Miguel's Giving Tree
Its branches are stark white like bones left to bake in the desert sun. They reach hopefully skyward seeking the blue but never quite getting there. On the thinnest branch at the very top sits a speck of orange. It seems to be posing, looking down at something (or someone) perched underneath the tree. I follow its gaze and sure enough, poised in the stillness that only true birders (and yogis) have, is a man as tall and lithe as the willows that surround him. He is dressed in birding regalia and points a camera upward and westward toward the tree and the orange speck. The camera has a lens that seems as though it could reach all the way to Texas. Chinle is tugging at the leash, anxious to explore the wetland trail, but it means walking by the man and potentially disrupting his delicate task. So we stand and wait until he steps away from the tripod and then timidly approach. I humbly ask him what he’s photographing. He turns around generously. His smile is small but mighty, and as I get closer I realize he’s well over 6 feet tall. “I’m Miguel.” He says with more loudness than I would have anticipated. “And this is my giving tree.” I smile and say, “I’m Michelle and this is Chinle, my pain in the butt dog.” As Miguel chuckles a low groan wafts upward from the murky water under our feet (we are standing on an elevated wooden trail over the wetlands at Fred Baca Park). He looks at me seriously and says, “be sure to keep Chinle away from the frogs.” The bullfrogs’ incessant calls suggest they might be as big as my head. I thank him for the warning and turn my gaze upward. Miguel gets the hint and explains that today, the giving tree has gifted him with a Bullock’s Oriole.
Miguel lets me look at the photographs he’s taken so far. They are breathtaking and seem to have captured the personality of the bird. In many of the pictures he’s dangling upside down (the Oriole, not Miguel). As we look, the bird sings sweetly. Miguel explains, “other than the color you can tell he’s male because he is so kind yet stingy with his words. The females are louder and talk a lot more which is rare in birds but [here he grins mischievously] obviously not in humans." Obviously. He continued, “I have photographed over 100 species of birds in this tree and I’ve been taking pictures for 30 years.” Chinle and I scoot by thanking him for sharing his gifts. He nods and points at my calf which is littered with mosquitos. I am, admittedly, NOT dressed for wetlands because the temperatures in this high desert have been soaring for weeks into the mid-high 90s with 3% humidity and not a cloud in sight. It’s almost a relief to see something that breeds in water thriving, but they aren't welcome on my leg. I brush them off, and we continue on.
When we emerge from the cattails and the willows, Chinle insists we go explore a prairie dog hole near where a workman is fixing the park’s irrigation. I think how ironic it is to be watering Kentucky Blue Grass all around a park ostensibly created to showcase the regional wetlands. Riparian areas and wetlands all across the West continue to disappear because of the stark drought and overuse of ground and surface water. The workman looks up and smiles at Chinle. Then he notices me. He wipes rivulets of sweat from his brow, and we talk for a bit about the heat. I ask him about the prairie dog presence in the area (they are, shall we say, prolific). He laughs and says, “they aren’t the problem...it’s these damn beavers.” He explains there is a population of about 6 in this tiny 2 acre area, and he points at a large tree that has recently been felled. “I was going to cut that down to keep it from falling. They beat me to it,” he says with more than a tinge of annoyance. He introduces himself and tells me I have a mosquito on my arm. I swat it away, and he says, “You know, they like the heat I think. There are more than I’ve ever seen and I’ve worked in this park for 15 years. I even got bit the other day right here on my forehead, and you know, Mexicans aren’t supposed to get bit.” I raise my eyebrows at this, “Is that right?” “Yeah - we are the color of the dirt so they can’t see us. But man, these ones have xray vision.” I giggle at the myth but then recall an article I had read in Environmental History about the power of mosquitos to create identity of a people over centuries - my people, it turns out. (2)
In the English Lowlands from the 1600s through the early 1900s mosquitos created an entire culture and regional identity. The mosquitos brought malaria to the people living in the region and the disease served as a cultural binder. The residents built their homes on stilts to avoid the waters. They slept under nets. Other Englishmen did no such thing. It was a badge of honor to have contracted and lived through the “ague”. Those living with malaria had paler complexions because of the accompanying anemia, and they often relied on opium to alleviate their feverish symptoms so outsiders could identify them by sight. By the 19th century, the lowlands began to experience water management that was predicated on the (wrong) idea that malaria was caused by harmful gases emanating from the wetlands. No one suspected the little insect until 1898. The governments (local and national) worked to drain the marshes and the fens and, indeed, the incidents of malaria began to decrease. But with the decline of the ague came a shift in the culture of the peoples of that damp region, and they began to blend more seamlessly with the rest of England. As Greg Bankoff writes, “what gave the English Lowlands its distinctive regional character was the physical and social construction of the landscape...As the water drained away from its fields and the...Plasmodium malariae disappeared from the bloodstreams of its inhabitants so did popular perceptions of a regional identity begin to fade from the national and even local consciousness.”(1) Even so, the mosquitos remained in the area and architecture and daily habits persisted that helped the locals cope with the nuisance. I turn to Daniel and say, “You know, you might be right about those mosquitos. My people really do get bit a lot.” But I spare him the history lesson.
Chinle is panting and looking bored (there has been a LOT of chatting on this walk) so I start our goodbye by wishing Daniel good luck with the mosquitos and the beavers. He shakes his head and says, “I think they will both win in the end. But ya know what? Ya know the one tree those damn beavers never touch?” I shake my head. He gestures toward the brilliant white giant shimmering in the sunlight not far off. “Miguel’s giving tree.” As we walk to the truck, I can hear the Oriole singing happily in the distance.
1) If you are interested in the journal, you can get a subscription by joining the association. Check it out!
(2) Greg Bankoff, "Malaria, Water Management, and Identity in the English Lowlands," Environmental History 23, (2018): 470-491 doi: 10.1093/envhis/emx137.
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