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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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 Sea explores 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?

Excerpt

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 of history, eddy and course through time. The tangled bank yields to naked rock; a raven’s guttural croak echoes down some dry wash; a cast snake skin, thick with keratin, lies below a drifting dune; a kangaroo rat, huddled in its burrow, shelters from the solstice sun: in this xeric world these things make absolute sense. But it is more difficult to accept—to believe in—the sweep of fins through a thin film of water, the silent sway of salamanders across moistened soil, a trill of toads in the desert night.

I walk for hours across the hardscrabble ground, beneath a sun-blasted sky, taste salt on my burnt skin. But then I am taken, suddenly, by a trace of seep willow, the rustle of cottonwood leaves, a tiny spring hidden in some rough canyon. I stoop down, cup water in my hands, feel its cool welcome on my face, and then turn a flat rock. A small creature coils, refugee from the deepest past, from another, wetter time. I catch my breath and time spirals. The day is consecrated. All the world’s lost, aching beauty comes flooding in and life’s long skein claims my heart.

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