by Valarie lee James, Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring volunteer
“Within the recesses of the forest, even when in the midst of it (the deafening noise of the insects), a universal stillness appears to reign,” – Darwin, Brazil, 1830s.
Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Log
Fall 2017 Visit to the Spring
In Fall of 2017, our adopted relationship with a Sky Island spring deepens as we tap into the exquisite silence of hidden waters. There, we hear the prima vox, the “voice primordial,” of a desert oasis, its plants, invertebrates, and mammals, sustained by life-giving water.
People seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time often miss subtle signs of autumn. In higher elevations, tucked into riparian areas, where seeps and natural springs are found, cottonwood trees, Arizona sycamore, willow, and Arizona ash flame with outrageous color.
This day, we will witness leaves on the trees silently morphing from smooth yellow to mottled red to papery ochre, pressing together in an annual return to the wet earth, caking into a baklava of rich humus, imprinting the spring-fed soil in a cycle of endless regeneration.
In her essay, Why Leaves Turn Color in The Fall, naturalist Diane Ackerman observes that the leaves echo our own hope upon death: “Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state to another.”
“Though the leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant,” Ackerman writes.
As we hike to the spring, the temperature cool, smelling of winter rains, and the sky gray with curtains of virga on the horizon, whole flocks of birds fly overhead, no doubt on a migratory route.
My partner Steph points out a hidden canyon high in the cliff face, a classic V formation in the rock with a clot of dark green growth at its apex. We wonder if there is a hidden spring there or a seep, water percolating through the rocks in the cliff and bubbling up like the spring we are descending to. The hydrology of the mountain range can by its nature be unpredictable, but we know water is there; the lifeblood of the dense tribes of trees we see.
Through binoculars, we examine dark vertical streaks on the cliffs, “desert varnish,” a mysterious glassy patina that generations of scientists, including Darwin, puzzled over. High up, near the desert varnish: another V-shaped canyon. We wonder how many undocumented springs remain hidden in Arizona.
We are deeply humbled by our naïveté. There is so much we do not know.
Indigenous, first nations people could well know. Craig Childs, the author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, cites the belief of native people of the Southwest: that natural springs were “points where creation came to the surface and spilled out, where a hand could actually reach forward to feel the emergence.”
Other dark crevasses in the rock near the ridgeline draw our gaze. Could a mountain lion be drinking right now at a high spring?… Or ocelots—rumored to be in this mountain range—or even a jaguar, cats that do not fear water. Most natural springs remain hidden; a good thing. Would wild animals survive in the desert without them?
We slip down the shale-covered hillside, the “ecotone,” grassland border surrounding the spring until we find the trail. I am grateful for my walking sticks. We are learning to hike slowly and mindfully. It’s a long walk to enlightenment. Smart to follow deer paths.
Stands of dried grass tamp down the trail, like old hay on gray ground. We spot pumice-like lava rocks, up to 30 million years old blasted from vents in volcanic fields in Mexico. The rock’s shapes and surfaces resemble living coral from the Sea of Cortez, a few hours south of the border. Other large smooth stones are aproned with circular blooms of lichen, evidence of life persisting in the most unlikely of places, even on sun-blasted faces of stones.
The variety of scat on the path—deer, rabbit, coyote—also clues us into species roaming the ecotone. We pass shallow hollows in the dirt where smaller animals, rabbit or fox, may have bedded down.
Suddenly, in the distance: rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic gunfire. Sounds like a firing range. The gunshots originate from the back side of the ridge, but still I jump, my startle reflex working overtime. Each shot raises the hair on the back of my neck. We wonder how animals handle the sound of gunfire bouncing off the cliffs. Do deer tremble? Coyotes shake? Rabbits run? I know how it makes me feel.
The closer we come to the spring, the more bird calls. In between calls, to our distress, more gunfire, louder, on the other side of the ridge. Blast, bird call… Blast, our Human song.
A flash of red, high in the trees flanking the spring: a bright northern cardinal. Later, we see a Gila woodpecker in the spring. A cactus wren scolds, and a dove mourns deep in the shadows.
We duck slowly and carefully under immense branches, dropping our voices, conscious we are entering hallowed ground. Others may be lingering at the waters. I have longed for the contemplative balm of the spring, and I am not disappointed. The world is silent, timeless here. The birds are quiet, and the gunfire has thankfully stopped. All sound goes subtle, muted like a seashell to the ear.
A slight breeze picks up, rustling the remains of the canopy. Leaves flutter to the ground and the ambient air temperature drops a good 10 degrees, a portent of winter to come.
We walk with long strides, slo-mo, cross-country skiing through a dense carpet of cushy leaves and deadfall. Yellow cottonwood and orange and red sycamore leaves shush beneath our feet. I wince, not wanting to surprise any inhabitants.
The autumnal leaf matter has so seriously altered the topography of the area since our last visit, we can barely make out the first pool covered with plant debris. On the way there, I trip over deadfall and go down softly, cushioned by the leaves.
As citizen science volunteers with the Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, we gauge the health of the spring, measuring length, width, and depth of the water source. As we quietly work together, I sense small eyes watching us, curious and aware of our presence. I don’t sense any fear. I imagine this must be because we too, are quiet and reverent.
Just a few months ago, during the monsoons, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of color. Now, all of the monsoon’s (second summer) wildflowers are gone, as are the hummingbirds and the butterflies in constant movement. Missing also are the abundance of grasshoppers, but we do see ants, flies, and spiders moving through the ground leaves, and one dragonfly on the water.
And bees. Clustering at the very place the spring emerges, its inception, the incarnation of the water, translucent wings catch the light. With more water than they could ever wish for in the spring’s pools, they lust for the very origin of the wet, drawn inexorably to it.
Circular masses of large deer grass lend a kind of animal softness to the bank of the spring’s pools. Massive mother patches line the bank on one side of the water and smaller patches on the other.
A discarded Mexican blanket on the bank, made from wool, breaks down naturally in the elements, changing with every season. I’d love to harvest some of the still colorful woven fiber and weave the essence of this place into some new art, but it’s not wise to remove anything from the area. Every aspect of this place, every stray thread, belongs here in the House of the Spring, destined to become building materials for nests or burrows, beds for small, beating hearts.
I think about the necessity of pause for all living things, how these pools, teeming with life a few months ago, have gone into a kind of abeyance. I think about the powerful elemental draw to the interior that marks this season of the year, the long wait for the light of new life to return.
A shimmer of blue undulates in the dark waters of the spring and I look up to see a blue-sky hole in the cloud cover, startling in its uniqueness.
“Go ahead, touch it,” I dare my partner Steph, and she does.
“Wha?!” She gasps, drawing her hand back.
“That’s the softest thing I have ever felt in my life,” she says, mouth gaping in shock.
I nod. I have felt other soft-leaved sensuals in the field: Woolley lamb’s ears… Mullein…… Hairy Desert Sunflowers, but nothing like this.
Steph shakes her head in utter incomprehension. Her long artistic fingers are so sensitive they practically have eyes at the tips, and right now their tiny pupils are dilated. An alarm is sounding in her body. A seasoned scientist with no frame of reference, she thinks, This cannot exist.
“It feels like an animal,” she says. “What if it’s the only thing of its kind anywhere?”
The exotic plant, all leaves, no flowers, stands by its lonesome in an easy to miss section of the spring. Maybe it is the only one or maybe it’s just never been seen before, by non-indigenous humans, that is. Does it have a purpose? Is it a medicine or food? Could it simply exist as an expression of beauty? Beauty never seen?
Anything is possible in this singular stand-alone spring with its unique and provocative ecosystem. We imagine the next time we visit the plant will be gone. Every time we come, we find a wholly different spring. We marvel that we can still be surprised by such natural mystery, stumped by the unknown, bemused by our own innocence.
All photographs by Stephanie Stayton & Valarie Lee James
Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.