The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 20, 2002

WILD ON THE PRAIRIE
La Niña De La Tierra
Burr Williams, Midland Reporter Telegram, January 20, 2002, © 2003


La nina de la tierra waited at the mouth of her burrow. Her over-sized, pink, bald head gleamed in the moonlight like a human skull. The long antennae above her dark eyes gently waved. La nina listened for a male stridulating the inner surface of his leg against short spines on his abdomen. The tenor sound carries far on humid air in the spring and fall after the rains, late in the night just before the dew falls and ground mist rises. Her activities increase, as she patrols the deep sands long ago blown east from the Pecos River Valley.

In the dunes, several species of spiders burrow. All are speckled for camouflage, and are invisible until they move. They feed on the tiny flies that come to coyote dung and kangaroo rat poop, the tiny parasitical flies and wasps that are part of the insect community of sand heliotrope, sunflower, shinoak, and the rest of the deep sand flora.


La nina loves the juicy spiders, for their abdomens are the size of a human's smallest fingernail -- such nice juicy bags of rich food for la nina! She will capture caterpillars travelling from plant to plant, as they avoid the glaring heat of the day. If a soft juicy plant root is exposed by the winds, la nina will gnaw on herbaceous material as well.


As she moved into the open, the black bands across the shiny amber abdomen seemed to ripple in the shadows of her thick hind legs. Her antennae swept side to side, low above her front four feet. As always, her expressionless face presented the visage of a human baby.


Where water occurs, la nina and her kin can be found in the sand bars and allluvial river terraces above the streams. Where rocks mix with sand, their dens are protected from the digging of coyotes and skunks. But on the sands of the dune fields, such as those stretching from Crane to Ft. Sumner, their mass emergence is their most efficacious defense. In the rainy season, 40 burrows will be visible on one dune face for the few days needed for mating and filling their bellies in preparation for the long dry periods of diapause.


In places without rivers in the arid lands of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, la nina de la tierra is sometimes considered to be the lost baby of La Llorona.


In the tale of La Llorona, a young woman gives birth to a baby. No one had suspected she was pregnant. Her father, feeling disgraced and betrayed, demanded to know the name of the father, but she denied ever having been with a man. While its mother slept, her father took the child and threw the baby into a nearby river. The young woman awoke and ran to the river, but it was too late -- not only for the baby, but also for her. Blood was pouring from her body, and all that was found in the morning was a trail of blood. Forever after, people have reported seeing apparitions of a young woman holding a baby, weeping beside the river.


The full moon makes the sands glow. Often the reflected light is so great that color can be faintly seen. When I was a child camping in the dunes, I dreamt several times about a woman in a long white dress walking the dunes. The memory is so vivid that for a long time I believed I had seen a movie with the image. Nights of the full moon on the dunes hold a mystery that is palpable. As an adult I have taken children to the dunes, and once a bull started bellowing in the night, and the children became panicked with fear. As the bull came over the top of the dune and its shadow crossed our bedrolls, tears began to flow.


Folktales of place are rooted in such fears. Their images resonate within our souls, and the stories have a power that reaches across cultures. When fears are personified by a story that is told over and over, the story will provide lessons for different situations within our life. The La Llorona story is both a precaution for young women to remain pure until marriage, and also a warning to the fathers that personal pride can have horrible results.


Our little nina de la tierra marched across the moist sand, leaving perfect tracks up and down the ripples frozen into the sand by the rain's moisture. She found a pile of wild hog droppings, and found several flies asleep on its surface. The wild hogs had escaped in the early 1900s when a sandstorm covered the railroad tracks and caused the derailment of a boxcar loaded with boar destined for a hunting preserve in the deep South.


The boars were in the willow grove nearby, drinking from the well dug by animals to reach the subsurface moisture between the dunes. Native Americans knew of the dunes -- Magoosh met Mow-way at such a waterhole, and together they created a treaty between the last free-roaming bands of Apache and Comanche. The dunes hold so many stories!