Remember the Pecos River as we saw it from the bridge on Highway 90 in Texas? We were returning from Big Bend National Park, driving to San Antonio. The muddy river swelled between cliffs, savoring its last moments before joining the Rio Grande. Philip and I marveled at the river and at the impressive bridge spanning it. I love the Pecos for what it stands for in Texas, that dry, different, and wild stretch of the country that is trans-Pecos.
But today we were not on that deep river. We were in New Mexico, with very dear friends, Kris and Randy. We drove high into the Santa Fe National Forest in the Sangre de Christo mountains, up to where aspens and pines framed meadows, up where the wild iris still bloomed in the wet areas, up to a singing brook, too small for the lightest kayak, home to dippers and fly fishermen. We turned from the gushing Pecos to the still-smaller Holy Ghost Creek for lunch on the bank. We did not see the endangered Holy Ghost Ipomopsis, that lovely pink flower that only grows along this tributary.
The Pecos originates here in these mountains, just east across the range from the mighty Rio Grande, which itself began in Colorado before flowing through the Jemez, through Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. If I were a lover of mountains and deserts above all else, I might prefer the peanut shaped part of the world between these two great rivers, my own Tigris and Euphrates. I do love mountains. I love deserts for there sere concentration. But more I love the wet tangle of eastern forests and meadows like those of my childhood. I am happy with my current piece of the world which is defined by the wild Missouri to the north, the commercial Mississippi to the east, and the recreational Meremac to the south. I wonder if you have ever thought of the rivers that define you? I’ve always had one, from the Red Cedar that dampens East Lansing, Michigan, to the milky Rhone pouring out of Lake Geneva, to the Arno sometimes flooding Florence.
We walked through the crackly dry forest undampened by the reckless stream. Volunteers are working with scientists to plant the Holy Ghost Ipomopsis in another valley, so a single fire does not end this species. To do this you have to know what this flower likes, something difficult to figure out. This is the kind of work my friend Kris Johnson does, though her current projects are more focused on birds, especially pinyon jays, which unfortunately do not nest by rushing brooks, at least in New Mexico.
Pinyon jays are social, flying around in large talkative flocks, greater in number than any group of blue jays mobbing a Cooper’s hawk in St. Louis. These birds eat pinyon seeds. They cache the extras in thousands of hiding places, which they remember. Their caches are in places near little landmarks which also prove to be effective places for pinyon gemination, Kris tells me. Pinyons have mast years, years when all the trees crank out way more seeds than usual, overwhelming their predators. Mast years, at least in other trees, are irregular, often in multiples of prime numbers so predator life cycles cannot track them easily. Drought will cancel a mast year. Pinyon tree biology is complicated, a subject for another time. But if it is complicated, think how much more complicated is the biology of pinyon jays that depend on it!
When two species depend on each other in a complex dance of cooperation and conflict in which each must benefit to survive, timing is everything. If that timing is off, one species will lose what it needs, seed dispersal for the trees and food for the birds, as an example. Kris Johnson and her team are studying this relationship. They look at as much as they can of the key environments of both to model the jay’s requirements. Then they use these models to hike into areas predicted to have jays. The success they have had is sweet. It is realized after a long hike to a good area by the first lovely call of a warning bird, or by a flash of blue in the pinyon. But what happens when these two species respond differently to human-caused climate change?
The pinyon jay is declining and has been declining for 40 years, according to the Breeding Birds Survey. We need to save these birds, their trees, and the land they fly over. Understanding how the birds see and use the planet is the first step, one Kris takes every day, even over morning tea as she looks up at the pinyon tree right over her mountain home. I may love it here, but soon I’ll go home to my St. Louis lot and contemplate the few feet of wildness a city garden gives. I’ll also contemplate the choices we make in life. I will try to make more of them towards the forests and rivers early on summer days.