The patch of ground of interest is one meter squared, about half the size of a twin mattress, a quadrat measured by the placement of a white PVC frame I have been carrying around all afternoon. Sometimes squatting, sometimes standing, I stare into the frame. I am recording plant cover.
A clump of blue grama grass, its seed heads curled like commas, occupies 10% of the quad. The delicate red stem and leaves of a goosefoot fit under a dime: 0.05%. Between the plants lies silky soil, which gets its own cover measurement: 5%. I notice dried-mud termite casings sheathe last year’s grass stems, stretching up a few inches before breaking off and eroding in the wind. When I move, two-inch-long black and yellow grasshoppers spook into the air, then swoop back down to settle on the ground a few feet away. Black Butte—too small to bother conquering, too big to meander up—hulks on the desert floor, marking the northern edge of this central New Mexican wildlife refuge. When I straighten and take a moment to stretch my back, I see contrails feathering blue sky.
The field biologist’s piecemeal way of focusing on one detail, then another, noting colors from the corner of my eye, identifying plants from just a hint of form in the distance, is how I learned to love the desert so intimately. It took a while—I did not grow up in a desert, and when I moved to Albuquerque from a summer botany job in a tiny verdant town in Montana, the landscape looked bleak and beat to me.
The mountains have been blowing out birthday candles all month. The hot wind frays my nerves; even the sight of soil swirling across the highway irritates me on weekend drives to Albuquerque. Today I am wearing long pants and an old gray sweatshirt to work. If I take the sweatshirt off, I shiver. I leave it on and sweat. There have been rare days in field seasons past when it snowed and my fingers numbed as I tried to poke out a 2.5 or .05 or even a cover of .01 with a stylus. More frequently, I have lain under the truck to find shade during my lunch break, staring out between its tires at a shadowless land.
Cactus pads scattered here and there make me nervous—I sat on one once—but generally my day proceeds smoothly. When one quad is done, I move on to another. As the sun moves, I move, orbiting quads, keeping computer and plants in my shadow. The information I am collecting is for a long-term data set begun eight years ago, before I even arrived in the desert. There is no foreseeable end to this project.
This work can be meditative—shutting out the rest of the world to focus on slow-growing things. But for every prophet in the desert finding enlightenment, there must be hundreds of field biologists merely bored, hot, sunburnt, and hungry, or just plain lost. Still, the desert gets under my skin: when I learn a new plant. When a mountain lion dashes across the road in front of the truck. When an errant herd of feral oryx (whose ancestors were brought here from Africa in the 1960s by the chairman of the New Mexico Game Commission, then illegally released into the wild) appears nervously in the distance.
Mornings, I step outside with a mug of tea and watch the sunrise. The huge expanse of sky all around me glows a flaming orange. Trees, houses, and mountains are backlit into obscurity. In such moments the desert feels immeasurable.
I am distracted from my accounting this afternoon by a stinkbug trundling through the quadrat. I know I will not do this work much longer. After a while, careful repetition exhausts me. Consider this: it has gotten to the point where I recognize not just species, but individual plants as they grow within their quads from season to season.
Really, I never meant to spend a quarter of my life in the desert. To be fair, I’ve left several times already: for a summer in Montana measuring Douglas-firs and eating huckleberries; for a couple of field seasons in Costa Rica; for a sojourn along the Appalachian Trail. But I kept coming back to the Southwest. I have worked as an environmental educator, a Park Service interpreter, a volunteer backcountry ranger, and, again and again, as a botanist measuring plants. I think often about escaping to moister climates, to places populated with what I consider to be real trees, trees cloaked in dripping moss, or to coastlines with tide pools to explore. But my forward momentum evaporates in the dry desert wind.
I remember suddenly how at 23 I was making my way from North Carolina to Oregon when I took an impulsive detour to Las Cruces. Now, almost a decade later, I pause from rinsing a soapy mug in the kitchen and contemplate the creosote I see through the window. I will leave after the winter field season.
When I can no longer abide counting plants, I start writing as a means of escape. But what comes out of me are cottonwoods tracing dry rivers, prickly pears feeding young rabbits, yuccas cradling high-country snow. What comes out of me is desert vegetation.
My grandparents told my mother when she was a child that if she swallowed orange seeds a tree would grow inside her; I must have swallowed entire wildflower mixes. When I take trips, I look out plane windows to calculate covers for mountains, rivers, farms. I guess at the names of vaguely familiar foliage in unfamiliar towns. As with many in the Southwest, I develop terrific crowsfeet. When I smile, deep lines reach from the corners of my eyes toward my hairline. I never did wear sunglasses in my early years as a desert botanist. They changed the color of the leaves too much.
The desert is engraved on my skin. It shapes my language; it highjacks my imagery. These days I sit at my kitchen table drinking tea and typing. I am still counting cover, in a way, measuring the extent of the desert inside of me.
Maya L. Kapoor has worked as a biologist in five countries, seven U.S. states, and one U.S. territory. She is in the creative nonfiction MFA program at the University of Arizona and holds a master’s degree in biology from Arizona State University. In her free time she backpacks.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.