Here to return to
SHY LIFE IN THE DESERT
AFTER the desert and the mountains, and some of the longer-desired birds, I have enjoyed few sights in Arizona more than that of two coyotes. Old beaters about the wilds of this Western country will be ready to scoff, I dare say, at so simple a confession. “Two coyotes, indeed! A great sight, that!” So I think I hear them saying. Well, they are welcome to their fun. It is kindly ordered, the world being mostly a dull place, that men shall be mutually amusing, and there is no great harm in being laughed at, provided it be done behind one’s back.
The fact remains, then, as I state it. To me the coyotes were very interesting and unexpected beasts. And the pleasure of my encounter with them was heightened materially (this, too, is a laughable admission; I know it as well as anybody), when I learned that hereabouts, whatever may be true elsewhere, it was to be esteemed a piece of rather extraordinary luck, unlikely to be soon repeated. To all men of science, though they be nothing but amateurs and dabsters, rarity is one of the cardinal virtues of a specimen.
My good fortune, be it accounted greater or less, came about in this way.
Six or seven miles across the desert, where the plain comes to an end at the buried Rillito River, and the foothills of the Catalinas begin to rise from the opposite bank, are the adobe ruins (hospital, barracks, and what not) of Old Camp Lowell, a relic of the Apache wars. I had heard of the place (in fact, I had been happy enough to meet a young man who is camping there with his brother), and started early one morning to visit it.
Perhaps it was because of the earliness of the hour, though the sun was well above the horizon; at any rate, I had gone but a short distance before my steps were arrested by the sight of a gray, long-legged, wolfish-looking animal not far ahead. He had seen me first, I think (strange if he had not, so alert as every motion showed him to be), and was already considering his course of action, starting away, then stopping to look back. My glass covered him at once (he was easily within gunshot), and then, following a turn of his head, I saw that he had a companion. The second one had already crossed the trail, and the question between the two seemed to be whether he should come back or the other should follow him. The point was quickly decided; the second one recrossed the trail, and the two ran off among the creosote clumps on the left, and in a few seconds were lost; but the hesitation had given me time to note their color, size, build (especially their long, sharp, collie-shaped noses), and their general appearance and action, all very “doggy.”
This, as I have said, was but a little way beyond the university buildings, and, knowing no better, I assumed the occurrence to be a common one, and spoke of it in a matter-of-fact tone to the campers at the fort. They exclaimed at once that I had been surprisingly fortunate; they themselves, passing their days and nights in the desert, seldom or never saw one of the animals, though they often heard them barking after dark. The circumstantiality of my description, and it may be their politeness, — for they were gentlemen, “baching it” here for the older brother’s health, — made it impossible for them to suggest a doubt as to the identity of the animals; but I had no difficulty in perceiving that if I wished to pass as a man of veracity among ordinary dwellers hereabouts I must not see coyotes too frequently. In point of fact, the very next man to whom I mentioned the circumstance, a man who has lived here for several years, on the rim of the desert, answered promptly:
“They weren’t jack rabbits, were they?” He had never seen a coyote in Arizona, he said, though he had seen plenty in Colorado.
As for the big jack rabbits, if I have not seen “plenty” of them (and I cannot truthfully profess so much as that), I have seen a good many. One cannot walk far in the desert, with his eyes ranging, without discovering, to right or left or in advance, a pair of long ears, followed by a black tail, making quick time out of sight. Generally the creatures seem to run by fits and starts (“leaps and bounds and sudden stops “would express it), but the other morning a fellow had evidently been frightened almost out of his five senses by something — not by me — when a long way from home. There were no stops in his schedule. Straight across the desert he bounded, going like an express train — a mile a minute at the very least.
So lively as these large rabbits are (there is a smaller kind that I have not yet seen 1) they would be as interesting as the much larger coyotes but for their greater commonness. For grace and lightness, as well as speed, their gait is next to flying. All the words in the dictionary could not describe it. I never see one on the move without admiration and an impulse to give him three cheers. Surely, man is a slow coach, and a race-horse is clumsy.
To one who comes this way for the first time in winter, as I have come (and may Heaven save me from ever being here in summer, so long at least as I am in an embodied state!), the desert seems thinly inhabited. Of the scarcity of bird-life upon it I have before spoken; and the reason is obvious: there is little here for birds to feed upon. The smaller quadrupeds, too, are of surprising infrequency. Once in a long while a striped squirrel, as I should call it, with its tail over its back, will be seen squatting beside a hole in the ground, ready to slip into it long before you can get near; and somewhat oftener a gray, rat-tailed, big-eyed squirrel (if it is a squirrel — I have only half seen it) will dart across an open space, tail in air, barely visible before it, too, has ducked into its burrow; but two or three such small fry, with as many jack rabbits, in the course of a half-day tramp, do not go far toward constituting anything to be accounted populousness.
One morning I walked out upon the desert immediately after a snowfall. It would be a favorable time, I thought, to study zoological hieroglyphics; and I believe I walked a mile before I saw a single footprint. Think of doing that, or anything like it, in our poor, frost-bitten, winter-killed, over-civilized New England! The tracks would have been a perfect crisscross.
And, notwithstanding all this, footprints or no footprints, the desert is not without its own world of little people. It is a desert only to our dull, provincial, self-absorbed, sell-sufficient, narrow-minded, egotistical human apprehension of it. So much ought to be plain as day to the most undiscerning traveler; for if he so much as looks where he steps (lest a snake should bite him), he cannot help seeing that the ground all about is almost as full of holes as a colander. Larger and smaller, the earth is riddled with them. If the diggers of the holes happen to be just now within doors instead of gadding abroad like so many restless tourists, probably their conduct is not without a reason. Possibly they object to cold feet. More likely they have an eye to bodily safety. One thing you may wager upon, home-keepers though they be — the sharpness of their wits.
Whatever would live on this bare, open plain must be as wise as a serpent. The remainder of the text may be omitted as locally inapplicable. The desert-dweller — Deserticola, as we name him in zoological Latin — must know the times and the seasons, and catch the scent of danger afar off. You will find no trustful innocence in these diggings. If there ever was any, it long ago perished. Everything is shy, and has need to be. “Nature red in tooth and claw” has here its ancestral seat. He that cannot fight must run; and however it may be elsewhere, in the desert the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong. In one way or another everything goes armed. It may be set with thorns like the mesquite and the cactus, or it may have an offensive oil like the creosote; it may run like the rabbit, or strike like the rattlesnake. If it can do nothing else, it must hide. And even the strong and the speedy must hide when that which is stronger and speedier heaves in sight. The desert is open to the sky, but its life is not open. Like the currents of the rivers, the current of animal existence runs mostly underground.
A Tucson business man was telling me about the great antiquity of the town: the oldest settlement in the country, I think he called it, with the exception of St. Augustine, Florida.
“But how in the world came a city to grow up here?” I inquired. “I can see no sufficient reason.”
“Well,” said he, as if he could think of nothing else, “the river comes to the surface here, you know.”
He spoke of the Santa Cruz. And it is true. The river comes to the surface; the stretch of watered farms and the brimming irrigation ditches bear witness to the fact; but it does not stay there. I have frequent occasion to go over the four roads that cross it from the city. On the southernmost of these, where Mexican women are always to be seen washing clothes, spreading the garment over a stone and beating it clean with a stick (“mangling,” I should suppose the word ought to be), carriages drive through the stream, while foot-passengers cross by means of stepping-stones; six or eight boulders of the size of a man’s head, perhaps, picked up at random and laid in a row. The next road is furnished with a bridge, though it is hard to see why. The other two (they are all within the distance of a mile) have neither bridge nor stepping-stones, nor need of any. The river bottom, so called, though it is rather roof than bottom, is as dry as the Sahara.
So it is with the Rillito, and, I suppose, with all the rivers of the desert. They are shy creatures. They love not the garish day. Like the saints of old and the capitalists of our own time, they abhor publicity. Water, they think, shouldn’t be too much in sight. With the squirrel and the rabbit, they live mostly in burrows.
Of certain more highly specialized inhabitants of the desert — rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, tarantulas, and the like — a winter stroller can have little or nothing to relate. They are all here, no doubt, and will disport themselves in their season. No midsummer sun will be too hot for them. For myself, in three weeks’ wandering I have seen one lizard, nothing else. And it, too, was shy, legging it for shelter; running, literally, “like a streak.” That was really all that I saw — a streak of brown over the gray sand. I was neither a road-runner nor a hawk, and for that time the lizard was more scared than hurt.
If this shy life of the desert is happy, as I believe it is, after its manner and according to its measure, we can only admire once more the beneficent effect of use and custom. The safest of us are always in danger. Whether we tread the sands of the desert or the shaded paths of some Garden of Eden, our steps all tend to one end, the one event that happeneth alike to all; and if we, who look before and after, go on our way smiling, why not the humbler and presumably less sensitive people whose homes are under the roots of the creosote bushes?______________________
1 They are not to be found on the desert, I afterward learned, but along the watercourses. There I often saw them.