Natural Environment Reference


Cottonwoods are tall deciduous trees of the genus Populus that are native to North America and Western Asia. These trees can reach up to 148 feet in height and can be identified by their triangular to diamond shaped leaves and deeply fissured bark. Their common name, cottonwood, is due to their cottony seeds. In the Southwest these trees are commonly found in the wetter areas near rivers, for example in the bosque riparian area along the Rio Grande, which runs from southern Colorado through New Mexico until it becomes the natural border between the states of Texas in the U.S. and Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas in Mexico.


Also known as quaking aspen, this is the most commonly and widely distributed tree native to North America. In New Mexico it can be found in the higher mountains of the western two-thirds of the state. Aspens are small or medium-sized trees that often thrive in burned parts of forests and grow as nursing crops to evergreen conifers, which eventually take over and replace them. Aspen have a relatively slender, bright white trunk and broad, round leaves that tremble even in the slightest breeze (hence the name quaking aspen). The leaves are bright green in spring and summer, but turn yellow and orange in the fall.


Also called gnu, the wildebeest is a genus of antelope, found in its natural habitat in the savanna, bush lands, and woodlands of eastern and southern Africa. It has a distinctive, high-shouldered build, a broad and long muzzle, and short horns similar to those of a cow. The blue wildebeest is famous for migrating long distances in large herds, while the black wildebeest has adapted to changing habitats and has stopped migrating. Although threats such as extensive hunting, drought, and the spread of human settlement have led to periodic declines in population, both the blue and the black wildebeest are still numerous across wide ranges in southern Africa.

water buffalo

A very large bovine found in Asia's tropical and subtropical habitats. Water buffalo spend much of their time submerged in muddy waters of wetlands and creeks. The species has been domesticated for over 5,000 years, and are used in many Asian countries for plowing, transportation, milk, meat, horns, and hides. Due to hunting, loss of habitat, and hybridization, the wild water buffalo is now endangered and living in protected areas in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand.


A radioactive chemical element that was discovered in 1789 by the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth that was named after Uranus, which was then a newly discovered planet. The element accumulates in the Earth's crust in the form of mineral deposits such as pitchblende, uraninite arnotite, and autunite. These recoverable ores are generally called uranium and are mined and used as the main source of extremely high energy nuclear fuel. The energy extracted from one pound of uranium, for example, is equivalent to that of three million pounds of coal.

Easily accessible uranium reserves are found in large concentration in Canada and the United States, as well as in Africa, Australia, Brazil, and France. Within the United States, New Mexico has the second-largest (after Wyoming) uranium reserves, and mining operations were established in the state, especially in the Grants mineral belt area, in the 1950s. Production continued throughout the 1980s but then declined significantly. Due to potentially harmful levels of radiation, uranium mining and processing are hazardous both to workers and to the environment, and today many organizations call for the closing or limiting of mining operations. The Navajo Nation, whose reservation lands contain the majority of known deposits in the state, currently holds a partial, temporary ban on uranium mining, but since it is a profitable resource, there is an ongoing controversy regarding the benefits and dangers of uranium production.


A component of natural gas, butane is usually combined with propane to make liquid propane gas, which is sold in metal containers of various sizes and is used in camping stoves, portable burners, or outdoor grills. Butane is a unique product in that it is easily compressed into liquid form that can be contained, yet when it is released into the air it turns into a highly flammable gas. It is often used as a performance-booster additive in gasoline, and as fuel for personal cigarette lighters.


Sinew is the strong, stringy tissue in the body that connects muscles and bones, and sinewy is an adjective describing a tough, organic, stringy object. When describing a person or an animal, sinewy refers to a thin yet resilient appearance, where lean muscles and sinews are visible, with little or no body fat.


A large evergreen tree, native to New Mexico and other mountainous areas of the Southwest, common at elevations between 7,000-12,000 feet. Spruce tends to grow in dense stands but can also be found in more open mixed stands along with other evergreens such as ponderosa pines and firs. The lumber of spruce has been used for building materials, railroad ties, mine timbers, and poles. Spruce also has cultural significance for the indigenous peoples of the Southwest and is utilized in various Pueblo ceremonial customs, architecture, and ritual enactments.


Also known as Douglas fir, this tree is the largest of the evergreens native to New Mexico and Arizona. It is a major source of timber is widely distributed in mountainous habitats of between 5, 000-10,000 feet. Firs grow in groves of their own as well as in mixed areas of ponderosa pines, spruces, and other high-elevation trees. Native Americans in the Southwest have used the branches, cones, and berries of firs for various ceremonial and healing purposes, and today it is also the preferred Christmas tree in the region.


In many traditional cultures, turquoise has been valued for its color, which evokes both the sky and water. Because of the significance of the sky, which facilitates the passage of the sun and the coming of rain, turquoise is often referred to as “the sky stone.” Turquoise is associated with life, health, fortune, and blessings. Turquoise can be found in medicine pouches, incorporated into Zuni fetishes, carved into beads, and set as larger stones in traditional Navajo and Pueblo silver work, although it wasn’t until the late 19th century that turquoise was associated with silver jewelry, when Atsidi Sani, a Navajo silversmith, began incorporating turquoise stones into the Spanish-style silversmithing he had learned as an apprentice. Silver and turquoise jewelry was popularized by the burgeoning tourist trade in the Southwest, and nearby Pueblo people, Hopi and Zuni, also began making turquoise jewelry.


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