The Last Grassland (Part 4 of 4)

Sunset over Otero Mesa. Photo by Zoe Krasney.

This is the final installment of a four-part series on the beautiful, threatened Otero Mesa from New Mexico writer and Southwest Regional Office Administrative Assistant Zoe Krasney.

We hike back to camp in the heat of the noon sun, less cautious with fatigue and hunger. A shout from the front of our troop, and we gather around a fat 4 foot rattlesnake, belly up, his head smashed in. One of us pokes him with a stick, determining that he is quite dead, even though he has no eyes. He is rolled and kicked, the diamond scales of his skin dusted as his body kinks. A man holds the rattle, and another clips it off with his pruners. No blood. If it had eyes it would be staring at the sun.

During lunch dark shards of thunderheads pile, making the sky suddenly black. The temperature falls, and we run for our tents, just as cold rain splashes down. For 3 hours we huddle in sleeping bags, listening to the sky cracking right above us, as the rain blasts in the window mesh. I share my down pillow with a green sylph, read a travelogue of China, and note that it doesn’t look like a grasshopper or mantis, but some weird creature that could have stepped from the pages with its jade elegance. Coyotes howl in the distance, mournful as we are.

When the storm passes, it is late afternoon already. The musk of Creosote bush oils the air. We cram ourselves into two cars, and roar out over the slick road to visit a Black-footed prairie dog colony, an endangered keystone species of the Southwest ecosphere. Nathan said on his last service trip, the volunteers spent hours cleaning out the burrow openings, which had been jammed with debris and broken glass. This time, the holes are covered with cobwebs. There are no scoldings from the creatures as they dive into back doors. Most likely this colony has been poisoned.

In camp, beers are pulled frosty from ice-chests, a bottle of local sweet wine uncorked. The sun slips down. Bright lichens on the dark protruding rocks of Alamo Mountain give it an unearthly glow. The lawyer and I hike up the ridge to take photos of the red-gold ribs of light. Petroglyphs hewed into the rocks watch with us. Some are thick notches thousands of years old, strange symbols, or ones we see as a snake, a lightning bolt, a turtle! The lawyer points to one above us. Recognizably human, arms reached up, legs askew as he leaps or dances, solitary on his stone. Jupiter comes out, and Venus, the evening stars. It is almost dark.

Later that night I leave my tent after everyone is asleep. The Milky Way smears the heavens, the planets already set. In the absolute silence, I can almost hear the whoosh of constellations passing above.

If Otero Mesa survives oil extraction, if it is protected as wilderness until the end of time, it will be due to the efforts of those people who know and value its unique beauty. The grassland is most fragile, and as I lie down to make a grass angel, I know its shape will be gone as soon as I am, lost in the body of the land.