Adrift on a Desert Sea

by | Mar 23, 2018 | In the Field, Landscapes

Among the chapparal landscape of West Texas sits an unlikely structure: a ship. It is stranded, like heavy, immovable lagan at the bottom of a primordial sea — or, depending on your perspective, lightly adrift on a living ocean of swaying grasses. Surprising as it may be, it is as appropriate to the scene as the long, slender leaves of green sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum) and the sweeping desert wind — perhaps more so. This area was once completely underwater, home to a flourishing reef.

The Ship

The Ship-On-The-Desert greets you at an angle. Only a partial glimpse of the bow, smokestacks and captain’s quarters can be seen as you ascend the drive toward the property. Built of McCombs and Radar limestone, the structure is at home in the landscape and yet very much apart. Its abstracted geometric angles and towering chimneys distinguish it from the undulating and textured Guadalupe Mountains in the distance.

The “captain,” if you will, was Wallace E. Pratt. An avid geologist working mainly in Houston, Pratt found a perfect spot in the fossilized Permian reef of the Guadalupe Mountains to appreciate and practice his trade. He purchased land, which included part of McKittrick Canyon, in the early 1920s and built various domestic structures. In the 1940s, Pratt retired there permanently. He found an ideal site for a house on a low ridge, then hired New York architect Newton Bevin to design the building. Knowing the secrets of the landscape and underlying geology of the area, Pratt commissioned his home as an abstraction of a great boat.

Pratt enjoyed his “maritime” home on the desert with his wife up until the 1960s. Eventually he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he died at 96. His Ship-On-The-Desert and surrounding property, totaling over 5,000 acres, was gifted to the federal government and became part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The house was later repurposed as accommodations for field researchers and was designated the Wallace E. Pratt Ship-On-The Desert Research Center.

In September of 2017, joining a jovial and rugged team of native bee experts, I climbed aboard.

The Swim

Now, I am far from a bee expert. I participated as an interested party and someone who enjoys sometimes-grueling field assignments.

This particular research trip aimed to document the native bees of sky island ecosystems across Texas from the Chisos to Guadalupe Mountains. These isolated, biodiverse mountain ranges, surrounded by vast expanses of lowlands, offer a unique opportunity for studying endemic species: plants and animals that are found only in that particular place. These habitats are also home to relic populations that can only survive at particular elevations. With altitude in mind, we set out one morning to record and sample what was blooming and buzzing along a 2,000-foot vertical gradient.

From LEFT Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), feather dalea (Dalea formosa). LEFT AND MIDDLE PHOTOS Sally and Andy Wasowski RIGHT PHOTO Melody Lytle

FROM LEFT Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), feather dalea (Dalea formosa). LEFT AND MIDDLE PHOTOS Sally and Andy Wasowski RIGHT PHOTO Melody Lytle


The Permian Reef Trail starts low in the McKittrick Creek basin, then climbs steadily up a west-facing escarpment. The hillside, a chaparral grass and shrub plant community, alternates between soft textures of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), skeleton-leaf goldeneye (Viguiera stenoloba) and feather dalea (Dalea formosa) and the hard, structural shapes of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and banana yucca (Yucca baccata). The blue grama seed heads swayed in the light breeze, casting lively oval shadows on the armored ground mimicking flitting insects. As a novice bee-netter, I was easily duped.

The rim of the mountain opened up to a sparsely wooded plateau. The pinyon pines and madrones towered above the subdominant shrubs like unruly stubble on an unshaven jaw — the new shrub growth and limbed-up overstory trees indicated that a fire had moved through this landscape in the recent past. Shrub oaks, young bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum), flowering perennials, and deeper-soil grasses such as bull muhly (Muhlenbergia emersleyi) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) crowded the understory. In a dreamlike amble, we weaved between expansive views down the canyon and inward views back toward woodland. Suddenly, we awoke to the realization that we had only an hour before sunset.

A vast sea of land and sky as seen from the Permian Reef Trail at twilight. PHOTO Michelle Bright

A vast sea of land and sky as seen from the Permian Reef Trail at twilight. PHOTO Michelle Bright


We hoped to descend fast enough to traverse the steepest slopes before losing the sun. The vegetation transitioned like a blur, shifting based on elevation, aspect and topography. Insects buzzed by, seeking their evening resting places. As we made it down the steepest sections, our party dispersed slightly and I found myself alone. The temperature dropped and the moon glowed eerily through low, thin clouds. A blue-gray twilight set in, and I felt as if I could lift my feet and swim through the landscape. The ocotillo and prickly pear forest around me appeared as pillar and fan corals, undulating on an expansive reef. It then occurred to me that there was another member of our party who floated through this scene: my unborn daughter. I imagined her rocking with the rhythm of my gait, to the thud of the trekking pole and clink of glass collection tubes in my pack, transported in a vessel through this underwater world.

Back in the comfort of the Ship-On-The-Desert, I reflected on the landscape that had surrounded us throughout the day. From a shallow sea to a desert, a limestone creek bottom to a mountain ridge, a recently burned open chaparral to a dense shrubland, our world is a place of transition and adjustment. As a common paraphrase of Darwin says: It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. There will be much change in our futures; it is the resilience of our planet and species to these transitions that gives me comfort.

With that thought, we were swayed to sleep on a mystical ship adrift on a calm but changing sea, headed, quietly, to our next destination.

The Ship-On-The-Desert is not open to the public (it is for researchers only), but the Permian Reef Trail and Guadalupe Mountains National Park are open to the public year round (other than December 25). Michelle Bright is an environmental designer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and was invited to attend the research expedition. She was five months pregnant during the trip.