Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Ruth Clark: Here in Hereford — The Grotto

Two weeks of brutal heat, the highest temperatures we have ever experienced, well into the 100’s. The first week very dry, the second, humidity slowly rising.  No monsoon rains will fall until the humidity is adequate.  The monsoon seems to be slowly building, but even if there is a monsoon, we may get little or no rain; a monsoon is often spotty, and a monsoon wind without rain can be problematic. We wait, we trickle hoses, create two or three puddles as trees are watered, and attempt to counter the day by day routine death of small creatures, our kindred of the earth and sky.  In back of the house there is a large covered porch and outside that a large area of both bought, nearly wild and wild plants, as well as some of what comes up, mostly wild flowers but also a fair number of the yellow bird of paradise, which had begun in the front.  These flowers are very beautiful and long lasting.  Gardening now pretty much consists of pulling out rather than planting or mowing, and mowing is usually done once a year by a brush mower.  Year after year our birdland has been one of very similar composition: some year-around residents and some migrants: cactus wren, house finch, dove, an occasional hummingbird, mockers and flycatchers.  Bats living in the crevices of the porch deposit their guano on the concrete and their urine on the walls.  This morning on a small tree near the back fence I was surprised to see a gray cardinal, a bird which in the past I’d only seen in a time of lower temperatures.  A roadrunner usually appears on the back porch;  roadrunners call to mind Vlad the impaler; however, on the porch an impalation would be a surprise.  The bird community is on to Vlad; they are high up and quiet when he or she arrives.  I’m not sure how the residents manage their hatchlings with Vlad about, but I do know that I only see hatchlings from the house, so they have a good system going.  When I go outside there are a lot of bird calls and whistles, loud but not sounding urgent. The sound has a familiar ring. Some of the community probably have observed me for at least a few years.  I think they know I am useful.

Several days ago, late afternoon, pale coin of the sun infiltrating foliage, standing on porch, I saw a long ribbon of glistening water, mirror-like, awakening a memory of white snakeskin that glittered in the morning sun, partly concealed under a small bush, in the septic area that lies above the grotto.  Sparkling prisms.  Looking closely, the skin was very long, doubled back. I doubted that it was a rattler skin, since I thought a rattler of that length would be wider.  Probably it was the skin of my friend, the gopher or bull snake, who lives under the eastern storage container, where there is also a small pine with a hose dribbling at its base.  The snake initially presented him or herself with usual aplomb.  The area of the storage containers is very attractive to rodents, who are less tidy than bats.

Return to early morning two weeks ago.  Our old Aussie, the only dog left, age 13, almost 14, is barking after being let out in front.  He has hardly barked the last two years.  He is nearly blind, nearly deaf.  He relies on smell.  His black nose feels like sandpaper. I pull shoes on and go out to look.  He is doing little leaps.  Leaping is something which I didn’t imagine he could still do.  His leaping ability once was prodigious; he used to be able to jump over a sofa without touching it.  Looking the same direction as he, I slowly distinguish a young cow, light brown, delicately nibbling the end of a saltbush, outside the north side gate, just beyond the Italian stone pine, a nice rustic picture.  I haven’t seen a cow on the property since the year we moved in, when bony, half starved cows had been dropped to eat their way down to the river, which is the reason we installed the barbed wire outside fence, since they’d eaten everything to the nub, and when the wind blew, the dust flew.  Still not quite awake, I feel a shock.  As I stare, I vaguely become aware there are two cows.  I shout something like, “Get out of here.”  Slowly they look up.  They seem well cared for.  Pounce does some more small leaps.  They contemplate and one decides to move away, turning eastward.  The other one pauses, then follows.  Then another one comes into focus as it also moves.  As soon as three are on the move, another previously unseen cow, black, breaks away from behind a tall bush and follows.  Four cows, young, well cared for.  That seems to be all.  Pounce and I go back in the house.

Forward to yesterday.  Pounce is now dead.  He could not tolerate food, even broth.  He paced about in obvious discomfort. Gene called the vet.  The vet is one of the few left who are not corporate.  He knows who we are; we were able to obtain a  quick appointment.  On Pounce’s last journey I sat with him in the back seat.  He was agitated, and at first he struggled to get out of the car.  He had a lot of strength left.  When he is taken anywhere by car, it’s almost always to the vet.  We had gotten him when he was six months old.  He was shipped in and was terrified.  Although well nourished, it was clear he had not been well treated in the past, almost certainly by a man, as he was shy of Gene and generally hand shy.  Pounce remained a brilliant and suspicious pessimist.  Over the years he had lost most of his sight and hearing.  In his later years Rose, who died last summer, had functioned as a guide dog and she growled and nipped him as necessary if he veered off course.  If Rose had been in the car, Pounce would have been calmer.  Still, with Rose gone and only a sense of smell left, Pounce had known about the cows when I didn’t.

The day I saw the snakeskin I had been working in the grotto, pulling Mexican feather grass, which is very shallow rooted, extremely invasive and beautiful.  It is a native but not animal friendly.  I use it to keep out the grass that was developed for the cattle people, which is very cow friendly but has killed almost all the other native grass, especially on the other side of the river.  So I have to periodically remove the feather grass from certain areas.  It had worked down from the septic field close the grotto.  All this from an initial six clumps.  I think that originally it lived in a water deprived, thin soiled area, so with watering and rich, heavy clay, it can become a monster.

The rule at this time of year is that you need to see what you are doing because of rattlesnakes.  I don’t usually enter the grotto in the summer, so I am taking a chance.  A bell on a long string hangs from my belt, and I stamp my feet before I enter.  The grass is so thick I cannot see what I am doing when I reach for the feather grass to remove it where it has grown into and under the deer grass.  The deer grass is deep green with slender leaves, growing in wide clumps.  It is tall but not coarse like the sacaton.  When I remove the feather grass, even from under the clumps of deer grass where I see nothing, hundreds of minute seeds float in the air, and other seeds cover the ground.  Often I need to move the feather grass onto a pile of gravel between the septic and grotto, for later bagging, and then I return to the work.  The deer grass seems unperturbed by the feather grass.  It has survived for centuries, not rare but not a usual grass either.  Native people used its stalks for baskets and facilitated its spread.  The grotto conditions, with a constantly running hose that I cannot completely turn off, are a deergrass paradise.

The grotto cannot be seen from the house.  There are seven trees.  Two hackberries, two catalpa, called desert willow, finally growing back after many years of near death, bushy, bearing orchid-colored flowers, and toward the grotto’s end three pines in a curved formation, the last and biggest just past the end of the septic field.  As I work toward the last pine and arrive at a space that seems all deergrass clumps, I suddenly see a bare space in front of the first pine.  It has been trampled, with part of the hose invisible under the trampled soil, and it smells foul but not horrible.  I stare.  Little verdins drift down and drink the water where the hoofprints are.  I approach, lift the hose from mud.  It is running moderately.  I throw it back toward the first pine.  My first impression is that perhaps the trampling has been done by javelina. I try to remember the smell of the javelina years ago at the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.  Memory does not serve. It’s about eight a.m., getting extremely hot, and I decide to call it a day.  On the way back to the house I see the snakeskin.

Two mornings later I again enter the grotto.  More hoofprints, deeper water.  I look at the prints.  Large hoofs.  Cattle.  With all my strength, I manage to slow down the hose a little.  The hose pipe is in between two clumps of deergrass.  I drag up a useless PVC irrigation pipe and pull it over the spigot, so it won’t be trampled.  I move the hose as far in the other direction as it will go, to water a stone pine lying just outside the grotto.  I throw an old metal garbage can and a big plastic pot over the in-process water hole.  One clump of deer grass has been sampled.  Javelina don’t eat grass, further evidence of cattle.  I look around for cow patties and find some south of the grotto area.  I had thought the cattle gone, since they had run a considerable distance near Leslie and Dean’s house.  Had they been on our land four days or more?  Did they leave and then come back?

On Wednesday we usually go out to eat with Leslie and Dean.  We go to Riccardo’s.  It burned down in the great fire several years ago, but they rebuilt it.  They have a fajita special on Wednesday.  As we go out to their car, I am aware there is a cow patty right in front of the gate.  If I hadn’t lived here for a long time, I probably would have considered it important to move it.  Earlier I had looked around for others and found some along our road, which is also our long driveway, but the patties ended less than midway up.  I ask Leslie and Dean if they’d seen any, or any cows, and they say they hadn’t.  Cows seem to leave a lot of evidence, but it leads to no conclusion.

Usually when I think about the big fire, I think of the butterfly expert who lived in one of the canyons.  He kept his grass long, which his neighbors did not like, and catalogued the many butterflies and moths that were around his house.  He found some prevously unidentified butterflies.  His life’s work then burned up in the fire.  More recently a Dollar General has been built next to Riccardo’s.  It’s right in front of one of the most beautiful areas in Hereford, and does not seem to be that busy.  The land next to it is now for sale.

For three days I inspected the water hole and when I had time, worked on the feather grass.  The water  had dried, and the garbage can and plastic pot had not been moved.  The day after that I went out to water the northwest Arizona cypress, which lies directly behind the house but outside the inner fenced area. It looked a little dry and I held the hose and watered pretty hard, then let it run.  I looked around behind the cypress.  There was a depression like a hoofprint behind the cypress, and perhaps another one, not so distinct.  There were no cow patties around the area.  I thought, and then a hypothesis slowly formed.  First I thought that this could be the print of a horse.  Who rides?  The people on the corner, where there’s a sort of family enclave with four houses.  Once I delivered a letter which mistakenly was placed in our mailbox to a newly built house just behind the house on the corner.  There was a sign, “Pete’s Pull My Finger Ranch”.  I saw that Pete and his wife are both skilled riders, when they rode on our land.  But I had advised them caution, since there are small holes as the horses cross where the land lies the lowest, and they stopped crossing there.  At the time they were new and did not own any cattle, but in the intervening years would it not be reasonable to suspect that since they called their property a ranch that they might have constructed a little barn and acquired cattle?  Were there not cow patties right up against Bob Potter’s fence, on the road that leads to our driveway?

Today I worked more in the grotto and worked down to where the water had lain.  The observation made was that there was a large area which lay where I worked next to the denuded hole, where the grass lay down like a soft bed.  It was still slightly moist underneath.  A cow could have been very comfortable lying there without being seen, just as the mule deer delivers and hides a faun in between the clumps of deergrass.  So I think that perhaps three cows had gone back home but one had remained to enjoy the cool soil covered with the soft, feathery grass.  Later it had been found by the owners.  This is a very pleasant conclusion. If that is the case, I would bet on it being the black cow that stayed.


Copyright 2017 Ruth Clark

Ruth Clark lives in Hereford, Arizona with her husband Gene.


Stipa tenussima (Mexican Feather Grass, Ponytail Grass)

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