Saturday, January 31, 2009


A "smooth closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house."
-Frank J. Scott in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, 1870

"May God have mercy on Mr. Scott's soul."
-David Quammen in "The Boilerplate Rhino: Rethinking the Lawn," 2000

Early in my adult life, I made a pact with myself that I would never live in a home that required taking care of a lawn. Nor would I escape the task by having a lawn and simply hiring someone else to take care of it for me. For twenty five years, I was successful, living in houses that were either surrounded by natural vegetation or had no yard at all (a few apartments and dorm rooms) or were covered by snow seven months of the year so lawns didn't really matter. It wasn't until I moved to Phoenix, AZ in 2003 that I wound up breaking the pact and rolling out 500 square feet of turf in the back yard of our tract home. Fortunately, this tiny patch of grass could be managed with a non-motorized push mower, but that was the only conciliation. Otherwise, I had become enslaved, just as I feared would happen.

Not only did the Phoenix lawn require weeding, edging, fertilizing and mowing to maintain it's "smooth closely-shaven surface," our location in one of the driest climates in North America requires an excess of piped in water that seemed obscene from my environmental conservationist point of view. On top of all that, the extremes of Phoenix's climate also recommend a bi-annual regime of re-seeding with cold tolerant rye grass in October and boosting the thirsty but heat tolerant Bermuda grass in the summer. Under my less than meticulous care, this essential element of our suburban landscape became a patchy, ragged, weedy mess in less than a year. The doves gobbled up the first seeding of rye, and added their excrement to the scene.

After three years of this love-hate relationship (love the soft green oxygen producing living beings that are grass/hate the water wasting, invasive weediness and constant maintenance required to keep it all looking good) I cut off the water supply to our patch of lawn and let it die a slow and hopefully not too painful death. Within a year our backyard became a dust bin.

Until two weeks ago. With benevolent intentions to stimulate the local economy while restoring the suburban concept of beauty to our backyard, I had a couple of guys come out and roll out some new turf. Only this turf is called SynLawn. It is made out of fossil fuels, I presume, and requires no watering. No weeding, no edging, no fertilizing. No bi-annual switch of dominant species to deal with the heat or cold. Our new lawn feels soft underfoot and always look perfectly manicured, perfectly green. An added bonus is that when you want to go out and have a picnic, read a book, stretch, or sleep out for the night on your synthetic lawn, you will never have to wait for it to dry off from being watered or surprised when the sprinkler systems turns on. If it gets too many leaves or dust, you can vaccuum it.

At first I had to laugh at myself for indulging in such frivolous conventionalism, since being frivolous and conventional are counter to my creed. But after getting over that, I am SynLawns new best salesperson! I love it! For a SynLawn dealer near you, log onto and tell them I sent you. You will get a big kick out of their grass covered promo truck!

P.S. In the photos at the top, the one on the lower left is living grass. On the upper right is SynLawn. Could you tell the difference?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Football, Birds, Virtues and Bugs

For the past two weeks, the Cardinals have been featured on the front page of the Arizona Republic every single day. For all you non-sports buffs, the Cardinals are Arizona's NFL football team. And if you're really living in ignorant bliss, they will be playing in the Superbowl next weekend, something I would have probably been totally unaware of had I not been living in Phoenix (since, believe it or not, I don't watch TV).

The coolest thing about the Cardinals to me...the football that they have an awesome mascot, which is a bird. The fact that the bird is native to Arizona, I have discovered, is something that most football fans are less apt to be aware of than I am of the various key players on the team. I thought it would have been really fun if they were going to play the Baltimore Ravens in the Superbowl instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, because then there would have been a better chance for the nation to be injected with a little bit of avian awareness. (By the way, the football team is not native to Arizona: the team originated in south Chicago in 1898, then migrated to St. Louis, Missouri in 1960. It wasn't until 1988 that Phoenix became the territorial center for the team.)

But since the Ravens got blitzed by the Steelers, I'm covering the Cardinals here. The Northern Cardinal that is. Just so you don't get too confused, the scientific name for the bird is Cardinalis cardinalis, which is even more redundant than the media coverage of the football team. The Latin name distinguishes this species from seven other types of Cardinals that inhabit Earth. The Northern Cardinal has a vast distribution, ranging all the way from southeastern Canada to Guatemala, and stretching from Maine to the Baja Peninsula. For some reason they don't make it over the Continental Divide, so they are most common in eastern North America. Their range sweeps into the southwestern states below Colorado. Cardinals are partial to the northern hemisphere, hence their accessory appellation. In Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, the Northern Cardinal holds the honor of State Bird. But not in Missouri (Bluebird) or Arizona (Cactus Wren).

Male Northern Cardinal's are very handsome, brilliant red all over with an orange beak and black face, just like the Cards' mascot. They sport a red mohawk, which explains why this is now a popular hairstyle among football fans. The female is not quite so colorful, for camouflage reasons during nesting season. But she is quite elegant in her buffy gray feathers tinged with red on the crest, tail and wings. Cardinals are also well-known in the bird-watching world for the clear, melodious songs exchanged between mates or territorial rivals. At this, both males and females are equally gifted.

Most endearing about the bird is their devotion to their mates. Breeding pairs are monogamous and hang around with each other all year round. The male helps feed the female while she is brooding the eggs, and then assists with feeding the nestlings for nearly two months. During the winter, cardinals may gather in flocks, but from February through April pairs staunchly defend their nesting territories. By the way, the brightest red males become the best mates and fathers, so are the first choice among females of the species. In order to maintain their feathers' scarlet sheen, they need to feed on insects and fruits high in carotenoids during their molting period.

Cardinals are common throughout their range in thickets, riparian areas and in suburban shrubs and trees. They are non-migratory, so can be seen throughout the year in good habitat. They love it when people put out birdseed for them and are common at winter feeders, especially in snowy climates where wild food may be more scarce. Here in Arizona they are restricted to the southern parts of the state and are most common along washes and rivers, but not so much in very dry areas of the desert. They love mesquite bosques. Wolfberries are a favorite food. Wolfberries are cardinal red!

So there are the football team and the birds. What do these have to do with virtues? Or bugs??? My linguistic quest informs me that the word cardinal is derived from the Latin term cardo, which means "hinge," as in an "important, essential, or principal" link. This became the designation of the Pope's advisors, the College of Cardinals, who are a select group of bishops and priests in the Roman Catholic Church whose duties include electing a new Pope when necessary. The formal attire of cardinals is dyed blood red, symbolizing a willingness to die for their faith. We may surmise that cardinals of the Catholic faith abide by the four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. On these points I cannot vouch for the football team, their fans or the birds, although I have a hunch that temperance is not well observed at tailgate parties in the alcoholic sense. However, it does seem that some football players and many fans are so devoted that they may die for their team.

Bugs come into the discussion because red dye for fine garments was originally produced from the dried and crushed bodies of scale insects. In Europe, a little sap-sucking bug that lives on oak trees, called Kermes, was a prized source of bright red dye. Later, when the Spanish roamed to South America, they learned from the Aztecs of another red dye-producing scale insect called cochineal. These guys live on prickly pear cacti, and you can find their fuzzy white masses on cacti all around Phoenix. If you grab one and squish it between your fingers, you will see one of the sources of cardinal red, the color of church officials' robes. Bishops also sometimes wear strange pointy hats. That is why when European naturalists first encountered these amazing red birds, they were reminded of the Roman Catholic cardinals.

The football team was also named for the color, which came from the bug that dyed the cardinals' (of virtue) garments. This brilliant inspiration came to the team's owner, Chris O'Brien in 1901 when he purchased some faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago. I have to agree that "Cardinals" sounds way better than the "Normals" or "Morgan Athletic Club", which were two of the team's original names. If they were to invoke the four virtues or even the territorial defense skills of the bird along with the color, adopting the name for a football team does carry some dignity.

And, I'm guessing that, although the football team probably uses synthetic dyes these days, there is a good chance that male Arizona Cardinals (the birds) probably eat cochineal bugs as well as wolfberries in order to stay blood red. I'll check on that!

The fascinating info in this blog post was mostly provided by the following links and resources:
Webster's Dictionary
Stokes Nature Guides: A guide to Bird Behavior Volume II by Donald & Lillian Stokes
A Guide to Southern Arizona Bird Nests & Eggs by Pinau Merlin

Friday, January 16, 2009


On a ten acre parcel of creosote flats now "owned" by the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Division, shards of soda bottles, skeets and ceramic pots are scattered across the desert. The site is less than a mile's easy walk from my house and is sandwiched between a grocery store, a high school, and our sprawling neighborhood of 900 houses. The bottles and skeets are leftover refuse dating back probably fifty years to present. The earth colored ceramics are the remains of pots that were crafted by ancient peoples who lived here over 1000 years ago. Back then, this now neglected parcel of land was home to a few Hohokam families who eventually abandoned their pit houses, the remains of which form four shallow depressions outlined by rocks.

I squat among the creosote and gaze around wondering what it looked like then, what it might have sounded like, the smells. A broad plain of desert stretches out from here to forever. Quail calling and cactus wren chattering, just as they do today. The scraping of stone on stone as women grind mesquite pods with mano and metate. Scent of smoke and flatbread being cooked on a small fire of mesquite wood. I can imagine the sherd in my hand as soft wet clay being flattened and molded into the broad bowl that it once was.

Just south of here, there is a place called Hedgepeth Hills, well-known by local archaeologist's as an ancient crossroads where people carved images in rock while they rested and then passed through for thousands of years. The petroglyphs are pecked in dark granite boulders on a hillside next to Skunk Creek, which was once a lush riparian corridor and travelling route. This is also the site of an icon that is the namesake of Deer Valley, which is what we call this village today. The image is of two bucks locking antlers, and graces many City signs and letterheads, including the local school district's.

The former tiny village is also located near an important stone quarry where people gathered white chunks of crystalline quartz called chalcedony, that was prized for making spear points and arrowheads. There are also remains of farming terraces nearby, evidence that people stayed long enough to cultivate food plants, perhaps beans and squash.

Today, most people drive by or walk through this area with absolutely no awareness of the archaeological history of the land. Students on their way to school wheel through on their bikes; construction workers and landscapers dump their loads of trash into the old pit houses; thousands of people drive by every day on the way to and from the high school, littering the roadside with bottles, cans, fast food trash and cigarette butts.

One of my quests is to urge the City to eventually add some interpretive displays to the area so that others might contemplate the rich cultural history that is part of our neighborhood. That, along with a trailhead leading to some of the quartz strewn quarries and lookouts where ancient people may have stood and surveyed that landscape below. Or maybe even a skateboard park with Hohokam inspired designs, where today's children could mingle with spirits of the past.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Radical Abstinence

My five seconds of fame in Phoenix arrived this week as my name appeared in bold print in a newspaper column written by the notorious Ed Montini of the Arizona Republic. Check it out here:

While I am by no means a purist on this issue (I was raised on a steady diet of sitcoms and comedy shows, such as Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnett and Laugh-In), I do maintain that spending federal dollars...1.3 billion of them! support the option of tv viewing is a careless waste of taxpayer funding, even if it was raised selling off bandwidth. Two vouchers per household?! One is enough. What surprises me more is that choosing not to own or spend time watching tv is considered by so many people to be a radical act of abstinence. Not only that, an UN-American, elitist, snobbish act. Oh well. I'll take those hits. Mostly though, I just don't have the time...4-6 hours a day by some polls.... to sit around and watch or listen to the TV. I'd rather nap, have sex, take a bath, lay in the sun, write, or talk to a friend than watch The Hills, American Idol or even the Super Bowl. Call me a heretic. I'm okay with that.

There are other forms of abstinence I choose as well that probably cinch my status as an un-American elitist snob. And maybe some Luddite leanings.
-I do not own a microwave oven (even though some "green" proponents say it uses less energy than a conventional oven). I just don't have the space in my kitchen`.
-I don't wear make-up or dye my hair. It shows for sure, but I don't care.
-I don't clip coupons. Another waste of my time.
-I have never been to Disney Land and hope to keep it that way. (The desire to hang out at an amusement park was beaten out of me during my first job as a teenager at Six Flags of America near Chicago.)
-Because I don't have a TV, I have never seen video footage of the Twin Towers going down, and am very happy to never ever see that horrible disaster on film. We hear enough about it.

I've read other reports of radical acts of abstinence lately. There was one of a couple who decided to see if they could survive on $1.00 a day (each) expenses for food. The guy lost 15 pounds in one month. The woman only lost 5. I guess she didn't miss the chips and beer.

An entire group of people have banded together to join something called "The Compact," in which they agree to support one another in a lifestyle of not buying anything "new" for at least a year.

What I'd really like to accomplish, which seems on par with living in the stone age anymore, is to live without my computer. No e-mail. No blogging. No Internet. No Google. No Mapquest. No You Tube videos to make me laugh my ass off. No on-line bill paying. Go back to the old-fashioned travel agency approach to buying a plane ticket now and then. No renewing my overdue library books on line. No paperless newsletters. No forwarded chain mails. No ads for Viagra. Could I do it? How would I survive? Is it American?????

Well, I've got a couple of friends who have actually accomplished this radical act of abstinence and still are able to maintain healthy, vibrant lifestyles, fulfilling jobs and have real social lives! I envy them.

But leave me without internet access for a couple of days, and I feel like I've been cut off from the rest of the world! This happened to me over the past two days, and I was apoplectic with frustration trying to communicate with a voice activated technical helper at Cox Communications. I withered hours away during those days trying to solve the problem. On the second evening, of course, my geek husband solved the problem in a matter of seconds.

Why is it though, that having grown up and made it through graduate school (in science) without the Internet, and barely with a computer, I now feel like a quadrapaligic without it? Mind you, when I'm away from my home doing other things that please me, such as biking, running, or going on a 30 day river trip, it phases me not a second to be separated from the computer. But at home, it is an absolute necessity in my life. Or at least feels that way.

Then I think: how much time do I spend on the computer each day? What things could I do with that time that might actually make me feel happier, develop useful skills, improve my relationships, help me be healthier, better entertained and more well-informed? What if, just what if, I made a pact with myself to not touch the keyboard or mouse or even look at the screen over someone else's shoulder for one week while around the house? That would be a radical act of abstinence for me. Much as is the idea of making it through a day without American Idol, CNN or Fox News for others. Okay, you go first!

What would be your most radical act of abstinence?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Birds in the Bush

You may think the above photo is a rather boring view of dull shrubbery. But if you had been there to hear the exuberant chatter of dozens of sparrows concealed in the leafy shadows, you might think otherwise. A few quiet steps towards the avian hideaway, and the chatter ceases. Another few steps and the bushes erupt in a wild frenzy of feathers, leaving a few bits of down drifting in the morning air. The flock wheels around in a synchronized aerial ballet and settle down in some identical shrubbery up the wash, disappearing as quickly as they emerged. Magic.

This was a highlight of my own personal annual bird count in our neighborhood this week. On January 2nd I participated in an "official" Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in a wash called Camp Creek in the nearby Tonto National Forest (which is really mostly a desert, not a forest). Comparing the two counts is an interesting exercise for me, and actually makes me feel quite lucky to live where I do, at least bird-watching wise.

Living on the suburban fringe, the diversity of birds we see is influenced by the "edge effect." In this case, we have the melding of two distinctly different ecosystems that host a variety of species. Our neighborhood includes a 640 acre desert preserve called Deem Hills to the north. Birds wander from the pristine desert to mix with flocks that thrive in the vast urban wilderness of Phoenix. In the developed part of the neighborhood, irrigated lawns and perennially flowering landscapes attract more hummingbirds, killdeer, and grackles, while the more remote desert is the refuge of species that favor native plants, such as phainopepla and Abert's towhee. Urban adapted species (i.e. species that tolerate or even prefer landscapes influenced by humans) are less likely to move into the less hospitable wild desert, whereas all of the desert natives I observed deep in the National Forest last week have occasionally been seen wandering into the housing area, with the exception of a few higher elevation species we saw, like Western Bluebirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Other differences between the two surveys are that whereas I was one pair of eyes searching for three hours, our Audubon count had three pairs of eyes roving for six hours. And, as mentioned above, there is about 2000 feet elevation difference between the two locations. This translates to slightly different vegetation in the two desert areas as well, with jojoba abundant in the higher Tonto, plus a large wash hosting sycamore and cottonwoods. Of course, the suburbs are a cacaphony of vegetation from all over the world, and probably ten times the water.

Our final tally for the Tonto count was 26 species and about 200 birds. In my neighborhood, I listed 20 species and over 300 birds. The higher numbers down in the suburban fringe were largely from Gamble quail, which travel in coveys of over 50 and house sparrows, which gather in similar numbers. For some reason I haven't yet figured out, we did not see a single quail up in the Tonto. In the end, I suspect that if I had the additional eyes and time to match the Audubon group for the neighborhood tour, we could definitely match the diversity and double the numbers as well.

Which brings me back to another point. Ears are equally, if not more, important as eyes to successful birdwatching. Most of the time, it is the song or call or rustle of a bird that attracts my attention than the actual sighting. Especially for those little guys that hide in the shrubs.

For anyone who is curious, here is the entire list for both bird counts. My prize was the sharp-shinned hawk stalking the sparrows in the shrubs above, right in my back yard! What's flying around in your back yard?

Camp Creek Deem Hills
1 Say’s Phoebe 1 Say’s Phoebe 1
2 Gila Woodpecker 6 Gila Woodpecker 4
3 White-crowned Sparrow ~75 White-crowned Sparrow ~25
4 Black-throated Sparrow ~5 Black-throated Sparrow ~100
5 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 5
6 Mockingbird 10 Mockingbird 3
7 Verdin 7 Verdin 6
8 Cactus Wren 4 Cactus Wren 7
9 House Finch 5 House Finch 15
10 Curve-billed Thrasher 2 Curve-billed Thrasher 5
11 Costa’s Hummingbird 1 Costa’s Hummingbird 7
12 Canyon Towhee 3 Canyon Towhee 2
13 Phainopepla 15 Gambel's Quail ~120
14 Abert’s Towhee 6 Rock Dove (aka Pigeon) ~20
15 Western Bluebird 7 Mourning Dove 9
16 Cardinal 4 Boat-tailed Grackle 2
17 Junco 5 House Sparrow ~100
18 Raven 15 Northern Flicker 2
19 American Kestrel 1 Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
20 Scrub Jay 6 Killdeer 2
21 House wren 2
22 Red-tailed Hawk 2
23 Goldfinch 1
24 Rock Wren 2
25 Spotted Sowhee 1
26 Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
Total 187/26 310/20

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fresh Lemonade

While folks in the north country and higher elevations are shoveling snow, we are harvesting fruit and making fresh lemonade! The other day, we noticed that a neighbors lemon tree was shedding ripe fruit into the wash where we walk daily. So, we knocked on their door and asked if we could gather some to make lemonade. At this time of year in Valley of the Sun, citrus comes on like zucchini in the summertime elsewhere. Our neighbor was happy to lead us into his garden and harvest as much as we could pile in our basket. Another neighbor off-loaded some excess grapefruits. Alas, our own orange tree is resting this year, and only bears a single fruit after putting out over fifty last January.

Thus we mark our first day of 2009 with making freshly squeezed lemonade. We also grated the rinds and dried the gratings to make a stash of lemon rind for baking. Cheers!