On the River in New Mexico
This has been a summer of contrasts. My early mornings are spent along the flooded riparian zone surrounding the middle Rio Grande surveying for two endangered bird species, and my afternoons within the dry desert town of Socorro. During the hours spent working along the river and its surrounding marshes, it’s hard for me to remember that I am in the desert. I find myself in the midst of tall cottonwoods and tangled coyote willows, dense stands of weeds or reeds that extend above my head, lush meadows, and excessive mud. Here, along the Rio Grande, I have found more types and textures of mud than I ever knew existed. I’ve waded through foot-deep mud, chocolate pudding mud, sticky mud that suctions and steals your shoe, mud that talks back when you step into it, hardened and dry mud that has broken into beautiful cracked puzzle pieces, mud perfect for wrestling, chocolate milk water flowing over mud, and multicolored mud that swirls, marbling as you trudge through it.
I have cried, cursed at plants, waded through a flooded swamp early in the morning with numb feet, and crawled on my hands and knees through a maze of salt cedar. I have stared in awe as javelinas scatter in the forest ahead of me, felt the thrill of kayaking across the swiftly moving Rio Grande, and noticed the jolt of excitement that comes every time I hear the fitz-bew of a southwestern willow flycatcher answering my recorded call.
And in the early afternoon each day I return to Socorro, away from the river and back to my temporary mobile home, a sprawl of stores, trash blowing in the streets, and only occasional greenery. What a contrast it is from where I spend my morning hours.
I also find pleasant contrast between the calm, parched, hot air that stifles and the erratic wind that often brings rain with it. I feel reckless during the thunderstorms of monsoon season. The sudden change from the dry heat of afternoon to the overpowering smell of rain in the air affects me instantly. I’m drawn towards the open window, where I lean out, hair blowing in the wind, face spattered with droplets, irrepressible smile on my face. I breathe it all in, look towards the lightning in each direction, feel the thunder shake the window frame. I am awake, grounded, present, ecstatic, alive. I feel the energy of the storm deep within my body.
Living in the desert is a dilemma for me. I am aware of the impact of living in an area with so little water, and struggle with whether it is responsible. How can I judge the million and a half living in a place like Phoenix, then justify my desire to live in this region of similar water scarcity? I was conceived in the southwest and though I have spent the last twenty-three years on the northern coast of both California and Washington state, I still feel this draw towards the desert’s colorful landscapes.
This summer has been a reminder that you cannot understand a place fully until you have spent many hours exploring. It’s been a reminder that there is always something more to be discovered. It’s been a reminder that where water exists in the desert, there is a surprising abundance of life to be found. It’s been a reminder that although the desert is not able to sustain the ridiculous amount of humans we have thrown into it, the desert has the ability to support many more-than-human lives. As those who have wandered this land are aware, upon closer inspection, this place is not always desolate, quiet, or lifeless. We must be careful to let the natural contrasts of desert exist.
Rosa Brandt grew up in Sebastopol, CA and spent the summers of her childhood outside. She graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 2018 and worked as an SCA intern in Arizona. Most recently, she has done fieldwork in New Mexico. She enjoys long distance hiking, bird watching, and observing the details of the natural world.