I had a few cow pies in my driveway this morning: looks like I'm going to have to inspect the property to see what damage they did this time.

My house is on the slope of a mesa overlooking the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. While the center of the city is in the Rio Grande bosque -- a relatively green strip of land in the desert, filled with cottonwood trees or ditch-irrigated fields of alfalfa-- I live out on the outskirts up at a higher altitude, where the natural landscape is sparse, semi-arid desert grass land. With irrigation from my well, I support some trees around my house, as well as small lawns and flowers in courtyards protected from the prarie winds by high walls. The courtyards are relatively small: the walls don't enclose the entire lot. Most of my land is covered with natural vegetation: clumps of gramma grass and other desert weeds.

In fact, my land is unenclosed by any kind of fencing and blends in with the surrounding grasslands. The houses in this little subdivison were all built and landscaped with the same aesthetic: they are earth-toned "adobe" style (actually wood frame covered with chicken wire and stucco to look like a traditional adobe building made out of mud bricks) laid out in such a way that they blend into the contours of the slope.

This is not typical of the area. The typical homestead on the outskirts of Albuquerque consists of a trailer, with tires on the roof, dead cars scattered about. The natural weeds are usually scraped off the land right up to the border of the owner's property, creating a "Dust Bowl" look. The property line is clearly delineated with formidable fencing. The fencing varies from cheap (barbed wire strung on scrap wood) to the absurdly expensive (white-washed steel tubing favored by those who keep horses on their property). It's not unusual to see a dilapidated old single-wide trailer next to a stables and paddock that clearly cost more to build and maintain than my house. (It's just a question of priorities, I guess).

Much as I detest the desert junk-yard aesthetic, that approach has one advantage: it keeps the cows off their land.

People have been grazing sheep and cattle in the hills around Albuquerque since Spanish people settled here three hundred years ago. Up until very recently, the desert hills have been communally owned by the heirs and descendants of the original Spanish land grants. Nowadays, the land is owned by a private development corporation, which holds the land in trust for the land grant heirs, and which has been selling off pieces of the former grant, such as the piece on which my house sits. As a result, it's not really legal to graze cattle on the old grant lands anymore; but people still do it. And the cows love the lush green grass that grows around my place where I water my trees.

Usually, I only get to see evidence the cows leave behind. Aside from eating the weeds, which I don't mind, the cows leave a swath of destruction. They break off the sprinkler heads of my irrigation system and the branches of my fruit trees, and then drop of few cow pies to make sure you know it was them, and not some hoodlum kids.

One night I caught about six of them in the act, and went out to shoo them away. For those of you who have never been up close and personal with cattle, let me tell you: they're big. At night, when I encounted the cows hiding in the trees on the east side of my lot, I couldn't really see anything except their white faces, but I was still very aware of their presence. I could hear them breathe, and when I scared them off, I felt ground shake with the stamp of their hooves. Suddenly I understood the meaning of "stampede": if six cows could make the ground shake like that, just imagine what thousands felt like!

My close encounter of the bovine kind also made me reconsider my plan to get a hunting rifle and shoot them. I'd need a bigger pickup just to winch up and cart off the damn carcasses. So, an uneasy peace exists between me and the cows. I just repair my sprinklers for the thousandth time and hope the coyotes get 'em.