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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahía de Los Angeles 1985, Part 17: Desert Educations    ( Posted June 21, 2004 )

Two colleges local to Southern California held classes out of rough barracks in the village. Several dozen hearty students from the states braved the trip each summer and were introduced to the wonders of the Sea of Cortes. Classes were usually open air during the day and within a crude cinderblock-walled, thatched-roof room at night. Anyone who wanted could attend the lectures.

During the point at which I was busy blasting coyotes away from our chickens, the four of us went into the village for dinner on an evening. We pulled folding chairs around our favorite table on the patio of Las Hamacas. Several students were there also. They were talking about the class to be given that night, a lecture by a young biologist who had been living in Baja and studying whales in their native environment.

After dinner we walked across the airstrip to the room where the lecture was in progress and joined the group. The boys were impressed by all the older youth. I wanted to hear, enviously, about a fellow who had been living for six months in an even more remote site than ours.

The speaker was a young man about twenty-five. His blond hair at shoulder length was bleached from the sun. His skin was darkly tanned from many months out of doors. The point of his research was to study whales where they were on their own. This meant no boats following them. As a site from which to conduct this study, he had selected the east-most point of Punta Soledad, a small finger of mountain jutting eastward into the sea, and a part of Punta Roja, which formed the southern end of Bahia de Los Angeles.

He chose this isolated location because it was the narrowest open channel of water in the Gulf of California where whales commonly passed. From his deserted overlook he could peer down a thousand or more feet and watch the whales without disturbing them. For his lecture he had an abundance of slides of the huge sea-beasts breaching and wildly churning the waters. The whales' behavior was unlike that we had experienced, with one or more boats around. When we were nearby their attention was on us rather than their own activities.

The young man talked about his living conditions. He had only a tent and a small lean-to for the six months he'd been there. But he was outdoors all day, glassing the whales and recording their behavior in his ledger. Wasn't he lonely? I remembered Mary Ann and I, living nearby at the south end on the previous full summer trip in Baja, in 1974. We had, at least, Rochie and Ducie and each other to keep us company. He had no one. But he spoke of a family of coyotes, a mom and newly born pups that had attached themselves to him. And he to them.

He was living near them for an extended period and he fed them small scraps of food and the mother was soon tame enough that he could approach within a few feet before she snarled. I could imagine him, in a lonely state, wanting a friend. I could feel his arm, arcing slowly out toward the wild animal, in a reach for friendship, with a deprived need few have experienced. I could sense the mother nervously searching for scents in the air that provided her with an overlay to her genetic makeup; man is not safe to deal with. She would watch for sudden movement, unaware of his intentions, knowing sometimes they included a morsel of food that she would quickly consume, enabling her to better nurse her pups.

In his lecture the young man talked about the bonding that had taken place with the coyote family. How wonderful a relationship this was, but it must have been hard on the young man. We humans want to touch everything we hold dear. Is this the way of animals in the wild? The wilder cats of our house in the mountains north of Los Angeles won't tolerate being touched, let alone geing restrained in an embrace. It restricts their avenues of escape. Animals raised in the wild are very insecure within range of other animals of the same or larger sizes. I wonder about close relationships. Humans have this luxury, at least in a family environment. I doubt that it exists, though, in the world of investments and business.

The lecturer went on to show us slides and tell us of his experiences. These included many warm and related vignettes into the rearing of the coyote pups by their attentive mother. Was I doing the wrong thing trying to blast them away from our water night after night? How far would they go if our coyotes got comfortable in our environment? How long would it be before they were stealing chickens? Taking other lives?

Too soon the talk ended. We thanked the lecturer and the boys flirted with several of the more tolerant college students for a few moments and we walked across the airstrip to the truck. Driving home I was compelled to review my interests in killing the coyotes attacking our camp. It was a difficult image for me to call up, of a young coyote mother, doing what she could to stay alive and, executing her programmed demands, raising progeny in this waterless and nourishment-poor world of the central desert. In my heart I knew I would be wrong to interfere with this painting of life. I was the one out of place. Who was I to change a pebble of sand in that proverbial stream?

I imagined opening my eyes in the night, on hearing noises around the water-trap I had set, rising in my bed, sheet falling away in the dark blackness and the breeze, grabbing for the positioned gun. I could imagine wrapping my hands around the blued steel metal and cool, oiled wooden stock, slipping a finger into the trigger guard, smoothly and effortlessly aiming and firing a single round of bird shot at the mother a few meters away. I imagined the shock of the pellets striking her mid-body, knocking her fully to the ground. Pain was not involved. The tiny but deadly projectiles had passed deeper than the pain sensors located only on the surfaces of her body. She would feel tugs from deep within and try to stand, possibly staggering to her feet to leave a few red paw prints in the sand, indentations in smooth, round stones. She would think about her pups, a mile distant in the desert. Her instincts would lead her to them, but she was weak and needed sleep. And she would lie dying, with her mysterious life-bearing blood pulsing, dripping and running, coagulating slowly over the stones and sand, soon to be diluted, carried away in wispy swirls with the flow of a rising tide. Away in the desert her pups would wait for her, would die slowly over the few days after their mother failed to return. They would whimper amongst themselves, frolic and wonder where was the thing that had made a warm and home-place for them, where they had first experienced consciousness. They would die slowly, starving and dehydrated, in the byways of the desert. They would not suffer; they had no concept of suffering. Life was simply whatever they were dealt. They had no power to cause change, and there was no reason to do that. Their small bodies, tender flesh, would serve as nourishment to other struggling life, also trying to survive the guiltless desert.

We arrived at the hut. The boys, my pups, had fallen asleep over Old Rocking Horse Road and we carried them to bed. Mary Ann lit the lantern and sat reading quietly, with the small waves lapping at the stones. I performed my nightly ritual. I don't remember the music I selected that night but it was warm and emotional and Spanish guitar was probably involved. Somewhere, in my reflections of the lecture, the music, the rum and the fluidity of the day merged and were one. There is no room for pain or sympathy in the desert. There is only fact.

Before I lay down on my cot, I returned the shotgun to its case. I knew I would not need it again on this trip. But I remembered the lesson of the coyote: trust nothing that had the potential to threaten.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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