Carolyn Ohl-Johnson found home — and a way of life — near Big Bend.
Carolyn Ohl dug and dammed a small piece of the Southwest Texas desert to make an oasis for birds, especially hummingbirds. She lives near Big Bend National Park, and that’s where BirdNote contributor Alex Chadwick found her.
CO-J: There’s a Bell's Vireo on a nest there. She’s got four little babies hatched yesterday. She’s probably a little nervous with us around here.
AC: Carolyn is old; she insists on saying this when we meet, though she is the old I hope for - light, lithe, energetic, always moving. She is a former Iowa farm kid who hated winters on the open plains.
CO-J: I always say I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as quick as I could.
AC: Which is how she came to Terlingua, Texas, and learned there was one square mile of land for sale.
CO-J: Okay, when I bought this property in 1977, it had a couple of wells. And we got a little bit of water, but not much.
AC: There was no house. She bought the land with nothing on it. Especially, no spring for water. She wanted an earth-shelter house, a sort of “burrow into the land” design fad. So, she built one.
Carolyn’s husband was at the Terlingua property one day in the rainy season, almost 20 years ago. And during an evening storm, the two of them watched the nearby arroyos fill.
CO-J: Just…like a wall of water would come rushing down in the rain, like a flash flood. And, a couple of hours later, it was bone-dry.
AC: And they began to talk…What if we could save that water, hold it somehow?
CO-J: When I told him we could just put in a diversion dam and dig a tank, and divert some water into that, he was out there greasing his equipment before the day was over.
AC: They dug a great space for a pond, and braced, and coated the surface, and braced some more.* At last, they had a dam and a channel that led to the pond.
CO-J: But it’s an engineering marvel to just watch a wall of water come down here, and all of a sudden, everything’s full, and all the water is flowing where it is supposed to go.
AC: In her, I see pioneer qualities of determination, calm resolve. She built the oasis, and she keeps it going. And realizing she would need support, she remade herself as a digital pioneer, started a blog, learned to take good photos and post them online. We have a link at BirdNote.org.
I remind her of a blog entry from a couple of months earlier. Writing about the oasis, she confessed that the water has come to mean more to her than anything. “It’s bigger than my grandkids,” she said.
CO-J: I’m afraid so. That’s right. I haven’t seen my great grandkids since they were babies, and they’re like…10 or 12 right now…No, maybe…I don’t know how old they are, but anyway, yeah, it comes first to me. Because, without it, I would have to give up on my habitat. If I gave up on my habitat, what would I do? How long would I be happy, sitting in the city, rocking my grandkids, y’know? Not at all. About a day.
AC: She’s comfortable here, in this place she’s made out of rock and dust. She likes to lay down on the ground by her pond and nap in the quiet. She says she doesn’t imagine anyone will carry on with the oasis after her…though she expects that the dams and the ponds will last a long time with no care, a thousand years, maybe, she guesses. That’s how she built them.
Carolyn Ohl created and maintains the Christmas Mountains Oasis, a birding site – especially for hummingbirds - near Big Bend National Park in Texas.
AC: For BirdNote, this is Alex Chadwick.
This series was produced with generous funding from Deedie and Rusty Rose.
(All images © Carolyn Ohl)
All photos © Carolyn Ohl-Johnson
* Carolyn clarifies: It really wasn't a great space for a tank (that's what we call them in Texas, rather than "ponds"), but it was all we had. Sherwood could only go as deep as bedrock, and on the last tank, there were rocks so big he couldn't get them into his dump truck to haul off. (We used the rest of the rocks and dirt from the holes to fill in dips in the road.) After we'd dug out as much as we could, we packed and smoothed the earth and concreted the floor and walls of the tanks. The first pond -- that was way too small -- leaks because roots have gotten through, but we don't use that one for irrigating. It's now just for wildlife. The second-biggest tank, we originally lined with permalon, but we eventually had to cement it. The third tank, I stuccoed by hand and it leaks. I coated it last winter and have reduced the leakage, but I'll have to keep on it yearly.
It's a fact!
Big Bend National Park receives an annual average of 10.9 inches of rain over 36 days. How does that compare to:
The Driest Major U.S. Cities:
Las Vegas, Nevada (4.2 inches / 27 days)
Phoenix, Arizona (8.2 inches / 30 days)
Riverside, California (10.3 inches / 30 days)
San Diego, California (10.3 inches / 42 days)
Los Angeles, California (12.8 inches / 36 days)
Denver, Colorado (15.6 inches / 87 days)
San Jose, California (15.8 inches / 62 days)
Salt Lake City, Utah (16.1 inches / 96 days)
Sacramento, California (18.5 inches / 60 days)
San Francisco, California (20.7 inches / 68 days)
The Wettest Major U.S. Cities:
New Orleans, Louisiana (62.7 inches / 115 days)
Miami, Florida (61.9 inches / 135 days)
Birmingham, Alabama (53.7 inches / 117 days)
Memphis, Tennessee (53.7 inches / 108 days)
Jacksonville, Florida (52.4 inches / 114 days)
Orlando, Florida (50.7 inches / 117 days)
New York, New York (49.9 inches / 122 days)
Houston, Texas (49.8 inches / 104 days)
Atlanta, Georgia (49.7 inches / 113 days)
Nashville, Tennessee (47.3 inches / 119 days)
Source: Annual Average (1981-2010) from Current Results Weather and Science Facts based on data from NOAA National Climatic Data Center
What's Carolyn up to now? Check out her blog!
More Big Bend adventures: