Tuesday, April 28, 2009


#7 Where does your garbage go?

Today is pick-up day for the recyclables. We fill up that bin about twice as fast as our "trash" bin. This can be a good thing, by the fact that perhaps the materials actually do get recycled. Or it could be regarded as a bad thing, since we are obviously overwhelmed with disposable packaging. But the answer is that, ideally, about 2/3 of our garbage goes to a recycling center in downtown Phoenix and gets separated out to be made into more disposable packaging, paper and other products like carpets and fleece.

The other quarter of our garbage goes to a landfill west of Phoenix. Our local landfill used to be just a mile to the east of us, but was declared full and closed about two years ago. Now we deliver any excess, especially yard waste from pruning the ever expanding trees, to a transfer station about five miles away. We actually visited there yesterday to deliver nine giant hefty bags full of weeds (in photo above) that I plucked from a community clean-up project I've adopted near our home. From there the waste is appropriately separated (green waste in one area, metals in another, "real" trash in another, etc.) and loaded into huge trucks to deliver to the new landfill.

I used to compost, but did not enjoy the side effect of a burgeoning population of cockroaches, crickets and mice that ensued. The cats were great at keeping the mouse population down, but much as a I love insects, the cockroaches creeped me out. I used to put out sticky traps, which would collect dozens of roaches each night. We finally turned the compost piles in with some soil to create two big raised bed gardens. Composting sounds really great, but the reality is better suited for a community garden or farm setting where the pile can be well separated from the home. So now our compost goes to the landfill, where I'm certain it will play a useful role in bio-degrading the rest of the trash.

The good news about our landfills is that the old full one is planned for restoration to create a regional recreational park. And I recently read that the new one will be teamed up with windmills and solar arrays to produce sustainable energy for the city!

Waste disposal services are one of those under-appreciated city services that if suddenly halted, would rapidly result in even greater urban chaos. Be kind to your dumpster drivers!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Storms and Seasons

#6 From what direction do winter storms generally come from in your region?

This question in the "Where You At?" series (see April 10th intro., "Agua Dulce") clearly comes from a climate other than the Sonoran Desert. "Winter" and "storm" don't really go together down here. But if you want to see some really phenomenal summer storms, come visit in July through mid-September when the monsoon season kicks in. Huge piles of cumulonimbus bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Sea of Cortez, erupting into massive downpours and lightning storms that are awe inspiring entertainment for any skywatcher.

What the question is really getting at is assessing one's awareness of general weather patterns where we live. When I moved to Phoenix 7 years ago (Yikes! Seven years!) the notion of seasons, as well as weather patterns, was transformed for me. Having lived all of my previous life in four season climates with leafy falls, snowy winters, and balmy summers, moving to Southern Arizona was like landing on a different planet.

Here we are blessed with five seasons, according to "A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert," published by the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. Here they are:

1. We have fall, or so it is called, in late September through November. But our falls have very little color, since the landscape is mostly lacking in deciduous trees. It's more of a dry break between the torrential summer season and the drizzley winter. You can actually plant a veggie garden in September to harvest sometime in December. Snowbirds arrive.

2. Winters are mild with gentle rains blowing in from the west and northwest in December through mid-February, if we are lucky. These are the rains that set us up for spectacular wildflower displays come spring.

3. Springs are pretty dry, from late February through April. A blissful time of year when nights are cool and days are warm. Once the soil warms up, you can plant a second season of veggies to harvest in June.

4. Dry Summer starts in May, when things heat up into the 100's. By mid-June it is pretty much time to put the veggie garden to rest until September, because it is so hot and dry. Sane people migrate north to more reasonable climates.

5. And then we have the fifth and most famous Wet Summer or Monsoon Season that drenches the desert with torrents and flash floods. Winds that knock over hundreds of trees. These are the leftovers of hurricanes that devastate communities closer to the ocean. Even though it is hotter than heck, this is the most vibrant of Sonoran Seasons, the one that defines the region, the season of myths and legends. Our stormy season.

I think about this seasonal awareness every year when the schools and stores dutifully decorate for each according to, not the local five season reality, but the four season climate of northern deciduous forests that is defined by fall leaves, winter snowflakes, spring bunnies, and summer flowers and flip-flops. In summer here, the flowers are dried to a crisp. There is no snow. We do have plenty of spring bunnies, but we wear flip-flops all year round. That's where I'm at!

Bring on the summer. I'm going to Colorado!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sex in My Garden (X-rated!)

After being transplanted from a pot in our front yard to soil in the backyard last fall, this Argentine cactus is two weeks out of sync with the full moon, having bloomed closer to today's new moon rather than the full moon as is usual for these flowers. As always, a breath-taking spectacle with intoxicating pheromones wafting from deep in the corolla. These photos were taken over a period of five days. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


#5 Where You At?
Name five native edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

To address this part of the quiz, we need to first define what our "bioregion" is. A bioregion is different than just drawing a circle with a radius of some random diameter, which is one popular approach to trying to eat "locally." While the distance limitation is valid, the bioregion differs because it may extend further or may actually constrain the definition of "local" by being smaller than the hundred-mile radius.

In the case of living in Phoenix, AZ, I'll define my bioregion as the Arizona Uplands subdivision of the Sonoran Desert, which is quite huge. The Arizona Uplands are the highest part of the Sonoran Desert, extending from north of Phoenix into northern Mexico, covering the eastern part of the Sonoran Desert. This encompasses mountain ranges up to about 4500 feet, which receive an average of up to fifteen inches of rain per year, down to about 1000 feet, where the landscape transitions to the much hotter and drier Lower Colorado River Desert subdivision of the Sonoran. Compared to the rest of the southwest deserts, we live in a rather lush bioregion here in the Arizona Uplands.

Edible plants are abundant in the Arizona Uplands. There is a ton of great information on what and how to harvest plants in a book called Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy Hodgson, which is compiled from oral histories by indigenous people of the area. The Sonoran Desert at large has supported over 70 different cultures, many of which still exist today, subsisting in part on traditional native foods. My five favorite native edible plants around here, ones that I've actually harvested and eaten on my own, are saguaro fruit, mesquite pods, wolfberries, yucca pods, and miner’s lettuce.

We actually gathered miner’s lettuce on a hike last weekend and had some for a trail snack. Orion said he “love’s it” and even brought some home to have in his school lunch the next day. Miner’s lettuce can be found any time of year in shaded canyons.
Yucca pods can be sliced and fried when young and green, usually in the spring. Wolfberries are abundant in the spring, from February through April, after a good rainy winter. This year, not so plentiful. Mesquite pods can be gathered in June, and ground into flour and stored to make cakes and gruel throughout the year. Saguaro fruit ripens in July, and can be harvested for both the seed and the pulp. This can also be dried and stored.

Supplemented with quail, rabbit, deer and javelina, one could subsist nicely in the Arizona Uplands. But I’ll stick with my two favorite store bought staples, granola and yogurt. Maybe I’ll add a handful of saguaro seeds to the next batch of granola in honor of my bioregion.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Signs of Summer

Warmer winds blew over the weekend, tipping the season into summer. Some biological signs that mark the transition are the emergence of rattlesnakes, blooming desert willows, flower buds on saguaros, an explosion of crickets, and nighthawks cruising the washes and streetlights at dusk. At home, I take note of the first official swim of the season in our solar-heated pool, which has warmed to a balmy 76 degrees. A favorite flame-flowered cactus blooms in the backyard. I now put away the down comforter brought out for cooler nights back in November.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Hohokam

What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?
Here in Phoenix, we have a great legacy to follow: the Hohokam Culture that occupied the region for about 1450 years, between about 1 A.D. and 1450 A.D. Previous to the Hohokam, hunter gatherer cultures roamed the area for over 12,000 years. The Hohokam were the first to settle down, create permanent structures and grow food to supplement what they harvested from the desert. Mesquite bean pods were as much of a staple as the corns, beans and squash that they grew.

The most amazing aspect of Hohokam culture that sets them apart from other indiginous cultures of North America is the extensive network of canals that were built to sustain agriculture in the area. A map of this network is illustrated on a wall at the Pueblo Grande Museum in downtown Phoenix, a mind-blowing mural to contemplate. Today, many of the canals in the Phoenix Metro area follow the same general pathway as the Hohokam canals.

Both the Salt River and the Gila River were major sources of water feeding the canal system, which archaeologists estimate at over 1,000 miles of canals delivering water to more than 100,000 acres of farmland. The size of the main canals ranged from over 50 feet wide and over 20 feet deep, to smaller lateral canals just a few feet wide and two feet deep. All of these were dug with hand tools. The soil excavated to form canals was used to build the earthen buildings they lived in, as well as the berms that reinforce the waterways.

This splendid engineering system allowed for a thriving culture that grew to between 40-50,000 people at its zenith. Today, the population of the Phoenix metro area is estimated at over 4 million (2008 census). However, we by no means grow all of our own food within that same area, even though we have extended our canal system quite magnificently (see related post on April 10th). What little has been grown in the area over the past 100 years has mainly been limited to cattle and citrus, two of the five "C's" that once created the foundation of the local economy. The other three are copper, climate and cotton. While we still retain the hot, dry climate, the cotton, citrus and cattle industries have largely been replaced by housing and malls. (I'm not sure about the status of the copper mines.)

The Hohokam Culture collapsed around 1450 A.D. The reasons why are still debated in archaeological circles: drought, overuse of resources, social dysfunction, and disease are several possible contributing factors.

The contemporary industrial culture has been in the area for about 100 years. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, just realistic, but I doubt we will make it for as long as the Hohokam did if we don't dramatically change the way we live.

The information on the Hohokam Cultue that I've summarized here comes from a book published in 2000 by archaeologists John Andrews and Todd Botstwick called Desert Farmers at the River's Edge: The Hohokam and Pueblo Grande.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


#3 on the "Where You At?" quiz: Describe the soil around your home.

Since I live in a desert, the first thing that comes to mind is sand. There is some sand, for sure, but around my home, that comes mostly in the cuffs and pockets of my sons pants after he has played at the park.

The Sonoran desert is not a place of rolling dunes. The soil here is made of sediments carried from innumerable washes over the eons mixed with the fallout from past episodes of volcanism. Not a lot of organic matter, since the arid climate doesn't allow for a huge turnover of plant material as in the Amazon or great deciduous forests. The result is a splendid blend of clay, sand and silt that is actually perfect for holding the sporadic and not so abundant rainfall that we are blessed with. Native plants are well adapted to live frugally in the arid climate, but also have the benefit of soils that create a reservoir to draw from over a long period of time. This is very different than a very sandy soil, which drains very quickly, and holds very little moisture after a storm.

Yesterday, we had a beautiful rain all day long. That one day of rain will provide moisture for a month in the desert, because the soil hangs on, but not too hard (as in a dense clay soil), so that plants can sip, sip, sip and grow, grow, grow, little by little.

However, when it comes to growing veggies, the two dozen squares of garden space we've created need a lot of help from Home Depot. We hauled in 10 bags of manure and other packaged soil amendments to blend in with the desert soil salvaged from our landscaping projects. I dutifully planted a dozen kinds of seeds and starts: tomatoes, peppers, carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale, squash, chives, peas, green beans, arugala, and parsnips. We managed to grow two $100 cherry tomatoes, three baseball sized eggplants (~$50 each), and a few pathetic carrots worth zip. The arugala did well. Sorry, but my brown thumbs and limited patience have resulted in two giant kitty litter boxes, rather than abundant organic, home grown produce.

The Hohokams figured it out well enough to grow some squash, beans and corn, but I think they ate a LOT of mesquite beans. When I'm ready to grow my own food, I'm moving to a landscape blessed with loam.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


How many days until the moon is full?

Twenty-eight days from now, on Saturday May 9th, at precisely 4:01 a.m. will be the next full moon according to the 2009 Moon Calendar posted in my laundry room. Just two days ago, on Thursday, April 9th at 14:56 or about three in the afternoon, was our most recent full moon.

I think the reason that Dodge put this question high up in the environmental awareness quiz is that watching the moon has been the most universal way for humans to understand the passing of time, other than the rising and setting of the sun. We can look at a calendar and mark the days, but what does a month feel like? Perhaps the most natural expression of a month is the cycle of the moon (of course, for women, there are other "gifts" of nature that follow a similar pattern), which is just over 29 days. The lunar month, the year, and the day are the natural markers of time that all of life evolved and functions on, versus the warped sense of time we have become accustomed to via media, movies, high speed travel, and the ticking of clocks.

One of the plants here in Phoenix that has a noticeable built-in moon clock is the Argentine Cactus, a popular landscaping plant with huge white flowers that are adapted for bat pollination. Each year, beginning in March or April, they bloom most prolifically around the full moon. Each night, a new batch of flowers unfurls and then fade by the next mid-morning.These flowers have an intoxicating fragrance from the abundant nectar that attracts bats and other pollinators, nature's moonshine.

For our family, watching the moon has also been a perfect way to motivate for a late evening walk, and to enjoy the nature of night. We purchased our moon calendar poster from Celestial Products on their website at www.mooncalendar.com.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Agua Dulce

One of my all time favorite reads is a 1985 publication by Bill Devall and George Sessions called "Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered." The ideas in the book resonated with me back then (in my early twenties), and still do now. Twenty four years later, I find it odd that the idea of an environmental consciousness, this whole "green" wave that has seized mainstream media, is now regarded as something new. Perhaps every generation just needs to be reminded of these things.

When I taught environmental education for Yosemite Institute during the 1980's, I often used a little quiz in the book as a foundation for the week of exploration shared with junior high or high school students. So, my next series of blog posts is going to explore each of the 27 topics and questions listed on page 22-23 in the book called "Where You At?" The list was developed by Jim Dodge (reprinted from CoEvolution #23, Winter 1981), who is one of the original proponents of bioregional community planning (at least in contemporary American culture; this ain't a brand new idea either). The purpose is to help people understand the ecosystem in which they live, and thus realize right lifestyle in relationship to that ecosystem.

Since I live in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, what is true here may be very different to that which is true to someone living in the Pacific Northwest or the Rocky Mountains, if you were going to choose to live as if Nature Matters.

Question/Topic one: Trace the Water you Drink from Precipitation to Tap.

Well golly, it just comes out of the faucet, doesn't it? Come to think of it, I really only have a vague idea about where the water that showers me, the water I drink, the water I do my laundry and flush with comes from. The basics are just common sense. Rain, snow, stream run-off, aquifers, reservoirs. But which ones actually serves our household?

When I climb the hill behind our house and look over the other side to see what I can see, here is one of the views:

The turquoise ribbon on the right is one of humankind's great engineering achievements, the Central Arizona Project canal. The concrete lined canal flows through the desert for 336 miles, transporting water from the Colorado River at Lake Havasu (which is really a reservoir) in Parker, AZ, all the way down to Tucson, AZ. To read more about the largest aqueduct of this kind in the U.S., check out the wiki site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Arizona_Project

Our household water most likely flows from the Colorado River and the vast watershed that originates high in the Rocky Mountains. These streams and rivers began mostly as snow. Once it is diverted into the CAP canal, i'm pretty sure it runs through a water treatment plant about five miles from our house, a high security facility that looks like this from the road:

We are lucky. Our water is clean, reliable, abundant.
But I most love the very few days of the year that I am lucky enough to drink sweet water from the source at a natural spring in the mountains or in a canyon, like this one in Paria Canyon that we filled our bottles with about a year ago:

Where does your water come from?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Forbidden Fruit

With a holiday party on the horizon this week, I am reminded of my last episode as a bringer of refreshments to my 7-year-old son's school holiday party back on Valentine's Day. Always eager to seize an opportunity to bring healthy foods to such an occasion, I signed up to bring fruit when the party "needs" list was posted. On V-day I arrived at the school to sign in as a visitor, laden with a serving tray piled with tangerines and a bag full of strawberries and grapes.

Always on the lookout for any transgressions of school regulations, the secretary cast an accusing glare at my tray. "You aren't planning to bring those into the school are you?!" she frowned.

"Why yes," I replied enthusiastically. "I'm going to Mrs. Dew's class party," I said, obediently pasting a "Visitor" sticker to my shirt.

"Well, I'm going to have to check the rules. I don't know if fruit is allowed in the classroom. Did you buy it in a store?"

"Actually, my husband's parents gave these tangerines to us, and I believe they picked them at an orchard in Mesa last week," I said proudly. Hey, these days "locally grown" is a badge of honor for produce, isn't it? Our conversation was clipped short as hordes of other food-bearing moms flocked through the lobby, and I whisked out the side door with my questionable fruit.

The irony here is that, in our era of fear, we have become so paranoid of food poisoning that school districts require any food brought into the classroom, whether for a birthday celebration or other special event, to be purchased from a certified facility. No home-baked goods, no garden grown produce. Technically, freshly harvested fruit from the back yard is forbidden. From the other side of the food wars, the likes of Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food; The Omnivore's Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and Jane Gussow (This Organic Life) are urging us to re-think our eating habits and choices towards non-processed, regionally grown "real" food. The high fructose syrup that is laced in everything from peanut butter to "juice" to Oreo's is contributing to a second generation of obese and ADHD prone kids. Fresh produce has been replaced by fruit leather, pre-packaged jello, and lathed carrots. And our ability to provide for ourselves is being severely compromised in a culture where food is delivered by boat, train and truck, rather than bought directly from farmer's and ranchers.

Being the rule-bender that I am, I placed my tray heaped with fresh fruit on the table among bags of Cheetos, cupcakes piled with frosting and sprinkles, heart-shaped pretzels and boxed juices. The story has a happy ending here. The children devoured the fruit, leaving piles of strawberry leaves, tangerine rinds and grape stems all over their desks. It seems that they instinctively know what is good for them, despite the best efforts of adults to "protect" them. Or do they just like to bend the rules too?

Don't tell anyone, but I'm planning to bring deviled eggs to the Easter party this week. They will be made from hen fruit I buy directly from my friend Merrily, who hosts a flock of layers in her back yard,

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Beetle Lust (R rated)

There's a lot of hanky panky going on in the desert right now. Some of the exhibitionists in the crowd are Desert blister beetles, also known among entomologists as Lytta magister. These large beetles are stunning in their shiny black armor accented by a bright orange head and legs. About mid-day, when things are getting really hot, the beetles are getting even hotter! Males and females march tail to tail across trails or can be seen perched on a favorite shrub where they feed while they breed.

A biochemical called cantharadin is released by blister beetles as a defense against predators, causing painful blistering on exposed skin or in the mouth of animals that try to eat them. Interestingly, the same chemical has also been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac in cultures all over the world. One type of blister beetle in particular, the metallic green Spanish fly, or Lytta vesicatoria, has been harvested, dried and crushed for use as an herbal rendition of Viagra. For this purpose, the dried beetle powder is added to drinks, thereby causing swelling you-know-where as it passes through in urine. This results in the medical condition of priapism which is also known as a really big and sustained hard-on. However, this is not a recommended treatment to try on your own, since overuse can cause painful and embarassing problems.

The Gold Room

No matter what sort of winter rains or not have blessed the land, Palo Verdes are reliable bloomers during late spring, creating drifts of dried flowers along trails and roadsides. Every spring I like to visit the “gold room” of a blooming Palo Verde. If you aren’t spooked by bees, sitting inside the yellow cloud of a Palo Verde is a multi-sensory treat. The golden canopy hums with bees, bathing you in yellow light and the sweet scent of nectar. Looking up through green branches to the blue sky is like looking through a stained glass window, a kaleidoscope of glowing color.

In honor of the Palo Verde, my son has formed a new club: The Gold Club. Our meeting house is beneath the canopy of a Palo Verde where the branches drape to the ground. Our mission: to find gold wherever we go. That can be in the rocks, or a beehive, or bright yellow flowers, or the sun. Anything gold is our quest to find and enjoy. It's a great club! Wanna join?