"Time in the Mesquites" by Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia, then studied agricultural pests in developing countries. After serving as professor of entomology at the University of California Berkeley and Regents professor at the University of Arizona, she also obtained an MFA in creative writing. She has published twenty-five essays in a variety of literary journals and has won several awards including the X.J. Kennedy prize for nonfiction. 

Time in the Mesquites


It is December. Only a few leaves remain on the mesquite trees. All the smallest branches are brown, killed months ago by the mesquite twig girdler. I saw the beetles in their droves during August, and then, in September, their work led to brown flags of dead leaves among the green branches. By November, many of those girdled branchlets were bare. Now with this winter scene, I think back to the lime-green glory of April, and the rich dark greens and creamy-gold catkins of May. How quickly spring grew into summer, matured into fall, and ended in this season of brown and gray.

At four thousand feet in these southern Arizona mesas, mesquites dominate hillsides, and dry washes. They are stunted and scrubby in the driest places, and everywhere they have multiple trunks that twist and turn like savage sculptures. The rough bark, dead branches, broken stems, and seeping resins inform me of their struggles. Down in the valley though, there are huge specimens; the kinds of trees that people remark upon for their size and architecture. In this mesquite grassland, home of white-tailed deer and javelina, who make narrow tracks criss-crossing the terrain, I see occasional cottontail rabbits, coatimundi, foxes and coyotes, I smell skunks and walk over bobcat droppings. But it is the mesquite trees that reflect the struggles of the past.

The little town in the valley started as a mining settlement and survives now as an outpost for many who choose alternative life styles, or simply want a peaceful life in a small community. Though constantly evolving, it feels like a town from fifty years ago, with its old-fashioned buildings, quiet streets, unlocked doors, and friendly inhabitants.The yards are busy with the leftovers from children gone, hobbies spent, and all the paraphernalia of life here among the mesquites.

From my house above the town I walk among the trees. I climb up hillsides and down washes. I stop to watch silent towhees flitting around on the leaf litter, and when I look up into the blue I see Chihuahua ravens flying — two pairs whirling high, then four birds together, four separate, then back into pairs. What are they doing this winter day? I remember summer with all the butterflies and grasshoppers, the blue grosbeaks feeding their young, the whirring of broad-billed hummingbirds past my head, the bossy family of curve-billed thrashers that grew up in my yucca - another year of plenty, another summer season of birds that have flown south.

With the trees almost bare and the grasses dead and flattened, I see more of what has been left by people over the years. As I explore the area around my land, I cross a patch bare of grass, with scattered bits of broken glass and china, rusty cans, an old tire. Charlee, from Pony Tail Salon, told me this area was called glass hill thirty years ago because teenagers came to party here. Even now, fresh plastic cups or bottles, beer cans and take-out food boxes appear at intervals. On a far slope I find an old metal tobacco cutter with a sixty-year-old patent number embossed on it, an ancient porcelain spark plug, and a tiny bottle still intact. In a nearby steep gully, I discover what was the original town dump. All kinds of debris is scattered down a deep wash - old bedsprings and sofas, toys and tires, pipes and metal cans.

I focus on the remains of an old rusty car. I can't identify its make for sure but it looks like a 1940s Chevy, new during the boomtown years of mining and ranching here. A big burrow smelling of skunk has been dug into the soil where its wheel-less rear end rests. Did a young man in this town take his girl out driving? Did a family go out for picnics, as my family did in such a car so long ago? My memory though, is not of the actual picnics but of old black and white photos of us sitting on the running board or standing by the car. I look again. Who finally backed an old Chevy down into this steep ravine? Was it fun to dump it here? Was it left with regret after the last ore was shipped in 1960? Was it a loved car that had to be abandoned?

As I look and wonder, six javelina come up over the ridge in single file along one of those narrow trails. Each one with tiny feet carrying so much weight, dig deep into the soft soil there, further softening the narrow path. They take no notice of me as they march by, seeming to have a distinct mission in mind. They are preoccupied with the present while I think of time past.

My route goes up the wash from the dump and into a wide valley whose other exit is dammed. No trees grow in the floor of the valley, but the dead stems of sacaton grasses tell of the water that lay there once. I come across a rusty 55-gallon drum hidden among the tall stems and wonder what it held. The bung is still closed but the bottom has had nails hammered into it so whatever oil or fuel may have been inside has long ago seeped into the soil here. Is this trash left when someone was forced to move on?

On the southern hillside, a solitary oak grows tall among the straggly mesquites. Just as I think about how the thick grayish leaves of this evergreen tree must provide shelter for birds that like to hide among such dense foliage, I hear a light knock-knock-knock in the tree and getting closer, I see the distinctive black and white head of a ladder-backed woodpecker. Somehow it is thrilling to see that the natural world continues as the flotsam and jetsam of people's pasts takes time sliding into obscurity.

On a small promontory overlooking a rough alley to the south of the town I look up and see a metal sign attached to a short rod, and imagine it to be some old notice of pipe or power line. When I clamber up there I find that it is a grave marker reading “Pika, the best dog,” and on either side, a heart. In front of the sign, Pica is spelled out on the ground, in small stones of uniform size. All around, the ground is covered with the fallen leaflets from mesquites above, but the stones still speak from the past here.

The sign is old and rusty, but the embossed printing has been done with care and precision, and the hearts are perfect. I wonder who it was that loved Pica so, mourned his death, and took the time to make such a marker. Why was it that he made the grave out in the mesquite wilderness? Perhaps some migrant lost his dog as he came north through this region, and he stopped long enough to make a memorial with loving care. Perhaps a miner, with no yard of his own buried his dog out of town, in a place where he could sit and look down on the valley and remember his days. Perhaps it was a neighbor who comes here still, to remember Pica, the best dog. And as I sit I feel time passing and the shortness of our lives, and the sorrows of lost loves.

I walk along a narrow mesa and down into a hidden valley. I can see a shed that I assume is something for tools, or feed for horses at the nearby ranch. Clambering down through the scratchy, spiny mesquites, I find that there is a path worn to the shed from lower down the valley. The shed is a makeshift shelter. A piece of old corrugated iron looked like a serviceable roof from above, but the walls are piecemeal. One wall is made from two large road signs: Route 66 and Speed limit 55. Another wall is Chandler 35 miles. There are scraps of particleboard and plywood that complete the three and a half walls. Through the opening I find a dozen large plastic water bottles, an old jacket, a can of solid fuel for cooking with a label in Spanish, and a variety of unidentifiable bits of clothing half embedded in the dirt floor. Opposite the entrance is a sleeping platform and underneath it, a heap of trash. No one lives there now, but it was clearly the hut of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, all those people in need just ten miles away.

I stood in the hut thinking of a man here sitting on one of the three rusty chairs in the winter sun, smoking a cigarette, dreaming of a home far away, wondering about a woman and a baby daughter laughing. Was he searching for a way to support his family?  I feel the burden of his journey, the loneliness of his life, the desperation that led to his hidden life here. Was he one of the lucky ones who made it?  Or was he one of the many thousands who died of heat stroke and dehydration. Perhaps he met with some accident? Perhaps he was sent home? Or did border guards or vigilantes find him? Was he killed?  I try to think he escaped those who sought his capture or death, and that he found work and regained his pride.

Suddenly I am brought to the present by a sound outside, and peering through a hole in a sheet of particleboard I see three white-tailed deer — three females of different sizes including one that must be this year's fawn. I come out of the hut and they race off, their slender legs leaping, their fancy tails raised like white three flags bouncing through the scrub. I focus on this scene of elegant nature, happy to be here and just see. I used to yearn for what I did not have, and want what was ahead of me, but now I want only what I already have, and treasure most the colors of the past.

This was mining country, with trains that came through the valley and carried ore off to distant places — copper, lead, silver, iron.  The railway line is gone now and the mines abandoned, but exploring the nearby mountains one finds plenty of evidence of mining from the past. There are scattered remnants of mines, usually at higher elevation - buildings, shafts, holes in the hillsides, and yellow, sulfurous tailings. I come across a hole above a rough road in the mountainside, with a few pieces of barbed wire across the entrance. One would easily pass it by, as it can be no more than two feet high and surrounded by bushes of acacia, and young oaks. But there is a new notice out front: DANGER!PELIGRO! Abandoned and inactive mines are death traps! Don't get Trapped! Stay out! Stay alive!  Below is a drawing of skull and cross bones, and in small print: Damaging or removing this sign is a felony. Entry is criminal trespass.

It is clear that people have pulled apart the wires and gone in, but I have no desire to do so. Enough miners died when these were work places. As two ravens krr krr above me in the deep blue sky I know that men now dead will have emerged from misery and darkness here, to look out at the glaring glory of oak-covered hills, slopes of mesquite, and deep washes below filled with cottonwoods, ashes, walnuts, and sycamores. Above there would be ravens flying and in the trees there would be gray jays and woodpeckers. When I visit, the trees below are all winter-bare, except the cottonwoods, which still have golden leaves scattered on their pale gray branches. And brown grasses bear all manner of complex, tiny, seed-head finery among the wine-red stems and gray-green leaves of manzanita bushes.

It is fifty or sixty years since the mines here were worked. It will be a long time before the evidence of human effort is demolished by nature's growth and debris. Bats use some of these caves as well as coyotes and bobcats and many smaller creatures. Ferns grow in the entrances of those containing moisture and bigger plants hide them. They would make good hiding places for illegal immigrants and I wonder if the fearful notices are intended to stop them.

As I walk along the track I notice the marks of horse hooves. Ranching here is much older than mining, going back more than two hundred years with Spanish land grants, and continuing after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 when this land became part of the United States. Many old ranches have been subdivided now, though many owners of a dozen or so acres keep a couple of horses.

As I explore the valleys and hills, I sometimes come across stretches of rusty barbed wire, broken fence posts, and an occasional broken-down corral. Here men and women, their cattle, and their horses sweated in the summer heat. Here, people lived and worked hard where, before them, Spanish missionaries and explorers passed by, and Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino traveled and attempted to make peace with Pima Indians more than 300 years ago. Here, Apache, Yaqui and Hohokam Americans had lived for far longer — hunting, gathering, farming and raiding. Nothing remains from those times, and as I sit on a hillside and think of the many generations of people who lived here, I wonder how much we all have shared. So many different lives and lifestyles, now gone and unremembered, and so many terrible struggles to live, but for all of us there have been these rugged mountains, trees leafy or bare, animals in abundance, red sunrises and orange sunsets. Across the years we wonder at the world about us, think up reasons for our existence, or conclude that life is beautiful but meaningless.

I sit among the live and dead mesquites, fallen agave stems, and scrubby winter bushes. Unlike Europe, where even the almost natural wilderness seems neat and tidy, nothing is tidy here. The messy mesquites and all their fallen twigs are like the people, leaving behind the old and broken pieces of their lives. As I wander on, I stumble onto more debris left by men and women. I wonder at all the labor and love that came and went, the heartache and happiness that happened here, and all the thoughts that drifted through the mesquites. All that happened in the millions upon millions of nerve cells and the feats accomplished by the mysterious activities of complicated brains have disappeared without trace completely and forever. Time brings us here and in time our lives end. Time past is brought to mind by trash not yet gone, half hidden by the scrubby landscape. Mesquites tell of hard times from the past — years of poor rain, insect outbreaks, summer heat. Time present is the sight before me - deer running through the dead grasses, winter trees with Mexican jays squawking in their branches, ravens calling in the wild wind above.