Butterflies in the Desert

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Anise swallowtail on Cima Dome, September 2007 | Photo: Chris Clarke

The rock is reassuring where it clasps my back. I have the twilight wind to strip my sweat, to soothe my skin in rippling shivers. Food I have, and drink: a cup of roasted rice green tea, a handful of crackers wrapped in seaweed.

Kessler Peak is a monolith to my east, illuminated by setting sun, the color of dried blood but paler. Blue sky deepens behind a landscape of yellow rabbitbrush incongruously blooming out of season, and the pallid smoky green of juniper and Joshua. Before I found this place, before I left the East's more verdant hues I dreamed these colors, saw them playing around the beveled panes of winter windows.

Solitude assaults me and compels me both.

I fight a wave of homesickness. In company I long for the desert's solitude, but when I get here I spend time missing those I love. If I loved no one, I think sometimes, I could love the world more for less distraction. And then I remind myself that I know myself better than to indulge in such ascetic fantasy. If I loved no one I would find someone to miss; someone I last saw a month ago, or seven months, or ten years.

I do have company. There is the crowd of smirking yuccas all around, and the ravens circling the Joshua tree forest, and the ghost haunting my camp a while ago, and the bright scared sparks enrobed in rabbit fur fleeing crazily into the brush as I approach them. A half dozen cottontails disappear from sight into the rabbitbrush but one returns, regards me warily. She is fat, a thick coat laid on, in fine shape to greet the winter six weeks from now. I sit on the ground a hundred feet from her, and she sits down as well, folds her long ears back against her nape. She settles in and watches the slanting sun with me. We are awash in orange rabbit light.

And then she runs off. The ghost is back again. He tugs at my peripheral vision, a faint imagined jingle of tags in my mind. I turn toward him involuntarily. He is not there.

The mountain turns a deeper red. The fall night feels familiar. The heat of summer has ebbed a bit. The long nights grow longer. The turning of the season seems a little late this year. Summer rain has coaxed a late, reluctant bloom out of the local shrubs, and the washes are dotted here and there with color more typical of spring; the bright orange of the desert globemallow, the Mojave sage's purple. In other words, the usual surprises. The Mojave's biodiversity is largely unexplored. Botanists find new species wherever they care to look. A fall bloom like this can reveal species hidden for decades, seeds in the soil biding their time as they wait for the right combination of temperature, rain, and day length.

A pair of Scott's orioles flies past, yellow-bellied birds with black heads and white wing bars, the female a bit less flashy than her consort. They're late too. Most years the last of them would have left the Mojave in August, headed for their tropical winter ranges. The wet fall must have meant a late hatch of caterpillars for them to eat. I wonder whether their sweet iambic singing will wake me tomorrow.

I have not been to the desert in eighteen months. A year ago this week I planned a visit. I tuned up the truck and organized my gear, made arrangements to spend some time away from my office. A few days before I planned to leave, as I walked my sweet dog Zeke down to the park on September 20, 2006, he collapsed in the street. His hind legs were too weak to hold him. I carried him back home, then to the vet. The vet spoke of inevitabilities. He was fifteen years old, almost sixteen, and the last two years had been an escalating battle with his decrepitude. He rallied, faded, and rallied again. From September through January I devoted myself wholly to his care. I quit my job, slept little, took him to the vet every two weeks, walked painstakingly slowly to the park each morning and carried him back up the hill. I folded myself in around him, feeling as though I was carrying water in my cupped hands, terrified at every drop that leaked through my fingers. In early February he died. I have been lost since.

But before that, that week last September, with his end no longer an abstract mystery, I thought of the dozens of times I'd left him behind to go to the desert, his face receding in the front window as I drove away, hearing his "Don't leave me here!" in my heart. I canceled the trip I'd planned. I promised Zeke that I'd left him behind for the last time, that I'd never leave him to go to the desert ever again.

I never did.

That contract still nags at me tonight, though I honored it to the letter and beyond. He is already seven months dead, and yet this weekend is the first time I found the will to drag myself to the Mojave. That patch of upturned soil in our back garden, now overrun with forget-me-nots, held me close at hand for months though I could barely look at it.

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But truth be told, the fear of solitude has shackled me even more securely. I have skated along the thin ice edge of my grief all these months, afraid to submit to it too fully. Eight hours alone in the truck to get here, and the prospect of three days here and another day spent driving back alone have me feeling vulnerable to whatever as-yet-undiscovered grieving demons I've kept tightly corked up within.

I have to distract myself. I get my camera from the truck, set it up on its tripod, unwind and untangle the long shutter cable. The night will be clear, the moon new, and I'll try some long exposure shots, capture the galaxy wheeling behind the silhouetted Joshua trees. I finish just as the light fades.

The sky is onyx, aside from a mean stripe of dusty red to the west. My world shrinks to the circle illuminated by my little light. The desert fades to black.

Six hours ago the desert drew me into it, across the Ivanpah Valley at Wee Thump. I carried no water, intending only a short stroll through the Joshua trees, but I felt pulled in against my better judgment, a leash tied at one end to my heart and at the other to a winch on the vanishing point. It became a dry eight-mile hike, and only a desperate act of will turned me around. That act of will brought me here to slouch among familiar rocks, beneath trees that I have watched grow for a decade, to wonder fruitlessly whether this longing I feel is for him, for home, or for the country beyond that far ridge. Perhaps it's some combination of the three.

The last bit of red light fades. A mile or so to the west a coyote sings. Another joins her, closer, louder than the first. And then a third behind me, louder still. There are few things I love more in this life than listening as coyotes sing. Their song is a knife to cut through the most leaden grief. It buoys me.

And yet, as usual, I think too much. My attention always drifts back inward. Sure, the desert taps me on the shoulder, offers coyote parties with rabbit chaperones to cheer me, and I emerge from my own depths. I draw in a chest full of dry air and my mind clears. But then that mind always sets to work again forging the chains that drag me to the bottom. Though maybe "weaving nets" is the better metaphor, more closely approximating the activity of this psyche both deficient in attention and hypervigilant, which to some might seem a contradiction. A strand from the real world right now entwines with a longing, or a regret, or a bit of freighted song lyric, and before long I am so entangled I cannot move.

A coyote's song is almost wholly unlike the wolf's clear deep-throated baritone. A coyote's song is more yip than howl, all "eye"s and "yi"s, coloratura soprano interwoven with staccato barks. Zeke's was wolfier. In timbre and in intonation and delivery his howl was exactly that of a wolf, from his overture of little whining whistles to the self-conscious flicker of eyebrows as he finished. Zeke never howled when he thought we might be there to listen. A few months before he died he woke from a long nap, thought himself alone, and howled so long and mournfully I thought I might cry.

The dark fills me.

I hear his name echoing off Kessler Peak. It takes me a moment to realize the echo is of my own voice. I have called out for him without meaning to.

Ten years ago I howled his name out into the desert the same way. He and I were hiking west of Pyramid Lake in Northern Nevada, and something spooked him but good. I turned around and he was gone. The memory fills me with dread all these years later. We were a mile from the camp where we'd left Becky to read her novel. I spent twenty minutes looking for him, listening in vain for the jangle of his tags, the desert growing dark and no evidence of him at all, and just as I felt about to lose my mind with worry Becky came walking down the dirt road with him in tow. He'd made a beeline through the sagebrush for the campsite and gotten there in about three minutes. As usual he'd been smarter than I gave him credit for, knowing exactly where he was even if I had lost him hopelessly.

But that was ten years ago, wasn't it. There isn't going to be a happy ending this time, is there. There's nothing but tonight stretched out forever, the sun rising and setting around an Earth that I no longer walk with him. Nothing but this world without him, forever.

I shatter.

"Zeke, don't leave me here!" It is a ragged cry, startlingly loud and my voice breaking, echoing again off the uncaring rocks. "Don't leave me here!"

I hear no answer.

Alone. This is how it works when you get right down to it, isn't it? All things come to an end. All other truths spring from that one. All things alive and whole and breathing; mammal, tree, the Earth itself, the universe entire comes to an end, and joy only a slow breath between gasps. Here on this tired earth, all of its wealth and heady green abundance rose from loss, for what is natural selection but the choosing of survivors? What are all the hundred million species but the shades of loss, extinction, of two billion years of tragedy compounded, grief on grief? All that we mark as beautiful is shaped by death, and death always arrives too soon.

I watch the stars. There are millions of them, an immensity of stars, this earth by contrast insignificant and fleeting.

An immensity of Earth, this desert insignificant and fleeting.

An immensity of desert, this man insignificant and fleeting.

I watch the stars, and the lights of aircraft overhead, blinking red lights with souls on board. I wonder if any of them are looking down at this broad expanse of dark. I wonder if they wonder whether anyone within this void is looking back at them.

Something large comes out of the darkness, flies silently to an uneven perch atop a nearby Joshua tree. Too massive and silent to be a raven it regards me obliquely, a mythic figure silhouetted against an entire galaxy. An owl, probably a great horned owl. We stare wordlessly at one another. After a time it spreads out long, blunt wings and drops noiselessly to the ground.

I feel an odd ebbing of grief and wonder both. Excitement and longing, sadness and interest, every feeling in me recedes as the sea recedes after a monstrous wave. It is an odd feeling, and I observe it clinically. I empty.

And then just this: A long night spent reclined upon the earth. Cold stars wheeling. Endless hours spent in drowsy, opaque thought.

An eighth-inch layer of morning ice coats my sleeping bag when I wake. The iambic shrieks of Scott's orioles and cactus wrens' harsh calls invade my coyote dreams. The sun is not yet risen from behind Kessler Peak, but Teutonia Peak two miles west is brightly lit. Kessler's shadow sweeps across the desert like a minute hand, and sunlight hits frost-covered purple sage and orange globemallow. They glisten like jewels as the shadow's edge approaches me. By the time my coffee is brewing I am bathed in warm sun.

If there were an afterlife, and if its nature depended on one's virtues, then my heaven would consist of a particular moment prolonged into eternity: morning after a night spent sleeping on the ground, the first swallow of coffee slowly warming me, looking with clearing eyes out across the waking desert. It's the moment that most reliably makes me feel as though the world is right, and though I'm still exhausted from last night it works again today. The sadness isn't gone, but it affects me less. I feel as though I'm seeing it from a middling distance, like the Joshua trees across the road, or the dark butterfly slowly flexing its wings on the granite outcrop in the middle of my camp.

I get up to examine the butterfly. It's bigger than a monarch: about four inches across, brown-black with two rows of small yellow spots edging its wings. Blue and orange eyespots sit at the far ends of each hind wing. I rummage in the truck for the field guide, page through it to find the right species. It's the dark form of the desert swallowtail, a close cousin to the frowsy yellow anise swallowtails in Zeke's yard. The butterfly lifts off, and I follow it from a respectful distance for a few hundred feet, camera in hand. It lands in a turpentine bush, a near-leafless two-foot shrub. I kneel and squint through the viewfinder. It -- she, it turns out -- lands on a chartreuse stem inside the shrub, curves her abdomen toward the stem, and lays a single egg upon it. The egg gleams in the new sun like a fleck of jade. Turpentine bush is the desert swallowtail's preferred larval food plant, and when that egg hatches a caterpillar will crawl out and find a banquet. I take a photo, and then another.

A sharp focus on one small thing obscures your vision of the broader landscape. When at last I look up from the viewfinder the world has changed. The flawless blue sky is full of black and yellow shards, thousands, tens of thousands of desert swallowtails moving more or less northward. The swarm fills the air from the tops of the low shrubs to a hundred feet above, perhaps higher. Some are dark like the one I followed. Most of them are more yellow than black. They stop here and there to sample the rabbitbrush, disappear into the stems of turpentine bush, batter themselves against the brilliant red and amber of my truck's tail lights. I am rapt. The ghost sits just out of reach at my side. Together we watch the swallowtails as they flit among the Joshua trees. Hundreds at a time come into view, pass us, then scatter and dissolve into the desert.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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