Desert Home Companion
Lessons learned between heaven and the junipers.
Very few people, aside from my parents and brothers, know my full name: Milagre de Cielo y los Juniperos Coates. In Spanish, it translates to "miracle from heaven and the junipers," and is, in a very abridged way, the story of me and my origin, referencing my wild roots in the thick ponderosa and alligator juniper forests of Arizona — only about 60 miles from here — and my birthplace of Red Lodge, Montana, one cold, snowy, January evening 17 years ago.
My mother was not expecting, did not even want, another child. She and my dad already had had three boys in the house for more than 15 years. They were looking forward to the youngest one graduating from high school in two years. Besides, none of the children in the house was biologically hers, and while she loved them just as much as their biological mother did, she and my dad were wishing for some well-deserved alone time — sans children.
Of course, we all know the old cliché, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," but my parents were about to experience it firsthand, in the form of a positive pregnancy test. My mother was shocked and bewildered, my dad ecstatic. He loved children and babies; his abilities as a father had been proven time and time again. My mother's concerns therefore didn't include his capabilities; they were doubts about her own. She had never developed my dad's affinity for children or even changed a diaper. By the time my brothers were living with her and my dad, none of them was a baby anymore. She was scared, full of self-doubt, and had really been hoping for the moment when all the boys were grown and gone, so she and my dad could have their own life together.
With my dad's help and support, however — and a little epiphany of her own — she was able to overcome those challenges and decide that she could be content, even happy, with a child in her future. On Jan. 8, 1996, I was born into my dad's arms in our little "log cabin" — every owner since the first prospector in the late 1800s had added a room or two — in the small, rural, coal-mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, about 45 miles from the border of Yellowstone Park. My youngest brother (who was almost 17 at the time) was also present. (My parents now joke it was probably the best form of birth control education they could have ever given him). Sadly, I have no childhood memories of the place, having moved to New Mexico when I was only two and a half.
There I thrived in the intense energy of my parents' love and the ceaseless New Mexico sunshine, shooting up like a sunflower and absorbing everything I possibly could about the vibrant natural world I was constantly surrounded with. I spent as much time romping happily through the high-desert scrub that surrounded our house — picking up rocks and branches wherever I went just to see what lurked underneath (and if I could catch it) — as many urban children spend in their neighborhood playground or day-care programs.
Sadly, it being New Mexico, and rural New Mexico at that, there were hardly any children my age within a 30-mile radius. My childhood playmates thus tended to be on the less-than-human side, consisting primarily of our dogs, cats and the yearly crop of goat kids, along with the occasional turkey, chicken or bull snake.
Being homeschooled until age 13 simply reinforced my bonds with our farm animals. To me, the subjects of biology and ecology weren't just some abstract concepts and confusing diagrams out of a book that weighed as much as our Miriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary; they were the very fabric of my worldview. I watched animals be born, live, breed and die (sometimes by our own hands) in front of my marveling eyes. I watched them feed upon each other, sometimes ruthlessly — ant-lions and spiders were personal favorites of mine — but also witnessed some of the most intimate moments of their lives firsthand — a mother goat tenderly licking her newborn clean and gently nuzzling it upright.
When the many ranching families who surrounded us began to get upset at the Mexican Grey Wolf reintroduction, I could understand their point of view, but the naturalist in me knew their arguments didn't hold much water. Wolves have naturally been in this area for centuries and, as Aldo Leopold so poignantly knew, they were essential to the balance and health of the ecosystem. Without them, there would be too many elk, too little grass, and the mountains would suffer.
In a similar way, I understood why bullfrogs, an invasive species from the Eastern United States, were bad for the rivers and streams. In order to reach their massive size, they must consume just about every living thing in their paths as tadpoles, including other frogs' eggs and small fish. They also have few natural predators in this area, meaning their populations grow exponentially. I remember spending one afternoon with my nephew catching bullfrog tadpoles and throwing them up on the bank for the raccoons. I felt like I was doing a good thing: restoring the balance and natural order of things.
Bits of my childhood have stayed with me to this day. I still harbor an affinity toward animals; I'm not entirely sure how the pet-free-college-dorm lifestyle will work out in the long-term. The fierce curiosity of my youth, while having burned itself down to more sustainable levels, still consumes whatever trivia and minutiae it finds itself surrounded with. I still love being outside; it is there, in solitude, that I can find both my current self and nostalgia for my youth.
Present-me may be wiser about some things, but she always asks past-self if those things are really more important than a basic, primal understanding of the way the world around you works and behaves. What mechanisms truly drive this clockwork orange ever, ever on into the cosmos?
Milagre Coates is a senior at Aldo Leopold High School in Silver City.