Riparian means “relating to, living on, or located on the bank of a natural watercourse.” While riparian refers to anywhere there is water, riparian areas are always more astonishing when they appear in arid country. One of my favorite sights, whenever I’m visiting a desert, is the sudden appearance of the surprising burst of luxuriant growth that marks the presence of water. In southern New Mexico, at Oliver Lee State Park a few miles outside Alamogordo, There is a riparian area nestled between the towering cliffs of Dog Canyon. Here, flanking the cheerful little creek that bubbles and tumbles along the canyon floor, cactus is replaced by poplars and other deciduous trees. Cattails, horsetail, and ferns crowd the banks of the stream. It is lush and beautiful—and very narrow, with the desert still controlling the land only a few yards from the watercourse.
The photos below were taken by the friend I was visiting in New Mexico. The first faces the canyon, revealing the fall colors of the trees clustered around the creek. The second faces away from Dog Canyon, across the expanse of the Tularosa Basin. The broken wall in this photo is part of the ruins of a cabin built by a French settler in the 1800s, and pencil-line of white you can just make out to the right, at the base of the distant mountains, is the sun reflecting off White Sands.
Just as I have taken a break from work, so too I am going to take a very brief respite from talking about Australia.
I spent the last two weeks visiting friends in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Southern New Mexico is perhaps best known for missiles and rockets, as there are bases for both the U.S. Air Force and NASA in the area, as well as the splendid Museum of Space History. But even more than this, the area is a paradise for geology buffs. You can visit the Valley of Fires and see the aftermath of volcanic activity. You can wander through the astonishing, eroded boulder fields of City of Rocks or hunt for geodes in Rockhound State Park. You can browse through the geology museum in Socorro or shop for picture jasper and crystal clusters everywhere. It’s all wonderful, but to me, the most remarkable thing of all is White Sands.
White Sands National Monument is a unique dune field of pure white gypsum sand. The tiny gypsum crystals are actually clear, but as they are driven by the wind, they are scratched, and the scratches make them appear pure white. The crystals are blown across the Tularosa basin but are too heavy to be carried over the bordering mountains. Hence, they are deposited in a snowy blanket on the windward side of the range. On the outer dunes, dark vegetation clings to life amid the shifting sands, but farther in, vegetation vanishes, and one is surrounded by an undulating field that looks like a winter wonderland—even when the temperature is in the 90s. It can be blinding, but it is always glorious.
There are a variety of animals that have adapted perfectly to life in these dunes: white lizards, white gophers, white insects. The plants have adapted, too, either growing in ways that stay ahead of the moving dunes or gathering sand in a network of roots, creating gypsum pillars on which to grow. Much of what is wonderful is typical of sands everywhere, most especially the sculpting by wind or rain. However, the pristine white of these dunes makes them especially delightful. The photos below do not do justice to the dunes, as it is not possible to capture the crystalline sparkle of the dunes, or the wonder of standing on a high dune and having a sea of white rolling away from you an all sides. But while they do not truly reflect the beauty of the dunes, they at least hint at it.