Desertwalk Chapter Excerpts

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Ravenswood

Bird Ballet

A white crane in pond watercolor by autor Audrey Schumacher Moe.

...After a leisurely walk down a sand-paved wash and over wind-driven dunes covered with creosote bushes, I arrive home hungry and ready for breakfast. With the morning sun laying its soothing warmth across my shoulders, I settle down in the grape arbor to eat my bowl of oatmeal and read the paper.

 

Without warning, a loud ruckus erupts in the tall eucalyptus trees framing the north side of my backyard. The caws and shrieks remind me of the noise from a flock of wild parrots that frequented the beach area of my old neighborhood. There can't be wild parrots here in the desert, I think, as I leave my bowl of cereal and get up to investigate the raucous screeching.

 

Standing in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, I can make out a shape, like a football on end, balanced high in the upper branches of a huge old mesquite tree on the edge of the eucalyptus grove. I go into the house for my binoculars and train them on the mysterious lump in the tree. A black hooked beak, devilish-looking tufts resembling ears and two big, round, yellow-ringed eyes stare back at me. It's a Great Horned Owl ...

 

 

Owls & Hecklers

An olw in watercolors of tan white, yellow, and black by autor Audrey Schumacher Moe.
An Raven in flight in watercolors of black, grey and blue by autor Audrey Schumacher Moe.

 

...On the southeast shore of the swimming lake a tamarisk grove rises out of a large sand dune. Whether the dune came first or the tamarisk trees, I can't be sure, but I do know the dune builds constantly. By the time the original fast-growing saplings acquired thick trunks and massive branches, so heavy they cracked and fell to the ground with the help of a strong wind, they were growing out of a massive dune. Now huge fallen tree trunks, at least four feet in diameter, line the edges of the mound, and new growth from each trunk shoots straight upward forming side walls of foliage. Leafy tree tops bend inward and roof over the open center area obscuring it from view.

 

A gentle breeze fans through thin, elongated leaves hanging like curtains, and a thick carpet of dried needles feels soft and spongy beneath my feet. It soaks up sound, blocking out the world beyond. This inner clearing is always cool so that, on the hottest day, I can walk through an opening in the branches and emerge into a shady green-scented glen...

 

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Nature's Drugstore

 

Gypsum Weed in white green watercolor by autor Audrey Schumacher Moe.

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Painted Ladies

A Monarch Butter fly in Orange black, tan watercolor by autor Audrey Schumacher Moe.

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...Small winged insects fly at my car, splash against the windshield, and hurl across the road in crazy patterns. The air is thick with flying bugs and I feel as if I'm driving through a storm of black snow. The air stream created by the car's movement carries some of their nearly weightless bodies around and over the hood of the car. What is this swarm of bugs? I think.

 

I have heard about locusts and grasshoppers and cicadas appearing in huge numbers, but I'm not aware of any unusual infestation of insects in the area, so what is going on? Just then a ray of reflected sunshine crosses my view like a spot light and illuminates a sea of orange and black wings. Then I remember reading in the morning newspaper the Painted Lady Butterflies have arrived.

 

The next morning, as I take my walk along the curving shoreline of a small man-made lake, a tree on the south shore has a strange look about it. From a distance I can't discern anything specific, just that it looks different.

 

I continue on through knee-high grass growing lush along the water's edge until I reach the tree. It is a carob in full bloom and covered with Painted Lady butterflies flitting, perching and milling around. They hang en masse on the sweet-scented blossoms like living ornaments on a Christmas tree. Two very happy roadrunners scurry around its trunk grabbing butterflies out of the air and snatching up any on the ground...

 

 

...I climb halfway up on my stepladder to reach the highest growth as I begin clipping and coaxing sweet-smelling honeysuckle tendrils into a more aesthetic form. Sounds of a fracas taking place over near the spa catch my attention. From a corner of my eye, as I peer through a jungle of leaves and vines, I see Karnac, the outside cat, racing across the lawn, obviously after something. I drop my pruning shears, jump down off the ladder and run after the cat just in time to see her heading proudly towards the house carrying a baby bunny in her jaws.

 

I hurry after her, calling her name to get her attention and hopefully to slow her pace. She pauses slightly, which is just enough for me to gently grab her around her sleek, slender middle. As I pick her up, she drops the bunny. I hustle her inside the house, out of the way, while petting her and crooning soothingly, “Nice kitty, nice kitty, I know you can’t help chasing baby bunnies. They are such easy prey. Nice kitty.” I hopes she understands I am not punishing her for something instinctive in her nature.

 

Back outside, the bunny is desperately trying to escape to a safe place by dragging its frail little body along with its front paws, its limp, immobile hind legs leaving parallel tracks in the sand. I grab a heavy garden glove, thinking I will use it to pick up the little creature and carry it to a safe spot in the bushes to rest and maybe recover. But its wild survival instincts are set on full power and with the use of only its front legs, the bunny propels its broken body over the yard so fast I can't catch it. When it reaches a small dirt niche on the edge of the rock garden, it snuggles up to the rocks and lies there, its heart pounding so hard I can see its body pulse with each rapid beat...

 

 

Mushroom Mystery

...Ahead of me, on a stretch of flat gravel, a strange moon-like landscape stops me short. Little growths I don't recognize poke up from the sand and I think, Are those mushrooms or is the glare of the sun distorting my vision?

 

I've walked this area for over four years and never before seen anything like these curious objects that look like rolled up wads of tissue paper on stems. I count nineteen of the shaggy ghost-like plants. Some are about three inches high, others as tall as eight. Mushrooms in the dry desert? I always thought they only grew in moist places. This is a new mystery.

 

I kneel in the sand to examine the bizarre-looking white shoots and pull one out of the ground to examine more closely. It has the same elongated shape as the caramel-colored, highly-prized morels we used to pick in the Minnesota woods...

 

...Anyone driving east on Interstate 10 follows an historic trail through the pass between Mt. San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa Range on the south and towering Mt. San Gorgonio on the north, a part of the San Bernardino Mountain chain. In between lies the great Coachella Valley desert, known as the Sonoran or Colorado Desert, which blankets the southwest corner of California and extends into New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.

 

We who live in the Coachella Valley and look up at the peaks and mountain ranges surrounding us often take the beauty and majesty of our valley for granted. When I am out walking my favorite desert paths in the early morning, I never cease to marvel at the shifting moods of the mountains.

 

Towering over the valley, purple shadows fade as the sun rises, pink ice cream topped-peaks blend into hazy shapes as the first rays of dawn cast their glow across the landscape. A sprinkling of snow in winter on the highest peaks grows to a whipped cream swirl that lasts until late spring. Clouds drift across steep slopes and sometimes obscure most of the mountain...

 

On Shaken Ground

Owl feather in tans watercolor by author Audrey Schumacher Moe.

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Painted Ladies

Innocent Predator

Mushroom Mystery

On Shaken Ground

... For the past week, thunder echoed over the surrounding mountains, while big white puffy clouds tinged with gunmetal gray threatened rain. One day drops of water actually fell out of the sky for all of ten minutes, but most afternoons, only a few drops squeezed out of stormy clouds to barely wet the ground.

 

Since I missed my morning walk, an afternoon swim seems like a good way to cool off while providing some exercise as well. It doesn't take long to shed my sweaty clothes and pull on a swimsuit. Grabbing a towel and a cold bottle of water, I head outside to the golf cart, my transportation around the ranch. After driving the electric vehicle lickety-split down the driveway bouncing over pot holes and rough spots in the gravel road, I park near the swimming lake behind a stand of Texas ranger bushes in full purple bloom. Their tiny, gray-green leaves remain on the plant for most of the year but are stiff and brittle, an adaptation to avoid sun damage, and whenever the humidity is high, the bushes burst forth with brilliant deep lavender flowers...

 

 

Ravenswood

...It seems appropriate that the creosote bush should smell like a drugstore since it has long been a source of herbal remedies. Sometimes called the “Indian Medicine Chest,” native people used parts of the plant as antiseptics and to heal wounds. A tea made from the leaves was taken to aid in curing an upset stomach, colds, tuberculosis and even venereal disease. Bathing in the tea was thought to ease rheumatism.

 

Just recently, a botanist friend of mine advised me to make a paste of the leaves to apply on scratches and small cuts. “No other medication is needed and it hastens the healing,” she said. I have yet to try it because I tend to ignore small abrasions regularly inflicted on my arms and legs from reaching into prickly bushes and walking through desert brush.

 

The creosote plant was so useful medicinally, it was recognized and listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1842 through 1942 as an expectorant and pulmonary antiseptic. Considering the many uses for remedies in the past, researchers are currently studying creosote to see if it has potential for curing cancer...

 

 

Innocent Predator

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