It’s monsoon season here in Cedar City. For us intrepid field workers, this more often than not means watching it rain a dozen miles away while we bake in the sun. Sometimes, however, it can be quite the opposite. On Tuesday morning this week, we found ourselves drenched to the bone and pelted by pea-sized hail as we sprinted back to our truck from the field. Regardless of where the storms are happening, they are quite the spectacle to behold. Like everything else out here, they are (usually) reduced in comparison to the vast scale of the landscape. It is something entirely new for me to watch, from a distance, as a cloud literally falls to the ground. With the rain comes lightning in abundance, and with the lightning comes fire. There is something about watching a mountain burn which evokes a kind of fear that feels very old. When I imagine my ancient ancestors and how wildfires would have threatened their lives and livelihoods this makes a lot of sense to me.
Water and fire are hardly the only dangers out here. On another Tuesday (Tuesdays are hard for me) I found myself alone in a remote corner of our field office, in a radio dead zone, the sun going down and a storm approaching in the distance. My partner and I were hanging sage grouse reflectors, which are small pieces of plastic which you attatch to fences to increase visibility and decrease the chance of animals (like sage grouse) hurting themselves. We had split up to cover more ground, grossly underestimating the amount of fence we had to treat. This of course was the moment when I ran out of water. After several tense minutes of unsuccessful attempts, I was able to raise my counterpart on the radio and put together a plan of where to meet (we do that beforehand now). As I slogged my way to the meeting point, hauling my equipment with me and keeping an eye on the approaching storm, I heard an unusual noise that stopped me in my tracks.
Rattlesnakes do not all sound like they do in the movies. This rattle was very high pitched and sharp, a short burst of sound not unlike a cicada or some other insect. The rattles’ owner did not seem particularly happy with my approach, with its head raised and its eyes centered on me. I took the point, backed away slowly, and the snake continued on its way cautiously. I gave it a wide berth and continued on my own.
This short but intense encounter gave me another taste of that primal fear that we as a species have evolved with, but it also left me with a profound gratitude for the evolutionary pressures which led to that unique organ that rattlesnakes wield. What if this had been some other snake, less noisy but equally venomous? When you think about it, it’s really quite nice of these snakes to warn us of their potentially deadly presence before finding it necessary to resort to violence. I’ll take a rattlesnake over a cobra or a copperhead any day of the week.
This kind of experience is, of course, a rare part of my job out here. Most of my time in the past month has been spent combing over different field sites for signs (usually fecal) of its inhabitants prior to a scheduled development of some sort. You might think that walking four miles along a proposed fence line in the midday sun, eyes trained on the immediate area around you, would be hard monotonous work, and it is, but every day I’m out there I find something new, be it as small and simple as some pretty mineral (there’s obsidian everywhere!) or a hummingbird I never expected to see, or watching a flock of over a hundred pinion jays fly by, making their laughing cries. This place continues to amaze me, and I can’t wait to see what it will show me next.