Chasing the Memory of a Naturalist

Chasing the Memory of a Naturalist in Baja California Sur

Aven Satre-Meloy

Published in Written River #10

 

Ellen Meloy was a gifted naturalist and talented writer. She has been called an “empathetic soul.” I called her my aunt.

Ellen passed away suddenly in 2004 at her home in Bluff, Utah. I have few memories of her, but they are vivid: she is smiling or laughing, telling tales about bighorn sheep or riding downriver on a raft, face turned sunward. She wrote widely about the desert southwest, but I did not come to her books until long after she passed away.

I was a junior majoring in Environmental Studies when I took my first stab at natural history. As part of an advanced writing class, I joined a group of students on a ten-day kayaking expedition around the Espíritu Santo archipelago in Baja California Sur. In my journal, often sitting cross-legged in the sand, I began to explore landscape.

When I came back from Baja, eager to continue this kind of writing, I turned to my aunt’s books. Ellen visited and wrote about Baja in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of Wild, where she created a detailed “map of place.” I also read about summers on the Green River and her adventures chasing bighorn sheep in Southern Utah. I laughed at her obsession with swimming pools and admired her brazen vulnerability. After reading Ellen’s stories, I wanted to go back to the desert.

I returned to Espíritu Santo armed with Ellen’s books and a desire to discover more about Baja through writing. Before leaving, I chose passages from Ellen’s books that I especially connected with and used them to guide my journaling while I made my second circumnavigation of the archipelago. This is what I found.

 

Intoxication with color, sometimes subliminal, often fierce, may express itself as a profound attachment to landscape. It has been rightly said: Color is the first principle of Place.
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

 

Let’s start with the sky. An artist would search for the thickest, deepest blue to paint this sky. Just now, the only disruption is a circling turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, its dihedral wings a distant black flicker against the blue. As I gaze up, the sky pulls me in. Soon, however, the sun forces me to blink. It’s what gives the sky its miraculous color, really—this orb of white light and heat. I notice how it illuminates the lime green in my shorts and reddens the skin underneath.

We have stopped for lunch and some afternoon cliff-jumping several miles up an arroyo in the Sierra la Laguna. I recline against boulders that line the walls of this narrow canyon—a cascade of basalt intersecting gray, speckled granite. The basalt’s charcoal color runs like a river of hardened lava through rocky-road ice cream, but this rock burns. In the intense sunlight, every twisting crack casts its own shadow.

I can understand why this biome, which lies halfway across the Baja California peninsula, is called thornscrub. Tan, brown, black, gray. But a second glance reveals the intricate colors here. Such contrast exists among the multitudes of grays splashed over the rocks, the flat, endless sapphire sky, and the walls of this ravine, presently covered with cardon and organ pipe cacti, palo blanco, and rock figs with roots that anchor into cliff crevices. The earthen brown beneath this panoply of whites and greens presents another arresting contrast to the rest of the landscape. In fact, a painter would require a full pallette to do this environ justice, to evoke the jungle-green palm fronds that burst from the pool of turquoise-green and the cascading blue-gray water, turning emerald as it glides over the moss-covered granite. This water envies the blue sky above as it ripples over the granite and then splashes in bright whites down to the pool below.  “Where is the red?” the artist asks, eager to dab his brush into a new pigment. Just then, a flame-skimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, flashes across the water, zipping out of sight before we have a chance to notice the intricate pattern of red-orange along its back.

At dusk, the contrasts subside and make way for imagination. The sky swirls with red, orange, and ash-gray as if that same hand that spread the acrylic blue across the page now dripped burnt-orange and let the colors twist into one another. Sunset in Baja, maybe more than anything else here, has captivated me during my visits. Red-brown rocks and russet brush straddle the beige sand, barely illuminated now beneath the climbing moon. Auburn cliffs fade to black, and all that’s left is the slate of the incoming tide.

Colors become the face of the desert. They feel surreal in their surprising variety. As the sun goes down, from bold to gentle, the colors begin to vanish, signaling the calm that accompanies Baja night.

Yes, I think. This is why I come here.

 

On the sand, with my back to the continent, staring out to sea, I felt vastly content to watch the sun set over the Pacific, as if all my life, no matter where I was, this orb over the ocean was my Greenwich Meridian, everything set to its singular reliability.
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

 

Even at high tide, this channel remains tricky to navigate, as the water flows only a few feet deep. Low tide exposes ocean floor, which makes for a particularly good time to catch unsuspecting ghost crabs. Ocypode occidentalis often defies even the most nimble of predators, not only by its ability to change direction instantly but also by its inclination to disappear in a puff of sand when it senses Tevas sloshing in its direction. When the tide rolls out, these burrowing magicians are easier to rouse and snatch with a deft pinch with thumb and pointer finger. Success allows for close observation of the two stalked compound eyes that protrude from the carapace and provide 360-degree vision. These Space-Needle eyes draw the most attention, but one would be wise to watch those two front pincers, always looking to clamp down on unsuspecting fingers.

We kayaked through this channel in the late afternoon after skirting around the tip of La Partida, the second largest island in this archipelago. Tonight we will camp on a sand spit that nearly joins Espíritu Santo and Isla Partida. When the tide comes in, this spit becomes a snaking S that slithers between the two islands. A number of ramshackle huts speckle the southern half of the beach, and at dusk our guides often walk its length to purchase fresh fish for our dinner, bringing cigarettes and other small comforts for the fishermen who spend weeks at a time on this tiny bank of sand between the islands. Our group reaps the benefits in the form of delicious yellow tail or tuna tacos later that evening.

Before dinner, a few of us hiked up a peak at the top of Isla Partida. Although there wasn’t much of a trail and our trek consisted of scrambling up loose shale and around cardons, the climb was worth it: a magnificent, 360-degree view of the two islands and the winding water between them. From up here, the fishermen huts looked like monopoly houses pressed into the sand, and we could barely make out our multi-colored row of kayaks next to camp. Looking across the channel, we had a full view of the northern end of Espíritu Santo. A blanket of red rock covered its face and ravines zagged like lightning bolts down to the water below. Our campsite looked so small compared to the massive islands on either side, registering the immensity of the desert.

Later that evening, I found a quiet patch of beach midway between our tents and the fishermen huts to sit and watch the sun go down. La Partida is the only beach we camp at that’s not nestled tightly into a bay or cove, lending itself to a view of the setting sun. Currently, that sun illuminates a path of light through the channel where I sit—the Sea of Cortez and then hundreds of miles of Mexican mainland stretch behind me; in front of me, the distant shadow of the Baja peninsula fades as the red sun sinks behind it.

I have visited this island two times. I have spent two weeks navigating its geography. My worries melt away as I sit here on the beach, propped up by an over-inflated Thermarest, feet warm in the sand, gazing out over the rising waves. A breeze coasts across the bar of sand I am sitting on. It tickles the back of my neck, raising a shiver. Ghost crabs lurk beneath the sand. Goosebumps prick up on my sunned skin. The only complaint one could possibly have about this picturesque gap between Espíritu Santo and Isla Partida is its persistent wind. Still, it can’t spoil this moment of calm.

Thankfully, the sand still holds in the day’s heat, and the wind hasn’t picked up enough to pull me away. The sun is now a nub of crimson red above the distant outline of the peninsula, sending streaks of light out across the leeward side of Espíritu Santo and highlighting the cliffs one last time before darkness. Can this happen every night and I fail to notice? I want to lock away this vivid memory and the silence that accompanies it so I can drift back when worries occupy my mind. Time moves slowly. The sand on my feet now weighs a hundred pounds and my Thermarest sinks in deeper. I grow roots in this place.

 

It occurs to me that the entire reef is one giant digestive tract made of millions of intricate parts.... I have no voice for this complicated landscape, no language of perception. Little smell and scant hearing. Only keen sight, imperfect taste, faint, watery touch, and the ethereal muscle of currents pressing against me.
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

 

Reefs thriving with life hug the steep cliffs of Isla Espíritu Santo. When I put on my fins and mask, I enter an entirely foreign world. I am a stranger there. On my rare visits, I instantly feel smaller than I do above the surface.

I am, however, beginning to learn some of its inhabitants and its language. At the very least, I can point out the easy ones, such as the sergeant major, Abudefduf saxatilis, with neon-yellow along its dorsal spine and black stripes down its side. King angelfish, Holacanthus passer, dart about, earning their name with brilliant shades of deep purple-blue and white stripes behind their pectoral fins. I run down a list of several other common species endemic to the Sea of Cortez. Still, I feel lost when I try to grasp the complexities of this living, breathing bio-metropolis. My terrestrial vocabulary is too limited; it keeps me from fully perceiving, much less describing, the reef’s inhabitants.

On the way back from a late-afternoon snorkel along the cliffs lining Enseñada Grande, I swam into the shallows and put my hand down next to a sandy rock covered in coral and moss. Then I noticed that this rock had a tail and two bulbous eyes poking up at me. For a second, I thought my eyes were playing tricks—a common occurrence for the amateur diver—but then I saw its tail flick and confirmed that this wasn’t a rock at all. It was a stone scorpionfish, about a foot and a half long, blending perfectly into the shadows. Scorpionfish are adept at camouflage, and they possess strong venom that they deliver through their dorsal, pelvic, or anal spines. Unsuspecting visitors who misplace a foot or hand will experience a painful sting that can damage tissue and cause other long-lasting effects.

Sitting on the beach later that evening, I pondered the Scorpaena mystes I nearly grabbed in the shallows. I mulled over my lack of words for communicating about this world. My senses dull whenever my head dips beneath the surface; my hearing departs first, and sight and touch become compromised—and sometimes unreliable—guides in the depths. There’s something about this lack of control, though, that relaxes me. My need for precision and perception dissipates, and I feel content to rely on dimmed senses—to accept my fate of not knowing the reef’s secrets.

These secrets invite us to imagine the possibilities existing and evolving in the furthest reaches of our world, outside our grasp. They call us to appreciate life’s intricacies and its miraculous processes—some of which we know, much of which we do not. These secrets command our respect. They lead us to the edge of the water where it carves the sand into ribbons. They pull us into the shallows with mask and fins, ready to explore. They bring us to the rocky cliffs that jut out into the ocean, then down the rocky cliffs into the depths below.

 

Each time I look into the eye of an animal, one as “wild” as I can find in its own element—or maybe peering through zoo bars will have to do—and if I get over the mess of “Do I eat it, or vice versa?” and overcome any problems I might have with an animal’s animality, or, for that matter, my own, I find myself staring into a mirror of my own imagination. What I see there is deeply, crazily, unmercifully confused.
Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

 

We skirted another cove north of Enseñada Grande and pointed towards Los Islotes, ghostly white due to many years’ accumulation of guano. Before getting close enough to see them, we heard the sea lions’ barks bouncing across the water. When they came into view, I was amazed at how many were in the water, flippers outstretched above the waves. I could choose to see a greeting in this outstretched flipper, but I know that Zalophus californianus is making an attempt at thermoregulation. Capillaries that are close to the surface of the skin capture warmth from the sunbeams that spreads throughout the body, so Z. californianus can often be seen waving a flipper in the air to keep itself warm. We passed a few more enthusiastic greeters before we came close enough to the island to see the masses of Z. californianus clumped atop the low-lying rocks along the shore. I felt a moment’s trepidation at the size of the sea lions, some as large as full-grown bison, but also excitement that I would soon be swimming among them.

After jamming feet into snug fins and stretching goggles over salt-thickened hair, we dropped into the water. The cool liquid soaked into my wetsuit and engulfed me, beckoning me to the world underneath the water. I had heard about what to expect with the sea lions, but nothing prepared me for their playfulness, their curiosity, and, more than anything else, their agility in the water.

Two pups greeted us by swimming over to display their underwater acrobatics, flipping and twisting with a swiftness that still astonishes me even though I’ve swam with these animals before. From above, I watched them propel toward our dangling legs, curiosity piqued, and then dart away as soon as they got close. A passing thought about whether or not they enjoy our attention made me pause before diving down to get a closer look.

After resurfacing, I distanced myself from the group and swam a little closer to the rocks where an alpha male was proudly standing his ground. Bulls weighing as much as 2,000 pounds bathed on the rocks, sliding over one another to get the best spots in the sun. Nearby, pups that looked dwarfed in comparison were sliding in and out of the water. I swam toward them, making sure to keep my distance from the watchful alpha male, took a deep breath through my snorkel, and dove down to check out the coral, A. saxatilis, and pups below. Two swirled and flipped in front of me as if inviting me to play, and another smaller pup came forward in the water and abruptly swiveled belly up before propelling toward my snorkel mask. I remember seeing two enormous, circular eyes staring directly into my mask as I hovered there, jaw slackening around my snorkel.

In this moment, I felt two things. First, a connection to this creature like none other—not with dogs, or cats, or horses. This pup’s stare, although ever so brief, locked me in, creating a weird familiarity that I can’t explain. I wanted to run my hand down its chocolaty coat, to acknowledge this connection physically, but instead I kept my gaze fixed on those two marble eyes. The second feeling overwhelmed this flash of familiarity and connection. Utter estrangement. Floating there, staring into this upside-down creature, I felt worlds apart. We share the common class Mammalia, but there, for the most part, our similarities end. I didn’t have any idea what communicating or thinking might involve for this other creature, whose space I momentarily shared. I couldn’t begin to know what it thought of us neoprene-covered intruders. I wondered again, as I stared at this pup, if engaging with the natural world requires more than anything an appreciation of its mysteries. Our imaginations are free to run wild as we project our thoughts onto those with whom we can’t communicate, yet we must accept the vast distance between us. As I reluctantly admitted this to myself, with one last upside-down glance, the pup was gone.

 

The wild of this desert is a wild held intact by its own raw hostility, a reminder of nature’s capacity to awe as well as kill you.
Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

 

I am humbled. The desert has flexed its muscle, and I have felt its raw power. After breakfast, my head started to pound and I felt lightheaded. Nausea crept up and I pestered Christian, one of our guides, for electrolyte powder. I spent the next hour in the shade trying to fight the nausea. I’m drained. I never thought I would be the one to get sick, but I am being punished for thinking I could beat the sun.

They tell me I’m dehydrated, and it makes sense, but I think I’ve been drinking plenty of water. Maybe I could have gotten a bug, or maybe yesterday’s chorizos did not sit well; I’m still skeptical, but I’m actually hoping that dehydration is the culprit because it’s a relatively quick fix. Only time will tell, I think, as I sit against the cool cliff near the back of the beach.

This morning was especially rough—first, because I felt shaky and delirious, and second, because the whole time I had to withdraw from the group that I have so loved being a part of. I couldn’t help them when a panga bringing another four days worth of supplies coasted into our bay to drop off fruits, vegetables, a few gallons of Tequila, boxes of granola bars, and the other comforts that will accompany us on the second half of our journey. I was the first in our group to crack under the sun, to feel its strength take mine away.

My ailment presented one unsuspected benefit, however. I was able to enjoy the rare quiet on El Embudo, “The Funnel,” while the group hiked across the island’s ridge in the blistering heat. El Embudo is a beach on the northwestern end of Isla Partida. Its name reflects the long, funnel-shaped cove that leads several miles into the center of Isla Partida, ending in a small beach surrounded by red cliff walls. The beach is prized among Baja travelers because of its protection from El Norte, the winds that often become a kayaker’s nightmare when starting a journey around Espíritu Santo.

I was already attentive to the desert’s power after the fatigue and nausea this morning, but sitting on a boulder overlooking the afternoon sun as it played off the waves, my mind opened to the remarkable world around me. Though shaky, I feel thankful for the chance to see this magnificent biome with my own eyes. I appreciate the bite of the sun and the pull of the ocean. Can you fall in love in six days? I don’t know. Aware of how romantic my sentiments sound, my mind strains to find an explanation. But as I sit here—feeling the warmth on my face and the rough rock beneath me, reflecting on these things I am feeling and seeing—I am overwhelmed with how this place has taken me. I wasn’t a full believer in the desert when I arrived; I am more than a believer now.

Even as I feel humbled by the heat and sun and rock and earth, I still feel strongly that many should experience this place. You might think I would want to hide it away and keep it a secret, but no, I want to share it. It is full of life and history and raw, awesome power that cannot be read or heard or seen on a screen. No. It wants to be felt.

 

At low tide, Sally Lightfoot crabs sidle up the wet rocks. Across their blue carapaces runs a galaxy of white dots. Red-orange legs and claws cling to the slippery rocks even as blasts of rolling surf pound them. The crabs move forward and in reverse, but their sideways scuttle seems the most swift. Their wariness stays true to Steinbeck’s description of creatures who know your every move, hurrying or slowing as you hurry or slow, reacting to the direction of every approach.
Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

 

When I first approached the rocky point at the edge of our campsite along the beach, a number of Sally Lightfoot crabs were sunning on some boulders right against the incoming tide. When I came within several feet of them, they hurried to the other side of the rock, as if playing a grand game of tag and I was “it.” I slowly circled to the other side and saw them scurry to where I had just been standing. I wanted to keep up this chasing game, but when I came around again, the crabs had had enough and darted into the shaded cracks under the rocks. Feeling a bit put off that the game had ended so abruptly, I picked an elevated boulder about ten paces away to sit and watch.

Graspus graspus, one of the most common crabs along the western coast of the Americas, brings brilliant color to the tan rocks in Baja. Adult crabs, their varied carapaces coated in vibrant blues, oranges, and reds, look like miniature spaceships against the pale desert. Though I’ve heard that fishermen sometimes use G. graspus as bait, I have no idea how they catch them; I’ve learned they often make fools of hunters.

Sure enough, once I moved out of their space to observe them, one of the crabs slowly peaked its head out, checking to see if the coast was clear. Then, with amazing dexterity, it reached the legs on its left side down to a lower rock and swiftly pushed off from the right, all the while seeming to keep its eyes fixed on me. It moved with absolute caution, as if with every step it had to decide whether to dash back to the shadows. The crab rested atop a flat rock beneath a very thin overhang, providing it with shade. It slowly crawled out and then made a startling leap to a rock below, leaving my view as it slid down onto the sand. Another followed immediately in the first crab’s path. Then another. Three jumped down to the lower rock, crossing it quickly before crawling carefully down its vertical face to the sand.

I could now see the leader of this train of crabs. It moved with direction and confidence, pausing every so often to take in its surroundings and to make sure the straw-hat-wearing observer kept his distance. I think about the life of a Sally Lightfoot crab. I have studied its behavior, but I found myself wondering why it moves where it moves or jumps where it jumps. Whatever the reason, it does so effortlessly, with elegance and grace. Lightfoot. How fitting.

As I dislodge myself from my perch, a few of the Sally Lightfoots in my path scuttle away again, taking refuge in narrow cracks. This timidity won’t last long, though, for once the unwanted visitor has left, slowly but surely the Sally Lightfoots will resume their watchful positions. Their curiosity seems limitless, but I do not blame them. To them, the world is as curious as the orange and red-speckled universe that dots their sky-colored carapace.

 

I am quite sure that I could not stay forever in this coastal paradise in Mexico, but the glimpse of one of its purest moments is intoxicating. Gentle, humid air, an orb of crimson sun that can be looked at without going blind, mangrove thickets forever on the waterline, the distinctive lime-green undersides of breeze-swept coconut palms on the horizon, announcing the coming burst of turquoise sea.
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

 

A hush has fallen over our group, each left to his or her own thoughts as we sit on silky sand. It’s our last morning on the island, and we feel dazed. This could be explained by the fact that our ten-day journey is coming to a close. Or it could be that we are sitting on what many consider to be the most beautiful beach on the entire archipelago.

Playa Bonanza spans two miles in a banana-shaped arc on the southeastern side of Espíritu Santo. A few rocky promontories interrupt the expanse of white beach and, behind it, rolling dunes spread to the other side of the island. The sand feels different here than at other beaches on Espíritu Santo; it’s lighter and softer, and we sink into it up to our calves as we hoist kayaks up the beach. Probably due in part to the feathery sand, Playa Bonanza was selected as the location for the next Baja California Sur mega-resort, but its beauty was rescued when the Nature Conservancy stepped in to purchase the land. I think about the six days of paddling it took us to reach this beach, including an eleven-mile haul that left us all walking like the blue-footed boobies we so often poked fun at, and I am glad it will remain accessible only to expeditioners who work hard for its solace.

Around this time in the trip, when my shoulders burn from exposure to sun and wind, when my hair stands straight up with no assistance, when all the cuts, nicks, and bites across my feet and legs sting or itch, I long for civilization’s comforts. The thought of a hot shower to rinse away the coat of salt and a firm bed to sleep on creeps into my mind. I wonder if Ellen felt this longing after a stay in Baja. Perhaps her longing was not for hot showers but for the bighorn sheep of the Mountain West. The feeling of longing passes, and sitting here in the early morning sun with nothing but the turquoise ocean spreading out in front of me for as far as I can see, another feeling arises. Nostalgia.

This island, and this beach in particular, hypnotize me. Similar to how I felt watching the sunset across from La Partida, I am rooted to this spot. Intoxication with color is only the beginning. The melody of slow waves splashing the sand and the breeze, which brings respite from the burning sun, calm me. This could be one of those purest moments. Two magnificent frigate birds drift above me in agreement.

We leave today, and this does not entirely upset me, but this beauty, so lasting and sincere, will be missed. Several Sally Lightfoots come out along the rocks to share morning with me. An echoing slap on the water signals a breaching mobula ray. I find myself wishing that I could share one of these Baja mornings with Ellen. This feeling accompanies me for the next several hours.

When we load the kayaks for the last time to make our push around the southern point of the island, it hits me. I realize in many ways I am sharing Baja with Ellen. I am sharing her captivation with the sunset, her marvel at the reef, and her recognition of the desert’s power.

During my two stays on Playa Bonanza, I have witnessed the same scene at the far end of the beach, where a low cliff meets the water. Two oystercatchers are perched on a small ledge jutting out from this cliff, enjoying the mid-morning sun. Their orange bills make them stand out against the gray rock. It could be a simple coincidence, but I choose to believe it’s something more. I choose to believe that Ellen is here with me, piping her loud “wheep” across the ocean. This melody follows me the rest of day, and with it comes an attentive cheerfulness. Exactly how I remember Ellen.

 

Aven Satre-Meloy graduated from Santa Clara University in 2013 with degrees in Environmental Studies and Political Science. While at Santa Clara, he began to explore writing about landscape while conducting field research during several trips to Baja California Sur. A Montana native, Aven’s interests in natural history and environmental advocacy stem from many cherished experiences growing up in the Mountain West. Having worked in climate policy and clean energy in the years following his graduation, Aven is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford.