Ready for Anything

Purity. It’s worth a try. With a marriage on the rocks and unsure of a career path, I gave it a try in 1977. I packed up my Land Rover and moved from Boulder, where I had tried graduate school, to the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, where I would try to write a book about wonder. This isolated range, once the haunt of Cochise and Geronimo, has an exotic biota more like that of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental than the mountains to the north. Its presence within U.S. borders, arranged by James Gadsden with railroads rather than biota in mind, has made the area a favorite spot for birders. Here one may easily take that quantum leap in life experience that comes from seeing a species for the first time, and then do it again and again.

In search of something more elusive than additions to my life list, I had come to this enchanted place in hopes of gaining access to, and then writing about, the secrets of that sense of wonder that had always impelled my scientific curiosity. By October, a month in, I was already suspicious that discovery, and the wonder it evokes, is largely an act of innocence, that searching is not nearly so conducive to its realization as is a kind of non-directed openness. I took long walks in the canyons and in the desert, looking for nothing, ready for anything, or so I thought. On the 23rd of that month, a Sunday, I went for such a walk in the canyon of the South Fork of Cave Creek. A description of the ensuing events follows.

Twenty-one days ago I walked here in summer. Now a few of the sycamores are turning yellow, as are the Gambel oaks high above on the slopes of Portal Peak. And up this very canyon are maples that turn red. I will get to them soon enough. What absorbs me at the moment is a new way of looking. The nearby boles of oak and cypress rush by like railside telegraph poles while the background of thickety scrub oaks, cherries, and ashes glides along with me. The details of the distant scene tantalize me as the moving trunks alternately reveal and obscure bits of the whole. The details of life are similarly screened I think, although we seldom remember it. It takes fiction to remind us that we are not seeing the whole picture. I like John Barth’s image of a play performed on a barge that moves to and fro in a canal, the audience scattered on the bank catching only parts of the dialogue. For me it speaks of the requirement to keep moving if one is to see things whole, along the bank of Barth’s canal, and up this path.

I move. A tall golden sycamore that seems to glow against the gray sky reminds me of a soulmate it has near Denver, an ash whose Cezanne-swatches of orange and yellow and salmon against an endless dark sky once made my otherwise depressing world poignant. The sycamore here strikes the cord of that poignancy and it resonates instantaneously, just as an unusual odor may whirl you off to some far corner of your past. It is a marvel of the psyche that a sensation can be so deep with time, so full of details and symbolism, and still be instantaneous. Words, hundreds of them, can only suggest the meagerest superstructure of events, only sketch impressionistic pictures of emotions, and they take so long to scribble down.

Yet I stop to do just that. My scribbling is soon interrupted for me to meet another who aspires to paste words together for a living. A group of people has engulfed me. Vince Roth, whom I met only recently, introduces Rick Taylor, the would-be author. Rick has heard that I am writing a book and grills me to learn if my project will overlap his, a popular account of the coppery-tailed trogon. I assure him that he has nothing to fear, but my vagueness about my intentions, although true to the situation, leaves his discomfort unassuaged. He has spent the past two summers studying the breeding behavior of the trogon, and he understandably doesn’t want to be scooped. Eventually, though, Rick completes his questioning and catches up to his group, which has drifted up the trail, and I resume my scribbling.

Soon I overtake them, perched under some maples on a huge rock by a deep pool in the creek, and pass them by. I cross the creek twice more and pass though the turnstile into the no-cow’s land of the upper canyon. My attention is suddenly diverted by a squeal of a bird call, one I have never heard before. This is no big surprise, for many are the unidentified cries in these novel woods. I leave the path and find the bird sitting, his back toward me, on a large pine branch. I am a bit disappointed that it is only a male coppery-tailed trogon and not something new, even though the bird is certainly handsome with his iridescent blue-green back and tail and his gray-black head. The coppery-tailed trogon may be the celebrity bird of all southeastern Arizona, but today I am not really interested in birds, and I tramp away unimpressed.

Where the path traverses an open hillside I see the sun smudging the gray clouds with platinum, strongly enough to sprinkle shadows at the feet of the goldish sycamores. But damp prevails over light. The raindrops that fell earlier have awakened that moist-earth smell we love. Now, a few more fall.

The surface of the tiny stream, ten feet below me, is jiggling. It jiggles like the control on a pressure cooker, like a contented teakettle on a wood stove. The surface seems to vibrate uniformly, as though a hand placed on it would feel the electric thrill of a power tool. Yes, the water molecules jiggle in place, as their atoms slide to and fro, as their electrons dance around their hollow centers. They dance infinitely small, these electric stints, they dance their tried tracks, their fresh improvisations, and together they conjure a spangled surface, like a million spawning grunion in a moonlit tide, like a distant glittering flock of sandpipers, now showing their light bellies, now their dark backs, as they wheel and turn in unison.

A unison. A singing the same song. Each atom a separate singer, each electron a unique dancer, yet all together a single surface. We, the water and I, this rocky earth, these white-barked sycamores, we sing and dance it too. My streaming plasm, the jiggling water, the stolid granite, all one, all joined in anima. Inanimate, we say of rock and water, but we are wrong. Anima, said by some to set us apart, in reality joins us together.

I hear a noise to my left, but I cannot see. My view is blocked by trees. I think it is a noisy human I hear, then a deer. It is close, on the far bank of the e stream, a gentle slope covered with a year’s fall of pine needles and oak leaves. It must be some animal coming for a drink. Wrong. I see a broken limb resting on live ones, rocking back and forth, slowly descending earthward, as though some squirrel were running back and forth on it, gradually forcing it through the bower of limbs and twigs. It finally finds repose on the ground. No more sound, from it, ever.

I have witnessed the falling of a limb, the only players its mass and gravity, the inexorable counterforces, the perpetual contestants. We see the limb in its place on the tree; we see it lying rotten upon the ground. Those are static states. Do we see its descent, the one journey it makes in its lifetime? Are we looking in just the right direction at just the right time? Only when we are lucky.

The water jiggled. Is this another glimpse at the secret movements of the universe? Another question to scream about between my ears as it caroms off the bony walls of my hollow head? Now there are no more raindrops, and no more jiggling water surface. I see a pool. I see through the water to the bottom. The surface film is inconsequential–transparent–only a highway, a playing field for water striders. I see the brown mulchy leaves and the flat stones at the bottom of the creek. I go closer. Water striders move about like jerky space craft. Each movement produces a ring of concentric ripples. The waves from two striders meet, proceed through each other, canceling and amplifying. The water surface trembles . . . jiggles? Was it only water striders all along? No, it was raindrops. Falling raindrops, jiggling water, spreading waves, bouncing molecules, dancing atoms, spinning electrons, animate, anima.

A red, yellow, and black snake glides into view on the slope above me. Snakes are so rarely seen that every view is memorable. This one inspires chills of excitement and a little fear. It can’t be a coral snake; I wouldn’t be so lucky, first to see one of the rare serpents and second, if I see it, to see it at such great distance. This one is over two feet long, too big I think for the Arizona coral snake, and the bands are black-yellow-black-red. I seem to remember that coral snakes have equal numbers of bands of all three colors. It must be a king snake, and is no less beautiful for it.

About this time Rick Taylor walks up and we chat a bit. Hesitantly I tell him about the trogon and its strange call. I expect to hear that this was indeed a regular call of male trogons, that I have witnessed nothing unusual, but instead he says, “What? I heard that, but I was talking to someone and didn’t follow it up. I’ve never heard it before either.” Rick retreats down the trail to look for the odd-voiced trogon and I proceed upward, where I soon spy a female varied thrush he has mentioned, dressed in muted shades of the harlequin purple and orange of the males of the kind. Now here is a bird worthy of excitement, for few ever leave their Pacific Coast home and only one or two a year make it to the Chiricahuas. I forget about trogons and Taylor completely.

Maples, here and there red or yellow-orange or salmon-red-buff, stand out in the green of the canyon bottom. For each one I give a cry of delight, a cackle, a bellow, an outright laugh of glad incredulity. Their leaves lie flat in the still, sunless air, splaying out from black twigs. Their colors are ephemeral, uninspectable in their mellow softness. The sky is low and gray.

A shower comes to an oak-covered hillside above the maples and sycamores. At first it is but a mist. A hidden landscape springs into focus, the whiteness of misty veils deepening with each ensuing ridge. Rhyolite, white-washed by the curtain of rain, becomes the jagged, fissured karst of a Chinese landscape painting (ox carts trundling along precipitous switchbacks, little shrines clinging to the cliffs.) A throne-broad shoulder of mountain divides the canyon. Beyond rise peaks. On and on, deeper and higher in a never-ending geometry spread the slopes. Chaparral and fir cling to the plunging chasm walls. Pine-tree vertebrae silhouetted against the misty gulfs bring out the ridges. Cross-canyon, yellow-green ashes dot the hard gray-green slopes with wet luminosity. Rain undulates in sheets, the drops barely heavy enough to resist dancing off on the arm of a zephyr. It makes no sound.

Clouds move slowly on. Without the mists to highlight them, declivities melt into a flat background. Sun beams down from above the throne, sending six shafts of misty light through six notches in its parapet. Six bands, each uniformly dense within itself, each having, because of distance, an abrupt border with the next. The sun backs up farther, lighting up every tree on the rear peaks. Each tree seems to throw a long shadow into the vapor. Clouds move, trees disappear into the mountainside. Sky clears. Water droplets hang from leaves. Yellow aspens emerge high on the slopes. The stream tumbles with renewed vigor. I sit under my sheltering oak long after the shower passes, listening to the stream’s many voices.

Onward, toward the throne itself. One maple out of two hundred has red leaves; the others still green or just turning. But the effect of those lone trees among all that green, as I round a bend or come over a ridge, is so satisfying that I feel I could die right here. I cannot even imagine what this place will look like when all the green has turned to red.

Much later, as I walk homeward, moonlight that has found a way through the sycamores bounces off a puddle in the creek and hits me squarely in the eyes, the rocks and ripples unable to dilute its brilliance. Even in the dark, water striders send out pulses. A small owl flies onto a short limb about twenty feet ahead of me. It peers nervously, shifting its head right and left for a better view. I raise my binoculars slowly and see a square tuftless head with white on the face, and dark streaks on a light breast. It is a saw-whet. Two others, perhaps of another kind, call on the slopes. The wind sighs in the pine boughs; it carries faint smells. Its fingers touch my face delicately, like kitten paws.

On Tuesday I decide to pack into the canyon and spend the night at a beautiful little campsite on a maple-enshrouded terrace beside the stream. I am unloading my pack at South Fork Campground just as Vince and Barbara Roth drive up. He comes over, and says conspiratorially, “Hey, we’re not going to say anything about the bird. We don’t want it to get on the rare bird alert in Tucson and have people crawling all over here scaring it away.” “Sure,” I agree, not at all sure why someone would want to put a trogon on the rare bird alert. This includes me in a conspiracy whose significance I don’t grasp, and the uneasiness that brings me, with the possibility my ignorance might be betrayed, leads me to contrive to separate myself from my co-conspirators by walking faster.

But Vince is not slow. In the vicinity of the turnstile I stop to look at a lizard, and as they catch up to me I ask him what kind it is, although I’m fairly sure of its identity already. Just then two men I don’t know come down the trail. They are evidently part of the conspiracy. The older man introduces his son, a state undersecretary of agriculture. Vince asks if he got a good look. “Yes, three times,” says the undersecretary, “it flew right over us.” It should be noted that as undersecretaries do not live in hamlets like Portal (where I live) the word has spread beyond the limits of the Chiricahuas. I will much later learn that the older man is Portal resident Mac Cutler. Apparently he received a dispensation to share the word with his blood relations.

Vince then mentions Gale Monson of Tucson, a very important figure in the Arizona birder world. In fact he might be considered Arizona’s bird-pope, one whose word must be given before a rarity can be said really to have been present. Monson certainly must be included, but it is becoming clear that the oath of secrecy is selective. This is further corroborated when the Cutlers mention that the Schaughencys are up ahead. I slip away, so confused by the goings-on that I want to be rid of them. It is maple leaves, not trogons, that quicken my pulse. Why are these people on alert? The best I can guess is that this is very late in the year for a trogon to be around, but my own experience with rare bird alerts indicates this is too much fuss and secrecy for a mere laggard. I smell bigger prey. But I am determined not to act like a twitcher, so I walk on, clinging to my indifferent ignorance.

I find the Schaughencys draped on a hillside, the very spot where I watched the jiggling water. They are a pleasant-looking retirement-aged couple. He is tuckered out, and well he should be, for his burden, a camera with 500-millimeter lens and a portable tape recorder with a bulky parabolic reflector for the microphone, leaves no room on his chest for binoculars. “Did you see it?” I say cleverly, at once giving the password and disguising my ignorance of the identity of “it”. “Oh yes,” he says, but it seems they didn’t have a very good look. We drift into talking about recording equipment, and then I take my leave.

Far up the trail, where it leaves the canyon and traverses the steep slope through oak and juniper, bunchgrass and sotol, a bit of gooey excrement catches my eye. It is full of mistletoe berries. This, with hope, persuades me it is the sign of a coati, deposited here as an announcement that such and such a coati claims these parts for his own. Perhaps I shall yet catch my first glimpse of one. They are usually common in this canyon, and are even considered pests at the national monument on the west side, but an illegal trapper decimated the South Fork population last summer, playing havoc with Kim Innes’s research project and depriving countless nature-lovers, like me, of a view of another tropical species at the northern end of its range. Today I receive a consolation prize, a glimpse of a male Montezuma quail, perhaps the most oddly-patterned bird in North America, as it walks through the bunchgrass. I follow, but to no end. These birds freeze when pursued and now it is secreted fast under one of the countless clumps of tall grass.

The little campsite is bound to become my favorite spot in these mountains. Just as the trail starts up a steep slope you see it below you, a perfectly flat area of about 200 square feet with a large boulder at one end and a small stone-ringed fire pit at the other. Maples grow all around, spreading their branches low over the terrace, their leaves one-by-one blocking out squares of light until only a few survive to enliven the quilt of shades on the ground. The leaves have not turned, a mild disappointment more than compensated for by the fulsome light that floats like green haze among the branches. Three feet below, down a slippery steep bank, is the creek itself, pellucid as glass now in its slow autumnal flow. Upcreek a few shrubs grow on the banks and on their branches a black-throated blue warbler searches quietly, methodically for insects. Like the thrush he is a rare and unexpected visitor, but unlike it he is an Easterner. Among a family of colorful birds noted for greens and yellows he might be called unspectacular, but in my eyes he’s the handsomest of all, and his slaty-blue upperparts, black face and breast, and white belly seem to fit perfectly in this shady canyon.

Just downstream from my vantage point the creek disappears among some boulders. It gushes out at various levels and resumes its journey eight feet below. A notch between two big rocks is its high road, and though it merely trickles over the precipice now I am sure it fairly plummets in flood. I make my way down a rock on the right bank to a ledge that declines barely below the horizontal and into the water. Above, a huge rock face truncates a steep slope that creeps to the southern ridgeline. The ledge would be a good place to sit and watch the creek go by, were it not wet and mossy.

I cook dinner over a small fire, a little pot of tea-water hanging from a stick cradled by two forked sticks. As I sip the tea in a thin chill under the umbrella of maples, all striving quits the place. For a few hours, past and future recede, and all is present.

The next morning I find a red-leafed maple. It is in fact the last maple in this canyon, a large tree that fills the place with spreading limbs and clings with exposed roots to the rocky floor of a torrent. To stand before it is to be in a different world, with a different color scheme. Its influence pervades everything. There is a tangible glow, a warmth within its canopy. It is hypnotic, and draws your gaze into its pale so that you ignore the green around and behind. This tree is red: I hear it, feel it, smell it. But none of those sensations comes through the appropriate organs. The visual effect is so great that other parts of the brain chime in sympathetically.

After the tree I sit for hours atop a rock that thrusts its great bulk into the branches of a sycamore. I suppose the pretext is lunch, but the hours seem to be filled with wine and the besotted bourgeois poetry of Li Po. Here I look in a different way. Movement belongs to the earth, and I am more the viewed than the viewer. And thus watched I also see.

At length I stuff my sleeping bag, toss my gear into my pack, lash it all together, and head home. It has been a good trip and the time goes quickly as I march along, my attention lost in reveries. As I move into the lower, more familiar part of the canyon I begin to think of the mysterious trogon. I’d like to see it again, I think, the germ of an insight taking shape in my mind. Then the insight bursts into full flower. Perhaps it is not a coppery-tailed; perhaps it is some other kind of trogon!

None of Mexico’s eight species of trogons, outside the regular coppery-tailed, has ever been seen in the United States. If this is some other trogon it is a first U.S. record. Now finding a species new to the United States is not an accomplishment of great importance, but it does have its rewards. In fact, I would secretly welcome, although no doubt publicly disavowing any interest in, the notoriety this would bring me.

What might it be? Six of Mexico’s eight species are the basic green and red. These differ in minor but distinctive ways. I might easily have overlooked the distinctions in my casual glimpse. The most likely is the mountain trogon, a bird very similar to the coppery-tailed trogon, which comes within a few hundred miles of here in the Sierra Madre. The most exciting would be the eared trogon, perhaps the rarest trogon in the world, which thousands of people, including me, have sought unsuccessfully in the same Sierra Madre. I don’t remember the distinctive characteristics of each Mexican species, but I know that bill color, tail pattern, and presence or absence of a thin white band between the green and red on the breast are the things to look for, as I think again, it certainly would be interesting to have another look at the bird.

After I have thought these good thoughts for a third of a mile the bird miraculously calls for me, directly ahead. I brace for anything. It is facing away again. You lummox, I curse myself, remembering now as I see it again that the tail was and is the same color as the back, an impossibility for the local species. I could have been first. But with great respect for my fellow man I suppose, hopefully, that the others were as stupid as I. The bird flies before me, and as it does I see that is has no white breast-band. I have tried to maintain a mood of detachment until now, following this celebrity bird with a heavy pack on my back. But now the birder in me is fully awakened; I ditch the pack and clamber up the hill in pursuit of the bird, which has decided to ditch me. I get a fair view up the slope through an oak, then the bird goes higher. If forced to contemplate the pinnacles I scale in headlong pursuit of birds I would never consider an attempt. But now, as typically, I don’t contemplate, I crawl, knee over elbow, fingernails and knuckles digging into the gravelly slope. I get a lateral view of the trogon, then he flies beautifully across the canyon to an exposed perch far below, where I can make a detailed if distant study of it.

All the field marks are well seen: long tail, blue-green on its back and white below; black head; dark eye with no orange eye-ring; white bill, although this could be reflection off a glossy dark one; no white breast band. I suspect these characters spell eared trogon, but I must check a field guide to be sure.

The last mile to the car goes very quickly and so does my drive down the road toward my field guide, but even with my excitement, my confidence in the density of the others wanes and I begin to suspect that I am the scooped rather than the scooper. The final element of chance in this odd story is the presence in the yard of the ranger station of Rick Taylor as I speed by. The Land Rover screeches to a stop. One look at his face confirms all. “You saw it?” he asks, as I bolt from the car. “Yes, what is it?” “Eared trogon.”

We share our stories over a couple of beers. The bird has been around for more than a week. Kim Innes saw it and sluffed it off. Ruth Morse saw and heard it and was puzzled, but didn’t say anything. I saw and heard it and didn’t care. We are all stuck in our little ruts. It took the expert to open our eyes. If he hadn’t gone out that Sunday it would have remained for a visitor to discover it. Then there could be no conspiracy of secrecy, except perhaps to keep the locals blissfully ignorant.

The conspiracy, at any rate, is doomed to failure. Before the trogon tires of showing off and moves to the Huachucas in December, over 800 people will come to look for it. Many will fail. One who succeeds will drive straight through from Florida, walk up the trail, see the bird in 45 minutes, return to his car and drive home, straight through. Such is the mettle of the modern birder.

As for me, I quickly eschew claiming a part in the discovery and take a self-righteous pleasure in remaining above the fray. I secretly look for the bird several times, but without success. I see it again, while reading under a tree after a picnic. And in fact, though not the first, I am the last to encounter it, one more time when it is the farthest thing from my mind. Like wonder and romance, the eared trogon comes to me only when I do not seek it.

An so ends the hitherto untold story of my discovery of the eared trogon. While I was on stage no one was on the bank.

Notes

The Eared Trogon is of course now known as the Eared Quetzal. Its scientific name, Euptilotis neoxenus, has not changed.

The official account of the first records of Eared Trogon (Quetzal) in the U.S. is Zimmerman, D.A. (1978) American Birds 32:135-139.

I believe Bob Morse also published an article on the first sightings, but I have not been able to recover the reference.

Mac Cutler’s son was not a state undersecretary, as I assumed. The person I encountered with Mac had to be Rupert Cutler, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Carter Administration, and a great friend of conservation.