It was in the Great Desert of the Southwest, out in the Mojave, where Gizmo and I accidentally intruded upon an unusual conversation. I was walking, Gizmo’s reins looped over my arm as we made our way slowly along the south side of a long, narrow gully. Lately I had gotten into the habit of stopping every so often for a short pause, to simply be still and listen to the voice of the desert around us. Gizmo usually made some noise by stretching his head down to see what he could grab in his teeth, but I learned early on to filter his sounds out from those around us. It was interesting and instructive to listen to the soundscape of an environment that you aren’t familiar with. Especially a hostile one, or one that you’ve always thought of as hostile.
A few minutes’ stop to listen to the Mojave always rendered a diverse palette of noises. Day sounds differed from night sounds, especially those made by the wildlife. During the day, I heard the whistle of sage and creosote bush in the wind; the hum of a truck on a highway many miles away in the distance, the soft warbles of a covey of quail or the squawk of a pinion jay, the buzz of a dragonfly or the chirp of a cricket, the insistent chatter of a cicada, the warning hiss of a rattlesnake’s tail. I became attuned to the smallest of sounds, the kind made by a jackrabbit sifting for morsels in the bush or by the scratch of a lizard scurrying across a large rock.
During the night, the sounds shifted. The late afternoon brought the gentle whispers of king birds and flycatchers to snap up gnats and mosquitos out of the evening sky. Nocturnal creatures came forth: rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, desert foxes. And some of the birds could be heard as well: canyon wrens, herons, whippoorwills, nighthawks. All these sounds made up a sort of harmony with the small campfires that marked our camps at night. Coyotes were the most vocal, but the others performed their own special parts in the chorus.
It was during one of these short pauses that we stumbled upon two desert tortoises. I had been listening, eyes closed and mind relaxed, when I sensed something else there. I hadn’t noticed them when we stopped, so I was a bit surprised to look down to find the two creatures, noses just inches apart, facing each other and staring into one another’s eyes. They were obviously having a conversation of the sort tortoises no doubt have, and I felt a bit bad about interrupting it. They were standing stock-still, not moving at all. At some point, I decided I would stand there and watch them, remaining utterly still, until one of them moved (Gizmo did not see fit to take part in this little exercise). I remained a statue, barely blinking, for what must have been several minutes. It seemed like hours. I began to think they weren’t even alive, but I resisted the urge to reach down and poke one of them to find out. I finally gave up, pulled Gizmo to one side, and stepped around them. They gave no acknowledgement that they had seen us and remained unmoving as we walked past and left them to their dialog.
To this day, I have no idea what those dryland terrapins were talking about. But I’m guessing their gossip will find its way back around to me eventually.