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 The horizontal female was smaller – chica say the Spanish – with knees and head withdrawn into the world of its own brown and gold shell.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.