A LIVING DESERT MUSEUM
Bruce F. Barber
Baja California’s pueblo of “San Felipe” is a community that has witnessed the passage of a continuum of men, women and children for at least he passed 1000 years. Whereas evidence of their existence remains in most of the canyons draining the nearby Sierra San Pedro Martir, it stands in abundance along 50 miles of shoreline extending from Punta Estrella to Puertecitos.
Fortunate for those who seek such things, the seashells along the northern coast of the Mar de Cortez appear to most as useless scatterings of sun–bleached refuse. On the contrary, they are the visible remains of life in the “good old days” …before you and I came along. Think, for example, of seashells as a source of food, money and jewelry!
There is, between 200 and 300 meters from the shore at Playa Punta Estrella, one of the largest shell mounds in (northern) Baja California. More than 1,000 feet long, you will find it composed mainly of clamshells on the north side of a sandy access road to the beach …where the first line of shrubbery appears. And, there is another almost exactly one mile farther south at Poblado Gutierrez Polanco.
Knowing the local Indians were clannish, you can look west from the Punta Estrella shell mound to see a) Arroyo Chanate (10 miles distant), and b) Arroyo Huatamote west of “Polanco”, each representing an avenue of access. Considering these avenues as funnels, a line drawn from the mouth of each will encompass a group of canyons in which the several clans lived, at least during a part of each year.
A line drawn through the north-to-south center of these two mounds will show where the shoreline was 1,000 years ago. What’s more, although shell mound excavation can be labor–intensive, it is a task that can yield stunningly rewarding results. I, for example, removed so much obsidian from one of the two that I began to envision adolescents making spear and arrow points while their parents dug and shelled a bountiful harvest. The only thing wrong with this picture is the fact that most of these early adults worked alone in what they regarded as secret sites.
As I stood at Punta Estrella, conducting research for an article I was writing, I chanced to look up where, under a typical azure sky, I saw a sight similar to one the Indians must have seen time and time again. There above the trees were a dozen big black hawks searching for a mid–morning feast. They’ve always been here, you know, the red–tail, the golden, the Mexican black.
Ever see a hungry red–tail swoop down on a pigeon? There is no difference between a hawk carrying off a pigeon and you or I or an Indian harvesting shellfish. Death is a part of life and the perpetuation of the species.
Thinking of death, you may not like the ubiquitous turkey vulture but they are the cleaning crew: the ones who remove the carrion. Ever watchful, they glide—in daylight—ever so effortlessly on wings that carry them over the shore as often as they survey the desert. Look for them at sundown and you’ll find four, five and six of these bulky black redheads roosting comfortably on a single Cardón.
Speaking of Cardón, find the “Valley of the Giants” (9 “straight-line” miles south-southeast of San Felipe), and you’ll find a totally different scene. The king of all cactus, many of the plants seen here are between 200 and 300 years of age. By the time you’ve seen enough of them you’ll know they are nesting places for the larger birds: the hawks and herons, the vultures, eagles and osprey.
See them in early spring when they display white–shaded trumpets for bats and bees and hummingbirds to feast on a nectar placed where pollen has a chance at participating in reproduction. Return in late spring to see one of the mysteries of life: For all the white–shaded trumpets there were earlier, you’ll see but one red, four–petalled, seedpod on each Cardon.
Some plants cast their seeds on the ground while others create seeds so light they float on the wind. Cardón’s little black seeds are for carrying in the belly of a bird to some new place where they can fall to earth to find protection in the shade of a totally different plant. If you’re looking for young Cardón, the little ones from one to ten years of age, you’ll have to search under—or within—those other plants. But there’s another side to these gentle giant, their bone–dry skeletons, you may never have considered. Find one and there’s a 50–50 chance you’ll be looking at a plant that germinated before the first Spaniard set foot on “San Felipe”.
When you think about San Felipe, you probably think about a distant desert community nestled under the lee of an old volcano; but, if you think about THE San Felipe, you’ll be thinking about a place as different as night is from day. Remember the shoes and ships and sealing wax? They were, in reality, here before us.
***Indians made their shoes from maguey.
***There were two Spanish galleons buried in the sands of the San Felipe,
***Desert beehives contain sealing wax.
The fact is …they’re all here, these magnificent things we speak of, plus many we haven’t had time for, waiting—always waiting—for those who enjoy …aliving–desert museum.