Back in the eighteenth century the French traveller Hector St Jean de Crevecoeur remarked upon the effect of the wilderness on the new breed of American pioneer. ‘I must tell you,’ he wrote home, ‘that it is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the plains… their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood.’
I’ll be brutally honest. I wanted to get a feel for the pioneer experience and I’m getting it. These are trying days. It’s very hot and there’s very little wind. It’s sapping my energy, keeping me indoors and making every little job seem like hard work. The most demanding task I undertook yesterday was going round the house killing crickets. Those lucky enough to land in the sink I remove in a cup and throw into the yard. I’m not sure whether that’s out of sentiment or a desire to keep the sink clean. But outside the sight of swarms of fat grasshoppers, sunning themselves on the hitching rail, hopping onto my legs and T-shirt as I do my rounds of the yard, perching on the trunk of the tree around my thermometer to stare at me every time I check the temperature – well, it’s had an unpleasant effect on me. From time to time I take my stick and see how many I can beat to death before they take flight. And what I don’t like is that I’m rather enjoying it.
The temperature did drop substantially overnight. Having reached 99 yesterday afternoon it was down to 55 first thing this morning.
I’m still getting out and about, however, and still finding things to interest me in the natural world. Some time ago, when A. was here, we were surprised to see what we thought were lots of little frogs hoping about in the grass down by Leander creek. I’m still seeing them, even in the parched vegetation up on the hills; and around the yard here. Yesterday a couple emerged from the remains of my zucchini patch and one tried to get in the house. They’re tiny toads, barely an inch in length, and they’re extremely hard to photograph, but of course I had to try. This one’s right down at the bottom of the picture tying to escape.
The hills around here are changing colour. Great swathes of the thinner, sandier land are now full of sunflowers.
They’re not the eight-foot high giants you see growing in rows in irrigated fields, not at all. Most of them are barely a couple of feet tall, many less than half that, but of course, like all most plants – and, you might say, people - they respond to challenging circumstances by trying to complete their reproductive cycle. I came across quite a few clumps of goldenrod that were similarly stunted.
Some time ago I mentioned that Native peoples used to tease out the fibres of the yucca and make a form of cloth. We’ve now reached the time of year when you can see how they got the idea – although I still wouldn’t fancy the job.
The longer I stay here the more I marvel at the ability of our ancestors to survive this - and the many harsher environments further south and west. To have to stalk your prey in this kind of heat, to have to sit motionless with insects buzzing around your head and biting you, to travel any distance without a drink, to confront all the many dangers and discomforts of this land on a daily basis… they must have been seriously hard and stoical people. But I suppose they would have had one great advantage over the pioneers who came out here, namely a wealth of folk knowledge, gleaned over thousands of years, of how to live in this environment, what plants or animals to eat, what ones to avoid, where to find medicinal aids; and of course they would have had a second, inestimable advantage, that they were born here. They knew no other way of living. The temptation for a visitor is to find yourself comparing the place with home rather too often.
I forgot to record, a few days ago, that Matt has been by and mown the weeds around the red house. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the insect life just yet, but I live in hope.
Well, they’re forecasting a little relief today. 90 degrees. I hope they’re right.