FEELINGS OF JOY
Bruce F. Barber
I was awakened, during a recent Sunday morning, by a ray of brilliant sunlight. For those who’ve read me over the years, you know I’m an explorer who spends seemingly endless hours in the desert.
“But what do you do out there,” I’m often asked.
“I find joy trying to understand when and how this magnificent place, this Baja California, was created.” And, consequently, now I know it was by the Plate Tectonics processes of subduction, accretion, uplift and volcanics. Fire gave the land its richness, and rain spread that richness throughout the length and breadth of this incomparable desert place.
It is an oft–repeated story of life: first fire, then rain, followed by wind, seeds, wildlife and man.
Because most of them are so far from home, I have difficulty convincing friends to accompany me to my favorite desert places.Admittedly, my trips are long, sometimes rough, but once I’m there, I enjoy the beauty of places created by a masterful hand.
There are, along the way, the reds and blacks of ancient lava, the purple of a volcano’s core, the yellow and green of sulfur- and copper–stained soils, the many shades of Desert Varnish, and the incomparable variety of countless desert flowers.
Whereas Arroyo Grande is an estimated 100 miles in length, there is not one square meter of it in which I cannot find a wildflower. And once you understand, you will know the difference between wildflowers and weeds. Actually, “weeds” are the wildflowers you don’t have time to enjoy. Weeds, to the desert novice, are the invaders that sap a soil’s strength. They are the plants that cause many men and women to think of our desert as “barren”.
How tragic to condemn as ‘barren’ mile after mile of a land as colorful as a Persian carpet when that carpet is spread with purple–flowering verbena, orange–flowering desert mallow, the pinks of salvia, the reds of the pega–pega, and more than 100 other colors from as many other desert plants. (Here in Baja we have exactly 195 desert plants unique to this land alone!)
What a joy it is to experience the annual emergence of yellow–flowering saltbush, purple shaded lupines, and the stalwart desert lilies. Similarly, to experience the bright-red Cardón seedpod and yellow Ocotillo blossoms, which are not listed in any plant field guide I own.
Are they throwbacks or mutations? It doesn’t matter. They exist and, with the exception of a few a) pre-Hispanic native Americans, b) a “handful” of woodcutters and prospectors who chanced to pass that way, mine may be the only eyes to have enjoyed them. I can live with that because these plants live in a remoteness that has protected them over the years.
300,000,000 years in the making, Baja is the unknown California. Oh, sure, it has its Tijuana, Mexicali, Rosarito, Ensenada and La Paz, but they account for no more than 10% of the land. Add another 10% for farms, roads and highways…
See what I mean? 80% of this magnificent land is untouched. Have you seen the ruins of Mission Santa Maria? You can walk in from the east, you know—or by horseback from the west—but once you’re there you’re in Indian country.
Have you seen Valle Chico’s wall paintings? Have you been to Laguna Hanson, Valle Trinidad or “Cieneguita”? One of a multitude of similar Baja California sites, Cienaguita is a place of stark desert beauty. Close your eyes and follow me to a time when Baja’s Indians were developing their artistic techniques for dealing with birth, growth, illness and death; when Grandmother represented the source of all things, and the “Great Spirit” had no name.
Return with me to learn that Coyote was a trickster, sometimes clever, always a fool. “There was a time when all the stars in the sky were neatly arranged but, because of a foolish act by Coyote, they are now forever disarranged.”
These men and women lived for 2,000 years in relative peace. They hunted and gathered food. They ground seeds obtained from a variety of plants. They made nets and clothing from the agave. They harvested beans from mesquite; fruit and medicine from cactus. Their pine nuts came from “Cienaguita”, where they also gathered garnets for adornment. Their arrows were made from branches harvested from the Huatamote plant.
The Spaniards called them regressed and perhaps they were for life along the peninsula was difficult. But how difficult is it when you can walk to the shore, stick your hands in the sand and lift a dozen clams at a time. Oysters were as plentiful and so were muscles, scallops and a dozen varieties of sea snail. Fishing was done with nets and there were millions upon millions of fishes in the world’s richest inland sea; ultimately labeled (the) Gulf ofCalifornia.
I saw something the other day that made my heart beat like few things can. It wasn’t the boiling mud-pots at Mexicali or the morteros high atop the Rumarosa. It… rather “they” …were two Mexican Red Wolves. Once poisoned to the brink of extinction, a compassionate few came to their rescue. Now, after years of their absence from the mountains, the sighting of these two, a couple who seemed to be discussing perpetuity, delighted me into believing they are once again in the wilds.
They looked at me and I at them and they walked a ways to the north. ‘It’s not a coyote,’ I pondered. ‘The hips are too large. And the color… that burnt orange color, why… it’s almost like the old red wolf’. I stood there thinking of hyenas, dogs and similar animals I’ve known about. And then it came to me. ‘The wolf!’ I cried aloud. ‘It is him,’ and I couldn’t believe me eyes! Sure enough, as they stood there, watching my every move, hips high, shoulders down, eyes as sharp as tacks…
‘But their tails are “tucked”, is that because of me? Has it something to do with mating or could it be that their murder has made them timid? Thank Heaven, at least I know where to get the answer.’ But, I also know where the pot sherds are, where to find petroglyphs and wall paintings, and the locations of several old Indian campsites. And, now that the wolves are back, I need to know the extent of their range, too, for it is from the hidden things we encounter…
the sticks, the stones,
the wildflowers and bones,
coyotes and wolves,
and ancient Indian homes
…that each of us discovers Nature, and from her our own, somewhat personal …feelings of joy!