It’s quiet around the house, everyone is tired. Well, the cat and dog are always asleep, but the bipeds are usually long gone by this time of day. Our little postage stamp of green in front of the house needs a bit of owner attention. It looks brown and patchy and some of the long stalks are sporting seed heads.
‘The Plan’ is to get rid of most of it and put a small desert wash out there with some Larrea, Erioginum, Artimesia, and annuals out there, leaving a patch of bunch grass up near the house [probably Buffalo Grass (Buchole dactyloidies)] for cooling and for the dog to use. He’s allergic to the grass we have in there now and its painful to watch him walk out on the grass to do what he has to do. I always imagine him saying "ouch, ouch, ugh, ow, ooh, ouch" as he gingerly makes his way to his preferred spot. He’s an old Welsh Corgi, he’s arthritic and often very uncomfortable. He gets more medical attention than Audrey and I do combined. I’m allergic to that grass for that matter, I’d like to see it gone.
I mentioned the Desert Demonstration Gardens at the Water District where I work. It’s a beautiful place with its primary mission to show that xeriscape doesn’t mean dumping a load of pink gravel on your front yard and spreading it to your property line. Anyway, they have an incredible assortment of what you can do to make a beautiful space while keeping what I like to call the ‘desert ethic’. There are several small plots of sod there, all lined up with gages that keep track of how much water the sod uses, the temperature at the surface, how much transpiration is taking place so you can tell if the sod will aggravate the humidity in your micro-climate. I spent a long time laying on those various sod patches to see which ones bothered me. I mean, what good is a lawn if you can’t lay on it and look at clouds, wrestle with the dog or kids on it, or walk barefoot in the gray desert pre-dawn coolness?
I was completely comfortable with the Buffalo Grass, I could lie on it face down inhaling the earthy aroma of loam and humus. I hadn’t smelled that for thirty years. I didn’t even get all the way down on the Bermuda and Fescue varieties. My palms and knees were already itching in the very small amount of time it takes to kneel, then lay down. They want a lot of water too, unlike the Buffalo Grass.
I like the idea of having a little patch of desert wash, even if its a trifle contrived in this cul-de-sac existence. There is great peace in the desert, a calmness unlike the manicured lawns I drive past to get home. There seems to be an overwhelming collective denial of being in the desert that permeates the town. It’s as though no one really wants to admit that they live here now instead of where ever they came from.
That shows up in strange ways, like few parks, no place for kids to play except the subdivision streets, no place to ride the bikes their parents or grandparents have bought for them. No place to be a kid. I didn’t wander through desert washes when I was growing up. The woods were a five minute bike ride from where I grew up. Heck, you could ride your bike for ten minutes in any direction from the center of town and be out of town. It was plains uplands one direction, but the woods were to the south which is where I usually went. If you kept going you’d come to the Marias des Cygnes river. I’m not sure if the French ever saw swans there though. I’ve seen Snowy Egrets down there in the spring, along with Greater and Lesser Herons, Sandhill Cranes, and lots and lots of ducks, Coots, Mergansers, Canvasbacks, geese, and once, 14 Whoopers.
The Whooping Cranes were a big deal for the ten days or so they were there. This was in the dead of the dark night of the extinction watch they were under during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Topeka TV and newspaper from the far off (40 miles away) state capital noted their presence, but our science teacher Miss Rioth (now Davies and a Ph.D. chemist at the University of Kansas) had told us they were there a couple of days before. It was like glimpsing something much, much larger than yourself, seeing these birds and knowing that they were teetering on the brink of extinction and that folks from Texas to the Arctic Circle were working to save them. They seemed pretty oblivious, though we had been cautioned not to disturb them so we didn’t. But if the canoe happened to drift through the cat-tails to within 30 yards or so of them, we’d let it. We’d just stay real still and not even whisper when we were that close, just watching. ‘Just passing by folks, no need for alarm, we’ll just drift on past in a bit. You all just go ahead and keep eating whatever it is you’re eating. Nothing to be concerned about here.’
Later, when we were long past them this verbal torrent would come out of us. ‘Did you see when that one ate that little root thing? Did you see when that one rubbed its wing with its beak? Did you see when that one told the other one this is my spot, you find your own spot? Did you see when that one put its head underwater and came up with that gnarly thing and ate it? Did you see when that one looked straight at us and then went back to what it was doing?’ Yeah, I saw. I saw it all. I still do.
The previous winter was unusually cold and unusually long. An Arctic Owl was spotted about 10 miles northeast of town after it apparently came down with the cold front. This was along the edge of the woods along the creek before you get to the old Culver place, about two miles past where my Grandparents lived. Those were neat woods, there were Bobcats up there too. But that’s another story.
I suppose I never even had a chance to be anything but a scientist. I suspect that the self-selection starts very young, with what intrigues you and what you like to do. I remember (probably with advantages) being interested in stuff that came from scientists. Dinosaurs, planets, the Space Program, wildlife, rocks, arrowheads, what happens to Mr. Schrödinger’s cat when we look in that box. No, I don’t think I ever had a chance to be anything else. I’m glad to be where I am.
I gotta go mow that lawn.