Last best streams- #1731.

The note pegged to the kiosk was too small for the whole story.  Every every summer, every year, thousands of underpaid graduate students fan out across the country collecting data for their projects.  If their work isn’t the backbone of modern conservation, it’s certainly one of the most important data streams available.  Like most essential workers, they’re underpaid and underrecognized- if we couldn’t find someone to do the fieldwork for a thousand, twelve hundred bucks a month…the work wouldn’t get done.

Often that funding is tied to teaching and other job duties, sometimes that funding’s only available during the school year.  Sometimes they’re spending that money on equipment, on gas, on their own vehicle to get to field sites which may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  They’re spending it on campsites and crummy hotels.  Sometimes, they’re spending that money on day-glo plastic flags to mark occurrences of rare plants, or the entrances of desert tarantula burrows.  I’ve been there.  It sucks.  So don’t move the fucking flags

I looked for tarantulas scuttling across the gravel in the headlights, without success.  The gate was open when I got there after dark.  I had been watching thunderheads scuttle across the desert for hours, and staying put seemed more pragmatic than potentially getting stuck in the mud twenty miles from anywhere.  I watched the clouds sail on, and the stars come out.    

I haven’t spent much time in desert- the arid basins of Colorado and Montana and Wyoming, sure, sage and juniper…but not cholla and prickly pear.  I must’ve seen cholla before outside of pet store decorations, but I can’t remember it, and its waxy stems and buds remind me of jelly beans.  Prickly pear were just ripening, I split one open and ate the sweet, watermelon scented pulp.

I found an interpretive sign at the trailhead that explained the river’s odd name- conquistadors, searching for a City of Gold, swept away in flood waters.  An ocean away from priests and vestments and consecrated ground, their lost souls are doomed for eternity.   Catholicism is metal.

It doesn’t look that far from the top of the canyon to the bottom, and them from the canyon wall to the river.  It’s about four miles.  It feels like the middle of nowhere but there’s still old stonework and rusted abandoned cars and an abandoned telephone line propped up on spindly poles.  Every fifty yards there’s a pile of scat loaded with prickly pear seeds.  Dung beetles and blister beetles cross the dusty path.  I listen to birds- canyon wrens, apparently, as they flit through brush and boulders. 

The river banks are thick with willows and saltshrub- I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called everywhere, but that’s what we called it in Wyoming.  Tamarisk. Tall and thick, with pink plumes of flowers, its stems covered in fine amber thorns that make quick work of gill nets drifted over sandbars.  I hang from a willow and dip my hand into the river’s turbid water, just to say I did.  I find a high place overlooking the stream, sit squat legged, and have a snack.  I wondered what was down there in the swift, turbid water.

One of the toughest things to teach is that muddy water isn’t necessarily polluted.  Many species have evolved life histories that depend on turbid waters to remain hidden from predators.  In the Great Plains, a whole suite of species are adapted to long, braided, unfragmented rivers where they can move between spawning, rearing, and foraging habitat.  They’re adapted to rivers which seasonally break their banks, expanding into their floodplains as they swell with runoff from the Rocky Mountains.  The features that historically structured these systems are less prevalent today, and species which were once abundant are now declining precipitously, or entirely absent from large stretches of river.

Not all is lost, though- it just takes work.  Protecting the landscapes we have left leaves hope these species and the landscape they need can persist into the future. 





One response to “Last best streams- #1731.”

  1. Hanna Avatar

    I read your tags attached to “Last best streams”.
    You could have added poetry! Wonderfully written.

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