There was a place on the old road to the homestead (a few miles out from the village of Oracle) where, after many close turns and narrow passages through thick oaks and granite dells, you suddenly topped a clear rise above the trees and buttes and broken ridges, and had an overwhelming view of the thousand or more square miles of the great San Pedro River Valley, as it slopes gently downward fifteen miles to the river, and then upward in giant steps of mesas and ridges and foothills for twenty-five miles to the multi-colored Galiuro range that forms the Valley's eastern wall.
In the twenty-one years I traveled the winding road, I called that spot the Edge of the World because of the long view dimming off to the distant blue and purple and rose of the mountains to the north and east and south. It was like overlooking one of the widest expanses of the Grand Canyon, except that it is a much broader and, as human history goes, older canyon.
The best hour for the view was sundown, when the slanting light rays would strike precipices and escarpments with an unforgettable glow, and purple dusk filled the valley between. Clouds, with infinite diversity of light and shadow, bestowed an added beauty. In winter, snow-capped rims gave an effect of remoteness. In lucky summers, rain showers, sometimes several at once-laced the otherwise sunlit valley. Moonlight vested it with a cold, unearthly look. And no darkness could shut out the feel of empty windswept distance: empty of human life and its paraphernalia-empty of any life whatsoever. So it always seemed.
A totally wrong impression. All that appearance of emptiness is an illusion. No terrain in the world-not even a rain forest-could be more densely supplied, unit for unit, with inhabitants, both plant and animal.
The hard-bitten plant life forever embattled against heat and dehydration, is readily visible, however modestly it blends into the background. On my Edge of the World you are out of the oaks and manzanitos, entering into mesquites and catclaws and other low bushes and the ubiquitous amole and palmilla (soapweed and beargrass). Descend a mile or two and you are in yucca country, amid Spanish bayonet and sotoles (desert spoons). Here, except in the arroyos, the mesquites are dwarfed and there is a smattering of cactuses-the low-on-the-ground varieties, and stunted cholla and barrel cactus. Farther down the sloping mesas, the chollas get taller and thicker and are interspersed with sahuaros. As the elevation lowers even more, not much grows but greasewood and the tenacious mesquite-desert trees that come into their own in the bottomlands where their roots delve down into underground streams, and their branches form an almost impenetrable thicket for miles up and down the river.
What are invisible, except for a stray now and then that streaks across the road ahead of you, are the fauna---the denizens that live in and on and under every plant.
At a distance, the scene looks today much as it must have looked to the early Spanish explorers or their predecessors. Well, not quite. Progress came into the Valley a few years ago to unearth copper-bearing ores. The only sign of its mighty onslaught visible from the old road is the snout of a 500-foot smelter smokestack, blowing smudgy puffs into the sky like an underground demon not angry enough to belch fire and brimstone. It does little to give the beholder a feeling of nearing "civilization." From this west side of the river, the panorama looks as uninhabited as the moon.
I said "looks." Actually it is teeming with life. Start a home out there on the landscape---any kind of shelter from a tin shack or adobe hut to a splitlevel mansion, and you'll find you've located among hundreds of millions of flying, creeping, crawling, clawing, ambling creatures-all house-hungry.
These wild-life natives try to move in with you, and never give up. You and your descendants may fight them for generations. They will outlast any warfare made upon them with sprays, guns, or bombs. One need feel no uneasiness about the extinction of creatures of the desert and semi-desert country. They'll be here forever. Light a lamp. Ten thousand flying things will invade and conquer. Leave an unblocked opening. Some curious animal, domestic or wild, will stick his nose in. Sit down in the shade, miles from anywhere, to rest a moment and refresh yourself with an apple or a handful of raisins. Presto! You fight for your life. Start out horseback some damp summer morning, and swarms of enemies will attack your eyes and ears and those of your pony.
Glancing across the seemingly serene landscape, I know that every acre of it has been fought over by the earthly creatures generally considered to be the highest form of life. First they fought with sticks and stones, tomahawks and bowie knives, and early American rifles. Later, as landhunters, they fought by legal procedure, and with influence over land boards and commissioners. There is not a small ridge, dry mesa, cholla flat, rocky hilltop, or sand-bottomed wash that is not part of some cattle grower's range.
It is sobering--even depressing--to know that on every foot of the ground within my view, living creatures are struggling to the utmost to keep alive, and chances are against them all the way. I think first, naturally, of the cattle. There are, perhaps, thousands in this area-under the trees and bushes, and on the distant grassy slopes near the mountains, lying in shaded canyons, or roaming the cactus flats and ridges. There must be hundreds of range horses out there also. Living beside them and to some extent competing with them for the sparse supplies of foods-even, now and then, preying on these domestic animals for food itself-are the untold thousands of wildlife.
Ranchers are of two minds about wildlife. Most of us enjoy the sight and proximity of such harmless creatures as deer, rabbits, and songbirds. The Uncle spent several dollars a month of his pension money to buy scratch feed for the birds that came to eat with his chickens. "My ole quails," he'd say affectionately, ready to fight any shotgun hunter who came within sight and sound.
As for the carnivores, large and small, that seem to thrive in our far-off country, the general rule is to kill on sight. And this presents its own problems.
Take badgers. They don't harm big animals and they can't climb trees and roosts to get the chickens. But they dig. They dig around fence posts and barn uprights to get at the bugs. The result is a flattened fence or damaged barn. One took up at my place and excavated disastrously-undermining the little hay barn. One morning Jesús snared her with a length of baling wire looped like a rope and dragged her, protesting, to the house. "Where's the gun?" he asked. I viewed her plight with sympathy, and thought of a plan. Jesús sat on the spare tire and held her securely, under a box, while I drove five miles down the road and bade him turn her free. On my way to town a day or two later I met her plodding along the road heading back to my barn.
Badgers are cute creatures. Cal's niece Ruth, an Eastern girl on a visit to the ranch, was delighted with the mother and young'un (exactly like her but half the size) we met on the road. The mother knew about cars and rushed out of the way. The young one ignored her nudge and stood his ground, staring right back at us as we stopped the pickup to watch. Excitedly the mother ran on and off the road and around her baby, but he wouldn't mind. Desperately she darted out; grabbed him by the nape, and literally dragged him away, and for as long as we could see, the mother was still forcefully lugging the heedless brat.
My choice for a merciful end to animals that must die is a well-aimed gun. Traps and poison are blots on humanity's record. I once met a strychnined coyote in the canyon, crawling on his belly to get to water. His suffering was so appalling that I can never forget it.
Some cowmen-not all-say that coyotes kill calves. If they have a good chance, if no cow is baby-sitting, or if an orphan is left undefended, probably so. But in all my experience I have never, as far as I know, lost an animal to coyotes.
I have told the trappers they cannot set traps on any land that I control. One did anyway. I found a miserable coyote trapped by the roadside in my narrow canyon. I killed him for mercy's sake-he was in bad shape-and confiscated the trap. I threw it and two other identical steel torture machines in the river. The Uncle worried. "They'll git you for that," he warned. "It's the same as stealing."
"It's not anything that I want or need," I defended. "Taking property is illegal, yes. But inflicting prolonged pain on helpless animals hunting for food is a worse crime." We both knew the lazy trapper sometimes didn't check his trapline for a week.
Of course the Uncle was unconvinced, but when he set out little traps for skunks around the chicken house, he watched them carefully after that.
One summer ten-year-old Preston, living up the creek had a neighbor boy a few years older for a pal. But it hurt Preston to find that the older boy liked to kill small things like birds and squirrels. He set out baited traps-he had a dozen or more made of steel-for the little rock squirrels. They weren't good to eat and he wasn't hungry; it was simply fun for him to catch the small things and kill them. Preston, skillful with rocks, told me how he watched his chance and threw rocks to hit the paddles and spring the traps. The other boy's family moved away suddenly leaving the traps. Preston gathered them up, and we threw them over a fall where the floods would wash them away.
Although small birds are often irresistible targets for stone-throwing, slingshot-wielding boys, in the first year at Redington School I had a good chance to indoctrinate the children in a different kind of feeling toward little birds. We wrote stories, tried to draw pictures of, and were very fond of a little nesting bird whom we named Elsie. She had made a nest in the top of the supply cupboard; having entered through a broken pane of glass in the school door. We looked up Elsie in a library book which gave her the unromantic classification of flycatcher. And we thought ours was the only school in the United States chosen by a wild bird to raise a family in.
The thorn in the rose was that we couldn't repair the broken glass until she and her young had flown away, and she wasn't the only flying thing that liked our quarters. Wasps! Sunday afternoon before the opening day, I found the tongue-and-groove ceiling of the classroom chandeliered with a dozen or more wasps' nests of assorted sizes, all occupied. I ran down to the teacherage for the Flit gun, and with persistence, swept out all their summer architecture with the dust. Next morning, school or no school, they were back and had started rebuilding.
Wasps are pushy. Wherever they can find an opening in a man-made building, they make themselves at home. As I write, my forearm is swollen and itchy from a sting received this morning in the hay shed down in the horse trap. I reached up to pull down a bale of hay when zoom came a yellow-jacket-a stab of pain barbed with long-lasting irritants! Retaliating, I came to the house for an empty can, half-filled it with gasoline, and returned to give the wasps a fatal dousing. One splash of gasoline and it was all over with Mrs. Wasp and family.
In the stretch of country visible from my High Point, if it were possible to take count of the insects and crawling pests dwelling therein, the sum would exceed the national debt plus the miles between earth and sun and all the other stars. The best insects I can think of are bees, butterflies, and ladybugs. The worst are scorpions, black widows, tarantulas, burning worms, and bellows bugs-also known as "Hualapai tigers," or, in Spanish, chinches.
Only the scorpions and black widows are deadly and they only rarely, to a feeble person or a child. The scorpion in my foothills and canyons is one of the deadly varieties-a small greenish-yellow one. Look out for these scorpions when you pick up a board from a pile of lumber, or a mesquite post, or a stick of firewood, or when you turn over a good-sized rock. They live in houses, too; especially those made of wood or adobe, and seem able to swim through the water traps in sinks and bathtubs. They lie in wait in towels hanging on the wall, or crawl into your shoes at night. When the main cabin of my homestead was new, I could turn on the flashlight any night and see four or five scorpions scooting up the mud walls. The thing to do was to grab the hammer by the bedside and give each one a good smash. To date, I have been stung twenty-two times, thereby probably developing a degree of immunity so that it hurts for only six or eight hours.
When it first happened to me, the pain, the numbness, the tongue and throat thickness, and the strange inertia lasted for sixteen hours-perhaps prolonged by fright. Ice seems to help more than anything. It slows the circulation so that the body can cope better with the poison as it spreads, and it relieves the pain, too. But even ice can do nothing for a tarantula bite. The victim twists and squirms for hours-in my case, seven. The Italian dance, "La Tarantella," is not idly named. Such pain could not be borne in relaxation.
In our southwestern cities, for all the pavement, brick and stone blocks and last word marvels of housebuilding, there must be constant war on pests such as ants, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ticks, fleas, flies, gnats, scorpions, centipedes, and even tarantulas-not to mention such destructive little creatures as crickets and mice. There are thriving companies whose business is pest control. And occasionally our newspapers run stories about a housewife having called the police to help get a rattlesnake off her porch, or a skunk out of her garage.
At Redington I had the nicest teacherage in the county. One of the ranch owners was a city banker who had remade an old two-room adobe into a pleasant cottage he could occupy when visiting the ranch. It was my good luck to inherit it as a fringe benefit of the job. It rested on the edge of a steep-sided mesa overlooking the river bottom, commanding a fine view of the cottonwoods and mesquite thickets and the blue mountains to the west. In front of the two rooms, which had no connecting door, a long, narrow screened-in porch had been added, and behind them, a six-by-six kitchen and a riffle bathroom. The hillside sloped so abruptly, that while the kitchen-bath sat squarely on the ground, the porch entrance was a steep three-step flight above it, and the room where I slept- and "lived," since it had a fireplace-was on a stone foundation from four to two feet high. This arrangement made a nice basement apartment for wildlife.
The place was well aged and long inhabited before I moved in. I stuffed wads of newspaper into the gaping spaces around the window and door frames to keep out the mice. A few skinny lizards slithered in now and then, but since they parked strategically on the worn screens to catch flies and moths, they were welcome. Not so the big rattlesnake that somehow climbed up the porch-steps and a panel or two of the old door, and got in through a gap in the screen.
I did not fire up the chimney in the bed-living room except in the evenings. Mornings, still in pajamas, I dashed out along the porch and into the second room, where I had a trigger-fast iron stove, a dining table, and a mirror over a chest of drawers near the clothes rack. There I dressed, and ate the breakfast prepared over a two-burner kerosene stove in the kitchen.
One chilly fall morning I threw some waste paper into the stove and went back on the porch for some kindling I had stored in a shallow wooden box. The wonderful view of the autumn-touched cottonwoods against the blue mountains held my gaze. Suddenly my groping fingers encountered a strange surface. I looked down, and there, her unmistakable head in the exact center of the diamond- back coils, lay a rattlesnake, sound asleep in the chip box. I put on a robe, tied up my hair, propped open the screendoor, and gently picked up the box. Carefully, I tiptoed across the long porch and down the steep hill to the Big House, and roused the family. Quicker than speech, the men snatched me away from the box. Out dumped my nice kindling and the dangerous intruder.
The ranch had a special attraction for snakes. They were around the corrals, along the trails, across the roads, in the buildings. The children were trained to watch for them every step. At one time the great house had been a dude ranch. During that period it had been added to, and divided up in surprising ways. At the end of a long passage only three feet wide, a two and one-half-foot door opened into a tiny enclosure holding a convenience. I was in the kitchen visiting with Lavita, woman of the house, mother of little cowpunchers, when we heard desperate shrieks from Grandma. We dashed through the house and down the passage, and yanked her to safety. A huge rattlesnake, hanging from a hole in the wall on a level with a sitter's head, was fast disappearing into a deep crack. I grabbed the tail and held on against amazing strength while Lavita ran for a weapon. It was all I could do, might and main, to jerk her out to the floor, where we killed her with the hoe.
During the second year of my tenancy, the big hideaway under my front rooms became winter quarters for a rattler that measured, when she emerged months later, five feet in length. I discovered her late in November, at the end of a cloudy, windy day. The storm that had been threatening for hours struck a little while after school was dismissed. I had stood out on the porch to watch it approach in a great display of lightning and thunder and a fury of wind that sent the cottonwood leaves swirling in all directions. When the slanting rain threatened to drench me, I went inside and lay on the bed under an army blanket.
All at once a terrific crash of thunder shook the whole house. Above its dying rumble sounded the unmistakable rattling. It seemed right in the room with me. I couldn't lie there, and I didn't dare get up. Cautiously I raised up and dug out the flashlight from under my pillow. There was nothing under the bed but my boots. I picked them up and put them on. Slowly my light-beam raked over every foot of the floor. Nothing was there. Yet each vibration from thunder set off the rattling. I began to realize that the snake must be under the floor. Nevertheless, I sat up on the bed, flashlight alerted, until the storm let up and atmospheric serenity reigned again.
When I started to walk across the room, the rattling started once more. But I was bold, for I realized that almost half an inch of old flooring protected me. I stamped about until I cornered the snake in a northeast nook of the room, under the typewriter table near the apple box bookcases. There she had dug in for the winter and she was safe. There was no way to get at her without taking up the floor; nobody had money enough for that enterprise.
The situation provided an unusual opportunity for nature study. The first thing-I learned was that the way to make her angry was to click the keys of the typewriter. When I started typing she went into a furious buzzing that never failed to make me jerk my feet up on the chair. Knowing I was stuck with the rattler until such time as she voluntarily departed, I was tempted to share my startling experience with others. I squelched the impulse to rush down to the Big House with my news, and awaited developments. After supper, when Delbert, Lavita's young brother-in-law, came up to listen to Amos and Andy on my battery-powered radio, I waited until he was comfortably sprawled in a chair and absorbed in the program, then casually turned to the little typewriter and began: "Now is the time . . ." and laughed like a fool when he hit the ceiling.
When he was convinced that nothing could be done-short of tearing the place apart-he connived with me, with a cowboy's natural turn for practical joking, to play the trick on others. Never a visiting cowboy or linerider or horse trader or cattle buyer dropped by the ranch for the night that Delbert didn't inveigle him into calling on the teacher.
Of course I told Lavita and the children about my snake, and all of them, even the bus riding pupils, came for a demonstration. Nobody was disappointed. The rattler never developed patient acceptance of the clicking typewriter keys.
It was a stormy March night when "Aunty Flo" ( I called her "Antiphlogistine" because she stuck so firmly) moved out. Quite by coincidence I was in the bathroom brushing; my teeth when I heard her leaving. I've always been grateful that she let me know when she departed. There was no mistaking that prolonged furious rattling. Excitedly I grabbed a weapon-which turned out to be the icepick-as I ran through the kitchen, across the dining room and the long porch, and out around the house, still clutching the flashlight I'd been using for the toothbrush operation. When I saw Aunty Flo emerging from her retreat, and took in her huge size, I flew down the hill yelling for Delbert, who jumped into his pants and boots and came with the shotgun. The snake, of course, did not wait, but it was not difficult to track her as she wove her enormous curves through the tall weeds. We counted sixteen rattles.
The next fall my shelter for squatters was taken over by a family of skunks, which were harder to live with than the rattlesnake. They fought-whether with each other, or the rats and mice, or intruders of their own kind I never knew. But the weapon for offense or defense was the same one they aim at people who corner them. When chemical warfare started under the dining room, I had to leave my breakfast or supper and get out. When they fought at night, I had to take refuge in the car. The cottage was never free of the acrid unpleasantness of their fumes.
Poison was suggested, but I was ever against poison. Besides, if I had to have skunks, better have them alive than dead, under the floors. Finally Delbert and I came to terms about traps. I let him set one in my tenants' small entryway under the bathroom, provided a watch be kept so that no creature should suffer all night. A small chain, perhaps three feet long, fastened the trap to the standing waterpipe.
We did not have long to wait. When the rattling chain sounded the alarm, Delbert called his shaggy dog, Squeezix, who was afraid of nothing. I stood back with the flashlight; Delbert unwired the chain and gave it a fast jerking swing which landed the luckless skunk far out in the weeds where Squeezix killed it so fast it didn't know what struck it. Then Delbert reset the trap and went home, offering to come again on call.
I put on my warm flannelette pajamas, pumped up the gasoline lantern, and reached for my book, anticipating a pleasant hour or two on watch. Oh, oh! The chain rattled. I decided to be self-sufficient. Poor Delbert had worked hard and must be up at dawn to wrangle horses. Squeezix came at a gallop when I whistled. I didn't have to worry about his part of the operation.
I set the flashlight on the ground, unwound the wire, took a deep breath, straightened up, and gave the chain a mighty outward swing into space.
Squeezix got the skunk. But the skunk got me. Something was wrong with my swing technique. As she flew by, Mrs. Skunk gave me her final shot exactly amidships. However hard it was to take at the time, I gained firsthand knowledge about a legendary matter: you do not have to bury your clothes.
Copyright © 1967;. The Arizona Board of Regents.