The Boom Town (Essay by Susan Newark) Environment Social Commentary Ecology Wildlife Burrowing Owl
The following piece was previously published in The Casa Grande Dispatch during the late summer of the 2000 election campaign and is also excerpted in Newark's journal Dear Husband (under different titles in both instances). Newark's intent was to draw public attention to a ballot proposition that would limit city development without the establishment of a comprehensive growth management plan.
Cooey spreads his talons atop a fence post, bobbing his head in agitation, because as I stroll the wide dirt path between the farmland and the open desert, I pass between him and his nest. Unlike other owls, he’s active by day, his tan feathers with white specks blending into the background. Every millimeter of his ten-inch body challenges me as I approach, and his glowing golden orbs measure every step I take. But he rarely dive bombs me as he does other intruders, because by now he knows me. We’ve both been coming here for years.
The Boom Town
Sometimes I wonder at his choice of location. The sparse vegetation of the desert floor suits his need to be wary of predators that would attack his chicks and similarly improves his chances of finding prey. But the prairie dog hole in which he burrows lies only thirty feet off the main trail that runs the length of the cotton field from the end of the housing development out to the main road. And it is not a deserted trail. Kids race their bicycles on it; joggers run on it; crop-dusters fly over it, targeting the nearby farm field but poisoning local residents with pesticide drift. Teens and overage boozers commandeer it at night, piling their broken Bud bottles for the toads to gash themselves on. Neighborhood ORV enthusiasts zoom along it, scorching the silence with the screams of their motors. And I run my dogs on it, choking on the churning dust and pretending that I’m getting away from it all.
But “it”—the growing city’s tendency to trash now and not even worry about it later—is systematically sprawling across the desert, tentacles tangling in what was once sage, uprooting Palo Verde and Mesquite, bullet-holing the mighty Saguaro, undermining the roots of the land. Hiking out there one day, I find that even a small airplane harasses me, veering off course specifically to charge me in a low deliberate sweep. The mentality of this assault appalls me. I don't duck but I want to.
In the past few years, civilization has caught up to my once-secluded desert haven, though the town is erratically patterned with chunks of littered vacant lots and ghetto neighborhoods where rejuvenating construction would have made more sense. But the brand new high school, not intended to supplement the overcrowded old one but rather to service the entire city, sprawls outside the edge of town, on the far side of me. Its visual facelift does nothing to improve educational standards which have dropped so low that 90% of young adult job applicants at my business cannot even pass a third-grade math and spelling test. Its distance has necessitated that the gas-guzzling school buses triple their work load. And for what? An architectural blunder, the high school resembles a prison so distinctly that the students have referred to it as such from day one and spend all their time trying to escape it. Even so, in full view of its fenced campus, new homes are rapidly springing up all around it. And near the old country road, opposite the side of the field where Cooey nests, freshly-paved streets creep their way across. Cooey's land is for sale.
Actually there are two Cooeys, and I know the chicks have hatched when both parents appear simultaneously. By night they hunt and by day they perch poised for flights of defense, two or three wooden posts apart. Chattering sharply, they swoop at intruding heads, usually neighborhood dog walkers persistently curious about the nest. Cooey tolerates me because I call my dogs away from his territory and hunt his chicks only with binoculars. By July, after a month of incubation and three months of constant care, the young are almost as big as their parents, though they still inhabit the nest and beg food. Not yet fledged, they’re particularly vulnerable to predators, intentional or otherwise.
Despite the growing turbulence, Cooey holds firm to his claim. We’re two of a kind, Cooey and I. We don't want to forfeit the illusion that our chosen haunts are forever available to us. And although I suppose I could hike over to the next section of open desert to help wear a new trail in it instead, I take little consolation in the fact that during my lifetime, at least, there will probably always be a less populated trail. For when the Cooeys flee the bulldozers now looming over the flattened terrain less than a mile away, they will fly to that next section of open desert only to find another pair of burrowing owls already residing there. The territory that seems limitless to us is already inhabited. And as we encroach upon it, acre after acre, the day may come when—like the Cooeys—we have nowhere to go.
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Photographs are all from southern Arizona, taken around the time this essay was published. Quality matted photos of these shorts are for sale in the Southwest Scenery Collection on this website.
All photography and texts are copyrighted to Susan Newark and are protected by Digimarc invisible watermarking and online image tracking.