The hind end of an animal I’d never seen before in this stretch of desert silenced my thoughts. Whatever it was, brown and furry and scurrying, stub-tailed and about the size of a rabbit, it made me aware. The novelty of birds with bright yellow feathers broke into my thought-cycle also as I ran—yellow warblers migrating through (at least I think so; I’m not a bird expert, just an admirer). A quail atop a bush, its crest profiled against the blue sky, brought another moment of surprised inner stillness. Quail are usually running on the ground. It’s the lizards who pose.
I stop for lizards. A lesser earless lizard, no bigger than my thumb, has little bright eyes and long golden toes, subtle gray-on-gray spotted markings, and tiny arms that enable it to do push-ups with flawless form. Its miniature legs run faster than I can. The greater earless lizards seem to be showing off their green hind legs, their side stripes, their green-and-orange forelegs, and the rose patches on the females’ flanks. I’m sure they’re displaying for each other, but I appreciate the show. Everything else on the ground blends in—brown or gray—but they glow. It seems odd for small, delicate, ground-dwelling creatures not to be camouflaged, but they flourish, maybe because they like the heat and nothing else does (except crazy runners). Their body ideal temperature for activity is 101 degrees. I observed a large one getting brighter the longer he baked. On my third lap of the trail, his orange stripes were radiant, as if he had to be heated properly to light up.
The prickly pear cacti are blossoming, bright yellow. Creosote bushes have small yellow buds. Ocotillo blooms shoot out like red-orange flames on the tips of slender, bare stalks. The yellow birds are posing on them, contrasting with the flowers, and perching among the creosote branches in a yellow-on-yellow match.
The birds-and-flowers encounters make me stop in awe. Yes, I’m running, but there are moments not to be hurried.
During the month of August, there were so many events scrolling through the electronic sign over the entrance to Elephant Butte Lake State Park that someone decided to remove the time-temperature-and-welcome from the cycle of reminders and announcements. Once I got used to not seeing those numbers when I rounded a high point on the trail with a view of the sign, I realized how absurdly attached I’d gotten to noting exactly how many minutes it had taken me to reach that spot and whether the temperature had gone up a degree. I enjoyed my runs more without this information snagging my mind. Now that there’s less going in in September, “Welcome to Elephant Butte Lake State Park 1:36 p.m. 87 degrees” is back. It still takes me exactly twenty-four minutes to reach the point where I can see it, and I can tell how warm it is without looking. What is it about numbers and measurement? Or even the desire to know something just because it’s there to be known?
I don’t have anything against knowledge. Practical knowledge enhances life, and useless learning is fun. I spied a large, almost squirrel-sized, New Mexico whiptail today. She did one pushup and disappeared under a bush. My useless knowledge informs me that she was a she because they all are—our state reptile is an all-female species. Trying to identify a delicate purple flower I admired, I searched online in vain, but I learned that among New Mexico wildflowers there are plants called Water Wally, Hairy Five Eyes, Bastard Toadflax, Blue Dicks, Redwhisker Clammyweed, and Bonker Hedgehog. (The last one is a small cactus.) I still don’t know the name of the purple flower. I think its bright yellow companion is snakeweed, but it may be chamisa. Chamisa’s botanical name is Ericameria nauseosa, which makes me want to create an unpleasant character named Erica Maria in some future book. This plant, or its purple friend, smells wonderful, not nauseosa, and that perception is a greater joy than the satisfaction of acquiring a fact such as its name. Globes of yellow blossoms on green stems and taller stalks with tiny purple blooms glow against the pale brown sand, and a rare whiff of floral sweetness surprises me as I run past. At exactly the same speed whether or not I measure myself.
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The dread of being stuck with an inconsiderate neighbor plagued me while I ran, as my mind rehearsed all the ways the problem could get worse and all the steps I might have to take to get it resolved. After all, there was only one good scenario: him moving out. But the bad ones seemed endless, and my mind seemed compelled to explore all of them, including having to move to get away from him. For me, his worst disruption of our previously serene little community in our building has been smoking (and stinking up my apartment!) although smokers are required to go off the property, not even in the courtyard, to light up. Worry clings to the mind in pursuit of a solution, even if there’s none possible at the time. Granted, this can be a preparation for coping, but I don’t go out in nature to worry, so I started counting the negative thoughts. Once I notice a pattern, it’s an effective way to interrupt it and make a particular worry into a practice rather than a torment. It came back eight times in four miles. With each return, I was no further along in solving the problem, but I was more aware of clinging to it and could let it go more quickly, to return to awareness of my movement and my surroundings. After all, if I can focus that intently on a negative, I apparently have the capacity to focus equally on something else if I chose to do so.
It was the day after a big rain, a cool eighty-two degrees, and that brought out the lizards. I saw eight greater earless lizards, evenly distributed along the trail, one about every half mile, and I paused to admire each of them. Their sleek gray heads and necks. Their glowing orange sides with diagonal black stripes. Their orange upper arms and radiant blue-green forearms. Their green hind legs and tail that seem lit from inside like a stained glass lamp. (The pictures don’t do justice to their true colors.) Most of them posed or did push-ups, as if showing off their jewel-like skins. Normally, I feel lucky to see just one, so this was an extraordinary bounty.
When I got home, my landlord let me know he was giving the smoker a thirty-day notice to vacate the premises. I wish the guy would leave sooner, but the point is, I hadn’t needed to keep thinking about it. I’m glad I was able to pop the worry bubble often enough to enjoy the weather and the lizards.
The bats have relocated. It’s an unwelcome change for their fans, but it was inevitable. They couldn’t stay in a man-made structure forever.
The old warehouse where they resided has been sold and cleaned out, and repairs are in progress. The building was crumbling, and the bats, delicate and magical as they are, made it stink. The man working on the place said the bats were welcome to back if they wanted to for now, but of course they don’t want to. He had the doors wide open and daylight was pouring in. The building is going to be converted into several apartments. As one of my neighbors said, even bats have the sense not to like developers.
Years ago, the bats lived in the Methodist church, also known as the pink church. Then, after a fly-out, the church had wire mesh installed over the vents so the bats couldn’t come back in. They moved to the warehouse. Now they’ve moved again. Bat lovers in the T or C hot springs historic district have been watching the sky at sunset. Our little relatives are still around, though in smaller numbers, and we don’t know where they live now. We’ve checked various possible new bat homes. The Baptist Church. No bats. The ice house, an empty building between Rio Bravo Fine Art and the community youth club. No bats. Though I miss the clouds of them in the evening sky, I hope for the bat colony’s sake that they have moved to a nice private cave on protected land where they can stay for generations.
Several evenings ago, I took a sunset walk, and a few bats hunted bugs over the streets. I counted seven bats fluttering over the river and the wetlands, but I couldn’t stand by the water and be immersed in them. And gnats are gathering on my ceiling again, though only by the dozens, not swarming the way they do when the bats are entirely out of town.
A speckled and striped gecko, no more than an inch long, with a rosy patch on its tiny head, was attempting to sneak into my apartment when I got home from running today. I was tempted to allow it to move in. It was cute and it would eat gnats. But I caught it, admired it, and carried it across the courtyard to a rocky area under a tree. Better for all of us, in the long run.
The world we see through headlines seems to be falling apart, filled with violence and dysfunction, and ordinary life can be full of petty hassles. I need to get out in the natural world where life is more in balance than in the man-made one, and do it daily. Before the temperature goes over a hundred and after it goes down.
The same conditions that make June in New Mexico so challenging during the day—no humidity, no clouds, hot winds clearing the sky—make it spectacular after dark. Even just standing in an alley, a short way from the streetlights, I can look up and see not only the bigger, closer stars, but the background billions and billions sparkling like a beach of diamond sand behind them.
Heat and all, I still run, heading out while the temperature is only in the nineties. As I was about to start a run a few days ago, I encountered a grasshopper longer than my index finger. Yes, it held still and let me measure. Its head was marbled, its body striped and speckled, and it had golden antennae that looked like strands of broom straw. Beautiful, in its own buggy way. Along the trail, pearlescent gray lizards with radiant orange bands on their sides perched on rocks then ran away. Another species displayed glowing blue-green hind legs that appeared lit from within. I think it’s some kind of collared lizard or perhaps a type of earless lizard, but I couldn’t find one quite like it when I searched on web sites. Whatever it’s called, it’s a miracle. So is having vision to see to it and a mind to appreciate it. For all of this, I am grateful.
Southwestern earless lizard photo courtesy of the New Mexico Herpetological Society.