Saturday, January 12, 2008

In Search of the Elusive Elephant Tree

The Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla) is a rare member of the Sonoran scrub community, left behind in a few relictual populations after the ebbing of the last ice age. Our amateur expedition convened to verify its rumored existence with our own senses. Lacking professional expertise, we relied on a map of hearsay and riddles. Intoning these raw directions with varying emphasis, turning the map while squinting, convincing ourselves of our own speculation, falling back into self-doubt at the next turn in the faith and blind reckoning we journeyed and when we couldn't drive any more we got out and walked.

The crunch of desert gravel, second-growth ironwoods twisted like deep time, patches of magically incongruous moss growing in the deep shadows, a butterfly (Hemiluca tricolor) warming to the January morning. It seemed nothing could hide in the glorious panopticon of brilliant Sonoran sunlight. But it was only the illusion of omniscience - we knew the elusive Elephant Tree lurked somewhere in the thick desert scrub, but we didn't know where.

We pushed on. Past abandoned mines, over barbed wire and barbed cacti. The steep and gutted tracks curved around a dry valley, attained the saddle, and continued up the south-facing slope of Mt. Silverbell. There, tucked in a cozy drainage of austere smooth rock waterfalls, clinging to unlikely toeholds on the sheer wall, were the Elephant Trees; the thick trunks peeling elegantly in the sparse shadows. Fragrant limbs and resinous (juniper-like) berries carried a pungent and uniquely fragrant odor, a benediction to the dry dust desert.

We watched the sun cross the sky from our perch among them, tucked away with them in cozy niches, waiting patiently or perhaps resigned to fate, relicts in a strange world. They are safe and comfortable raising small families in their isolated enclave. We thanked them for their time and magnanomous patience when posing for our photographs. None of us wanted to leave, but we have faith now that the elusive Elephant Trees can abide without us.

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