Moseying: Exploring the Natural World
Balmorhea State Park
April 9, 2003
In December of 1997, three hours after leaving Midland, I pulled my truck into a campsite at Balmorhea State Park at 3.45 p.m. The CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s) built a wonderful swimming pool where nowadays thousands go swimming. High-and-dry west Texans have also turned the crystalline waters of San Solomon Spring into a scuba divers training ground there is a dive shop just down the road from the entrance. (It and the post office have long been the only landmarks of Toyahvale.) When you turn south of Pecos to go to the Davis Mountains on SH 17, a traveler has to wander through Balmorhea and Toyahvale.
I was not there for the swimming. I just had to get away I was contemplating a decision, to enter a brand-new adventure that would totally change my life, so it seemed the best thing to do, to go participating in several Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in the Trans-Pecos. A line of dark clouds loomed to the north and northwest, and the wind had just switched to the northeast, sending a chill overtone to cut a 70-degree winter sunshiny day. Balmorhea, a town laced with cottonwoods (all brilliantly golden) along the acequias that lead to irrigated farms, is in a beautiful location just at the beginning of the Davis Mountains. Quite a few people have thought it has had excellent potential for tourist-based development and over the years excellent restaurants have tried to corral that potential.
I was not there for fine dining, either. I sat on the hood of the pickup, listening to Wynton Marsalis album of blues trumpet the long song that is about courtship. The wind dislodged several dozen glowing cottonwood leaves above the acequia in front of the southwestern style tourist lodges. (Tu no comprendes la palabra acequia? -- ah, pobrecito es la irrigation ditch.) The leaves whirled and swirled in a spiral, some leaves shooting down, while others, on the outside edge of the wind pattern, circled lazily. The unusual spiraling downdraft captivated my attention until the gust that formed it finally broke apart. To the west, the backdrop of the Davis Mountains, shadowed by the western sun, gave proof of purple mountains majesty.
I was there to chill out. So, I did not move. I just sat. Just beside me, an old mans beard clematis, with its white puffy seed clusters trailing over a mesquite, silky when backlit, shivered with the cool breeze. I grabbed a sweater from the cab of the pickup and returned to my post. Saltbushes, laden with golden seed spikes, poked up among mesquites with leaves limp from a previous freeze. A flock of white-crowned sparrows left the cienaga to the southwest of me, and lit in the brush next to me. They sat up high, looking everywhere, except directly at me.
Texas Parks and Wildlife attempted to recreate a tiny version of the cienaga habitat that once existed at the spring. Kelly Bryant, then the Trans-Pecos regional biologist for TPW, was kind enough to ask for my suggestions about its design. As far as I know, the planners in Austin paid no attention. They designed a large pond with an island. The pond is full of cattails (which they planted).
It is not similar to natural cienagas in the Davis Mountains. On an Audubon Christmas Count the year before, local ranchowner Pansy Espy showed me the Texas champion cottonwood in a cienaga just east of the town of Fort Davis. That cienaga filled a hundred-acre valley, with pools of water scattered throughout a lush pasture of alkali sacaton grass. No cattails grew, but sedges did, in the wetter places. At the lower end of the valley, cottonwoods (including the champion tree) seemed to block the waters flow. In a large shallow pool, we scared up a dozen of the endemic form of mallard known as the Mexican duck. We then spent an hour futilely chasing flitting ground-loving birds that would not allow us to come close.
I continued sitting on the truck, reflecting on the politics of conservation biology. TPW could still do what I had suggested dam the arroyo along the east side of the property, and let the water back up through existing alkali sacaton. The mesquite and saltbush brush would die from excess water, and the sacaton would spread, if the water level was then lowered. I suppose I could grumble and bellyache whenever I run into TPW acquaintances, or write letters but ce la vie maybe my solution was inadequate from an engineering perspective.
A Pyrrhuloxia popped up in the brush next to me, dapper gray with red trimming, crest cocked, tail pumping Oh boy! Oh boy! he seemed to say. Why was he so excited? Was he fussing at the wind now gusting at twenty miles per hour? Maybe he noticed the clouds there was enough moisture (or dust) in the air that a person could see the shadows of the clouds in mid-air. Dark rays radiated from the encroaching cloud cover, appearing almost smoke-like against the beyond-blue sky.
Finally, to combat the penetrating chill of the wind, I moseyed over to the acequia in front of the tourist lodges. A black phoebe swooped from a branch to a swarm of chirinomid gnats and back. Like his kind does infallibly, he pumped his tail with the pride of success. By the door of the nearest court, last summers nest still clung to a beam. When a visitor rents one of the lodges, they are ensconced within a temporal shift to the days of big Studebakers and Plymouths big high-backed tanks, and in the dreamscape of imagination I could see ladies with starched dresses and petticoats and big hats promenading under the trees.
A big soft-shelled turtle, a 12-inch pancake shape led by a 10-inch neck and tubenose, pushed a school of Mexican tetras into sunlit water. The tetras were thumb-sized, with a black line on their tail. A dozen coots dabbled forty feet away. Two were preening on the shore. The mostly black coots watched me at first, but when I found a seat on part of the acequia gate, they forgot my presence, and rode the current back towards me. Their white bills glistened, and the tiny bit of white under their short tail winked at me. The phoebe voiced a sweet syrup chirp in unison with every tail flick of the coots. He had perched near me, on the wheel that opens the gate of the acequia. The phoebe was dressed in coat and tails -- with black head, black back and white belly.
The coots began a war chasing each other, for no reason that I could see. When I swatted at a fly that landed on my glasses, a coot ten feet away dove, and I could see his body underwater, its streamlined shape undulating like a dolphins. When is he going to come up? He went past me, twenty feet, thirty feet, and then popped up. He realized I was between him and his friends, so he ran along the surface of the water in front of me, his wings beating just enough to carry him along. Silly old coot! I laughed at him as he plopped down among his friends.
As my laughter faded, I realized I was laughing at myself, too. And so am I just a silly old coot! I was making the right decision. In fact, marrying Deborah is the best thing I have ever done!