than two feet across, and the reflection of the sky in its glassy surface made the canyon walls around glow a deep sapphire. It was everything cool and pure in the midst of a land defined by sharp edges and searing heat.

So taken in by the beauty of this perfect window, that I did not at first realize that I was not alone. It stood there, perfectly still, the smooth vertical expanse of the canyon wall at its back and the pool before it, so close it almost brushed the surface. It was an ancient predator, and it was poised above the sky-mirror ready to strike at the slightest movement within the depths of the water. A living fossil, the water-bug waited for its prey. It was like the landscape surrounding it, beautiful and terrifying, a perfect killing machine of lethal precision and ruthless appetite. It was the largest I had ever seen, the golden oval of its carpace nearly six inches in length. Beneath it were folded six deep yellow legs; thick with cruel barbs and each one ending in a long claw that gripped the slick stone. It would stay there, motionless, waiting for a succulent canyon toad or slow-moving lizard to cross its path, or for an unlucky insect to break the glassy surface of its pool.

I was an intruder in its domain, and remembering myself, I nodded my head in aquiesence and left it to its hunting. Life in the desert, always juxtaposed with death. Like the siren song of a selenium spring, what I had just seen was a clear and beautiful illustration of this ageless dichotomy.



The pool.

The predator.

One cannot exist without the other...

-Charlie Kolb, Atlas Mountains, Morocco

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