The scent of a fresh start
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And now, a surprisingly cool plant.
So, y’all know me (or, if you don’t, hi there! I’m pretty animal-obsessed).
Or a lizard.
Or a kangaroo rat. A tortoise? A tarantula? How about those burrowing owls?
No no and no said our guide.
It was too cold. Everyone was asleep in their burrows.
She punctuated the sentiment by diving at the particularly large entrance to a burrow, one that was blocked by rocks.
“A human did that,” she said, leaning in, and now her whole arm was gone, into the burrow and behind the biggest rock. She strained to pull it out. I and my friends stared at her, startled to see her slip so quickly half-underground.
“For fun,” she grunted, pulling out the huge chunk of concrete on her own while we watched.
“It was probably a tortoise burrow,” she said, “and someone came along and blocked it with concrete and rocks. I always pull them out whenever I see that. Now something else can move in.”
We took a moment to contemplate the mentality of a human who would wall a tortoise into a long and no doubt painful death inside their own burrow, but a moment later Christina, the guide, was talking again, this time about one of the plants growing from the mound atop the once-blocked burrow.
“Look at its leaves,” she commanded.
“Why would a desert plant have small leaves?”
I wasn’t sure. This plant had small leaves, but I didn’t know why. It was true though, I couldn’t think of a desert plant that had leaves like a maple or oak. the other members of my group were taking guesses, but all guesses were wrong.
“No,” said Christina, “it’s to prevent the leaves from getting a sunburn.2 Now bend down, cup your hands over the leaves, breath out and then breath in.”
We did as we were told, slightly frightened, by this point, of this woman who lived like Alice in Wonderland, half on the surface and half below.
“People are crazy for this smell,” she said. “Desert rain.”
We sniffed again. She was right. That was exactly the smell — I never knew exactly what was being marketed to me when I was told something was “desert rain,” I think I thought it was just two words that were both familiar and somehow also exotic, like moonlight bliss or summer sunrise — but no, apparently this one is a real scent.
This plant thinks when you breath on it, your breath might be rain, said Christina. When it thinks its raining, it releases that scent — the scent of desert rain.3
I never did see a big horned sheep or a tortoise or a tarantula, though I did see a roadrunner, which I loved (though of course it doesn’t really say “beep beep.”) And a shrike, my bloodthirsty favorite — it impales lizards and other prey on yucca plants for safekeeping.
But it was the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) that I kept returning to. At Indian Cove, at Barker Dam, at the house — almost anywhere you looked, there was a plant to which you could offer your gift of breath and it would offer its gift of a fresh, clean scent, as if the world was begun again, as if we could begin again.
An update from Christina — much more accurate than my memory of what she said! On the walk, she shared that the small leaves are “an adaption of desert flora to survive in arid ecosystems, by having small leaves it reduces evaporation (loss of water). If the leaves were large they would loose water and the leaves would burn.”
Christina clarified: “by using the moisture of our breath we were mimicking the moisture during a rain that releases the aromatic terpenes of Larrea.”