I was hiking in the low desert hills, built up by hundreds of small volcanic vents over millions of years – this is not only description, but also essential context. The late summer monsoons had rained well over portions of the area and while most of the water had run off or soaked down through the volcanic gravels, in places where the old lava was on the surface, pools had formed in basins of solid rock – watery mini-ecosystems in the desert.
Deserts are not like Disney movies: there is little highly animate life to see there. Unlike the Florida subtropics of my youth with alligators, herons, gulls, snakes and myriad insects measured in hundreds per yard, a desert walk of many miles may have only the excitement of the flies-in-season or a female sparrow of indeterminate species. The times when water holes are reliably found, however, offer up a rare abundance. It was such a day.
I stopped to observe, more meditatively than an act of science, a pool of brown-yellow water in what had been, up to 8 thousand years ago, a permanent stream flowing out of the higher volcanic hills to the east. Little black dots appeared and disappeared over its surface. Tiny yellowish comets (fairy shrimp for the curious) came up from the hazy yellowish depths and with spiraling turns descended again. A mix of water bugs, shiny black bodies, sprinted about. Water striders, spidery-looking insects, walked on the water with God-like ease. It was a complete world from the energizing algae to its top predators, tadpoles and damselfly larvae. Of course, the few birds used its water for baths and nibbled a bit at its inhabitants, but these were largely externalities. Dead flies, moths and butterflies slid around the surface driven by swirling breezes. It was wonderful.
Soon the patterns of activities began to show; responses to shadows passing over the surface, one local flurry of action would follow another, moments of quiet. Seemingly random motion would bring nearly all the tadpoles to the surface at once, more than a hundred squirming black dots concentrated toward the center of the pool, and then they would appear in numbers half that or less. In the bigger pools I had seen minnows, but not in this one.
If the rains were done for a time, this pool and others like it would dry in a few weeks, evaporating into several tiny puddles and then gone. The animals watched today would all be dead, their eggs secreted away in rock crevices and the mud, soon to be dust.
I could not, and did not wish to, fight off the sensation/intuition/thought of the thousands of seasons of these pools, the sensation of the kaleidoscopic spiraling of events from this moment back to the flowing stream, to the flowing lava and to the moving earth. All of these were contained in the DNA of these little beasts before me – as certainly as the warmth of the sun and cool of the shade. And yet they had only incorporated a tiny part of those changes – just those that let them carry on from this year’s pool to next year’s pool.
From were I sat at the edge of the water I could see very little of my own pool: there was a bit of ancient barbed wire fence along a near ridge, con-trails in the sky and, if I allowed myself to see them, the tracks of some rock-crawler truck in the old river bed beside the basalt altar that held the mud-yellow water.
When the river ran in this now dry canyon, dry except of the September pools, my own species had just come to this land as bands of stone-tooled hunters. My own direct ancestors were living in villages across middle Europe only a stone’s throw in time from the Neanderthals that they displaced.
Off in the distance I could see, from the top of nearest low hill, a city of 80,000 people. Down the slope was the yellowish pool with its thousands of inhabitants; off to the east was my own pool with its thousands of inhabitants.
These walks into the desert are always wordless meditations; to turn them into language with its meanings and rules of construction both gives them more tangible form and diminishes them toward insignificance. The clarity of understanding is, however, not completely lost when I say that all the comprehensions about the muddy little pool were seen as absolutely the same for the city.
The simplicity of the pool, its origin seemingly owed solely to a monsoon rain, was belied by the complex biology of its inhabitants and the millions of years of evolution that made the rain their immediate source, but stoked the new water with a subtlety of DNA’s design come to by all the sophistication of that molecule – just so for the city.
The fate of the pool, so certain and immutable: when the water is gone, the whole beautiful construction of life is gone. I can easily see in my mind’s eye the city’s margins contracting, the contiguous sprawling dividing up into a dozen smaller isolated centers, those centers disappearing one by one until the rocks and little trees of the hill sides above the city spread uninterrupted out to the volcanic plains and hills where I am standing; the city dried up and gone, and without even leaving the eggs of its inhabitants ready for the next iteration.