Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ditch Willow

Weather: Light snow Monday night, wind yesterday; 10:27 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming: Black mustard, biological crust, moss.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on hybrid roses and young chamisa; leaves on grape hyacinth, sweet pea, alfilerillo growing, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed, chrysanthemum, anthemis, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.

Large Russian thistles have either been cleared and burned or broken away. If they haven’t been destroyed, they’re caught against fences, salt bushes and other obstructions. Smaller plants, especially those ankle high, are still in place.

Many large pigweeds are still in place, along with a great many ankle high plants.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, soapworts.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters; tansy mustard germinating.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; weeping and globe willows.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

When I was taking pictures of the cholla, someone watching came over to see if I’d gotten a good picture of the red-tailed hawk on the utility pole behind the cacti, for that’s why he assumed I was standing on an eroding bank by the side of the road clinging to barbed wire for support.

Weekly update: You can blame it on the dogs. If it weren’t for them, I never would have begun tracking sandbar willows.

It began when I followed a man walking his dog back to a place I could park safely to explore the Rio Grande where it joins the Santa Cruz river. Then I saw some women park their car near some willow growing closer to my house. I followed them and their dogs, and all semblance of sanity was lost.

The willow was growing on the banks of the main irrigation ditch that supports the hay farmers between my house and the village. Suddenly I wanted the answer to a question that’s been nagging me for years, where was that ditch.

At the point I began, the acequia was wide, with dirt banks. Clumps of willow were dense, with occasional cottonwood and sections of brown bunch grass. When I started to follow ditch downstream, the willow clumps became more widely spaced, the cottonwoods more common. Here and there a one-seeded juniper grew, and in one place some Ponderosa pine.

Farther downstream, the ditch was encased in concrete. No more willow. The cottonwoods were more sporadic; four-winged saltbushes lined the ditch instead. Some cholla appeared, as did other species of trees, probably Siberian elms.

In the general area where the ditch changed from dirt to concrete, the ditch was moving back toward the Tertiary badlands. Prior to that point the badlands had been bunch grasses and juniper.

After that point, salt bushes appeared with the juniper and grasses.

The apron between the ditch and the road also changed. In one area that looks like someone once flattened the land with irrigation, there was a large patch of prickly pear cacti.

In another level area at the far end under the concrete ditch, there was that colony of cholla cacti shown above.

The open field was crossed by lines of cottonwoods. I’d already learned when I was looking for safe places to pull over, they were often headed by very large trees growing in open ditches just before the feeding ditches crossed under the road.

I’d noticed the trees were often opposite the oldest houses in that stretch of road. From the concrete ditch, I could see the mechanisms that distributed the waters. In most places, the actual ditches are buried.

The acequia travels in three guises: open dirt banks that seep water when the ditch is running, concrete lined banks that cab collect water on their uphill sides when it rains, and buried pipes that hold water above themselves. The differences in water to the surrounding soil may seem minuscule, but they are differences cottonwoods and willows and other plants detect and respond to.

1. Sandbar willow growing along the dirt banks of the local acequia, 15 January 2012.

2. Cholla growing down water from the concrete lined ditch whose location is marked by the trees and low golden brown plants, 7 February 2012; the red tailed hawk is on the top, right end of the utility pole; juniper and bunch grass are on the badlands behind.

3. Upstream from the above, grasses mix with willow, 20 January 2012.

4. Downstream, along the dirt banks, sandbar willow, cottonwood, and other herbaceous plants, 15 January 2012; ditch on left, wide area is bank.

5. Farther downstream, along the concrete lined banks, cottonwood and four-winged saltbushes dominate, 15 January 2012.

6. The badlands along the dirt section of the ditch with bunch grasses and one-seeded juniper, 15 January 2012.

7. The badlands along the concrete section of the ditch with salt bush, cholla and juniper, 15 January 2012.

8. Prickly pear growing downslope from the dirt section of the ditch, last fall when Russian thistle was finally growing after the drought was broken, 3 September 2011.

9. Row of cottonwoods marking the path of a distribution ditch from the main ditch at the left, 15 January 2011.

10. Distribution point in concrete lined ditch, 15 January 2012.

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