Gateway to the Classics: Desert Neighbors by Edith M. Patch and Carroll Lane Fenton
Desert Neighbors by  Edith M. Patch and Carroll Lane Fenton

Visiting a Desert

W HEN you go to one of the deserts in our country, you may wish to stay for a long visit. When you think about it all afterwards, you may wish to go back—to see the brown mountains again and to take more walks across the reddish-buff sands. You will think how much you would like to become better acquainted with the birds, the little mammals, and the hungry lizards you saw during your first visit. It will be fun to learn more about the creatures that burrow underground. You will wish to see the plants again, too, even though many of them are so prickly that you need to be careful when you are near them.

You will feel that way about it because a desert is not a barren place where nothing—really nothing— grows. A few deserts do have bare hills, called dunes, made of sand that moves, or drifts, every time the wind blows. But even between dunes there are valleys where flowers bloom, birds nest, and Lycosa, the spider, digs her tunnels. You will expect to meet those spiny plants called cacti (or cactuses); but you may be surprised to find so many shrubs and to see trees as often as you do.

Are you beginning to wonder what a desert is? It is just a part of the country where very little rain falls. Sometimes whole seasons pass without any showers at all. In some deserts, several years may go by between really good rains. Then some of the plants die, but many of them manage to keep on living. They will grow leaves and flowers very quickly when rain falls on the land again.

Some deserts are so far north that snow covers the frozen ground in winter. Most of the plants in these deserts are small and bushy, with tough leaves. The sagebrush is one and the rabbitbrush is another. The cactus plants there have wide, flat joints and long spines; and they grow close to the ground. These are "prickly pears," but they are much smaller than their relatives that grow in deserts farther south.

Shall we walk across one of those southern deserts? We soon notice that the plants do not grow close together, like those of forests or swamps or meadows. Desert bushes stand far apart, with bare sandy ground between them. In most places the ground has no grass. When there is grass, it also may grow in small clumps or bunches.

There is no grass on the ground we see in the picture below, but a flat place not far away has some. If you visit that flat place in the evening, you may see some little kangaroo rats. They will be smaller than "Bannertail," who lives in a different desert. But they will hop on their long hind legs, just as he does, and will eat the ripe seeds of grass.


The bushes are scattered with bare ground between them.

Plants do not crowd one another in deserts, because there is not enough water during most of the year. But when enough rain falls in late winter or very early spring, thousands and thousands of plants sprout from seeds lying in the sand or from roots hidden underground. They grow very rapidly and bloom. Then the desert valleys and hillsides become bright with orange-yellow poppies, blue or purple lupines, and pink sand verbenas. The beautiful flowers do not last very long. When dry weather comes again, the gay plants wither in the sun. Then their stems are broken and blown away by the wind. It piles them in corners or covers them with sand, and the ground between the bushes is left bare again.

But never think that deserts become dull and tiresome just because the flowers are gone! There is a desert near the southeastern corner of California where you will see nothing but sky and sand, yet the wind has piled the buff sand into such stately hills that you will be very sorry to leave them. In another desert, where Chuck and Testudo live, you will find mountains of rock weathered into all sorts of strange and beautiful shapes. And if you go to the White Sands, in New Mexico, you will find a great deal to do and see—even at a time when the yuccas are not in bloom and the bushes have no flowers.

Of course, when you roam across the deserts, you will wish to see an oasis. There you will find springs of cold, good water that you will like to drink. Birds also drink it, and so do some other desert creatures. When the water seeps away through the sand, mesquite trees grow much bigger than they do in drier places. Among them will be tall cottonwood trees, with thicker trunks and wider leaves than those of the cottonwoods that grow on prairies. And if the oasis you visit is one of the very best sorts of all, some tall palm trees will lift their fan-shaped leaves above both mesquites and cottonwoods. The picture below shows just such an oasis, where there are more than twenty palms.


Tall fan palms grow in an oasis.

On high slopes near the palm oasis you will see the strange Joshua trees. A great many of them grow in the valley at the very foot of the mountain where Chuck Walla lives. Joshua trees have large woody trunks with thick rough bark; yet they really belong to the Lily Family. Their greenish-white blossoms grow in large clusters. Each flower has six lobes, as do the flowers of their lily relatives. When you look at the delicate lilies in a flower garden, you may be surprised to think of their giant relatives—desert trees that sometimes grow to be about forty feet tall.


A Joshua tree is a member of the Lily Family.

A Joshua tree is one kind of yucca. Yuccas have stiff, narrow, evergreen leaves with sharp, dagger-like points. It is because of these leaves that people call the yuccas "Spanish bayonets." The yuccas you will see in the White Sands are different from those in some of the northern deserts; and there are yuccas of still another kind growing in the Texas desert where Cornu, the horned lizard, lives. Some have strong, coarse leaves, and some have thin leaves the edges of which split into fibers that hang in long tatters. But they all have their leaves in crowded tufts at the ends of the stems or branches; and they all have their whitish blossoms in branched clusters at the tips of straight stalks. The flower stalks of some of the yuccas are very tall indeed.

Shrubs that are common in deserts can stand much dry weather because they have roots that reach far down through the sand for water. Among the shrubs you are sure to meet are saltbush, creosote bush, and sagebrush.

The saltbush has mealy, whitish, leaves with a salty taste. Sheep like these leaves and eat a great many of them. The saltbush belongs to the Pigweed Family (also called Goosefoot Family). Like other members of this family, it has small, greenish flowers growing in little clusters.

A sagebrush, or wormwood, is not related to the true sages, which belong to the Mint Family, but it does have a rather sagelike odor. Its flowers are not pretty, and they have a lot of dusty, yellow pollen that is shaken out of them and blown about by the wind. But their grayish leaves and gnarled branches give sagebrushes a very attractive appearance and make the desert quite silvery.

The creosote bush is an evergreen shrub with a strong, though rather pleasant, odor. Its leaves are small and narrow, and the petals of its pretty little flowers are yellow and partly twisted.

In almost every desert, and in many places not quite dry enough to be true deserts, you will find the cacti. At first you may not like them, for they have sharp spines that hurt you if you put your hand on them. But after you learn to go near them very carefully you will probably decide that they are the strangest and most interesting of all desert plants. Even such names as barrel cactus, beaver tail, cholla (which is pronounced cho‑ya ), hedgehog, prickly pear, sahuaro, and staghorn, will make you wonder how they look.


A Barrel Cactus

As you may know, leafy plants depend on the green material in their leaves for their lives during their growing season. All these plants need sugar for food. It is the green stuff in their leaves that makes their sugar for them. The leaves are really sugar factories that work all day in the sunlight but cannot work at night. Cacti need sugar too. They have no useful leaves, but they keep the same green material in their stems. So their sugar factories are in their stems. (Some cacti have tiny leaves on their youngest joints.)

The thick stems of cacti also serve to hold their water supply. After rains, cacti take in water with their roots and store it in the pulpy part of their stems. At such times the ridges in the tall stem of a giant cactus (or sahuaro) look plump. In a long drought, however, the plant uses so much of its water supply that the ridges become shrunken and thin.

You will meet many cacti in the desert and see the pictures of some of them in this book. Which will you like best? Perhaps the cholla, in which cactus wrens often build their nests. Perhaps the giant cactus where Gila woodpeckers dig their home holes. Since a cactus of this sort sometimes grows to be thirty-five or forty feet tall, these birds can have homes far from the ground.


The Cholla in which Yodeler and his mate built their nest.

Plants change from season to season; and even the desert itself changes as year after year goes by. Rocks crack, wear, and begin to crumble into grains of sand. Strong winds move the sand from place to place, piling part of it in heaps about shrubs. It is such mounds that kangaroo rats, and pack rats too, often seek when making their homes.

The winds do not always blow the sands in straight processions. Sometimes they go in whirlwind parades. Then the wind, and the soil it carries, whirls round and round, or twists. A whirlwind may be a little "twister" only a few feet high, or it may reach up in a tall whirling pillar like a small tornado.

There are certain deserts where the sands are not all one color—not all light brown like those in Testudo's home, and not all white, like the gypsum in the White Sands. There also are deserts where there is more clay than sand, and the clay may be colored red, pink, brown, buff, and greenish, as well as several shades of gray. There are bright deserts of that sort in southern Utah. There is another beautiful one in Arizona. Nearly four hundred years ago, an explorer gave this desert a Spanish name that means the same as our words painted desert.  It is on a hill just south of the Painted Desert that Crota lives and suns himself beside red stones that are bits of petrified trees. Some of his relatives live in the Painted Desert itself, and so do relatives of Shorthorn, the horned lizard you will meet in the third chapter.


Crota's home among red stones which are broken parts of petrified trees.

When you go to the desert, don't stop for a day and drive away. And don't make your home in a hotel. Take a tent and camp beside tall cacti or among gnarled mesquite trees. You may expect it to be a very quiet camp—but probably you will be surprised. Cactus wrens will sing all day and Gambel quails will call kurr, kur‑kurr!  Bees will hum among mistletoe flowers. Doves will call coo, coo, coo-oo-oo.  At sunset, crickets will start to chirp, and you will hear the thump of Jack's feet as he hops about in search of supper. Here and there a sleepy bird will twitter, and you may hear faint little chirps made by Bannertail and his neighbors. Then a desert fox will call yap, yap!  making Bannertail hurry into his burrow.

If you are very lucky, a coyote will sit on a hill while he sings to friends far away on the desert. His song will start with a few barks; then it will rise in a high howl and end with several sharp yaps. It will surprise you and perhaps frighten you a bit at first, but soon you will begin to like it. As you listen to the song some night you will be glad when another coyote answers. After you have left the desert, one thing you will wish to go back for will be to sit near a cactus in the moonlight and hear a coyote sing!

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