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.