Santora Art Gallery, Santa Ana College, Santa Ana, CA
We’d spent the weekend working in mud mixed with cow manure to capture, photograph, catalog, and release endangered California pond turtles. It was May, and by August the cow pond would dry up leaving the turtles without water. Sam said they would crawl up the slope to shade and some of them might make it till that unknown time when rain fell again and the pond returned. The cattle ranch had been grandfathered into California State land. Sam seemed to have been grandfathered in with the ranch. Previously, the 40 square mile ranch had belonged to a family with Texas oil money. Not open to the public, the ranch is inhabited by a rotating population of elk hunters, forest service workers, biologists, ranchers, cows and other residents of the animal kingdom.
Sitting in the truck parked on top of the hill above the turtle filled cow pond Sam noticed a garter snake and suggested I catch it. I didn’t know how to catch a snake. Thought it was a pleasure to watch a six foot four, sixty-four year old man dive into gravel and catch a snake in one swoop, I regret passing up the opportunity to learn the same. I made a few photographs as Sam’ held the snake and explained how to identify a female. Then he released her. The other snake he caught that weekend, a snub nosed snake, comes out when the sun creates particular kinds of shadows. Sam spotted it on the slope of a hill off the side of the dirt road while driving. Now I know what snake trails look like and how to tell what direction a snake slithered off in.
The dirt road from the main ranch house out to the cow pond was poorly maintained making for a grueling half hour seven-mile ride in a four-wheel drive pickup with no air conditioning. There were frequent stops for cattle. On the second day we decided to try to assist a calf without a mother laying by the side of the pond. The first day it had appeared lost but mobile. Now it wasn’t moving. The only thing we could do was bring it back to the rancher who likely didn’t know it was there, motherless and dying. Sam lifted the hundred pound calf into a blue bucket someone might put beer in and we carried the calf awkwardly up the hill stopping every few steps to rest our muscles. We put it in the back of the pickup where the calf, too weak to complain, also had a grueling ride. When we arrived at the rancher’s house it was clear he would be letting the animal die. His wife would have bottle fed it around the clock when they were younger, but now… well, it was a lot of work with a subtext that it wouldn’t be their financial loss. Ultimately the calf existed to be killed. The haze in my mind created by a general physical sensation of being baked by the sun mitigated the depth of my bad feeling about this predicament. As we stood over the dying calf the rancher kept saying “Hell of a thing”. It was indeed a hell of a thing. On the last day as we began our drive out of the ranch Sam stopped the pickup and asked if I had a cow skull. I didn’t but do now.
Exiting the ranch we drove towards the Carrizo Plain through locked gates, and down remote dirt roads, seeing no other life form other than tall grass behind barbed-wire fences. Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California is like an island. The largest native grassland remaining in California, it is not contiguous with another grassland and so forms an arid island of grass. When an area with rich biodiversity is sectioned off on land such as the Carrizo Plain, though it might initially gain species like a refugee camp, over time it loses species, all of which become more genetically vulnerable.¹
Coming over the top of a small hill Sam stopped the truck. Before us was a desperate situation. In 100-degree weather, a newborn pronghorn was lying in the road alone, hyperventilating under the blazing sun. If we had been caught up in conversation or looked in another direction we might have run over it. I’d never seen a Pronghorn in person. People often think of a pronghorn as a kind of Antelope, but they are not. A pronghorn is simply a pronghorn. Native to North America, they are a unique species. Like many species, pronghorn increasingly exist in restricted spaces and are therefore on a pathway that includes the potential for extinction.
Normal newborn pronghorn behavior is to lie quietly, ears back, in tall grass to hide from predators while the mother keeps watch from a distance so as not to reveal their defenseless baby’s position. There is no inbred behavior to account for the crisscrossing of roads through grasslands. This newborn showed all the right behavior only in the road, suffering from dehydration. We couldn’t tell which direction it came from. The fences on both sides of the road went for as far as the eye could see. Sam climbed up an embankment looking carefully for the mother. With a 360 degree view for miles around there was no other sign of pronghorn in the area. Sam picked up the calf and they seemed to moan simultaneously. While he held it, I opened the newborn’s mouth and gave it water out of a Gatorade bottle. Sam told me to rearrange my position to reduce the risk of getting kicked in the face. He moved the baby off the road into tall grass and placed tumbleweed partially over it for good measure. We noted the location so we could report the animal to the park rangers.
Continuing our drive into the Carrizo Plain, Sam spotted a government vehicle. When we got to it, there were no people around. Lying in the shade of the vehicle was another baby pronghorn; behind it, an open Tupperware container of water. I photographed the calf but didn’t touch it. Like any baby it was helpless. The newborn stared at me with no sense of what it could mean to have a person swatting next to it. Sam left a note.
See you have a pronghorn. There is another calf ca. 3 days old on the road to Chimineas, 4.4 mi S jct Soda Lake x Seven Mile Rd. It was bedded in the road. We gave the animal water (it drank, is alert) and took it off the road, displaced 100’ N to nearest cover (map opposite). No female visible for 2-3 miles around.
Best of luck
A little while later still on dirt roads, the truck got a flat tire. I thought about how we could easily end up like the newborn pronghorn. We were becoming dehydrated and panting in the road. Fortunately we weren’t dependent on someone coming along for our survival. While Sam got out the spare I sat under the only tree we’d seen for what seemed like twenty miles. We took turns sitting in the shade and working on the tire so as not to get sunstroke. I did the easy parts and was grateful to be with someone capable and calm. Then we drove to where the Forest Service rangers live and reported the pronghorn. The two cases we’d seen that day weren’t the only ones.
After leaving the National Monument we drove over the Mountains towards Ojai, Sam pointed out a few bigcone spruce trees. There had been a fire. The bigcone spruce in the area were five hundred years old, with asymmetrical branches. Though naturally fire resistant, the intensity of recent forest fires as well as backfires started by the fire department to stop forest fires, seem to be sending the trees towards an endgame by no fault of their own. Out of everything we’d experienced that weekend, Sam seemed most affected by the bigcone spruce. I would have assumed I was looking at your average old pine tree without Sam’s guidance. As he spoke about them I too became more perturbed wondering what else I missed about the fragility of nature when I didn’t have a biologist translating my surroundings for me. Later when I showed the pronghorn photographs in a gallery in Santa Ana, everyone assumed they were looking at deer. They had never heard of pronghorn, just as I’d not heard of a bigcone spruce.
Sam started to fall asleep while driving so I stared at him and as his eyes repeatedly closed, touched his shoulder and politely offered to drive. He didn’t let me, something about my ability to see over the steering wheel while reaching the petals, so I kept poking him till we found a place to stop for caffeine. While eating, Sam asked why I didn’t become a biologist. I love the subject but have a difficult time with languages. I can’t sound out words. I still need them read to me, then I memorize the pronunciation, the way they look and how to spell them. I would have fallen too far behind just learning the terminology. I couldn’t have articulated this as a college student. All I knew then was that I got a C in foundation biology class for majors even though I got an A in the lab section. The planet would benefit if we were all better acquainted with biology. If we all saw in intimate detail the equivalent of pond turtles, pronghorns, snub nosed snakes and bigcone spruce.
A friend looking at my pronghorn photographs a few days after I got home asked if I’d petted them. Did I take the pronghorn home, or did someone else take the newborn in, like a stray dog or cat. Pronghorn travel up to 60 miles an hour; they are the fastest animal in the Northern Hemisphere for long distance running. Cheetahs are faster, but cannot sustain their maximum speed as long as pronghorns can. I pictured such an animal in my backyard in Los Angeles, and then I tried to picture a fictive government run wild animal shelter. I couldn’t begin to articulate how unrealistic it would be to take a pronghorn home. Sam checked in with the rangers periodically in the following months. Sadly, the drought made for a bad season for newborn pronghorns, but an adult and calf were sighted not far from the location of the first calf we saw.
¹ This is explained in fascinating detail in The Sixth Extinction; an unnatural history 2014, by Elizabeth Kolbert chapter IX