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Relicts of a Beautiful Sea

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World

Christopher J. Norment
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Relicts of a Beautiful Sea
    Book Description:

    Along a tiny spring in a narrow canyon near Death Valley, seemingly against all odds, an Inyo Mountain slender salamander makes its home. "The desert," writes conservation biologist Christopher Norment, "is defined by the absence of water, and yet in the desert there is water enough, if you live properly."Relicts of a Beautiful Seaexplores the existence of rare, unexpected, and sublime desert creatures such as the black toad and four pupfishes unique to the desert West. All are anomalies: amphibians and fish, dependent upon aquatic habitats, yet living in one of the driest places on earth, where precipitation averages less than four inches per year. In this climate of extremes, beset by conflicts over water rights, each species illustrates the work of natural selection and the importance of conservation. This is also a story of persistence--for as much as ten million years--amid the changing landscape of western North America. By telling the story of these creatures, Norment illustrates the beauty of evolution and explores ethical and practical issues of conservation: what is a four-inch-long salamander worth, hidden away in the heat-blasted canyons of the Inyo Mountains, and what would the cost of its extinction be? What is any lonely and besieged species worth, and why should we care?

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1983-5
    Subjects: Zoology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xii])
  3. Prologue OH MY DESERT
    (pp. 1-2)

    Oh my desert. You have bred the viscid scent of creosote in the searing air, thick spines out of the arid soil, the scuttle of scorpions from the calcined ground, this thermal litany of desiccation and desire: shadscale scrub, Panamint alligator lizard, bursage, tarantula and tarantula hawk, salt-crust playa, Basin and Range, spare hills rising from their own rubble, the long view across the lost miles, a longer view down the corridors of time, a deluge of heat and light. Life takes its path; lineages of reptiles and arachnids, insects and cacti, all at home, drift down the long slope...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-11)

    Relicts of a Beautiful Seais a story about the natural world, woven out of science, poetry, aesthetics, and personal experience. It is a tale about the beauty of the Great Basin, its life, and my longing to belong fully to a place and find resonance in its creatures—in other words, to locate myself in this world and so claim a home. And in this age of extinction and collapsing species ranges, my story also is an argument about biodiversity’s inherent right to exist. This right was codified by the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act, but many people still...

  5. Collecting the Dead
    (pp. 12-23)

    I have no sense of where species go when they disappear, entire nations of plants and animals laid to waste by human agency, the collected memory of their molecules, the intricate networks of their DNA—theirnow—vanishing into the thick haze of history. I have no idea what happens to life’s lost landscapes, or if this final form of entropic decay can be made right in any way, or forgiven, or even fully understood. The folding and faulting of time, dip and strike of life, the once-balanced equation—one death for one life, on and on, over millennia—suddenly...

  6. A Cultivation of Slowness THE INYO MOUNTAINS SLENDER SALAMANDER (Batrachoseps campi)
    (pp. 24-45)

    We leave the rental car at the base of an alluvial fan spilling out of the Inyo Mountains, and for an hour my son and I track a washed-out road through the usual cast of desert plants: creosote bush, barrel cactus, bursage, spiny hopsage, Anderson thornbush, Mormon tea, cotton-thorn. It is only March and yet the sun carries intimations of summer. Temperatures climb into the eighties and radiation pours from a cloudless sky. Thermal waves shimmer on the desert pavement, almost bare in this time of drought, in a place where only five inches of rain might fall in an...

  7. Surviving an Onslaught THE OWENS PUPFISH (Cyprinodon radiosus)
    (pp. 46-82)

    It is mid-September and the evening winds are up, pummeling the Owens Valley. Thick gulps of air push out of the south, kicking up small clouds of dust, hammering the bulrushes and cattails along the slough, throwing dried plants down the dirt track. Rabbitbrush stems scritch and scratch against one another, their branches a swirl of brilliant yellow flowers. Tiny bits of gravel sting my bare legs; grit settles in my hair and eddies behind my glasses. To the west the Sierra crest is a backlit serrated silhouette; to the east the full moon rises over the great arid bulk...

  8. Some Fish THE SALT CREEK AND COTTONBALL MARSH PUPFISHES (Cyprinodon salinus salinus and Cyprinodon salinus milleri)
    (pp. 83-107)

    Mid-September on the floor of Death Valley: at 200 feet below sea level the air is still, the sun ascendant. I park my car and step into a crucible of heat and light. I am dressed for the day, with a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and sunglasses. I carry only a notebook, binoculars, digital thermometer, and two quarts of water. I follow the deserted boardwalk, which shimmers in the noonday heat. Salt Creek, which in winter and spring carries water, is nothing but baked gravel and sand. The blond, weathered boards wander among low hills of dun-colored...

  9. A Fragile Existence THE DEVILS HOLE PUPFISH (Cyprinodon diabolis)
    (pp. 108-149)

    To come upon Devils Hole is to approach a well of time, an anomaly, and a symbol. On a brilliant March morning I park along the dirt road that runs north and east from Ash Meadows, skirt a locked gate, and walk west for 200 yards. The dirt access road cuts across several small drainages—mere traces cutting through a thin wash of creosote bush and bursage—toward a rugged hill of layered limestone. To the east are more desert hills, trailing south, probing the great spaces, built from brown and orange-gray rock, rough to the touch and sharp enough...

  10. Swimming from the Ruins THE ASH MEADOWS AND WARM SPRINGS AMARGOSA PUPFISHES (Cyprinodon nevadensis mionectes and Cyprinodon nevadensis pectoralis)
    (pp. 150-191)

    I awake at five. A mourning dove calls from somewhere below my bivouac spot, which is nestled on a small saddle in the mountains just east of Ash Meadows. The waning moon falls toward the distant mountains and the day climbs into light. Ash Meadows’ palette of colors reveals itself, pulled out of darkness by the dawn: powdery white beds of clay; grayish yellow desert shrubs, a pointillist scatter of bursage and desert holly dotting the dark gray and brown alluvial fans; the anomalous glacial blue of Crystal Reservoir; a light gray-green mix of mesquite and leatherleaf ash surrounding the...

  11. Exile and Loneliness THE BLACK TOAD (Bufo exsul)
    (pp. 192-215)

    Just beyond the dirt road’s end, past the corral and stone fences, are the toads. They nestle among the wiry grasses and sedges along the drainage ditches or hang suspended in the shallow water, their snouts probing the dry air. During a quick, informal survey, I count more than one hundred; most are within five feet of water, although a few adventurous individuals have wandered, if toads can be said to wander, sixty feet from the nearest ditch. The toads come in a variety of sizes. Some are small toadlets, not more than three-quarters of an inch long; others, at...

  12. The View from Telescope Peak
    (pp. 216-232)

    I leave Mahogany Flat just after three in the morning, headed for Telescope Peak, the highest point in the Panamint Range, six and one-half miles to the south. It is late October in a year of early storms, and the night air is cool in my nose. The full moon is still high in the western sky, brilliant behind a field of broken clouds. For the most part I hike without a headlamp, climbing through open pinyon woodlands toward the broad ridge between Rogers and Bennett peaks. After months spent in this country, mostly in the lowlands, I want the...

  13. Epilogue HOLD STEADY
    (pp. 233-234)

    Hold steady against the last 10 million years, the folding and faulting of desert ranges, the subsidence of valleys, the ebb and flow of ice and rain, the lava and ash, the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Forget the vanished mastodons and mammoths, cave bears and dire wolves, camels and giant ground sloths. Persevere against the great drought of the Holocene, the failing springs and rivers, the drying and dying plants. Hold steady against the hunters and gatherers, and later, the plows and pumps, the bulldozers and drainage ditches, the subdivisions and freeways. Endure, too, the crayfish and bass, the sunfish and...

  14. Afterword
    (pp. 235-236)

    A plea: take care of these animals and their places. Obey the rules that protect them. Many activities that I describe in this book were done only with the permission of managing agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, or in the presence of the biologists and managers charged with protecting these creatures and their habitats. If you do visit any of the places mentioned here, do so with respect and care. Seek permission when necessary, as with the springs where the black toad lives, which are owned by Deep Springs College. And if...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 237-254)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-268)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-271)