Bats, Cuckoos, and Happiness

Granite Dome at sunset

After a day spent mostly at the computer screen, I need to stretch.  Granite Dells stretches me, pulls me irresistibly into the mazes of outcrops and canyons, especially appealing when thunderheads have finished their rumbling and are sailing away across the heavens, mission accomplished.

I head toward Granite Creek, its cottonwoods pulsing with the choruses of strident cicadas.  Though monsoon storms have been modest at best in this neighborhood, the weeds, native and otherwise, are dense and lush.  Fortunately, mosquito populations here are lower than last year, and as long as I keep moving, I avoid serious blood-letting.

There are signs here indicating that this is a restoration area, and the twenty-foot cottonwoods and shorter velvet ash and hackberry trees are evidence that recovery is occurring.  A developer had grand plans for this area, and he drained a small recreational lake that had been used by residents and tourists alike in the “good old days” of early Prescott.  He also cut out the willows and cottonwoods that framed the pond and leveled the whole works for his development.  There were plans for a bridge across Granite Creek where now there is a fair-weather ford—a  bridge that might have impeded Wood Ducks and Black-Hawks as they flew up and downstream searching for food.  With money pouring from his deep pockets and machines moving the earth with seeming impunity, he didn’t take one thing into account: his development was right next to the property of one of the Dells’ most colorful characters, Happy Heavenly Oasis (no, this is not a pseudonym). 

Happy was not happy at all.  This peace-loving, raw-food vegan, a willowy blonde with a wistful smile and kind heart, turned into an eco-warrior on the war path.  Before long, The Army Corps of Engineers, armed with cease-and-desist orders rather than tanks, moved in on the developer: caught in the act draining a wetland without proper permits, a violator of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a scofflaw of the first degree.

I was on the Open Space Acquisition Committee of the City of Prescott at the time, and we couldn’t be happier with this turn of events.  This was land we had dreamed of acquiring for open space using funds collected by the City with sales tax monies approved by the citizens for exactly this sort of thing.  The developer was stuck between a rock and a hard place that even an earth mover could not budge.  Of course, his only contrition was that he had been caught.  He tried his best to squeeze money out of the City, but he had little leverage.  He was responsible for paying a restoration company to undo the ecological damage, and he could not proceed with putting expensive condos where he wanted to.  The Corps watched him like the proverbial hawk.  He eventually cut his losses and sold this land to the City for designated natural open space.  Happy was again happy, as are all of us who value the stream, the riparian area with its recently discovered Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and the dramatic granite cliffs, some of them among the very best for rock climbing in an area famous for its challenging routes.

I am reflecting on this as I watch an amazing sunset begin to paint the sky with pastel shades of pink and blue.  Ahead stands a tower of granite that I call “China Rock” because in the sunset light, it reminds me of the ridiculously steep stone towers that occur somewhere in China.  In daylight, I often scan it for White-throated Swifts, aerial acrobats that only a Peregrine Falcon would think of chasing (and they do in this neighborhood).   It’s bedtime now for swifts, yet there is a lot of movement up there.  Bats!

A stream of bats, a wavering aerial column that twists and turns erratically as it issues from the vertical slits in the granite spire.  A stream flowing generally south, perhaps toward the lakes, since bug populations are low here this year.  A stream of consciousness unlike ours but driven by similar basic needs.

In ten minutes or so, the current has moved on.  A few stragglers dribble out, flitter aimlessly for a few seconds, then move south toward the others.  A Canyon Wren sends chills down my spine with the haunting descending melody, canyonness epitomized.  A Redtail on a snag on China Rock is silhouetted against the pastel sky; how did I miss seeing it before?

Open space.  What an insufficient phrase!  This is anything but open space.  It’s space filled with the movements of bats, swifts, and swallows.  It’s space where young cottonwoods flex their branches in the wind, pumping water and nutrients from the soil to those fluttering leaves, where some water escapes as vapor that surrounds the trees with self-imposed humidity.  It’s space where I am walking in awe of nature, where neighbors and their dogs romp with abandon, where photographers set up tripods to capture scenes unspoiled by the architecture of high-priced condominiums.

The citizens of Prescott had their values right when they approved paying more for open space, as well as road improvements.  City Councils charged with spending that money wisely on behalf of the citizens have not always had it right.  They blew many good opportunities to buy outstanding properties that would have added so much to the quality of life in this area.  They could not see far ahead down the roads they were building to the tourists who would come, who would spend money in this community to experience exactly what I was experiencing.  Fortunately, they sometimes were persuaded to act, in this case by angry neighbors, a gung-ho advisory committee making recommendations to the City, and a deal the City could not refuse.

This piece of land, with its igneous tower hosting bats and swifts, its lush ribbon of green welcoming cuckoos and Wood Ducks, and its challenging cliffs rewarding human climbers and Rock Wrens alike, is worth far more than condos.  Granite Dells itself is a community treasure, one that we must work to protect in any way that we can.  That is the premise of the new Granite Dells Preservation Foundation.  If we succeed, it will not just be the neighbors who will be happy.  This is an opportunity to leave a legacy for all who follow, a legacy that Prescott officials would be wise to promote themselves.

6 thoughts on “Bats, Cuckoos, and Happiness

  1. Thanks for telling this story Walt, I never knew it! I got a foot reflexology treatment from Happy once more than a decade ago. She had bowls of almonds and raisins out on the railing of her porch. She said they were collecting sun energy, to assist with her preparations to become a “breathatarian.” She was (and I’m sure still is) a sweet woman, and I’m glad she prevailed in her efforts to protect the Dells.

  2. Walt, that was wonderful! Stumbled upon your blog via the pernicious and seductive facebook, and am so glad I did. Happy was my first landlady in Prescott, and I had heard a little about that situation, but it was great to get the whole story, from my favorite PC teacher, no less! Your descriptive prose reminds me of all the things I love about the Southwest, so I shall continue to read your blog and live vicariously once more in Prescott, for I am now in Colorado and adventuring every moment I get. Consider yourself bookmarked!

  3. Thank you Walt, for writing this and for being a wonderful neighbor. Gratefully the Dells near our homes, except for the loss of the lovely 90 year old boating and fishing lake, has been somewhat successfully preserved. We lost one of the most diverse bird habitats and wildest watering holes in Arizona that was home to more species than any other I have ever seen in North America. It provided an extraordinarily wild night life for me for more than a decade. After magnificent evening symphonies often performed by hundreds of birds, at night the lake would come to life with a deafening chorus of hundreds of croaking frogs, punctuated by frequently jumping fish blending nicely with the humming of crickets. In addition, resident porcupines, racoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, coyotes, rabbits, ducks, owls, foxes, deer, ring tail cats, even mountain lions would come down to drink. One evening when approaching my bed, I saw that a mountain lion was nestled like a house cat on the comforter of my outdoor cliff dwelling bed. (I opted to sleep on the roof that night.) On another night, I watched in the moonlight as another mountain lion jumped down from a nearby boulder to pounce upon our pet rabbit who was out wandering just below my cliff dwelling. When I flew down the ladder to save the rabbit, the mountain lion took one glance at fiercely determined me, dropped Thistle (the rabbit), and ran away.

    It is sad that such a gem of a wildlife sanctuary was destroyed. There is nothing that comes close to it in Prescott. For several years the great blue herons, green herons, turkey vultures, kingfisher and others would circle over the lake as if asking what had happened and when it would return. The mammals moved on. The porcupine died, and life around the Happy Oasis is now very minimal and quiet. Ironically, beautiful trails that have been carved for nature lovers to enjoy.

    Thank you James and Julie for your fun comments that bring back sweet memories from the Dells when we lived on the little lake sometimes all day long and slept nights rocking ourselves to sleep in the tiny waves, camping beneath the stars in what felt like the jungle primeval in our wooden canoe tied to one of the many elegant and enormous willow trees that used to hang over the shore.

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