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.