Dipodomys merriami: Desert Rat | Catherine Page Harris

Meeting Terri Koontz, field researcher at Estes Park, CO

When I started my position as the first hire in Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), I thought I would link us up with some ecologists. We had art, but I figured we should have a dialogue. Dr. Scott Collins, Director of the Long Term Ecological Research site at the Sevilleta, embraced my interest and became our connection and advocate.

Scott invited me to ruggedly palatial Estes Park, Colorado for the first of what turned into several workgroups on Arts and Humanities. At the meeting, I talked about art and ecology and said I was open to collaborating with scientists. A UNM field researcher at the Sevilleta, Terri Koontz, said she would like to work on an art project with me. I asked what she did and she said kangaroo rats. I had just moved to Albuquerque and wasn’t familiar with them – thence followed months-long conversations about the habits of kangaroo rats.

I found myself in my office, talking – nervous, showing work, wondering what would be created – fighting the stereotypes we both carried – showing my reluctance to be cornered into making botanical illustrations – wanting to make something more experiential.

We applied for a grant together, unsure what the outcome would be.

The museum of southwest biology

Grant in hand, we employed graduate students to help us create context for our studies.

Shelves, drawers, glass bottles, all jammed full of dead creatures – not just dead, but “taxonomied” – split into skin, bones, identification tags. In the Dipodomys merriami section, rodents fill shelves, one after another, tiny skins elongated. One front leg, one back leg stretch out mutely raising a hand in pirouette, a small ballet dancer pleading for a chance to go to the bathroom. The eyes are gone, too soft to endure the catalog. The little skins are bullet shaped, stuffed with tissues. The brittle fact of their existence helps prove something, somewhere, to someone. It is unknown yet what needs to be proved. We only see proof that the rodent lived, and died.

At the Museum, we found the dimensions of a cheek pouch and made high magnification drawings of the seeds the rats forage.

Trapping at dawn

I drive the hour down from Albuquerque, leaving sleeping children and husband at four a.m. to arrive in the pre-dawn light. The rats are nocturnal, and thus explore our metal boxes searching for oats in the night’s dark. We need to release them before it gets too warm. The traps are arranged in a web – web of life, web of inquiry – webs, it turns out are a morphological strategy providing many statistical and practical advantages. It is hard to lose track of the traps, following a line out from the middle. The boxes hold thirteen Dipodomys merriami, two Dipodomys spectabilis and one pocket mouse. The graduate students and I carefully stack the traps as the researcher tells cheerfully of finding snakes curled up inside these flapping metal boxes. We process each animal, flipping it into a plastic bag, pinching his/her neck, pulling it out of the bag, weighing, marking and checking for lactation and pregnancy if female. One has a bad case of rodent genital herpes. In the main, our investigations are received with phlegmatic terror. The animals have large liquid eyes and gentle long tails with fluffy ends. They are lovely, though in extremis.

Trapping at night

Our night trapping came about because I wanted to know the answer to a morphological question. What shape is a scatter horde? If Dipodomys merriami stores seeds in scatter hordes, what does a horde look like? Have I walked past them in the desert?

We placed our traps near the housing at the Sevillieta, played charades with my then five-year-old and two-year-old and later went to bed. At eleven, Terri checked the traps. Nothing doing. At two a.m., she went out again and we started the process of flipping the rats into bags to douse them in non-toxic, ultraviolet (UV) dust. We released them, cheek pouches full of oats from the trap, and followed their trails. We marked each trail with survey flags. The rats were anxious to shake off the powder, but we could follow them for five minutes or so, before the rats shook it off like a wet dog. We re-caught two rats who re-trapped themselves because they wanted more oats. In the darkness, every fifteen to thirty minutes, my children would cry out sleeping in the unfamiliar dark and I would run to them. The dreamlike early morning was spent getting them back to sleep and running out to find more rats and send them off, trailing red and magenta UV sparks into the darkness. The result was a series of trails, a GPS set of marks, and plaster castings of the scatter hordes we were able to mark along the UV rat dust trails. Scorpions also showed up in the UV lights we carried, scuttling away from our feet.

Scatter hordes are oddly orthogonal, determined by the front paws of the rat and the cracking point of the desert crust. Fungi and rat collaborate to make a tipped square hole, tapering to the surface.

Fish and wildlife: the work that never fit

So we created new research in both art and science processes. And then we needed to make a product to fit our grant and make something for the Wildlife Refuge. So we conceived first of a series of kits to transform humans into rats, and then built only one large scale kit – some shelving that held seed replicas and cheek pouch replicas at the scale as if a human were a rat. Sound devices played recorded Dipodomys drumming. There were sketches from all of our research. The project didn’t fit for the Fish and Wildlife information center. School age visitors stole the sound equipment. No one understood the abstracted fractured rat drawing. It was in the way of their new video display. They didn’t like the interpretive photos on the “banner”. What they wanted was a clear photo of a rat and a discursive narrative about the rat’s habits. The interaction of artist and scientist, night and day, investigator and investigated, these were not the concern of the U.S. Federal administration.

The rat as indicator species

Dipodomys became an indicator species for my understanding of the desert. Having lived with them night and day, seen their homes, drawn their food, modeled their scratchings and seeds at human scale, I saw a new desert as through their lens.

What is it about the desert? The light, sky and sparseness write an almost textbook definition of modernism, a pure relationship to form and color, unimpeded by narrative. And yet as I spend time in the desert, the narratives become as vibrant as the forms. Even the sand crust is alive – kept together by the mycorrhizal fungi, only blooming in mushroom form during monsoons. Spadefoot toads rest in the sandy washes waiting for the same rains as do the cactus flowers and their special pollinators. Mammals, too, tell silent stories in the desert. The Dipodomys are silent save when perceiving threat. After some nights of setting up equipment and recording nothing, I sat at three and four a.m. next to a mound with sound equipment in their passages. They only drummed when I zipped my coat, or coughed. We sang only in a duet. As I was recording their sounds, I was responding to the deep thrumming of the mountain lion’s roar. My atavistic instincts prodded me to run in terror through the night. I felt the tiny scale of my body in the blackness with the diesel engine roars of the great cats roaming the mountain behind me, looking for prey. Perhaps I was their prey. Perhaps the rat thought he or she was my prey. My predation was for their sounds, not their bodies – for my curiosity, not for my belly.

The rats tolerated my curiosity. Terri Koontz, the researcher, indulged her curiosity about being an artist, decided to teach and has left her field research position to teach biology. I became an unintentional catalyst having offered a scientist an art experience inside a research context. I finished the project on my own. Unintended consequences are commonly the result of curiosity. The desert has been the space imagined as blank and thus prime real estate for the curious, the seekers, the experimenters. In the darkness, we don’t know how the floating unintended consequences may determine the desert’s stories.

Images: © 2012 Catherine Page Harris.


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Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Practices

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