Field Notes #5

From time to time, someone asks why I don’t write about the meaner, nastier  side of nature, especially the predator-prey drama.   Until I go on that man-eating African lion-hunting trip  or bag  me an Alaskan  grizzly or happen to be on hand when a puma takes down a mule deer buck, I just don’t have much to offer on predator vs. prey.   Sorry.

However, something did come to mind the other day, musings upon a kind of predator-prey relationship that I jotted down in my hiking journal as I  strolled through Crossfire.   It isn’t pretty, but I thought I’d pass it along.

Warning: This post shows Patricia in a mood.   If you’re in a mood today,  you might want to skip this one.      

May 21, 2009

Overcast, humid, cooler-that-has-been morning.   I set out for Coyote Way, the trail  leading down into Crossfire Canyon.   As usual, I pass my mouldering friend,  the dead coyote    lying  off to one side of  the trailhead.   I stop to look at him whenever I take  this path.    

After a month of decompostion he  looks considerably worse for wear, though that lovely triangular earform  still holds  up well.    Gone, the  shine and softness his coat had when he was first dumped.    Matted patches have loosened, as if  he were going through a heavy shed,  or  they have been peeled back  in the course of some  other  scavenger’s work.   A gaping entrance into his inner cavern has formed in his side.     His coat has taken on the patina of old carpet  across whose nap mud has  been tracked  and into whose fibers a wide variety of liquids has soaked.   The flies that earlier clouded his vicinity have gone through their cycle; no insects are visible, though something must be creeping  through the body.  Every time I stop here, I wonder how and why  this animal  died.   Anything could have happened, but the dominant reason folks kill these animals—if, in fact, he was killed—can usually be summed up in this word: competition.

 A week ago, winds  blowing up out of the canyon carried the scent of  the coyote’s chemical crush into the earth.   Today, cliffrose pollen lightly perfumes  breezes  swirling past.

Cliffrose bushes growing along the trail  into Crossfire and  scattered along its rim are approaching  anthesis—their peak of efflorescence.    This time of year, the desert  wind  goes  swaybacked  carrying its heaviest loads of  flower fragrance.    Nights have been awash with cliffrose musk, that grainy silver light the moon sheds, and loosely-jointed notes of mockingbird song.  

A few days ago when I was out here with my two ambulatory kids the wind raised redolent breakers  of cliffrose pollen that splashed  over our olfactory senses.    

Daughter: It smells like those three-color candy canes out here.
Me: That’s interesting.   I was just thinking how the desert smells candied.
Son: Just be glad we’re not living in the late Cretaceous Period.
Daughter: Yeah.   That’s when many plants smelled like rotten meat.
Me: Really?   Huh!
Daughter: Some plants still have that rotten meat odor.   Like carrion flower and skunk cabbage.

My son explained later that some scientists believe that when plants first began developing flowers they scented them like decomposing  flesh to attract potential pollinators who  were not yet pollinators, insects and animals that had evolved knowing  nothing but decay.

Lately, Crossfire’s canyon bottom has smelled of cows and their calves.   I catch wind of them as I descend the last fifty or so feet into the stand of ancient cottonwoods  that have begun dropping heavy limbs  almost every  storm.    The herd has been keeping to the better-watered sections of the canyon, clinging to the pools behind the beaver dams.     This happens to be the same section I travel on my walks.   Unlike the cow-less canyon rim, where flowers bloom untrodden, uneaten, and freely fragrant, here waft the ammonia and  manure  odors of cow urine and feces.   Fewer flowers bloom on this ground; either they’ve been eaten or, as I’ve seen before,  they’ve been trampled before  they could go  to seed.    Cows’  hooves, bearing their 1000-1300 pounds of weight, churn up the ground, breaking it away in chunks along stream and arroyo banks.    Walking  beside the stream, I discover cows have been using one of the beaver dams as a bridge, grinding it into the creekbed.  

Looking  into the water below the dam I see tadpoles lying at the bottom of the creek.   Occasionally one stirs from place  and shimmies to a new  spot in the current.

About a week ago I came into the canyon only to be met by  at every turn by the  herd of black Angus  (or maybe  Angus-cross) cows and calves.   They’d spread themselves out along both sides of the creek and  were drowsing  in the heavier shade  falling across  the trail.     The trail itself was a mess.  I tried to avoid the bovines, but everywhere I walked I either rousted cows or they rousted me.    Their acrid odor hung thick around them.   That day, I saw a  fair number of spring wildflowers blooming in the canyon.   Now, splashes of color from purple broadleafed penstemon and scarlet desert trumpet  are  greatly reduced.   Only the cacti thrive, having cleared  safety zones around their succulent pulp  with their pointed and hooked spines: clarets cup, hedgehog cacti, prickly pear, fishhook.   Their flowers  proceed unmolested in  efflorescence.

Two weekends ago the ambulatories and I hiked Kane Gulch.   That was a beautiful canyon, I intend to go back, but cattle had trodden heavily there.     Their waste showed that at the very least they likely  had giardiasis, a highly contagious disease caused by  a  microscopic  parasite of the Giardia genus, usually  Giardia lamblia,  common to the region.    Over the last twenty years, giardia has become a prominent    cause of waterborn illness, infecting animals  such as beavers and  many domestic animals  as well as humans.    Symptoms of the disease include flatulence, nausea, stomach  or abdominal cramps,  and severe diarrhea.   Rapid weight loss often occurs as a result of a giardia infection.

Kane Gulch  was the worst-smelling trail I’ve ever hiked.   The air was bitter and weighted with the odor of disease—another  kind of rotten-meat odor.   Rather than cow pies, sickly manure plastered the dirt of the trail.   The Crossfire cows seem healthier, but in the last four years I’ve been hiking that cayon  I don’t think I’ve seen  the ground  in greater disarray, even when ATVers roared up and down the trail.

As I stand on the bank of  the stream  studying a beaver pond, I hear a sound  and look up to catch sight of black  hulks moving through the p-j forest on the opposite side of the creek—cows,  lumbering, I think, more deliberately than usual.    When cows walk through the desert, they walk  with  a grumble, stamping the ground heavily.   They are the picture of  awkwardness, moving  along with the  heavy crackle  of brush, the clomp-clomp  of their footsteps, and the clack of dislodged stones.  As I watch them, my ears pick up an un-cowlike sound, a sharp metallic clatter  over stone.    Looking upstream  I see a young man wearing a baseball cap riding  his horse down a stony knoll, cattle-driving.   Does this mean the cows are leaving Crossfire, at least for the time being?

Well, I’ve done a little cattle-driving.   Back in my BYU days, one of my roomates  hailed from the Malad Valley of Idaho.    Whenever it worked out,  I went home with her  for the  holidays.   While there, we helped out the family with ranch chores.   Once, her father asked us to move a herd of cattle to a fresh pasture, so we mounted up, my friend riding an experienced cutting horse, me riding a mare with a new black foal.   The foal felt afraid of me, panicking somewhat  over my interest in  his mother,  but once I was on  his dam’s back  he pressed up against my leg as I rode, thinking me part of her.    The three of us plus my friend and her horse rode into the pasture, opened up the gate to the intended fresh-grass goal,  then carefully worked the herd  into that corner of the  grazed-down field.   Just as we were about to drive the  cows and calves  through the gate, that shy little foal got a notion into  his head.    He ran into the middle of the herd of  cows and  bucked madly, scattering them.    My friend and I  laughed in surprise and started all over again.

Another time, we  took a  small herd up into  a nearby canyon.   This  one had a bull with it.   With dogs  helping, we moved the cattle across the fields, me feeling slightly intimidated by the bull, behind whose  ponderous rear end I rode.    

The buckskin gelding  I rode wasn’t intimidated.   Periodically, it extended its neck and bit the bull on the rump.   The bull  skittered forward.   Meanwhile, the dogs milled  around the herd, nipping at heels and biting legs, generally lording it over the cattle.    From time to time, the  dogs turned to look anxiously into their masters’ faces, watching for cues, listening for praise.   They respected the horses because people rode them.    In this community of life, a  clear hierarchy emerged  to my view, one  where cattle occupied the  bottom rung and the ranchers the top.   Even that little foal had seemed to understand that  small and new as it was it  stood a little higher than the cattle.

While  this  barnyard caste system  is in some ways inherent in the ancient history and natures of these animals, each  of which have competed against the others  over millenia for territory, food, and continuation of life,  I think  it wouldn’t exist  to this degree, with cattle  suffering  as they do the  arrogance of other animals’ supremacy,  if human beings hadn’t through    intention and choice brought these creatures together in  such tightly controlled social stratification.                  

Right now, my concern is to stay out of the young man’s way, so I  move out of  his range of activity  and minimize my presence.   We pass each other without a word, he on one side of the creek up in the p-j, I on the other.   I have no wish to holler across to him, and he makes no inquiry about my being there.   Like hikers and ATV riders, hikers and cattlemen have few words for each other.   Had I been on his side of the creek, I’d have spoken, but trying to make myself understood in an echoing shout?   Silence seemed the better option.

As I walk further north, however, I hear him whooping at the cattle: “Hey-yey, hey-yey, hey-yey, hey-yey, hey-yey, hep, hep, hep!”   Echoes fly loose, multiplying his notes and  occasional sharp whistles.   I backtrack to listen more  closely.      The canyon fills with this one voice, brims with it.   Its masculine  quality stands out clearly, distinguishable in echoes.    In spite of its abrasion of the birdsong and overall quiet, I think, “That’s a beautiful and interesting noise.”   It reminds me of a male coyote’s call, which I’ve heard, a long wolf-like sound that  halves the  silence.

But having already begun over the last few years questioning my reasons for eating meat, recent experiences have cinched it: my days of eating beef are more or less over.   Ecologically, aesthetically, teleologically, the raising of  cattle for human  food is a disaster.    If I came across such messiness in language, my mind would reject it in distaste.   As I  leave the canyon, stepping over cow pies, picking my way  over  rough-up ground, I think: There’s nothing here for me anymore.

20 thoughts on “Field Notes #5”

  1. I like the connection implied between the decomposing coyote and the arroyo-deconstructing cattle.

    Good on the foal. Unrestrained bucking is sometimes in order.

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  2. A bit rambling, but that’s the way field notes should be if they’re really real… And I thought this was real. I liked it. Thanks.

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  3. For the last few couple years I have rarely bought beef. I have cut the size of our meals, too, and am amazed when I think back on how much meat I used to cook for the family. Between financial considerations and growing concern for both my own well being and that of the world around me, I have cut meat altogether from my lunch meal. I have very little at breakfast, if I have any at all. And when I have it at supper, I just go ahead and enjoy it.

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  4. Lora,

    Sounds like a good practice. I have my own, it changes as my thinking changes.

    Today when I went down into the canyon: no cows. The birds, however, were all lit up with song. Sounded like a jungle down there.

    And the coyote: Something disarticulated him between the 21st and today.

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  5. Patricia,

    I read your notes while grinning a wide grin and munchin down my cheeseburger. No guilty feelings associated with living in the world. Neither do I begrudge vegans or vegetarians their chosen habits– as long as they don’t interfere with my active trade at the local Burger World, or wherever.

    You know my sentiments when it comes to disposition toward those involved in animal husandry. They are involved in an honorable trade, and deserve our respect, just as much as those who use the other resources God created for that purpose.

    I have my own stories about nature and biological processes. We are all part of the cycle, wittingly or not. Might as well be gracefully assimilated as row against the tide.

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  6. Patrcia,

    For the sake of those not familiar, let me state my peaceful intentions. I hope to get along with everyone, but I reserve the right to keep my own opinion, and maintain an open mind.

    When I was in high school, I was became an active Sierra Club advocate, but I have since learned many valuable lessons about the laws of nature, and am closer now to the school of “Wise Use” policy, though not strong enough to be very vociferous about it most of the time. Most of us in this discipline tend to be rather circumspect, and prefer to let others argue for us.

    When the shouting is over, life will continue pretty much unchanged as it has for millenia. That is the part of the story that is boldly underscored, to me. I can either fight it, or fit in with things. I believe my choice is to be more of the integral part.

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  7. Hi, Jim!

    It’s wonderful to see you looking so well! I swing by Snail Hollow a couple times a day and have been thrilled to see you managing so beautifully after the laws of nature took such a toll on you. Also, I recall most fondly breaking rice with you at the Chinese restaurant. I hope we can do something like that again.

    FYI, I made hamburgers for my husband and kids yesterday because they wanted them. I don’t begrudge anybody their choices and feel that where improving being-in-the-world is concerned, my stewardship concerns are best focused on my own behavior. Nor am I a vegetarian (at least, not yet). I am not arguing a vegetarian lifestyle but showing some of my reasons for not eating beef anymore. My reasons. For why I no longer can eat beef. And I was in a mood when I wrote this post—a rather gritty mood.

    These aren’t all the reasons I can’t eat beef now, and some that I have said are buried in the post, understated.

    You will not find my name on either the SUWA or the Sierra Club roll or the roster of any of the activist organizations, nor will you ever. You will not hear my voice among those raising a din.

    But where wise use is concerned, for me, not eating beef has become a wiser use of the earth. This isn’t to say that if I were lost in the desert, starving, and the SAR bunch found me and offered me a hamburger, I’d say, “Sorry, I don’t eat beef. Got mac and cheese?” I’d say, “Gimme that!”

    After cooking hamburgers yesterday—which are all gone now—for the first time since reaching this place in my heart, my mind could not even approach the idea of eating them. That part of my appetite has switched off.

    You go right ahead and enjoy your cheeseburgers, Jim.

    I know you will.

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  8. Jim,

    God here. Be careful when you speak about why I create various €œresources €. I’d hate to have to smite that burger-eating grin off your face.

    Verily,

    God

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  9. Hey, God!

    Welcome to WIZ. Your point regarding folks making assumptions about why you created various “resources” is an interesting one. Would you care to shed some light? I mean, more than you did in The Beginning.

    And don’t go too hard on Jim. Line upon line, right?

    Lovingly,

    pk

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  10. Dear Lord,

    In all humility, I receive what thou hast decreed. Verily, I did not invent the Big Mac or the Triple Whopper, but they are to me as quail in the wilderness to the children of Israel, after the fleshpots of Egypt. I am afraid I would grow weary of manna too, alas. Forgive me my weakness.

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  11. While we’re awaiting divine guidance:

    May 30th 2009

    Taking Coyote Way into Crossfire, I find the trail’s Canis latrans guardian much reduced in stature, little more than a pelt heaped on the ground. I fear he isn’t much longer with us.

    Following an evening of thunderstorms that mostly missed but covered the ground in heavy cloud shadow and scooped out the heat with their winds, the morning is cool, quite pleasant for walking. I find the canyon alive and a-twitter with birdsong: towhees, scrub jays, mourning doves, canyon wrens, magpies. The cottonwoods approach full leaf, setting fluff adrift on a canyon breeze; acorns form on oaks. I am a little surprised to find the princess plume blooming already, along with a host of other yellow flowers, many kinds, plants I don’t know. The cliffrose had bloomed out here, though I’ve seen in other places how it’s just coming on.

    The cows are gone and the canyon goes about the business of cleaning up after them. When I reach canyon bottom, I stop to inspect the beaver dam the cattle crushed. The beavers have made no effort to repair the dam, which makes me wonder: Why haven’t they?

    On the bank of the pond behind the damaged dam, a wisp of a sunning garter snake glides into the water to avoid me. This snake was here last time, sunning itself in the same spot. Then, it swam in the water, looking in its grace like a stitch of current flowing across itself. Sea serpent. It surfaced a moment to see if I were still there. I was, so it ducked into the pond’s depths and flowed to the opposite bank.

    This a.m., clearly, it doesn’t want to swim into the pond. The water’s too cool yet, perhaps. Instead, it threads through the grassy border between the water and land, checking frequently to see if I’m in pursuit. I sort of am, following it along the pond’s edge. But watching, I see that the poor, possibly chilled snake wants to slide back onto the shore. Minnows and small sunfish hovering beneath a branch in the water panic at its passage.

    I decide to follow the trail south a little further than I usually do. The shade is near mature and delicious, the pleasure of its coolness reminding me of fruit picked in the morning. I find a rock with a fossil embedded—a four-inch bone fragment or perhaps a piece of petrified wood. I drop it back on the ground.

    The air is fragrant from the tamarisk bloom. As I follow Crossfire Creek, I roust a mule deer buck, his developing antlers in heavy velvet. He bounds off down the trail, body tight with intent. Distance between his tracks: approximately twenty feet.

    I haven’t brought much water with me today, so I turn back before I get too far. I come across another garter snake on the trail, one that could be sibling to the water dragon I saw earlier. It, too, slips into the stream at my approach.

    There’s a bloom of blue damselflies and tan damselflies over the ground. Frequently, I stir them with my steps. They dart away or chase each other at a height of just a few inches off the ground, looking for mates.

    This morning, as the water in the ponds warms, I see something of how the sunfish population has changed, thanks to the beavers. Sunfish—probably bluegills or pumpkinseeds—hover just below the water’s surface, basking in the rising heat. Some look to be approaching four inches in length. In one corner of a pond, approximately a dozen fish crowd the shallows, either spawning or competing for the warmest spot.

    Fishhook cacti are blooming, and a few prickly pears. The claret cups are mostly finished. Englemann’s hedgehog cacti continue to flower.

    I see no evidence in any of the ponds that the beavers are active—no green-leaved branches floating on the surfaces of pools, no new dam work. Has something happened to the beavers?

    A breeze following the creek flips the leaves of a young cottonwood sapling. The stream’s flow is much diminished—heavy irrigation in the alfalfa fields, plus the higher temperatures. Yet a modest trickle of music plays down through the rocks.

    As I head out of the canyon, I stop at the spring to pluck a mint leaf from plants just emerging. Crushing it, I breathe its scent in deeply, drawing its menthol into my lungs, where I feel a flush of pleasure bristle in my chest.

    Hope the beavers are all right.

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  12. Patricia,

    The beaver dam tale reminds me of an episode with Rocky Mountaln Research. We were trekking into an area with a largish old beaver dam, and just as I asserted confidently that the critters had long since abandoned that structure, a beaver popped up near the lodge house and paddled over to the dam. Wasn’t the first time my foot ended up in my mouth, but certainly that beaver made me feel like a fool. He couldn’t have timed it any better.

    I concluded that beavers have a very acute sense of hearing.

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  13. I concluded that beavers have a very acute sense of hearing.

    Or maybe an acute sense of irony.

    I am amazed by how quickly the beavers changed the canyon, once they moved in. So many plants and animals have benefitted from their being there. They are stunning water gardeners.

    Aside from people, whose own structures and interests beavers sometimes undermine with their engineering prowess, are there any creatures who don’t benefit from their presence?

    It’s early in the season, yet. Maybe, after an early burst of energy back in March (I think it was), the Crossfire beavers went back to bed for a bit.

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  14. Patricia,

    The aphorism rings true– beavers really are busy! When I was commuting to Park City for a time, beavers built a dam across a culvert and flooded the highway. DWR guys had to capture the beavers and relocate them. They also put dynamite to the beaver dam flooding the highway.

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  15. Aside from people, whose own structures and interests beavers sometimes undermine with their engineering prowess, are there any creatures who don’t benefit from their presence?

    I’d venture the ants and packrats and cacti and sage brush that started in hot/dry and now find themselves in soaked/cool probably would vote against the zoning change that authorized the development sprawl.

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  16. greenfrog,

    Ants and packrats? Maybe they’ll hold a few angry neighborhood meetings—especially the ant people. They’re like bees, without the honey but with a swarming spirit as easily triggered. But I would guess that ants and packrats both would eventually find ways to reap the benefits.

    Cacti and sage? You mean, just because they’ve got roots? Probably, they’ve made provisions. Plants are a highly migratory lifeform. Just ask the junipers. They came up from points south as far away as Mexico when this region became seasoned to their liking.

    Everything is smarter than we think it is.

    You … do speak Juniperese, don’t you?

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  17. I just realized the other day that there is one special occasion for beef usage in our family, and I stick with it: it’s when we’re on a long car trip and the noise level in the back seat has risen almost beyond the teeth grinding of patience. I throw a bag of jerky in the back seat and all the growly little cubs settle in to chewy, filling silence. Lots of foods do some of the trick, but jerky does all of the trick.
    I liked what you said about plants being migratory. I’ve been rolling that around in my head for a couple weeks. I want to share something that happened recently. The other day my younger daughter brought up a topic that continues to fascinate her: Virginia creeper. I was telling her (hopefully factually) about how the plant tends to strangle the tree it is growing on, and when it kills the tree it moves on to another. It was a strange sense of echo when saying that brought to mind your saying of migratory plants. It also served another purpose I didn’t intend when I started answering her questions: the whole story turned into a morality tale of a certain little girl whose name begins with a ‘V’ who is having a great deal of trouble growing up, or even wanting to. It’s not entirely her fault, we loved having a baby of the family once we knew there would be no others. She has played the role to her best effort, which I hope she applies to all endeavors of life. But in the meantime, the story of strangling the tree that supports the creeper sunk into her as a moral tale before I even realized what was going on. Whenever she looks out the door she sees the creeper and I certainly hope she is absorbing the ‘right’ lesson from our talks. I know that we Mormons often feel obligated to weave one of those morals into every story, but this one seemed to weave itself. Now that I see more of what’s going on in her head, I am trying to remain vigilant. If this stuff is going to be happening, I want to be there as a guide.
    This tale of the vine actually dovetails with one of the girls’ favorite lullabies when they were young. It goes something like this (in part):

    “Cuddle up a little closer, lovey mine.
    Cuddle up and be my little clinging vine…”

    Maybe we can have our vine and breathe out, too.

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  18. Lora,

    Very interesting story. Reminds me of some of Richard Louv’s message in Last Child in the Woods, his assertions about why kids need nature. There’s a reason that so many cultures use—or used in the past—folktales to instruct their young, and why so many folktales have roots in nature. Children begin writing the “story of their lives” pretty early, developing narrative cohesion for events and intention, and nature has a natural (no pun intended—well, ok—it was intended a little) attraction for kids and provides their minds with material. It sure did (still does) for me. Even now, folktales where animals are the main movers and shakers will draw my eye more quickly than clever tales where the trickster, for instance, is human.

    Bugs Bunny always fascinated me for that reason, especially the “Bugs Bunny kiss”—his “gotta love this guy” signature farewell where he lays a big smacker right on the mouth of the dupe he’s outdone. I ought to write something about how nature often lays one right on you—that big, bewildering kiss of surprise some dismaying or “boy was I wrong about that” moment gives when nature opens your eyes to a new level of meaning. You can—anyway, I can—nearly feel it physically. That moment when the windows of irony open and you get a dazzling glimpse out of your own construction into the wider world of what’s really going on.

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