At Home With Nature

Death and Life – A Walk in the Desert

Who needs candy and costumes? We celebrated Halloween with a hike in the desert where we found signs of life and death to help us contemplate the holiday.

Cottonwood tree growing along desert wash in the Uintah Basin.

Since we’ve been enjoying a mild, exceptionally wet, and colorful fall on our farm, we found that conditions in one of our favorite desert hiking spots were also extraordinary.

It’s the first time I’ve seen mushrooms in this usually very arid location!

Minuscule mushrooms.

Taking close up photos of minute mushrooms gave me a chance to observe an ant going about its business as well.

Ant close-up.

The first mushrooms we found were extraordinarily tiny – and shaped like little donuts.

Fingernail with mushrooms for scale.

We were just as surprised by the mushrooms as we were to find some butterflies out and about.

Butterfly on rabbitbrush.

There were more puddles than we’d ever seen in this location, and many patches of willow growing, a plant typically found along streams and rivers.

Willow growing along desert wash.

I love finding simple instances of beauty in places like this – as well as faces that pop out of the landscape.

Happy dinosaur face rock.

While many areas of the desert wash we walked along looked wet, I noticed one spot where the top layer of soil was shiny as if wet, but cracked and peeling, revealing the dryer soil beneath.

Peeling desert wash surface.

And while this is an improbable location for leaf peeping, the yellow leaves of a handful of cottonwood trees made the landscape dazzle.

Cottonwood leaf in dappled light in desert wash.

We even found a patch of moss – such a resilient organism, lying in wait for so long and then able to return to life when it rains.

Moss growing in desert in autumn.

While signs of life abounded, it was halloween, after all, and signs of death popped out at us too.

One of the fascinating things about the desert is that things don’t breakdown or get covered up like they would in a forest – there aren’t many fungal biodegraders, and there isn’t much vegetation to fall to the ground and create humus.

Probably the skull of a small rodent, shoe for scale.

While the ground is littered here and there with the bones of deceased animals, plants are popping up, looking fresh and happy after such a generous season full of rain.

Both of these plants – different species (though I’m too lazy at the moment to try identifying them) have blueish leaves, which helps reflect hot blue light, an adaptation to a harsh climate.

We found numerous pools of water, sending back reflections of nearby vegetation.

And perhaps this gave us an opportunity to reflect on life and death in a bigger sense as well.

Chad looking at his reflection.

We’ve started to notice that some of the skulls and bones we find in the desert are landmarks of sorts, ones we see again and again. Nothing seems to move them once they fall.

This pile of bones was new. My first thought was that perhaps it was part of an antelope, but Chad is the expert on identifying things like this in our household, and he believes it might be from a calf.

Unfortunately, cows are allowed to graze on public lands such as these, and sometimes they die there.

But as many signs of death as we saw, we found many more exciting signs of life.

As a fan of taking macro photography, I was thrilled to notice this teeny tiny plant covered with reddish pink flowers.

Since my close up vision started declining shortly after I turned 40, macro photography allows me to see things I can’t see with my bare eyes anymore. Though, to be honest, these flowers are so small, perhaps I never would have been able to see them unassisted.

The plant was emerging from the soil on a stem so thin, it appeared to be a needle. (Plant ID to come, but later.)

Chad’s hands with plant, for scale.

While larger plants covered with flowers also delight me, it is these minute species that are so easy to miss that really thrill me. They make me feel like life is particularly special when attention is paid to the small details.

Another plant, happily blooming in fall, with lush, blue-colored foliage.

Another contemplation of life and death – a new flower and one that has passed its peak and is fading.

So many plants to learn to identify – so little time!

And some of the most intriguing of them are succulents.

Succulent plant in desert.

This location is also marked here and there by artifacts – old rusty cans and other metal objects that were left behind, maybe a century ago.

Rusty can artifact in desert.

Chad is somewhat of a master animal tracker, so while I get thrilled with plants, he is particularly excited about animal tracks. And since the ground was still muddy, we found many different types of footprints along our hike.

Coyote tracks.

We have witnessed another carcass decompose year after year returning to the same location – and these bones seem to have provided an anchor for plant life to flourish.

Animal skeleton.

Meanwhile, black beetles wander along across the desert floor, minding their business, crawling slowly along.


Life and death – it’s a dance between two partners, and the desert showcases it well.

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