Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Snow Play

Water retention basins make great snow play areas. Just check out the attached photos. The bottom one was taken a few years back just a block from my home in Phoenix. Some enterprising snowboarders hauled truck loads of ice shavings from the local ice rink to our water retention basin and created their own huck runs. They had a blast, until the local HOA fun police kicked them off for "damaging the grass."

The top two photos were taken up in Flagstaff last weekend. Within hours of a bigger than usual snowstorm, hordes of people flocked to play in the snow-filled water retention basin just off of Highway 89. The joy and laughter from that couple of hours has fueled me for days. By my rough estimate, there were about 400 people gathered there last Saturday afternoon. The City, surely in CYA mode, put up a flashing sign emphasizing that this is "NOT A SNOW PLAY AREA." Coulda fooled us!

Monday, December 22, 2008


Luminarias lit the edge of our tiny patch of yard last night. This is one of my favorite days of the year, because with all the brou ha of the consumer holiday and Christmas paradigm, I can get back to the natural roots of the season. On the Solstice, we honor the Earth's year, the cycle of Life, the Sun, the vast Universe. We recognize that our place within all of this is as part of an eternal and infinite continuum.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


December is owl season here. Twice this week I've seen and heard great horned owls. Last Saturday, one glided by silently at dusk as we were roaming around admiring Christmas lights. Yesterday evening, a male and a female were hooting from their perches in an old cottonwood tree as I ran my regular route around the neighborhood. I stopped to hoot with them. They hooted back. Whether the resonating call of the owl evokes feelings of wild beauty or primeval dread, it is always a reminder of something greater than the human world to anyone who pauses to listen. For me, this was definitely a moment of wild beauty.

The truth is, anyone who walks at dawn or dusk will sooner or later be rewarded with the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. At this time of year, when night drops earlier, we are more likely to be outside when the owls are most active. The great horned is the most common and widespread of North American owls and a year-round resident wherever they live. They are also the most adaptable, being able to thrive in both wilderness and urban settings, from the coldest northern forests and mountains to the hottest southwest deserts. Among the six species of owl found in the Sonoran Desert (barn, western screech, pygmy, elf, and burrowing owls are the others), the hoot of the great-horned owl, along with its impressive size, make them easy to identify. Some call them the “five-hooter,” since their most common call has five parts, with the second and third hoot more rapid than the rest. With a little imagination, you can hear them say “Who’s awake? Me too.” The female hoots are shorter and higher than the males.

As with all birds of prey, the female is slightly larger than the male, although it is the male who hoots the most, as he stakes out the one-third to two square mile territory for the pair during much of the year. In winter months, males and females hoot to one another as they engage in courtship and breeding. If they are successful, young hooters like the ones in this photo made by our friend Ken Wier a couple of years ago, will be testing their flight feathers next spring.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Green Queen

Last week I managed to stamp a huge carbon footprint in an effort to encourage people to divert their used plastic water bottles into the recycling stream. I wonder if the extra 80 miles of travel in my Prius at 50 mpg to acquire trash receptacles with recycle symbols on them was balanced out by the three bags of bottles and cardboard I rescued from the landfill? Doubtful. But at least I tried, and perhaps I raised the consciousness of the 400+ people attending the event at which I proudly served as "waste management coordinator." At the very least, I figure I've earned a few good karma vibes. See them all whirling around me?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Life. This is a huge word, for being only four letters. The primary definition in my Webster's is a noun, meaning "the quality, principle or force that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body." Further on down the lengthy dictionary entry, life is "spirit" and "God." In between, there are various nuances such as "life-sentence," "half-life," "something existing in reality," (whatever that is!) "life of the party," and "sex life."

What I am wondering is what moral and ethical nuances does the term "pro-life" really include?

Without entering the emotional whirlpool into which anti-abortionists have harnessed the term for political use, I would like to propose that the idea of being "pro-life" be revived, so to speak, to include all of life. By this I mean, that if we choose to declare a personal ethic of being "pro-life," that we are advocates for the welfare of biological life in all of its magnificent forms: from blue-green algae, to yeast, leopard frogs, Komodo dragons, rainbow trout, lemurs, sequoia trees, scorpions, dragonflies, eels, dung beetles, great blue herons, mariposa lilies, coyotes, jellyfish, barnacles, great white sharks, sphagnum moss, pack rats, canyon wrens, saguaro cacti, centipedes, amanita mushrooms, mosquitos, tigers, and yes, humans. In ways that we may never fully comprehend, all of these life forms are dependent on one another, both in matter and spirit.

To narrow the idea of life down to only human embryos diminishes both the value of human life and the enormous biodiversity of life that so far as we know, only exists on this planet. The quality, principle, force, or God, "that distinguishes a functional being from a dead body" is equally valuable in whatever form it inhabits, whether it is found in the tiny spore of a maidenhair fern, a priest, or polar bear.

Taken in this larger context, being "pro-life" would mean that we are also anti-habitat destruction, pro-wilderness conservation; anti-war, pro-compassion; anti-capital punishment, pro-rehabilitation; anti-toxic fumes and chemicals spewed into the atmosphere and water, pro-clean air and water initiatives; anti-capitalist greed, pro-sustainable communities.

The cycle of life inherently includes parasitism, predation, herbivory, disease, and death, all of which need to be accepted and honored to the extent that they are essential to the continuation of the intangible quality or spirit that makes Earth unique and extraordinary. Human aspirations to thrive and spread both physically and ideologically, need to consider the larger than human context of Life.

End of rant.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

“Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words."

-C.S. Lewis in “Till We Have Faces: A myth retold”

I started this blogging thing a little over a month ago. For me, it is a disciplinary exercise in writing, another way to practice my craft. Some days, writing with a pen seems much more natural, authentic and somehow an easier way to get at the guts of what I really mean, closer to the actual thoughts milling around in my mind. One of my writing teachers believes that handwriting actually connects one to ancestral thought patterns in a way that typing on a keyboard cannot. Speaking or storytelling can take us even closer, bring us deeper towards understanding the collective consciousness and "truth." Perhaps.

If we could hear or read the words of those who created the mysterious forms painted and carved on canyon walls, we would certainly understand their meaning or intent more clearly. Or, are there some things that simply cannot be understood with words? That is the challenge, the responsibility, the mission of a writer or storyteller: to transform thought and experience into words that can be shared so that we can better know truth and meaning.

For me, the keyboard ends up being a convenient way to edit, more than any other benefit it offers. I actually prefer the tactile experience of pen on paper, the ability to be anywhere with simpler tools rather than plugged into the machine. But here I am, tapping away. Why? Is it an act of ego, wanting to communicate with others, a desire to be heard, read, published? Maybe. But really, who the heck cares to read what I write, and do I care that others read what I write? (In an act of purging, I once burned a dozen journals that I had collected over the years, horrified that anyone would actually read that stuff when I die!) More than anything, writing, for me, is a way to organize my thoughts, and through that process create new ideas, synthesize information, and thus get closer to understanding the world around me.

Why do you blog?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Steam Heat

About forty miles west of Phoenix, the Palo Verde Generating Station, the largest nuclear power plant in the country, pumps out over three billion watts per year to power the throbbing cities of the southwestern United States. Most days, you can whiz by on the I-10 with little awareness that this nuclear power plant exists. But on a humid day after a rainstorm, steam heat pumps out a trail of clouds that blankets the landscape for miles around. Just six miles south of the freeway, three broad domes and six cooling towers churn quietly in the creosote flats of the surrounding desert.

Germinating Rain

Today is the first day of December. This morning I went on my traditional Monday morning hike at 6:00 a.m. with my faithful hiking partner, Caroline. We start out with headlamps these early days of winter, reaching the summit of Thunderbird Mountain in half an hour, where we briefly survey the city lights spread below us, and then turn around to hike the same route down. Half way up the five hundred foot climb, I shed my outer layer. Today it is in the low fifties at dawn. The soil is still moist from a drenching rain that blessed us last Wednesday, a germinating rain.

Many people know of the legendary spring blooms that grace the Sonoran desert some springs. But few realize that winter rains in November through January are critical to generating poppy and lupine covered slopes in March. Now is when the seeds soak up the moister and germinate. Successive light rains must happen to nurture the seedlings to maturity by late February, when, if we are so fortunate, the annual wildflower show begins. The display of desert wildflowers, in a good year, is rivaled by no other I have seen in my botanically motivated wanderings. Thus, a rain around Thanksgiving is truly something to be grateful for. You can almost hear the seeds popping.

On my windowsill, I have a miniature greenhouse with seven saguaro seedlings growing inside. Each sports two succulent leaves topped by a soft tuft of nascent spines. At the bottom of these swollen beads of life, two threadlike rootlets cling to the soil. Could I find seedlings like these beneath a palo verde along the Thunderbird trail if I crawled around on hands and knees? I've often looked, but know that the birds and mice and squirrels are gathering most of these tender morsels before they reach a month old. This realization makes the success of any saguaro or poppy even more of a miracle to me. Those that make it through the rigors of predation to be able to produce flowers and seeds of their own have somehow escaped the notice or hunger of desert creatures. And yet, the value of a seedling as food is no less important, because it provides sustenance for the rest of the desert web of life.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's Blooming

Something is always blooming in the Sonoran Desert. Or at least in the suburbs of the Sonoran Desert. In the desert itself too though, desert lavender always seems to eek out something. But here in my irrigated one-eighth of an acre, nine species are blooming today, all native. There's the aforementioned lavender, a sage, ruellia, fairy duster, and Mexican oregano. Also some yellow bells, justicia, and orchid vine. Last but not least, a wiry looking plant with hot pink blooms called Dicliptera, aka "foldwing," which is the unsexy translation of the Latin describing the shape of its very sexy flowers. This one came in on it's own, a vagrant in my landscape. I like things a little wild. 

Along with the flowers come the bees and the hummingbirds. Hummers all year round! Today we watched a bright red-headed Anna's male declaring one of the palo verdes in our back yard as his territory. A bit early to be courting, you might think. But not so here in Phoenix. These males will start doing their spectacular aerial diving display in December, and nest-building soon thereafter. 

A little Costa's male was flitting about as well. This species is much smaller than the Anna's, but with a shortish neck that makes them look sort of "dumpy." To make up for their stout form, the males sport a purple forehead and throat with long "sideburn" feathers that make them quite distinguished and showy. Costa's are spring breeders here, and have just recently arrived from the tropics where they escape the blistering heat of our summers.  

These are the delights of our garden nearly every month of the year, excepting the very hottest weeks of summer when even the natives shut down despite our extravagant gift of bi-weekly watering. We have no traditional fall, nor a true winter. Instead, blossoms drift at the sidewalks edge, and hummingbirds wake me with their soft vibrations, reminding me where I am in November. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mystery Snake

The other day we found a little black snake basking among the boulders in Cave Creek...the actual creek, not the town.  Turns out this might be a rare snake, the Mexican Garter, not seen in the area for decades. The black eyes and pale blue pinstripes are unique, not matching any of the common garters known in Arizona. Next week I'll join the ranger at the conservation area to scope out the habitat where we found the snake. There are preliminary plans to reintroduce the Mexican Garter there, but maybe they won't need to! 

Alas, our little herp turned out to be a young black-necked garter, very common in the area, but no less exciting. Watching this creature glide gracefully across the perennial pools among the cottonwoods in Cave Creek was as rare a sight as any in this dry desert on a cool November day. Along with the snake, we watched leopard frogs, dragonflies, water striders and hundreds of little minnows called longfin dace thriving in the spring-fed pools. Cattails and bulrushes grow thick there in contrast to the spiny cacti that cover the rocky slopes just a dozen feet above the creek.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pyramid Peak

Rising five hundred feet from the desert floor, Pyramid Peak is a prominent feature on the landscape at the north edge of the Valley of the Sun. As you cruise into Phoenix from the north, its dark silhouette is just west of the freeway north of Happy Valley Road. By itself, this photo might make you believe that the mountain is part of wilderness, surrounded by acres of pristine desert and deep silence. The reality is that bulldozers and ATV's lap at the mountain's shores. The Central Arizona Project water canal, flanked on both sides by an eight foot high barbed wire fence, skirts around its southern edge. Between my camera and the skyline is a throbbing six lane highway that hums and shrieks twenty four hours per day.

I like to think that this small desert island will prevail. The coyotes and owls and lizards and palo verdes that seek refuge there will wait until the rising tide of civilization ebbs, and spread themselves out again. This is only a matter of time.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fresh Eggs

Yesterday, I bought a carton of fresh eggs from my friend Merrily, who raises a couple dozen hens in her yard just over the hill. I rode my bike there and back, about six miles, feeling quite smug about buying local, organic, cage-free eggs while keeping my carbon footprint at a minimum. Life is good here in the suburbs.

Friday, November 7, 2008


The first time I saw a roadrunner in the wild, as opposed to on Saturday morning cartoons, it was darting across a sea of asphalt at a nearby mall. This was a huge disappointment to me at first, wanting to believe that roadrunners are one of the desert’s wilder creatures, a symbol of natural beauty and testimony that we haven’t infiltrated all of nature somehow. But after watching this prehistoric looking offshoot of the dinosaurs blaze through a parking lot, I now admire the roadrunner even more. Here is a creature that, like his adversary, the coyote, is able to adapt to the worst of human intrusions into their natural habitat. An opportunist at heart, the roadrunner fares well in both the most remote desert refuge and the starkest urban wilderness.

Here in suburban Phoenix, the local roadrunner population can navigate between worlds, snacking on fat lizards that inhabit our lush neighborhoods, and retreating to the hills where nesting and rearing young may be a bit safer. You are as likely to see one hopping across a six-foot high cinder block wall to scope out someone’s back yard, as you are to catch a glimpse of one dashing through the brittlebush off a desert trail.

At two feet long, and half of that their iridescent black tail, roadrunners are unmistakable. You can see them any time of year in the Deem Hills, although during the cooler winter months, they are more likely to be spotted during the day after they’ve had a chance to warm in the sun. During the summer, like most other desert critters, they will evade the heat by hunting at dawn and dusk.

Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous, revered for their ability to prey on young rattlesnakes and scorpions. They also devour small rodents, spiders, insects and small birds. A close look at their sharp stout beak and four curved claws makes it clear that they are gifted with hunting skills equal to raptors. Although roadrunners are not adept flyers, they can reach running speeds of up to 18 miles per hour, giving their main predators, coyotes, raccoons and hawks, a good chase. When meat is scarce or fruit abundant, roadrunners will supplement their diet with cactus fruit and seeds.

While roadrunners are solitary hunters, they are monogamous and mate for life, a rare feat for any creature. Either partner may initiate courtship rituals by chasing the other around their territory. They also engage in an energetic display of hopping, wing flapping and tail fanning. Things get more intense when one presents the other with a stick, a prelude to nest building. The male calls the final shot when he brings the female a gift of a lizard or other tempting morsel, which she accepts after mating. The two share all of the parenting responsibilities, including nest-building, incubating eggs, and feeding the young. The brood of two to six young roadrunners fledges after about three weeks. They are independent hunters after another couple weeks of training. Once the first brood is off and running on its own, the parents may start a second nest for the season.

Last time I saw a roadrunner, it was on the side of highway 160, forty miles from the nearest town. Dead. A few white-tipped tail feathers flagged in the wind, a few others caught in nearby shrubs. I stopped to pick it up, spread its short broad wings, and ruffle its fur like feathers. So cunning and beautiful a creature, I thought, as I laid it to rest under a nearby purple sage. Might it be that they have found a safer home on the suburban fringe?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Dose of Big Sky

While looking at a house, a buyer asked the real estate agent which direction was north because, he explained, he didn’t want the sun waking him up every morning. The realtor asked, “Does the sun rise in the north?” The buyer gently explained that the sun rises in the east. The realtor shook her head and said, “Oh, I don’t keep up with that stuff!”

Okay, maybe nature just isn’t your “thing.” Given a choice between watching the Suns (the Phoenix basketball team…in case you don’t keep up with that stuff…) and watching a sunset, you’ll go for the game. “Take a hike,” sounds more like an expletive than a good way to spend a Saturday morning. And when it comes to saving your nails vs. saving the whales, there is no way you are going to give up your manicure!

Anyway, who has time?! Between dealing with the kids, chores, a part-time or full-time job, volunteering, shopping, and driving all over creation to take everyone to their lessons and games…getting to the park, much less a desert preserve, is just not going to fit into the schedule. Besides, outside is either too hot, too cold, too rainy (even in Phoenix), too windy, or too far from a decent toilet. Peeing outside is DEFINITELY not in your comfort zone, thank-you-very-much!

But even when the amount of time we spend outdoors dwindles to the thirty seconds it takes to walk across the parking lot from our car to the grocery store, and we prefer a climate-controlled environment to the viscissitudes of weather, un-tamed nature can still be part of our lives. No matter how disconnected our lives might become from the wildness which begat us, it is difficult for anyone to ignore a glorious sunset or an amazing rainbow, even if it is viewed through a windshield.

If nothing else, it is worthwhile to find the time to enjoy a sunrise (east) or a sunset (west) at least once a week. No matter what is going on inside the house, “Sunset alert!” or “Rainbow alert!” is the rallying call at our home to get everyone off the couch to take a dose, however small, of the mystery and beauty of nature. When thunderheads pile up in monsoon season, that is good reason for a round of cloud appreciation. At night, a moonrise is cause to gather in awe. Even when there is no outstanding heavenly event, we can be thankful for the incredible color of the clear blue sky.

And no matter what direction your family's bedroom windows face, we've taken the time to make sure that what each person sees out that window is worth waking up to…a tree, a flowering shrub that attracts hummingbirds, or a simple frame of Cielo Grande (…that's Spanish for Big Sky).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tuning Into the Desert

Having moved to the Sonoran Desert from a place that registers, on the average, 40 degrees lower in temperature any day of the year in comparison to Phoenix, it has been a long, slow process for my body and mind to adjust to the new climate. After five years, however, my idea of “cool” has transformed from below 50 degrees to anything below 100. “Hot” now means anything over 110, rather than in the 80’s. And, much to my chagrin, I find myself donning a sweater when the thermometer dips below 70, rather than stripping the same sweater off when it spikes to 60. This is all part of tuning into the desert.

Despite my traumas with thermoregulation, I’ve made it my mission to get out into wild desert places as much as possible, rather than just peering out from the climate controlled environment of my home, car, and ubiquitous malls. Fortunately, this is as easy as exiting the front door of my cookie cutter tract home and cruising up the wash at the end of our cul-de-sac. Five minutes later, my feet leave concrete rip-rap and step onto a trail etched in basalt gravel.

In the desert, air conditioning means a gentle breeze flowing over small passes and ridges. When that breeze whips up, I can hear it whistle through saguaro spines, and rattle dried leaves of brittlebush. Quails rise up from the desert floor, wings purring loudly, while riffs of another covey echo from a distant hollow. A cactus wren rasps from atop a cholla. In the spring, palo verdes hum with swarms of bees gathering pollen and nectar from their clouds of pale yellow flowers. This all fascinates me, but I still couldn’t clearly understand the appeal to the millions who inhabit this desert, human or otherwise. I was trying to tune in, but there was a lot of static.

Then one evening, while hiking the Deem Hills just north of Happy Valley Road, we stopped to rest on a rimrock at the edge of a trail to admire the rosy glow of sunset on Pyramid Peak. The air was perfectly still. Even the low hum of the highway seemed to momentarily cease. As the sunset morphed from pink to orange and lavender, a coyote howled. Another joined in, and soon we were listening to a veritable symphony of Canis latrans that lasted what felt like a good long three minutes. Then, the chorus was clipped by a staccato yip. The desert air was silent once again. As if directed by some invisible conductor, we next heard a mourning dove call, followed by the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. A visual grand finale was the owl’s silhouette lifting off of a nearby saguaro to glide into the valley below. Somewhere in the middle of that performance, my mind tuned in. The desert suddenly felt like home.

Since then, I’ve returned to those few moments many times in my head whenever my body and mind feel torpid from the endless desert summer. Now tuning in can be as simple as walking into the back yard and admiring a queen butterfly drift through the garden, or taking a deep breath of creosote-scented air after a summer rain. But for true clarity, I walk into the wild desert and find a place to listen.