A strange act of nature occurred this morning, Sept. 16, 2005, on the way to the computer to write you.  I took a habitual, early hike in the Sonora desert along flats and rolling hills of rock and cacti given a green tinge by an autumn cloudburst.  It was already 100 F.

I heard a gasp on rounding a barrel cactus.  Two giant desert tortoises copulated famously before me.  The mounted male tipped at 45-degrees as if holding a bucking saddle.  He threw up an open, grunting mouth.  The horizontal female was smaller – chica say the Spanish – with knees and head withdrawn into the world of its own brown and gold shell.  The male right front leg whipped the air high, lacking only a tiny cowboy hat to make me laugh.

I set my own hat against the bright light and sat ten feet away.  The male swiveled its head, abruptly dismounted and charged me.  Until that second, I didn’t realize a tortoise could gallop.  Was the rush defensive or amorous?

He came to my knee, stared and I looked back.  This was a rare treat because tortoise populations have declined 90% since the 1980’s, and the remainders spend 95% of the time underground.  His shell was 12” and the head extended 6”.  Obsidian eyes with wrinkles and a green beard – from grazing grass and wildflowers – suggested ancient wisdom.  He was older than most senior citizens and still breathed hard.

Shortly, he crawled beneath my legs for shade and I rubbed his chin for a while.  The sun drew high until it was time to go.  I left him panting, and with a new respect for the ways of the wise tortoise.