THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

New Mexico pond slakes many a thirst

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2006

LA CIENEGA, N.M. -- Whatever lakes and ponds once dampened the vast, pinyon-specked desert in northern New Mexico were long ago sucked dry to irrigate crops or water grazing animals or slake people's thirst. The rare shallow stream is usually flagged by a clump of cottonwoods and a cluster of settlement.

After spending several days driving through the desert, even in the comfort of air-conditioning, visitors from wetter places may find themselves pining for water -- just the shimmering, soul-quenching sight of it. This is when it pays to know a few words in Spanish.

``Cienega" means ``marsh," and so the name of this village about 11 miles south of Santa Fe betrays its secret: the presence of a wetland and all the cooling plants and water-loving wildlife that go with it. Officially the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve, the marsh is managed by the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and kept open to the public for enjoyment and education.

The wetland preserve covers 35 acres at the bottom of a low, grassy hill. The surrounding terrain is locally known as an open pinyon-juniper woodland, and it links the grasslands of the Galisteo Basin and Rio Grande Valley to the forested foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Like the occasional roadside streams, the wetland sustains a grove of cottonwoods , tall, big-leafed trees in the poplar family.

With their broad spread and towering stature, their presence is like that of weeping willows , which also favor watery locales. The shade under their branches is one of the first noticeable differences between this bottomland and the arid grasslands rising above the marsh. A loop trail with several branches takes in the lowland and upland areas of the site, passing patches of wildflowers blooming orange, blue, purple, and white. Their names, on discreet plaques at ground level, are less than poetic -- puccoon, perky Sue, Western sneezeweed, monkeyflower, buffalo gourd -- but as full of regional flavor as a bowl of the local chili.

The trail branching north passes through the more arid upland, with yucca and small cacti backing into tall grass. The cacti -- two types were in the cholla family -- look like clumps of turtles stuck together at odd angles. The silvery, sage-like chamisa, a ubiquitous flowering shrub along the roadsides throughout the desert Southwest, also grows beside this high- ground trail. It's one of the few shrubs in a sea of grasses and other herbaceous plants, punctuated by cottonwoods and Russian olives, an invasive exotic tree species that volunteers are trying to eradicate before it overruns the place.

Around a bend, the highland trail descends into a thicket of cattails, and the marsh spreads out around the most luxurious of all features in this terrain, a small pond. Its water is brown, but it covers about an acre and is screened on all sides by the tall reeds, so that it comes as a surprise when it glimmers into view. It supports dozens of bird species, from red -winged blackbirds and marsh wrens to more unusual waterfowl like egrets, grebes, herons, and rails. A picnic table, one of a half-dozen scattered throughout the preserve, faces a dock extending into the water, perfect for bird-watching.

A brochure available at the preserve explains how crucial the birds are in maintaining this habitat, which in turn supports them. The widespread grazing that has taken over much of the Southwestern landscape since the Spanish Conquest of the 1500s has consumed marshes, woodlands, and other diverse habitats that supported hundreds of wild species.

As these varied habitats were replaced by grassland, the birds that helped disperse the seeds of wetland and woodland plants gradually diminished. Both plants and animals declined in unison. This turns out to be why shrubs are so scarce throughout the preserve. Even so, this relative speck of muddy land and water is a crucible of biodiversity, and more than 145 species of birds alone have been recorded on the site.

The main trail proceeds through the heart of the preserve, with feathery Russian olives providing dappled shade along the way. A picnic table sits under an enormous cottonwood, a tempting spot to sprawl out for an afternoon siesta. Invisible insects send up a steady drone, broken only by the plop of some critter hitting the water. Goodness knows where else a frog or a turtle might find a home around here.

The lowland trail loop sweeps around the wetter habitat, where different flowering plants kept company with other grasses. The striking differences among the plants growing along the three main legs of the trail system dramatize how much diversity 35 acres can contain. And on a late-summer Sunday, when fiesta throngs flooded the hot streets of Santa Fe, a handful of visitors had it all to themselves.

Contact Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, at janeroybrown@verizon.net.

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