Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Over the crest

There is a poetry to mountain crests, where the world shifts and the other side comes into view. It is often unexpected, sometimes you stop and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you find what you are looking for and sometimes you don't, but you always find something different. The Chiricahua Mountains are one of those places. I've always revolved around the west slope, having worked for years around Chiricahua National Monument and on ranches and all across the Sulphur Springs valley in southeastern Arizona. It was always the massive arc of the whole range, north to south on the horizon, but always on the eastern horizon. So I took a drive and went looking for something that was supposed to be gone. Then I looked over the mountain range to the over side and found an unexpected window to the future.

The entire crest, from the usual west side. February 2012

Into the heart of the Chiricahuas, the view from the crest southeast. 

What I went looking for, Limosella pubiflora. 14x 
My point in going to the Chiricahua mountains was to look for a plant that I happened to look down and see. It was during a meeting about landscape scale restoration in the borderlands on a site visit to a restored area. I'd been having this conversation with a friend a few weeks prior about this genus Limosella and the thought immediately popped into my head. I snapped a photo and went home and figured out I seen Limosella pubiflora, the Chiricahua mudwort. The type collection (the first collection of a species) was made in Cave Canyon in 1928. But all the habitat for that species had been destroyed when the water was developed in the canyon. So the type locality was known extirpated. That collection is in the US National Herbarium and when examined online looked like what I had seen. But with aquatic species it is hard because they shrivel up and don't quite look like the brilliant little white flower in the landscape. All totaled there were six collections made, the last in 1997. These collections were made in the south and east of the mountain range.

Cave Canyon, the type locality, somewhere in there.

But I was in Turkey Creek, which is on the west side of the mountain. The plot thickened. I was also at the foot of a creek that had seen twenty years of restoration work, with thousands of low rock trincheras built across the stream bed of the entire canyon I was standing in, looking down at Limosella pubiflora. The cows were excluded and there in the delicate fine silty soil at the edge of the 1 cm deep water was this plant that was supposed to be gone. So I went back to collect and confirm that exactly it was what I saw. We shall see. 

It's a complicated story this mudwort. It turns out that the type collection from 1928 was the only specimen that determined the description as a new species. The pubescence of the inner corolla parts is utterly different from the similar Limosella acaulis and Limosella aquatica. There still no resolution of this question as there's been no genetics done on the species. If it is something different it is an incredibly threatened species, given the apparently narrow range of its habitat and the systemic risk of climate change in an already arid landscape. Curious.  
The full Limosella pubiflora, the Chiricahua mudwort
The habitat. Pay attention to the trinchera upstream. Twenty years of restoration works.

The Cave Creek sunrise.
Sometimes we find what we've been looking for, sometimes we find the unexpected. I'm glad I looked over the crest. The pictures below illustrate the Chiricahuas are a mountain range in the midst of a great reorganization. In summer 2011, the Horseshoe Two fire burned 223,000+ acres, it started in Cave Creek and burned around the mountain for the next few months. I witnessed the fire first hand in the months immediately after working on NPS lands, stepping into devastated black landscapes. But even there we saw life. The brilliant white of Mexican lilies or Milla biflora set against the scorch was remarkable. 

Contemplating how to measure the black. Late summer 2011

When I went to look over the crest, I saw an intensity of the fire on the high elevation landscape along the crest only as breathtaking as the narrow margin in which something torched and trees right nearby went completely untouched. Sorting through the complex interaction of intentionally set back fires, the struggle to control the fire was indistinguishable now from the landscape in the midst of great change.  Yet the entire landscape was an even more complex one than before. Certain areas will never be the same and new ecological communities are already repopulating those niches left unfilled in the landscape. Oaks replace pines and the pines and spruces and high elevation species move upslope. There is not a long way to go for many of the species on these islands.

And Rustler Park burned.
The burnt summit.

Cochise stares out, Cochise Head from Barfoot lookout, north.

The crest offers views. It offers windows to other worlds. I think I saw one in which fires get a little out of hand. It is one where things are changing and fast.

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