Go away! I’m not dead, I just sort of look like it!
It may be hard to make out what this is a photograph of, but it’s vultures. Buzzards. Whatever you want to call them. They spotted me working outside and you can tell they’re thinking “Oh, hot dog! If the big guy keels over, we’ll eat like kings!”
Cute. At first.
I’m an Arizona native, and I’ve lived much of my life in Phoenix. And never in Phoenix did I ever see these extremely common sorts of wildlife. But out here, in the relatively unspoiled expanses of the Sonora Desert, they’re about as common as dirt.
And they’re oddly linked. The little squirrels (Xerospermophilus tereticaudus, if you’re interested) hold frequent club initiation rituals on the roads around here, where they make the new guys run pell-mell out in front of cars before they’re allowed to join the squirrel club. Sometimes they don’t make it, and that’s where the vultures come in. Some mornings, going to work, I’ve had to slow down and toot my car horn because of the big packs of big, ugly, bad-tempered birds hunkered down in the middle of the road around a former squirrel.
Moving from the city to the country presents one with a great many shocks. The sheer openness of the landscape, and the relative lack of fences, can induce a sort of agoraphobia till you get used to the fact that you don’t have to hunker down in a block-walled back yard like some kind of political prisoner. The ability to see the horizon can be kind of shocking at first, especially when you’re used to not seeing anything but the side of the neighbor’s house.
But the sheer quantity and diversity of wildlife is amazing. We’re used to thinking of deserts as lifeless wastelands. There are such lifeless wastelands; parts of the Atacama Desert are so dry there aren’t even any bacteria. But the Sonora Desert fairly teems with creatures, at least by desert standards, and usually in forms that you simply never see in Phoenix.
When’s the last time a Phoenician saw, say, a tarantula in the wild, or vultures circling overhead, or those dratted little squirrels, or pack rats, or lizards in such amazing diversity we can’t even keep them straight? (“Did you see that big lizard?” “Was it one of those fat ones, or the stripey ones, or the yellowish ones with the curled tails, or…” “Well, it was kinda fat, and kinda stripey…”)
And the bugs! There are more weird bugs than Carter has pills! Tarantulas, solpugids, blister beetles, big placid black ants, small and vicious red ants, hoverflies, dragonflies, tarantula wasps, centipedes, Palo Verde borers, carpenter bees…
This all sounds pretty hairy, I’m sure, all this talk of wasps of giant spiders and other stinging, biting, malevolent insectoid hostility that stalks the bushes (the sting of the tarantula wasp is said to be one of the most painful stings in the world, able to drop a man in his tracks and make him scream out confessions to crimes not yet committed).
But in Phoenix, as a city dweller, one lives in opposition to life. The default reaction to any kind of bug is to kill it, as quickly as possible. And sometimes, out here in the country, it is necessary to do the same, simply as a safety measure. You can’t have wasps build nests under the eaves of the house, or let rattlesnakes have free reign over the farm, or suffer swarms of possibly Africanized bees to build hives next to the garage door. And sometimes the sheer destructiveness of the squirrels can drive one to red fury, like when they gnaw a cactus off at ground level and leave the top part to die, or when the pack rats gnaw through $800 worth of vacuum tubing in one’s pickup truck.
But out here, in the country, I find it pleasing and calming to live with the wildlife, rather than against it. I don’t like tarantulas and big hairy scorpions, but as long as they respect my right to go out in the garage barefoot, I respect their right to scuttle and tunnel and scheme out in the dry wash.
This was supposed to be an introduction, but I got carried away. This is a lifelong flaw in my character. I don’t always have much to say in person, but put me at the helm of a computer and I just won’t shut up.