Monday, December 28, 2009

Mergansers Galore

For years I have whizzed by Thunderbird Mountain on 59th Avenue, just a few miles from our house, vaguely aware of a manmade wetland just east of the busy road that has been designated as a wildlife refuge. But if you are going the speed limit, it is easy to miss the turn off to the refuge, complete with a small parking lot, viewing benches and an interpretive display. In the photo below, the refuge is the body of water between all of the housing and the open space in the foreground. This was the first time I had the forethought to arm myself with binoculars and a bird book, with no other intention than to drive over there and check it out.

What a fun surprise to discover a flock of hooded mergansers, possibly one of the cutest birds on the planet! There were about three dozen of them, both male and female, bobbing around under the cottonwoods along the waterway. I'm taking the liberty of using a photo lifted from the internet, with all due credit to the photographer, Steve Berliner, since my camera lens is not up to the task.

Also on display today were at least a thousand common mergansers, another one of my favorite waterbirds. The males are white-bodied with irridescent green heads and pointed orange bills. The equally elegant females have rusty red heads with gray-feathered bodies. All were floating peacefully with bills tucked under their wings in the late afternoon. A few busy coots dabbled around, and a great blue heron and an egret cruised across the pond. But no widgeons or pintails as the display promised.

From now on, I will take an extra 10-15 minutes on my errands to the P.O. and library to stop in at this most unlikely desert scene.

Attack of the Lego Monsters

It all started so innocently with a small pile of Legos.

Now we are being overtaken by semi-trucks,

and dinosaurs! Help!!!!!!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Playing in the Mud

After a twenty-eight year hiatus, I've come back to playing with clay, which is really just very stiff mud, relearning skills that I believe are some of the most natural inclinations of human hands. I'm drawn to this art form, partly because it allows me to work directly with materials that I can gather myself. Likewise, making twine has a certain elemental simplicity to me, because I can gather the plant fibers and transform them with my hands. A recent newsletter I received from another blogger named Dan Joseph illuminates another dimension related to turning pottery that is also true for me.

If you have learned to build on a potter's wheel, you may be familiar with some of the steps required to create a pot: First, there is "coning," which is the process of getting the clay into a moldable form and squeezing the air bubbles out. Second, you need to "center" the clay on the wheel so that the body of the vessel will be symmetrical and have even thickness. Third, you "open" the clay by pressing down the center and pulling the clay out. After this, you can begin to form the vessel by gently pulling up and out to create whatever form you imagine.

Dan uses the ideas of "centering" and "opening" as paths to the divine, which may be why making pottery is so therapeutic to me, and so fundamental to human civilization.

To access the divine, he says, you first need to "center your mind on a more inspiring, opening line of thought." This follows dispensing with the distractions of unproductive thought, which I relate to "coning," (more crudely stated, the process of getting your sh*t together!) Once you are centered, he says, you can "practice opening to the divine flow of peaceful, loving thoughts and feelings, and you can trust that they will flow through you into the world."

I like this metaphor, because when I am working with clay at the wheel or just with my hands, it definitely requires a certain clarity and focus to consciously create a form. If I am frustrated, distracted or angry, centering doesn't happen at the wheel, because my mind is not centered. Likewise for opening, because without a receptive mind, the clay often goes off center again, and I'm left with a formless lump of clay. TIme to go back to coning!

When the coning, centering and opening all go well, a vessel can be created. At this stage of my ceramics career, more often than not, the shape of the vessel is not necessarily intentional. But that is okay. The point is, the practice of pottery building offers a path to the divine, just as is any practice that someone chooses to engage in with an uncluttered and receptive mind. Unfortunately, I've still got a lot of coning to do, but every now and then, I manage to get centered and open, and produce a few pots.

If you are interested in Dan Joseph's newsletter, you can access it through his website at

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Putting a Face on the Web of Life

"One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star." Loren Eisely

After a little more than a month as an official Face on Facebook, my catalog lists 72 Friends. I was inspired to join in the game, when one of my friends made a surprise move to New York City (Hi Tom!). I could not resist finding out more via his profile. Of course, I could have asked him through e-mail, which I did, or even a phone call...but Facebook is where he now likes to post his amazing photographs. Plus, I decided that I really needed to find out exactly what has been consuming so many hours of my high school aged daughter's time!

In the world of Facebook, we are privileged to see all the other conversations and connections that friends have in this unique digital galaxy, which is a miniscule fraction of anyone's social life...hopefully! But it got me thinking about how this cyberweb expresses the full Web of Life in a newish way, making visible a series of connections that we would otherwise be unaware of. That "six degrees of separation" thing. The coolest thing about Facebook, to me, is that it shows how we are connected between friends, as well as who has accepted our personal invitations. (I had to cajole my husband into accepting my Facebook invitation...but fortunately, we carry on most of our friendship off-line!) Which leads me to ponder, if all my friends, Facebook and otherwise, and all of their friends, and all of the friends of friends' friends were to accept invitations from one another, how many faces would be on all of our Facebooks?

At present, only one of my Facebook pals crosses over between the worlds in my orbit, two of which are Yosemite, CA and Crested Butte, CO. (Hi Elizabeth!). And another Face, whom I have never met in person, is now a new friend in the Darrow family circle (Hi Barbara!). Only eight of my Facebook comrades are of the "long lost" type whom I hadn't communicated with in some way for more than a year. Out of all 72, I can see that only about a handful regularly communicate through Facebook, logging some sort of thought, photo or announcement almost daily (Hi Dawne! Maya! Erin! Nancy! Carla!) Surprisingly, my daughter isn't one of these. She actually spends all that time in her bedroom studying. (Hi Brooke!)

Some people consider Facebook and other cyber-social networks to be a form of "stalking" and "voyeurism," and perhaps use it that way, but I find it to be more benign and quite fascinating in some ways. Sort of cosmic, really. All these WiFi and cable connections might just be a step between the more tangible connections we make when speaking to one another or exchanging actual handwritten letters (Ah! the Good Old Days!) and full blown conscious telepathy. Like those times when the phone rings, or the e-mail dings, and it's exactly the person you intended to contact at the very same moment. This sort of thinking should remind us all to be careful of our thoughts, for they are, indeed, received by others at some level, no matter how well we wish to conceal them, whether benevolent or critical.

Our thoughts, our writing, our deeds and our Facebook posts are like a stone in the pond, the flower and the star, the fly on a spider's web. My dream is that we will eventually go beyond these digital and telepathic connections between people to consciously realizing and fully appreciating our connections with all other living and non-living things.

May your ripples be gentle, your stars be bright and warm, your web strong and flexible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


The "Where You At?" series continues (only 5 more questions to address):
23. How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?

As a Prius owner, I can smugly answer that my car needs re-fueling every two weeks after about 500 miles of travel (how this accumulates mostly within 20 miles of my house, is amazing to me!), at an average of 50 miles per gallon. So, every week I burn through about five gallons of gas.

But, if we were all to answer this question completely and honestly, the sum would be considerably greater because of other goods and services we enjoy that require some kind of transportation in order for us to receive them. Groceries, for example, rarely come from nearby. Perhaps we should add a portion of the fuel that cargo transportation uses to get us strawberries from New Zealand, chocolate from Brazil and coffee from Ecuador, as well as the maple syrup I absolutely NEED all the way from Vermont! The postal service requires quite a bit of fuel to achieve its miracles. And I should really calculate the amount of fuel that comprises my portion of the airline flight I just took to Portland, Oregon and back.

Being a bleeding heart liberal environmentalist, the related questions that I like to think about is: "How do you minimize the use of gasoline in your lifestyle? What could you do to decrease that use even more?"

Here's a few things we already do:
Walk Orion to and from school every day;
E-mail Christmas cards/letters (But this is not nearly as much fun to receive!);
Bike to the grocery store for small purchases;
Keep most recreational outings within twenty miles from home;
Mostly engage in non-motorized recreation;
Drive a Prius!

What else could we do as a family?
Get Brooke to carpool, walk or ride her bike the 1 mile to school;
Bike to the grocery store with burley for larger grocery purchases;
Ban air travel from our lives?

Not sure here. I feel that our government and industries need to get on the ball and produce vehicles that use less fuel. The technology is available. The new "35 mpg" standard is pathetic. This is also about air quality, not just fuel conservation.
But I rant. Time to go for a walk!

Saturday, November 21, 2009


22. How many people live next door to you? What are their names?

I think suburbs get a bad rap in a lot of enviro-media. Yes, they sprawl, and yes, they are sometimes cookie cutter, but a little decent planning can overcome some of these problems. Our neighborhood was lucky to have a few thoughtful planners so that there is a sense of community, there is connectivity with the natural landscape, and there is a reasonable feeling of diversity in the architecture so that we don't feel like we live in factory housing.

We live on a cul-de-sac with six houses. We actually know everybody, sort of a rarity for some suburban neighborhoods perhaps. I feel like if I needed the proverbial cup of sugar, I could knock on any of their doors and vice versa. Let's see, theres Norm, a bachelor who usually lives at his girlfriends house; Zach, another young man who actually moved to Japan recently, so he has abandoned his house to foreclosure; Clint, another bachelor who travels on business a lot, so we rarely see him either. (What is it with the bachelors? Is this common?) Then there is a rental where Gaea, Louie and their son Aiden recently moved in, which is great since Aiden and Orion have become good friends. Then there is Hilda, Robert and their grandson Brylin, another pal of Orion's.

Of the other five households, I have the phone numbers of four of them. This became more important, I realized one day, when the Clint's house across the street had a blow-out in the plumbing while he was out of town and I didn't know how to contact him. We ended up just turning off his water main when we saw that water was leaking out from under the garage door. Since then, we decided it would be more neighborly to share phone numbers with one another for emergency purposes at least.

But our neighborhood is pretty friendly otherwise as well. The nearby park is a gathering place for all kinds of happenings. We have lots of trails and sidewalks, so there are always people out in the mornings running and walking their dogs. With a high school and elementary school within a mile of the hood, there are tons of kids, which also livens things up. On some mornings I can hear the marching band practicing off in the distance or the little league parents cheering for their teams.

So, on a scale of one to ten, I'd give our neighborhood a solid nine in the community feel department. The extra point is deducted for the Homeowner's Association which is occupied, ironically, by folks who are more into strict codes and regulations that decrease the friendliness of the hood. They don't like my "weeds" in the spring, so every year I get a "nasty-gram asking me to pull the weeds! I think everyone else actually appreciates my adding native wildflowers to the landscape!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Celestial Seasons

21. Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?

I like to honor the winter solstice with luminarias and a campfire.
We honor each full moon with a night hike.
But I like to celebrate every day by writing down something I am grateful for, sharing tea in the morning with Tom, and hugs all around. Today, I am grateful for cool mornings and this evening, a new moon!


20. Name some beings (nonhuman) that share your place

We share our house with two cats: Max

and Tiger:

Certain times of the year, earwigs, cockroaches and crickets like to hang around inside the house as well. Fortunately, right now it is cold enough that they have retreated into dormancy! This might sound a little gross, but I don't like using pesticides, and they seem to be just visiting. If they were setting up camp and reproducing, well, I think I'd have to rethink my anti-pesticide stance. As it is, I usually just pick them up and show them to the front yard.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Twinkle, twinkle

19. Were the stars out last night?

What we really want to know is, "Can you see the stars where you live?" and "Do you ever wander outside at night to enjoy the night sky?" Of course, the stars are always "out"...whether we see them or not just depends on if we care to notice. Otherwise, this is a simple "yes" or "no" question about the weather.

Here in Phoenix, we nearly always have clear night skies, I would say probably 364 nights a year on average. But there is huge competition from the city below. In the photo above, taken from a satellite orbiting Earth, you can easily find Phoenix by the largest blob of light just east of southern California. Even so, on our regular night strolls around the neighborhood, we can alway see the major constellations: Orion, Cassiopaea, Ursa Major, Pleides, Virgo and Scorpius are my favorites to look for. But everything in between and the great swirl of the Milky Way is lost to the glare of city lights, most obnoxious of those emanating from nearby ball fields where giant banks of lights beam out to space.

Depending on your outlook, the city lights can be stunning or frightening, or possibly both. This is my view from the top of Thunder bird Mountain, which I hike to the summit of (all 500 feet or so from the valley floor) by headlamp in the winter time two mornings a week.

I kind of like the "art" that happens when you jiggle the camera a little:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


18. What kinds of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

Silver, gold, uranium, turquoise and copper are some of Arizona's major mineral assets. Of those, copper is the most important, being one of the "5C's" of that once defined the backbone of the state economy: Climate, Cattle, Cotton, Copper and Citrus. Here are a few photos from Ray Mine near Kearny, which is southeast of Phoenix, where we visited on our way to backpack in Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area last May. The scale of the place (the mine that is) rivals Grand Canyon. Standing at the edge of this huge open pit, watching dump trucks crawl along on the winding roads, I have to say I was equally impressed just to think of the human industry required to create this technological wonder of the world.

According to Earthworks, a group dedicated to mining reform, "the Ray mine complex includes the nearby Hayden smelter, which is the largest single source of toxic pollution in Arizona, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The occurrence of lung cancer among Hayden residents is roughly 50 percent higher than for residents of the Tucson and Phoenix areas." This is the air that flows through Aravaipa Wilderness.

There are a dozen mines, along with their smelters, like this one in Arizona, the leading copper-producing state in the US. Think about this next time you pick up a shiny penny, listen to a symphony (any brass instrument), flick a light switch (wires) or take a shower (pipes). They all depend on copper mines. According to, "the average car contains 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile) of copper wire, and the total amount of copper ranges from 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in small cars to 45 kilograms (99 pounds) in luxury and hybrid vehicles." There I also learned that the Statue of Liberty "represents the largest use of copper in a single structure."

Fortunately, copper is also easily recycled, so save those pennies!

For more fascinating info on copper and other minerals, check out this web link:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Out My Window

Costa's Hummingbird (photo by Richard Halliburton)

I've been keeping a list of all the birds my cats and I have been watching from my office window, or sitting on our front bench just outside the window. The list now has more than two dozen species on it, and growing every day! Just this morning, I spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk cruising over towards the wash.

Roadrunner (on the road!)

Boat-tailed Grackles, male (on top) and females (below)

Here are the rest (asterisks are birds I've seen in my yard or cul-de-sac in the past couple of weeks):
Mourning Dove*, Rock Dove*, Inca Dove, Great-tailed Grackle*, Mockingbird*, Costa's Hummingbird*, Anna's Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Bewick's Wren*, Canyon Wren*, Cactus Wren*, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler*, Townsend's Warbler*, Orange Crowned Warbler*, Bell's vireo*, Say's Phoebe*, Harris' Hawk*, Common Nighthawk, Great-horned Owl*, Gamble's Quail*, Gila Woodpecker*, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, House Finch*, Song Sparrow, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Verdin*, Canyon Towhee*, Roadrunner*, Curve-billed Thrasher and believe it or not, a stray Great Blue Heron! That one was perched on a neighbor's rooftop, probably on its way between Lake Pleasant Reservoir and neighborhoods north of year where people glide around on pontoon boats from their back yards. Yes, right here in the suburbs of Phoenix!

Arrowhead Ranch (neighborhood south of Thunderbird Mountain 3 miles from where I live as the heron flies)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Bloom

17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

Most people would probably say California poppy, because it is one of the showiest flowers in the Sonoran Desert. But the true answer is Comb Nut, a teeny tiny forget-me-not flower. Pectocarya is the Latin name for this group of annuals, which are only a few inches high, with flowers barely an eighth of an inch in diameter. When there has been a wet winter, the desert becomes carpeted with these plants. If the desert looks green, it is usually Pectocarya, not grasses, that are responsible. The common name is a translation of the Latin, referring to the tooted margins of the nutlets or seedpods.

California poppies actually peak about a month after Pectocarya are first out, anywhere between late February and mid-March, depending on the winter rains.


16. From where you are reading this, point north.

Spending a lot of time outdoors, watching the sun move across the sky, shadows shifting and stars circle around Polaris, I can usually do this without a GPS or compass. Birds do it. Butterflies do it. Cows do it! Bees do it. I'd like to believe that if I ever got left out in the middle of nowhere (or everywhere, depending on your perspective), I, too, could find my way back home using these pieces of information. Tom dialed up the compass on his watch anyway to confirm my sense of direction and I was right on!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Homogenous Eclecticism

Lantana from South America

15. What are the major plant associations in your region?

In my lifetime, I've lived in at least eight different major ecosystem types, from the Pacific northwest Douglas Fir forests to the mixed hardwood forests of northern Illinois, and now to the Sonoran Desert. Maps for the larger plant associations or communities can be found in any ecology or plant geography textbook. Here in Phoenix, we inhabit a transition zone between the hilly Arizona Uplands, dominated by saguaros and palo verde and the broad flats of the Lower Colorado River Valley division of the Sonoran Desert, which gives us miles and miles of creosote and bursage. Anywhere you venture in natural areas within 50 miles of where I live, you will find these plants. The thousand or so other species occur in pockets, arroyos, at springs and on special rock outcrops along with these four dominant species. Brittlebush is another I would name as ubiquitous, but mostly because it is a reliable drought tolerant pioneer, able to drop in almost anywhere there has been a disturbance, especially in the Uplands.

But the plant association of the suburbs has not been mapped. What is in the wild and what we have transplanted into our suburbs is an entirely different assemblage of plants than the natural areas that have accidentally or intentionally been preserved. The suburban plant association is an eclectic collection of species gathered and cultivated for landscaping from all over the globe. We have euphorbias, aloes and gazanias from Africa; giant cereus cacti, lantana and bougainvillea from South America; acacias, senna and eucalyptus from Australia; oleander, olives and chaste tree from southern Europe. From China we've imported rose vines and jasmine. From other regions in North America we bring Texas sage, red yucca and candelilla. We even have an endemic from Afghanistan, Pinus eldarica, or Afghan Pine.

In fact, if you thumb through a handy guide distributed by our regional Water Conservation Committee, Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert: Guide to Growing More tThan 200 Low Water use Plants," nearly half of the recommended species are not native to the local region. And so we have created our own kind of plant association here in the suburbs. Although Sonoran natives are still included in the melieu...palo verde and mesquite are favorites in most parking lots...the dominant creosote and bursage that occupied the suburban landscape before they were bulldozed away are largely missing. Saguaros remain as occasional icons of the native landscape, but often don't survive the process of development.

I've often wondered what would become of the Suburban "division" of the Sonoran Desert flora if humans suddenly left, irrigation was ceased, and all of these species were left to fend for themselves in these foreign soils. Would they thrive or die off? Would they adapt and invade? Would they eventually mingle and reproduce well enough with the natives in the wild to create a whole new plant association?

Lilac Vine from Australia

Some have already shown their adaptability. We usually denigrate them by calling them "noxious weeds." Bermuda grass, fountain grass and African sumac are a few of the species that do quite well on their own here, to the bemusement of land managers whose predecessors may have brought them here. Others die off quickly without a drip. Our neighbors abandoned and foreclosed on house is surrounded by skeletons of lantana and ailing Queen palms.

Either way, I quite enjoy all of them, especially when I'm walking in the morning, and notice the also introduced swarms of honeybees (from Europe) feeding on daleas (from the Chihuahuan desert), and hummingbirds (native) slurping nectar from red yuccas (Chihuahuan), house sparrows (from Europe) congregating in fig trees (from Africa and China), and cottontails (native) feasting on Bermuda grass (African). The landscape changes slightly every fifty feet or so, depending on the preferences or inherited landscape of the current homeowner. Perhaps these variations could be called the Bermuda/Palo Verde/Lantana association; or the Texas sage/willow acacia association; or the senna/mesquite association. This wonderfully eclectic collection of plants is, however, uniquely homogenized into our own humanly assembled plant community, and it is spectacular!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On the Edge

This photo was taken a few springs ago in Burro Creek in Western Arizona. Burro Creek is in a wilderness area. Southeast of there, on the horizon in the photo, is a mountain of mine waste from a copper mine near Bagdad, Arizona.

The "Where You At" series asks this question:
14. What species have become extinct in your area?

As a biologist, I would rewrite this question to ask:
What species are currently at risk of extinction in your area?

I rephrase this because extinction is actually the norm for life on Earth. Paleontologists estimate that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, victims of massive events that changed the planet's climate. Six major extinction events are recorded in the annals of biological life, the last of which is occurring today. Right now. Extinction is generally a very slow process that occurs over hundreds or thousands of years. When populations of a species become scattered, small and/or concentrated, that is when a cataclysmic event can wipe them out forever.

In the state of Arizona, the Fish and Wildlife Service has fifty four species of animals and seventeen species of plants listed as threatened or endangered, or at risk of becoming extinct unless carefully managed and protected. In addition to these "T&E" species, there are hundreds more that are considered "rare" or "sensitive," meaning that populations are stable now, but that habitat and distribution is limited. Most often the causes of rarity for TES (Threatened, Endangered or Sensitive) species are habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, or, as in the case of many fish species, radical habitat alteration. Today, most significant changes to habitat are due to the activities of humans.

So, the answer to the first question is, "Too many to count or record!" But we could just give one recent example of wolves, which used to range into the Phoenix area, but have been extirpated by government sanctioned hunting so that they now occur only in the most southern ranges of Arizona. Ironically, their existence in Arizona today is also courtesy of the same government that set out to exterminate them. Only now we are attempting to reintroduce them. Unfortunately, at the same time, there are still people who would rather ensure their extinction, a mindset I cannot fathom.

The answer to the second question could be "all species" if you are inclined toward catastrophic thinking. But I am not so morose. I believe that life will always find a way. After each of the major extinction events, life has always evolved into more diverse, abundant and magnificent forms. The biological communities we have today are entirely different than the ones that thrived right here one hundred million years ago. The current extinction event will most likely play out in a similar way. Whether humans are around to observe what happens a thousand years from now is a big question that we cannot answer. Rather than descend into speculative discourse on the Holocene extinction, I'll just feature two species that are on Arizona's list of rare plants.

One is Agave murpheyi, or Hohokam agave. The most interesting fact about this species is that they are documented in the wild only where former agricultural areas were managed by ancient peoples that once subsisted in the Phoenix area. The Hohokam people used the plant for food, fiber and trade. Today, these plants are cultivated at local nurseries for ornamental purposes, so "trade" in Agave murpheyi continues in earnest! In fact I "traded" a five dollar bill for one that now grows in my yard, shown above. The wild populations that remain may have been originally established by Hohokam communities from young plants or "pups" that were imported from Mexico. So here is an example of a species we dub "rare" in our area because there are few small scattered populations, but the reason these populations exist at all is because people imported them! Very interesting indeed!

Another rare plant that I have visited is Purshia subintegra, or Burro Creek Cliffrose. There are four populations known only in Arizona, the largest of which is in a heavily populated area just north of Phoenix in the Verde Valley. Burro Creek Cliffrose is listed as endangered, and is threatened by urbanization, mining, overuse by cattle and burros, road construction, off-road vehicle traffic and extended drought. They are also limited to habitats where there are limestone outcrops. Unlike the Hohokam Agave, there are no known uses to humans other than possibly as an ornamental landscaping plant. But because of its intrinsic value as a unique species, humans are working to ensure that this species does survive in the wild, by salvaging plants that wind up in the path of urban development and by cultivating them for reintroduction into native habitat. The pictures I have of this plant were taken in Burro Creek, south of Kingman. The shiny blister beetle that is visiting the flowers coexists, and may be partly dependent on this plant. Such is the web of life!

So it is on both ends of the spectrum that human civilization influences individual species and entire biological communities. We wipe them out. We preserve and facilitate their continued existence on Earth. How we conduct our lives, both as individuals and communities, will determine the fate of not only our own species, but of millions of others that creation/evolution has graced our planet with.

More information on TES species in Arizona can be found at the US Fish and Wildlife Service website:

And at the Arizona Natural Heritage Program page for the Arizona Fish and Game Department:

Saturday, October 3, 2009


When you live in the Sonoran Desert, you are likely to become more acquainted with dawn if you enjoy spending time outdoors, because this is the easiest way to tolerate or avoid the heat much of the year. May through October are months that have highs in the hundreds most days, so getting out before the sun comes up is what many hikers, bikers and runners do to avoid heat stroke and exhaustion. Five in the morning works well. I've always been an early riser, but six years living in Phoenix has led me to experience more dawn hours than all the rest of my years.

By 5:30 most mornings, 6:00 at the latest, I am up and outside either hiking or running. The hiking wouldn't happen if I didn't have a friend to meet twice a week. Caroline and I, plus dozens of other fitness-minded people avoiding the heat, begin our bi-weekly trek often by headlamp, like mountaineers on an alpine start. You can see the little lights bobbing along the switchbacks up the well trod trail leading up Thunderbird Mountain, a silhouette against the urban lit sky rising five hundred feet from the valley floor. On mornings around the full moon, we can navigate by moonlight.

At this time of year, the morning sky begins to glow about half way up the trail, backlighting peaks to the East. We often witness the magical moment when the orange crest of the sun bulges up out of the hills. Colorful city lights wink beneath the orange glow until the sun fully emerges, drowning them out.

Besides the cool air and light, dawn is a time when many desert animals are most active. Owls, nighthawks and bats are making their breakfast flights. The occasional snake moves off the trail out of our way, disappearing into rocks. Coyotes howl and flow through the prickly shrubs on their way to a daytime resting spot. Black throated sparrows, towhees and cactus wrens call to each other, announcing their territory or calling for mates.

For many hikers, dawn is a ritual, a prayer. We greet the day with hope, chatter about our joys and woes, much as the birds may be doing. Some run. We are grateful to be healthy and able to walk the rocky trail, feeling our hearts beat, breathing deeply desert air. Each dawn is a gift.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Geologic Forces

Back in April I started exploring questions from a series called "Where You At?" (see my April 10th post, "Agua Dulce"). Returning to that series, we are asked this question:

#13 What primary geologic event/process influenced the landform where you live?

This question took me a long time to think about. Perhaps this is because the idea of landform is a bit difficult to suss out in a place where the land has been bulldozed and paved in a way that makes it tough to recognize the natural form of the land. But therein lies the answer! Humans are the primary geologic force at work here in Phoenix. The valley has been transformed from a vast undulating desert of bajadas and arroyos into canals, dams, bridges, reservoirs, mines, and sprawling development that recent reports declare we will add 400 more miles of highway to by the year 2050! Four hundred!!!

Volcanism has also had a big influence on the landscape here. Where the land has not been reworked, paved over, and re-landscaped, our neighborhood is circled by a ring of six hundred foot high hills that rise above the valley floor. Like many of the surrounding desert peaks, Deem Hills is made of rubble leftover from volcanic eruptions that occurred between two and five million years ago, which is relatively recent by geologic standards. The dark rocks, called basalt, glow deep purple and orange in the evening sun. Basalt is basically cooled off lava. Here, many of the rocks have pits and holes in them, evidence that the lava was almost frothy when it flowed and then quickly cooled, leaving small air bubbles in the rock.

Ironically, water has had an equally large influence on the landscape here in one of the most arid regions of North America. Whenever rains fall, flash floods and sheet flow move thousands of tons of rock, sand and silt, gradually eroding the hills. Bajadas are the alluvial fans, or outwash of debris that flows out of the mountains creating a gently sloping landscape at the base of the hills. Arroyos are the beginnings of canyons, like the Grand. Over time, water and wind probably move more earth than any other geologic force other than plate tectonics.

But right now, humans may outweigh even plate tectonics in the effects on landform when you count the accumulated impacts of our civilization on the movement of air and water combined with actual earth moving here in Phoenix.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Black Widow Refuge

My back yard is a refuge for black widow spiders. While exterminators regularly spray my neighbor's yards and homes with pesticides, I've chosen to let "pests" live in our yard, weaving webs, making nests and providing food for the numerous lizards and birds that also visit. (Although I will admit that when the termites start drilling into our walls, I call the exterminators!) Perhaps it was Charlotte who convinced me that spiders deserve to be allowed their quiet livelihood in the yard, or perhaps my ecological sensibilities that respects the necessary role that all creatures play, even in the suburbs. Whenever I see a gleaming black widow with her slender legs and red violin I am fascinated rather than repulsed.

This may seem reckless or foolish to most people, but so far, the spiders have obliged by keeping out of sight during the day, and sinking their tiny teeth only into edible prey, such as crickets that also enjoy refuge here. Once in awhile I'll catch one resting in it's tangled web in a plant on the patio at night, but as soon as it senses my presence, it scurries out of sight, knowing rightly that I am far more dangerous to her than she is to me. Out in the log pile, I reach in with gloved hands to gather wood for a new moon fire, setting aside the marble sized egg sacs full of soon to be spiderlings.

So far, we have not experienced any grotesque infestations of roaches, ant, crickets, spiders or scorpions, the "pests" that support a thriving exterminator industry in Arizona. Yes, all of these creatures are here, and as long as they stay outside in the back yard refuge, we coexist peacefully. I like it that way.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Capturing a Cloud

Orion and I were playing with cattails we picked at a neighbor's pond yesterday morning, poking the ripe seed heads to make them burst into fluffy clouds of soft white seeds. With just four cattails, we made a billowing mound around our feet and threw the seeds up in the air to make it "snow." We blew the seeds until we were lightheaded, making thousands of wishes. We had to cut our play short to walk to school, but not before Orion got the idea to stuff a baggie full of cattail fluff to bring to his class for show-and-tell. "I'm going to tell the class that I captured a cloud!" he exclaimed. Another morning to last a lifetime.

These pictures were actually taken in 2005 when we were similarly mesmerized with cattails along the Salt River.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fall Colors

Arizona Poppy Kallstroemia grandiflora

As we roll past the autumnal equinox, which was September 22nd this week, I've been searching for fall colors here in Phoenix. Here, we have very few native deciduous trees, and those that we have are more likely to drop in June at the onset of the hot summer. Chilly mornings here are in the 70's, rather than frosty ones that trigger aspen and maple forests to turn. And instead of a harvest season here in the Sonoran desert, it is a time for sowing seed. The lack of northern boreal seasonal phenologies and rituals that were part of my life for nearly 45 years confuses me at a visceral level. My mind and body want autumn leaves and frost, even after seven years in Phoenix. I go searching for fall colors anyway.

I find fall colors here in the flowers. In the wild desert, Arizona poppies, desert senna, and janusia bloom in response to the fragments of monsoon storms that drenched the area a few weeks ago. In the neighborhoods, Mexican Bird of Paradise are at their peak, every bit as colorful as a Vermont forest. Bougainvillea vines glow hot pink where they are planted by the hundreds along Phoenix highways. Many of the trees, rather than dropping their leaves, have put out a new crop of fresh green. Here are a few of the fall colors we have here now:
Desert Vine Janusia gracilis

Mexican Bird of Paradise Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Desert Senna Senna covesii