Natural Environment Reference


The wild turkey is a large bird that is native to the Americas and is common to the U.S. Southwest. It typically nests and forages in woodlands, staying close to the ground, as it cannot fly farther than about a quarter of a mile at a time. Turkeys were sacred in many Native American cultures associated with the U.S. Southwest, the long valley of the Rio Grande, and northern Mexico. Turkeys were appreciated for their "jeweled" fan tails, a display vibrantly-colored tail feathers. They were also valued for their pride, beauty, abundance, and fertility. These characteristics were associated with seasonal harvest festivals, when the bird was often sacrificed as a symbol of renewal, fertility, and longevity in the community.


A daily phenomenon that has special resonance in the Four Corners area of Southwestern U.S.. Although sunsets, occurring as they do all over the world every evening, are a common occurrence, because of the Southwest region's general latitude (roughly between 25 and 40 degrees North) and generally clear atmospheric conditions, skywatching, especially sunsets, is a regional practice. Deep purple to black silhouettes of striking cactus and geologic formations contrast with the ephemeral and splendid bursts of rich roses, oranges, and cerruleans that sweep and deepen from the western horizon to the observer's vantage point.

cirrus clouds

Cirrus clouds form high in the atmosphere and are blown into their characteristic wispy streamers by high winds aloft. Cirrus clouds signal a change in the weather in the near future, as they are a sign of moisture in the air and of atmospheric disturbance.


Traces or evidence of movement left in the outdoors, typically on the ground, whether by animal, human, or machine. In the context of Hillerman's novels, a track can refer to temporary marks and clues, as well as to an existing path that runs through the natural environment. Such a path can be a narrow one that is used by animals, especially herds of deer, sheep, or cattle, or it can be a wider, unpaved road that has formed as a result of vehicles passing through the same route over the course of many years. In the rural parts of the U.S. Southwestern regions, such country tracks are fairly common.

Track can also mean to look for or follow the physical evidence of an occurrence, whether the movement of an animal or the clues left behind as a result of criminal activity.

Achilles tendon

The Achilles is a long, thick band of tissue connecting the heel of the foot with the calf muscles. Located at the back of the ankle, right above the heel, this tendon is quite visible and easy to locate.

The name of the tendon originates in a famous Greek myth. When Achilles, a brave war hero, was in infant, his mother dipped his body in the River Styx, which was known to give people invincible power. But because she held him by the heel, this part of his body was a weak spot, and eventually he was killed when an arrow hit him right in the heel. This myth is also the source of the proverbial phrase “Achilles heel,” although the proverb tends to refer to a significant weakness in a person’s character, rather than to an actual physical limitation.

muzzle (animal)

The elongated nose/mouth bone structure of the face of an animal such as a dog or a deer. The same word is also used for the fastening device that may be placed around an animal's mouth to prevent it from biting or to restrict eating.


A native plant to the U.S. Southwestern regions, the yucca is a member of the agave family, characterized by stiff, sword-like leaves. In the center of the yucca plant grow its long spikes that carry clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers. There are over forty species of yucca, and the indigenous peoples of the Southwest have a long history of utilizing the plant's thick, strong fibers in woven textiles and cords. Although woven yucca textiles are no longer in use, the cords remain vital elements in rituals. The Zuni people, for example, use these cords to tie prayer plumes and wands. The pulp and sap of the plant can also be used as a soap, especially for hair washing.

The yucca flower is the state flower of New Mexico.

rock sage

A species of sage, which is also known as Greaseleaf Salvia. It grows throughout the southwestern U.S. in rocky limestone hills. Rock sage can grow to a maximum height of five feet, and it has purple colored flowers.

salt brush

Salt brush, more commonly called saltbush, is most likely a reference to a common western plant also known as the four wing saltbush or chamiza. Although it is a native species, it is commonly associated with disturbed sites, such as overgrazed land or high-use recreation areas.


A trioxigenic gas that is light blue in color and has a distinctive sharp smell. Ozone is a form of oxygen, but while an oxygen molecule contains two atoms, an ozone molecule contains three, which makes it less stable. Ozone is part of the earth's stratosphere, creating a protective layer that absorbs ultraviolet radiation. Occasionally it also occurs in the lower atmosphere, especially during thunderstorms. Ozone molecules are formed when electric charges pass through dry air, and although not visible, the gas will give the air a slightly pungent smell.


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