Big Bend National ParkFebruary 28, 1988
TEXAS: Brewster County
K-Bar Campsite in Big Ben National Park; elevation about 3000 feet.

My Grandmother Taylor in Kentucky tends to make up words as she needs them and to resurrect old-time ones that everyone else has forgotten. For her the word slumgullion means "a haphazard mixture of things." She can't recall whether the word is made-up or an old one. Whichever pedigree the term has, here I mean to offer miscellaneous notes that don't fit elsewhere.

On my last day at K-Bar a young man from Minnesota drops by. Taking a break from my typing, I listen to his peccary story. Late yesterday afternoon as he was driving on the main highway near Park Headquarters he came upon a small herd of peccaries. He stopped, stepped outside, and began tossing pieces of tortilla to them. As the peccaries ate, he threw the scraps nearer. Eventually the largest peccary took a tortilla from his hand. Of course this was pretty dumb, for what if the next time the peccary meets a human it remembers its earlier tortilla picnic, approaches the human, the human panics and does something to unnerve the pigs, and then -- as Don Antonio in Guatemala suggested they might -- the peccary runs the wrong way, slashing its sharp tusks back and forth?

The other day in a rocky gulch behind park headquarters I spotted a Rock Squirrel holding motionless atop a large boulder as I walked by. Rock squirrels look like regular park squirrels except that they are entirely gray instead of having white underparts, and they don't hold their tails above their backs. Though Rock Squirrels usually create dens beneath boulders, they are fine tree-climbers when trees are present. This species is one of the few mammals in these parts active during the day.

Often I find patches of very spiny cacti that have been chewed on by large herbivores, probably either mule deer or peccaries. For me one of the greatest mysteries in this desert is how animals can eat spiny cacti without damaging their lips, tongues and intestines. In several peccary scats I've found glochids and a few spines. Similarly, very often I find stiff leaves and even entire plants of the leg- mutilating Lechuguilla lying on the ground, chewed up. After examining footprints around lechuguilla-eating sites for three weeks, I'm satisfied that it's peccaries chewing them. The long leaves are not actually consumed, but rather it appears that the peccary just chews on the leaf's lower half until it's no longer juicy. A Park-Service, self-guiding, nature-trail leaflet declares that deer eat lechuguilla flower-stalks and birds eat lechuguilla seeds. Prehistoric Indians roasted lechuguilla stalks and some Mexicans still make soap from its roots, and twine and rope from its fibers.

Because of the absence of cloud cover and humidity in the air, at night the desert sky is almost unbearably clear and deep. During my visit Jupiter and Venus are quite close to one another. Using only 10 x 50 binoculars I can see four of Jupiter's moons. If the day sky is occupied by white, puffy cumulus clouds, the most distant cloud bottoms merge with the desert horizon. Farther east, because the air contains so much moisture, such near-horizon clouds usually fade into the horizon's milky haziness. This desert sky inspires a person with expansive feelings. At Park Headquarters I heard a native Westerner who'd just returned from the East exclaim, "Oh, how wonderful to be back where I can stretch my eyes... !"

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