Ken Hartke

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I'm retired and living solo "out west" in the New Mexico desert. I've been an observer and blogger for years and usually have four or five blogs going but wrote for myself or for friends. A lot of it was travel stories or daily random postings -- but it was a good experience. Red Room allowed me to share things on a wider scale and with its demise, I (maybe) found a more public voice.

The Fecundity of the Desert

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20140717_102215.jpgI think that the most common perception of the desert is that it is a dead and inhospitable place.  I’m sure there are places like that. Maybe the Atacama Desert in northern Chile would be nearly lifeless. It is one of the driest places on earth and has been dry for three million years. I’ve never been there so I can’t report from personal observation but I’ve read that in wet years it might get a half inch of rain. That’s dry — but there are plants and animals that have adapted and thrive there. The Atacama is located along the Pacific Ocean and sea fog brings some moisture and humidity to coastal areas. There are scorpions and a few lizards. Where there are plants, there are grasshoppers who are followed by birds. Flamingos and penguins live near the ocean.  There is a species of mouse that lives in dry areas. If conditions are foggy along the coast there will be a few vicunas and guanacos, camel relatives,  who survive by eating cactus flowers.

I moved to the desert about a year ago from the humid and almost jungle-like Midwest. I lived within sight of the Missouri River. The forests in the Missouri Ozarks are almost impenetrable in summer. That is man’s doing. The Ozarks used to be a savanna. When the pines and large hardwoods were clear cut they were replaced by a mix of hardwoods — oaks, hickories, choke cherry, and hackberry — that compete in the (now) thin soil and produce a scrawny, bramble and vine-choked, tick infested forest. Winter is when you can best get to know the Ozark forests. But I digress. My point is that there is a wild abundance of living things almost everywhere except the extremes of the polar regions.

centipedeMy experience after moving to the New Mexico desert opened my eyes to the fecundity of it all.  I knew little about the desert but I learned fast. My house was vacant for about two months before I moved in and I had to reclaim it from the local fauna. I had a roadrunner in the garage and various creatures in the house. We have a nasty biting centipede that gets several inches long that you don’t want to mess with. There was one in my bed the first night but it was dead…placed there by my Guardian Angel as a warning. “Be on your toes” was the message.  My closest neighbor has had scorpions and a rattlesnake in the house.  I’ve been lucky so far. I have an indoor cat that patrols the house so he might be discouraging squatters.

I have a love/hate relationship with ants. They love me and whatever I have and I hate them with a passion. They can live outside if they stay passive and invisible but they can’t come in the house. I’ve declared war on one ant colony that must be ten years old based on the size of the mound they built…maybe older. I assume they have galleries and meeting halls and nurseries going down at least four or five feet. These are not little innocent ants. These are predators based on what I see them carrying back to the nest. I go on an ant patrol every couple weeks and wipe out the ones that are workers or defending the nest but the Queen is way down inside and laughing at my feeble efforts.

When it rains we have a burst of life. Frogs and toads appear from nowhere for about three days and then they disappear. The same is true with gnats and mosquitoes. House flies will linger a few days longer.   We had a few days of rain in the spring and that brought an invasion of grasshoppers. There were so many grasshoppers that they tracked them on weather radar. There were clouds of grasshoppers.  These were little guys…not the three inchers that we have in the Midwest. A couple days after the grasshoppers arrived the lizards showed up. Dozens of lizards patrolled the yard gobbling up the grasshoppers. Next to arrive were the roadrunners who went chasing after the lizards. Roadrunners eat snakes so it is a good thing to have roadrunners around.

I had a snake in my garage. It was a harmless (to me) coachwhip snake. These are extremely fast snakes. They will outrun a man if chased. There are old timer stories of coachwhip snakes biting their own tale and forming a hoop and rolling along the ground like a bicycle tire. Don’t believe it. They don’t need to — they are fast enough. This guy was convinced that he was going to move into my garage. I occasionally have a mouse or two trying to live there so he was just doing what snakes do. But I had to dispatch him because he was too persistent and would not leave and it was an easy move from the garage to the house.

I have coyotes that come up to the back door. I can hear them singing at night. This year we have a super abundance of desert cottontail rabbits  and jackrabbits. I expected the coyotes to keep them in check but we must not have enough coyotes. I guess those we have are well fed and happy. Next year we will have a lot more coyotes — that’s how the cycle works.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I bought the house I noticed that there was a water feature — a koi pond with a little stream and waterfall.  “How cute is that?” I thought.  Well, a 1,500 gallon pond requires a lot of work. It turned out that the koi fish were extortionists and would eat everything in the pond if I didn’t feed them twice a day with two kinds of food. Koi fish can live 80 years. They have been described as the pigs of the fish world but some people really like them and will spend huge sums to acquire a single fancy koi.  That made getting rid of them easy.

The pond also had sixteen goldfish of various colors and shapes. Goldfish are polite and respectful compared to koi and they don’t eat as much. This spring I noticed that the goldfish were playing tag. Pretty soon the game intensified and I realized it was spawning behavior. They spawned seven times that I noticed and the process was quite violent. Some of the fish were injured but all survived. Now I have several hundred baby goldfish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf course the pond isn’t a desert feature but I mention it because it is the only reliable water source for wildlife in my area. It is like a watering hole in the Serengeti. All of the animals come to the pond.  When I walk out the front door there will always be something running away or flying away. The most notable visitors — because of their punctuality and numbers — are the doves. There are dozens of doves that come to the pond every night just after sunset. The rabbits are almost always there, one or two at a time. There are ground squirrels that hang out with the rabbits.

A Rock Squirrel built a den in the rocks near the waterfall and decorates it with twigs and small branches. If I remove the twigs they will be back the next morning. He is aggravated that I take his twigs so he brings pieces of cactus, from some distance away, and places cactus among the twigs to deter me from messing with them. That’s a very ingenious effort on his part.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been adopted by two boy quails. They follow me around whenever I go outside and call the whole time. One, I’ve named Buddy, is a Gambel’s Quail…the kind with the little droopy feather on its head. The other, named Sparky, is a Scaled Quail…with a little white topnotch.  Both were unsuccessful in finding mates. Buddy had a girlfriend for about four hours one afternoon but she got a better offer. Sparky is in more serious trouble. He’s the only Scaled Quail I’ve seen in the area. Prospects are pretty slim for Sparky. Since they can’t find a mate they decided to adopt me. Lately Buddy has been scarce. I had to go on a trip for a week and he may have adopted someone else. At least that’s what I’m hoping. Sparky is still around.  I think I have a split personality. Some days I feel like Marlin Perkins and some days I feel like Beatrix Potter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve talked about the animals but the plants are almost as busy. Everything blooms in it’s own way. We had a huge germination and growth of a blue flowering plant that turned out to be Wild Heliotrope  – if you like it — or Scorpion Weed — if you don’t like it. I liked it and let it grow. It carpeted the whole yard. My neighbor spent hours chopping it out.  It didn’t last too long. The grasshoppers found it when they arrived and the blazing sun finished off the rest.  The bees are kept very busy as are the hummingbirds. There is almost always something in bloom.

The sun is really the deciding factor in what lives or dies. It is unrelenting and will scorch anything that is unprotected. Even though it isn’t a hot day the sun will heat up anything that is exposed and the dryness will pull out any moisture. It is often cool in the shade on those days.

I visited the White Sands desert a few months ago and there is a notable amount of plant life and some small animal life. Predator animals, like coyotes and hawks, live on the edge of the desert. They patrol the dunes but uually don’t live there.  So the desert is far from being a dead or inhospitable place. Things are always growing and reproducing. This is high desert, around 5,800 feet in elevation. The summer temperature only rarely exceeds 100 degrees. A lower and hotter place would have different plants and animals but there would be a similar array of wildlife.

Our monsoon season has started and has been going on for a week or so. We get a little bit of rain almost every day. Watching the storms is a form of entertainment for me. The lightning is spectacular and you can track storms for 100 miles. This year it arrived a little early and promises to be a good one….meaning lots of rain. My rain barrels are almost full. Apparently El Nino has a role in how our monsoons go so our weather is determined way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  More wet weather will bring more life to the desert.

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Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
What a fine description - it sounds idllyic.
Friday, 18 July 2014 00:03
Ken Hartke
Some days it's almost Disney-esque. Thanks for stopping by.
Friday, 18 July 2014 00:10
Rosy Cole
Ken, this is a magical post! Thanks for sharing it. I love the very real engagement with wildlife, both flora and fauna. It's so r... Read More
Friday, 18 July 2014 11:37
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8 Comments

It's Good to Have Money

 

Baroness Lucia von Borosini Batten died at the age of 93 about ten years ago.  She was a local person; a socialite in her heyday. She was a German Baroness who was well off to begin with and always married men with wealth…several times…and she accumulated things. Lots of things –money was no object. Today, some would call her a hoarder but she was a collector with a few odd interests. For example, she collected miniature liquor bottles. She also collected rare and expensive paintings, tapestries, books, pottery, folk and primitive items, New Mexico colonial furniture, and especially Haitian art long before it was fashionable.

The Baroness purchased a circa 1875 adobe hacienda in a woodsy area of Albuquerque complete with acreage and water rights access to the acequia system. This was around 1954. The house was originally built by a local rancher who was the son-in-law of an early Governor. The Baroness and her second husband renovated and restored the adobe structure and moved in.  She started filling it.  Her third and final husband decided that they needed a library because her books were taking over the house so they built an adjacent structure in the same territorial style as the adobe house but with a large library space. The library looked like it was original to the property. Shortly after work was started, the husband died so Lucia was left to fill the library and the rest of the house with her collections. She knew what she liked and once it came in the door, it stayed. Actually, nothing seemed to get thrown out. 

When the Baroness died she left the house and contents and a large endowment to the local museum foundation. They had no clue that this was going to happen and had to figure out how to manage the property and care for the collections.  Some of her valuable paintings were hanging on the walls of the open courtyard and zaguan. The property was secured and repaired and work began on cataloging the contents. It is still going on. The UNM library took some of the books. Many of the items were sold during a couple estate sales but some of the art and the collection’s better items are in the museum. Much of it remains in the house, which serves as the foundations offices. Some of it is warehoused. When the museum staff entered the house they had to walk sideways through some of the rooms because they were filled with art, furniture, carvings, pottery…everything.

An organization I belong to was fortunate to hold it’s annual membership meeting in the Batten library and get a tour of the house. The place does not offer tours and access is restricted. They have a live-in caretaker but the offices are busy during the day.  Photography is not permitted inside or outside of the house or library. These pictures are from the museum’s brochure.

I wish there were more of these hidden gems. These old adobe structures are melting away — literally.  There are old churches and a few public buildings that are regularly maintained but the vernacular adobe dwellings will slowly disintegrate if left alone. It takes someone with deep pockets to bring them back once they start to melt away.

 

Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
It sounds like an interesting place.
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 08:25
Rosy Cole
An intriguing lady! Sounds as though she knew what she was doing with her money and that the 'investment' was in something that wo... Read More
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 17:28
Orna Raz
I love stories like this about eccentric people and their special interests. A lovely piece!
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 17:40
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4 Comments

The Promise of Rain

Low distant thunder -

 

Winds blow the curtain and bring

 

the sweet scent of pine.

 

We are teased at first...

 

but the desert clouds relent.

 

Raindrops fall on sand.

 

 Up on the far hill

 

Carlos Rey stands desert watch

 

and awaits the rain.

 

The old Juniper

 

outlived his sons and daughters

 

born in distant days.

 

Raindrops and thunder -

 

Carlos Rey shakes in the wind.

 

and drinks it all in.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_20140709_101107.jpg

 

-------

Carlos Rey is an old, stately Juniper that I "own" - or maybe he "owns" me. I'm just the last of many that have come his way. He probably witnessed Coronado and was "owned" by the King of Spain for many years....hence the name

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Recent Comments
Orna Raz
So beautiful, such a special type of rain, and I too can smell the pine. I love the picture. Thank you.
Thursday, 10 July 2014 17:10
Rosy Cole
You've painted a picture for the senses with your poem, Ken. It's lovely. Peaceful and refreshing. I never thought of being owned ... Read More
Thursday, 10 July 2014 20:51
Katherine Gregor
What a beautiful poem. It reminds me of a large oak standing right outside my window when I lived in Wimbledon. A sturdy tree th... Read More
Saturday, 12 July 2014 08:07
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5 Comments

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