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  • Writer's picturekaydee777

Conquistador in search of gold for all the jackdaw reasons*

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

In the late 1870s the hope of finding silver drew the usual motley crew of dreamers, visionaries, outlaws, opportunists and mavericks to the remote hills and valleys of Sierra Diablo (Devils Mountains or more commonly today called the Black Range.)

This week, having reached a point in life where my silver mining days are done and my armsfull of Indian silver are for sale to the highest bidder, it is the promise of cottonwood gold which beckons me out to a little early morning wander along Percha Creek.

Autumn here in the Chihuahuan desert can feel really short and, if one isn't paying attention, it lasts only a few brief days. It's a subtle season with a certain quality of gold in the light being the main determinant. If I'm lucky and get the timing right, I can find landscapes resplendent with colour under wraparound cloudless blue. Mostly the saturated cadmium yellow is supplied by Rio Grande cottonwoods (Populus deltoides subsp. wislizeni) which delineate watercourses and seeps.

In the garden, a single night of below freezing temperatures in the final week of October, took out the last of the summer flowers: Tithonia, cosmos and marigolds are gone, all gone.

I did take a break from my end of season harvesting and winterizing tasks the day before the predicted frost, to spend some quality time with the pollinators who were enjoying the flowers.

I'm a little sad that their sources of nectar and/or pollen were so abruptly terminated, but that's the way the seasons work here.

All the garden has left to offer these little winged roommates now is saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

It is funny-sad to see the fat fuzzy buzzy bumble bees (possibly Bombus spp) fumbling their chubby bodies into the tiny crocus blooms, doing way more damage to those delicate petals than my tweezers when I harvest the stigma.

I haven't yet managed to capture any images of the big fuzzy bees, or the beautiful little iridescent ones plundering the purple petals. A gold and black striped variety of bee is more numerous giving me more opportunity to record their activities, while I wait my turn, tweezers in hand, at these loveliest of lavender cups which represent my autumn crocus endeavour.

I do not know enough about the native bees of the region to know whether these are domesticated honey bees (Apis mellifera) or not.

Whoever they are, these garden roommates are currently most often to be found a thousand kisses deep in crocus love.

I am resolved to research other autumn flowering, frost hardy sources of nectar for my pollinator companions to take some of the pressure off the little saffron crocus in coming years. Any suggestions welcome.

Insect distraction aside, saffron harvesting continues. On the flower, the red stigmas seem so tiny. When compared to the dried pieces of saffron from a few days ago, however, they are enormous.

After my golden wanderings in them thar hills, I make a big pot of peanut and pumpkin soup, flavoured with a Ghanaian inspired, freshly ground aromatic spice mix of cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba), calabash nutmeg (Monodora myristica), cloves, cinnamon and ginger, garnished with cilantro and bean sprouts.

As I enjoy this tasty and filling meal, I think about searching and finding, the "Midas shadow that's so hard to please", the enchantment of golden yellow colour and light, and those Spanish who came through this area so long ago searching for Eldorado, but finding only a land of thorny disappointment.

Perhaps their seasonal timing was wrong, or they were looking in the the wrong place, because, some days, in autumn, I look up and find myself in an Eldorado of a gold suffused landscape. Cottonwood gold.

*Soundtrack and title quote,courtesy of my junk attic head, is Midas Shadow, the Al Stewart song, from his Year of the Cat album (1976)

You got your ticket and your hotel keys

And your overnight bag at your feet

You're looking down on the tropical trees

While the Spanish maids pick up the sheets

Conquistador in search of gold

For all the jackdaw reasons

The Midas shadow that's so hard to please

And follows wherever you go

Nothing ventured, nothing gained they said

So you played for the winner takes all

And tossed the dice high up and craned your head

To see how the numbers would fall

You stole the game so easily

Your luck ran with the seasons

But still the shadow that the night won't free

Just follows wherever you go

Another day, another boarding card

As you wait for your seat on the 'plane

The movie runs but you're still working hard

And you don't touch your food or champagne

I know that when your well runs dry

You'll want to know the reason

The empty night will bring you no reply

As it follows wherever you go

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