Friday, December 31, 2010

Desert Snow

Hot and dry versus cold and wet. The two came together yesterday in the hills up by Cave Creek where I ventured to help out with one of the annual Audubon Christmas bird counts. What few birds we saw were hunkered down in the scrub with feathers fully fluffed to insulate them from the blustery weather. I too had my down coat on! Here is my birding partner, Paul, braving the winter storm, and a small pile of snow-(graupel actually)-caught in the club moss.

There is also a wildflower called desert snow, a phlox aka Linanthus demissus, which will bloom in the spring if all this moisture is enough to keep it going past germination this spring! Here are some that I found in Deem Hills in March of 2008. Looks a lot like the real thing, but smells sweeter!

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Arguably the most dramatic flowering plant to grace the corridors of the Phoenix metro area is Bougainvillea, a tropical shrub introduced from rain forests of South America. I decided to learn a little more about them, and found some fun historical references associated with their name, which was given in honor of this fancy dressing French admiral.

Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville is well regarded in his homeland as the first Frenchman to lead a sailing expedition around the world between 1766 and 1769. In addition to having a spectacular tropical plant named in his honor, the admiral’s legacy includes several south Pacific islands, ports and straights, plus 13 ships in the French navy that have celebrated his prestige on their transom. The circumnavigation was also historic for being the first to include professional naturalists and the first woman known to sail around the world as members of the ships’ crew. Historians still question the strange liaison between the expedition’s botanist, Philibert Commercon, and his valet, Jeanne Bare, whose true identity as a woman was supposedly not known until the ships landed in Tahiti, where perceptive natives instantly recognized him as a her. Bougainville’s travelogue, Voyage Autour du Monde (Journey Around the World), was influential to philosophers and artists of the time who transformed his descriptions of Tahitian society into ideals and iconic images of the Noble Savage.

Kobayashi, K.D., et al. 2007. Bougainvilleas. OF-38, Cooperative Extension Service, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Univ. of HI, Manos.

Forster, H. Jan. 2000. Voyaging Through Strange Seas: Four Women Travellers in the Pacific. National Library of Australia News.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Buffle Grass

Buffle grass has gotten a bad rap in these parts. Maligned as an "alien" and an "invader" that exacerbates wildfire, this opportunistic immigrant from the African savannah has sunk its roots deep in the Sonoran Desert. Not happy to be outdone, descendants of European immigrants organize work parties obsessed with eradicating this lovely grass.

I joined a band of Weed Wackers one weekend last spring. Armed with pick axes, we hacked at the grass's roots and trampled dozens of other species in the process. The group bagged a giant trailer load of buffle grass after several hours of back-breaking, ankle-twisting labor. But I often wonder what gain this could possibly have, when several acres of thriving buffle grass remain, since it only takes a few seeds to repopulate the area that was uprooted. Wouldn't it be easier to welcome this lovely new addition to our landscape, just as we have invited and spread our own seed? Or is there some kind of human need to fear and loathe an "other," even if it is a non-sentient and bloodless plant? Or is compulsive weeding just an human character bred into us from our agricultural heritage?

I've decided to accept buffle grass as part of the new suburban landscape. They've got just as much right to be here as I do!

Monday, December 6, 2010


I'm a morning person. Early morning light is always magical, with or without clouds like these, but this Sunday morning show was spectacular.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

After the Rain

Another early winter rain drenched the desert on October 21st, setting us up for a good wildflower show next spring if more like this sweep through every two weeks or so. In my yard, tiny seedlings are popping through the gravel. Rainbows crown the Deem Hills. Texas sage shrubs bloom like this is the last day on Earth. Orion celebrates by running through the wash. Dozens of palo verde seedlings have emerged from the gravel in neighborhood washes; if they continue to grow, we'll have a new forest!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Year of Gratitude

For the past year I've kept a special notebook just for gratitude. This began at a time when I really didn't think I could make it through another day of the sedentary indoor lifestyle that has become my habit in response to the oppressive heat in Phoenix. So I began on October 1st, 2009 with "I am grateful for the heat." Sometimes, acceptance is the first step to making it through those bouts of doldrums. So each day I write down something that I'm thankful for, just to remind me again how very fortunate I am.

Today, I wrote that I'm thankful for Jose and Carlos, two guys I hired to help out with my out-of-control yard. Mind you, it wasn't Jose and Carlos that bothered me; they are both fine young men! But I've always loathed the noisy diesel-powered blowers landscapers use around here to clean out the debris of bean pods and leaves that gets embedded in our gravely xeriscapes. Yup, after years of cursing the vile machines that ruin the peaceful ambiance of our neighborhood on a daily basis, I hired a couple of experienced workers to rescue me from the hideous task of restoring order to our front yard. (Forget the back yard...the HOA doesn't see that!) I did not check their legal status and I paid them cash. They both did an amazing job in short time. The place has not looked so good in all of the eight years we have lived here, even after the semi-annual occasions when we've put in our own efforts with a power blower and rake. Jose and Carlos are real pros and worth every dime.

This is a good way to make peace with the world, to somehow find a way to love what you hate. So along with leaf blowers, I've listed weeds, the bathroom scale, Highway 17, mosquitos, text messaging, donuts, guns, my vaccuum cleaner, taxes, and the plant that gave me a wicked rash last spring. Each of those horrendous, annoying and loathsome things has some benefit or lesson to be thankful for.

Has this year of very conscious gratitude helped me deal with the heat, to really truly be thankful for 90-100 F days in October? Honestly, no. I still whine and complain and get very depressed. But what I do know very well now, is that I have about a gazillion wonderful things to be grateful for in this suburban life. My journal is overflowing with flouncy purple blossoms of jacaranda trees, white winged doves, clean water, amazing sunsets, good health insurance, Odwalla carrot juice, friendly crossing guards to escort my son to school every day, really cool desert insects, great libraries, two very happy cats to keep me company, high speed internet service, a big park to toss the football and fly kites in, flowers blooming year round in my garden, sharing excellent homemade matte lattes every morning with Tom, a cozy backyard where we celebrate life with campfires, yoga and swimming, early morning bird walks guaranteed to see at least a dozen species, big fat trails to hike and mountain bike on.......

So turn up the heat! I am so grateful!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rainbows & Reflections

Three days ago a spectacular storm drenched the Valley, leaving flooded streets, downed power lines, hail-pocked cars and uprooted trees in its wake. Heaps of gravel and mud eroded out of the mountains onto streets. Highways and side roads were grid-locked by the mayhem for hours. Mountain trails were scoured into deep trenches.

Those are the stories you may have heard or read about in the news. But did they mention the brilliant rainbows that arched over the hills while we reveled in the sweet sound of rain? Or the crystalline reflection of mountains in the flooded park where we waded up to our ankles the next morning? Or the sweet smell of fresh air after the storm?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Gratitude for Brisk Mornings

Today is October third. In previous chapters of my life, this time of year has always been brisk. I love brisk mornings. As in cool, sometimes frosty mornings, sweaters, hats, and time to put the down comforter back out.

I've had to redefine what "brisk" means while living in Phoenix. Last night, winds blew through the valley, causing a slight dip in the thermometer. We woke to a blessed 75 F at six in the morning. This is brisk for the Sonoran Desert, meaning that is cooler outside than inside the house. Only 101F forecasted for today's high. We biked to the grocery store and back to get the Sunday paper and didn't come back soaking in sweat. So today, I am grateful for a "brisk" morning in the Sonoran Desert, and praying for more!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Hills

Getting over the hills is one of the ways I gauge my stamina every week, now that I'm over the hill. We've got three cardiac tests on our eight mile loop mountain bike ride around Deem Hills Desert Preserve, a chunk of open space spared by the development industry of Phoenix. I figure if I can make it up these without bailing out and walking, I'm still doing okay. This is my new alternative to trying to fit into the wedding gown I wore at the age of 25, which doesn't even squeeze onto my petite 18-year-old daughter, certain proof that it must have shrunk!

The first of the hills has been dubbed Boulder Hill, because it is strewn with rocks the size of baby heads and small dogs. Navigating among the rocks adds a significant challenge to the ten percent grade, but it's just a warm up of a couple hundred yards. I still have a hard time with this one.

A mile long five percent grade through deep sand ending in a steep pitch of about a hundred feet we call Bolder Hill. If we do our route counter clockwise, the same hill climbs for about a quarter mile on a thirty percent grade. But then you miss the uphill, heart-pumping, quad-building, balance-testing mile, which becomes a sluggish cruise going downhill. To achieve success here you have to plan ahead, as if you are running a technical river rapid, to avoid pointy rocks. So you have to begin on the left, then ferry over to the far right and then push hard over a ledge near the top. I always stop to catch my breath, take in the view, and have a drink here.

The crux of our tri-test is named Shoulder Hill, in honor of an unfortunate accident that my husband Tom suffered at its summit a few years ago. After surgery and four months of rehab, he has banned toe clips from his mountain bike, which were the primary culprit in the spill. For this one, you have to shift down to your lowest gear quickly, in order to pump up a short narrow, loose, gravelly grade that tops out onto a roadside curb. It took me a while to master this one.

We do this ride about twice a week, same old ride every time. The triple hill challenges make it fun, but the best part is the triple benefits: getting outside, getting exercise, and enjoying time with my favorite biking partner.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fairy Rings

You might think that it's too dry for mushrooms in Phoenix, Arizona, but we've got some monstrous mushrooms on the lawns in our neighborhood. The Green Parasol, aka Chlorophyllum molybdites, is common all across the U.S., the fungus of "fairy rings." They look tempting to eat, but DON'T try it! Chlorophyllum is very poisonous, and will make you puke your guts out.

One fun thing you can do with these is pluck an open mushroom, remove the stem, and place the cap on a piece of white paper for a few hours or overnight. The spores of the mushroom will fall out and make a beautiful print in the pattern of the gills. In this case, the spores are pale green. This is also one of the ways mycologists identify species and therefore avoid being poisoned.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


One the eve of her leaving for college, my daughter, Brooke, and I celebrated her new journey with a visit to a local tattoo studio. We agreed that a cat track would be a fun symbol to share, representing our family bond and one of our mutual totem animals. Elvez, owner and artist at Elements Tattoo in Phoenix, expertly applied the ink on our paws.

I'm sad to see her go, but happy that she and I shared this new and fun experience together. We call them Cattoos!

Monday, August 30, 2010


For most of us, candles are reserved for romantic dinners, aromatherapy, or as part of an emergency supply. But for my cousin Peter, this is standard lighting, other than whatever sunrays shine through the windows at his home in Eugene, Oregon. Long before anyone even thought of the term "carbon footprint," Peter chose to reduce his electrical use to a bare minimum, using homemade beeswax candles for light, cooking on an open fire in a Weber grill, and eschewing all plug-in appliances except for a corded rotary phone. He also prefers to remain car free, walking wherever necessary, which means his lifestyle is concentrated in a five-mile radius of downtown Eugene.

We stayed with him one night on our way north this summer, ate grapes and enjoyed conversation in the flickering light. There are no LED lights blinking on the periphery of the room, no computer screen or TV begging for attention. Without all the plug-ins, the background hum that normally permeates modern buildings is absent. The house is distinctively quiet.

Peter is quite happy with candlelight, reading and writing prodigiously each day as he researches genealogy, translates foreign texts, and studies oncological reports, obsessions that eclipse even his Luddite eccentricities. Beeswax candles, he says, are preferable to paraffin, spewing fewer toxic chemicals into the air he breathes, and certainly more benign than kerosene lanterns. Even though he is still influenced by the lights of the city, he feels more attuned to natural diurnal and seasonal cycles, which he feels is important to overall health.

Writing in the blare and hum of digital light at my computer screen, I contemplate whether I could do without electric lights. What if I chose to abandon this machine, light a candle, use a pad of paper and a pen instead? Get up at sunrise and go to sleep at nightfall, abandon my insomniac bouts of reading and writing? I could even hone my own quills from goose feathers I've collected, make ink from mesquite sap, revive my cursive skills and burn some of the lamp oil still on reserve under my kitchen sink from Y2K. (True!)

Although I doubt I could sustain those practices by choice for very long, even when camping-for that I have a battery-powered headlamp-we do choose to light candles each night at the dinner table. The flames remind me of what is essential in life, to slow down, enjoy the meal, and share with family and friends. What more do we really need?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

(S)he who has the most signs.....

Today is primary day, that special day in the voting cycle when we can vote for who we want to vote for. Why we have created this system was a mystery to me until I went to deposit my early voter ballot into a box at the polling place this morning. Clearly, we have promoted primaries in order to support the prodigious political advertising industry. Primaries vastly increase the number of signs necessary to let the public know who has the gumption to play the political game. They also fuel robo-call businesses that have planted several dozen messages on my answering machine, adding points in favor of my inclination to get rid of the land line.

Of course, the signs and robo-calls have been a significant factor in my voting decisions. From now on, I vote for any candidate who has wisely chosen NOT to litter the roadsides with signs or propagate automated messages!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

White-winged Doves

Back in the early 1980's when Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" hit the Top 40 charts (11th to be exact), I always imagined a White-winged Dove to be a mythical creature akin to unicorns and dragons. In some ways it was, since she interpreted the bird to be a symbol of spirit leaving the body of someone who had died. The lyrics were written in remembrance of a beloved uncle who had recently passed away, as well as John Lennon, who was killed the same week in December of 1980.

Now that I live in Phoenix, Arizona, which also happens to be Stevie Nicks' home town, I've learned that the White-winged Dove sounds just like she croons in the song: "Whoo....whoo....whoo," and is as common as its close cousins, the rock dove (a polite term for pigeons) and mourning doves. They flock in our neighborhood, perch on roof tops and along fences, forage seed in the parks. The white wing is really just the edge of their wings at rest, a shoulder patch in flight, but makes them easy to identify with the naked eye from a distance. Whenever I see one, I still hear that bass note playing in the background from the song.

Most importantly, they migrate north during the summer as far as the saguaros grow to feed on their flower nectar and later, the fruit. Saguaros begin blooming here in mid-April and last through early June. In a few weeks we'll start seeing the ripe fruit burst open to reveal magenta flesh and black seeds that are the sustenance for so many Sonoran desert creatures during our hottest months, including, at least historically, humans. White-winged doves head south to Mexico and Central America during the winter months.

Photos by Richard Halliburton

Just like the white winged dove...
sings a song ...
Sounds like she's singing...
Just like the white winged dove...
sings a song...
Sounds like she's singing... ooo

Monday, May 10, 2010

Home on the Range

What could be a more American way to spend the afternoon on Mother's Day, especially in the wild, wild west of Arizona, than to do a little target practice at the local shooting range? Here in Phoenix, we have the USA's largest publicly operated shooting range, courtesy of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Ben Avery Shooting Facility has been a destination for gun enthusiasts since 1960. The range is also listed as one of the city's 33 "Points of Pride," along with the subject of a previous blog post, and perhaps its very antithesis, the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Ben Avery was busy on Mother's Day this year. The only spot available at the 67 gallery target practice area was #46, right between two portly young men shooting semi-automatic assault rifles and a husband-wife team practicing with their revolvers. We had asked for a "quieter" area. Our team provided the quiet pocket with our 22 rifle, which created a comparatively peaceful interlude between the two neighbors. But rest assured, we all had ear protection, a must for target practice! Brooke's was nicely accented with her signature flower hair clip.

Being a vegetarian and left leaning peacenik type, my personal purpose in shooting is entirely related to sharing good times with my son, who, like most young boys i've met, has a hard-wired fascination with weapons along with an amazing talent for making gun sounds. We purchased a pack of targets, your standard bullseye format, from a collection of alternatives that included bunny shapes, squirrel shapes, bird shapes, and of course, human torso shapes. Brooke proved to be the most skilled among us, shooting tight clusters at each of her five targets.

What interested me most at the range, though, other than the sub-culture(s) of folks gathered there, was the significantly altered vegetation (oh, that botanist in me!) on the lower slopes of the range. After fifty years of target practice, has the soil been altered due to the decimation of squirrels back there? Does this cause a change in hydrology, making it more difficult for shrubs and cacti to grow? What shrubs and annuals DO persist on that part of the hillside? (Yes, I am a hopeless nerd.) One day, I'd love to walk out there with one of the Game and Fish biologists and take a closer look. The fifteen minute cease fires aren't long enough!

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Looking at this picture, with cool water flowing over granite boulders surrounded by lush vegetation, where do you guess it might be? Here are a couple of other clues:

A koi pond:

Lotus flowers:

Somewhere in Japan maybe? Thailand? China? Actually, these photos are from Ro Ho En, the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, built right on top of the Highway 202 tunnel at Roosevelt and 3rd Avenue. This little oasis includes a traditional Japanese tea house, over 70 species of plants, including a small bamboo forest, and numerous traditional sculptures from the sister city of Himeji.

The most remarkable thing about this garden are that you can wander through the place and have no idea that you are in Phoenix Arizona. It really is as if someone lifted a chunk of Japan and transplanted it here in the Sonoran Desert. Every square inch of the place is landscaped. Each boulder in the waterfall was carefully selected and shipped to downtown Phoenix from elsewhere. The water is piped in from the Salt River. Fish, lilies and bamboo were imported from Asia. River polished rocks gathered from an unknown distant shore are carefully arranged in patterns around the pond and garden borders. The tea house was hand built by Japanese artisans. Not a single saguaro or any other cactus in sight.

Yet just below, heavy traffic rumbles through a mile long six lane tunnel between 7th Avenue and 7th Street.
I am awed at what we can create, both tunnel and garden.
Tea anyone?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interpretive Display

Compared to the sign highlighted on my April 20th post, this one communicates a wealth of information. If viewed as an interpretive display about what a visitor to this place might encounter on a walk in the desert, it is definitely more helpful than this, which is what the same sign looked like before February this year:

The empty frame at least tells us that beyond the trail head, a hiker will find a natural area full of lush desert vegetation, including palo verdes, saguaro cacti, brittle bush and creosote. We can expect distant views under a brilliant clear blue sky. Cumulus clouds on the horizon suggest stormy weather coming or going. This is hilly country, with a geology of desert varnished boulders. The soils are rocky. Where soils are disturbed, brittle bush rapidly restores the landscape with seedlings. From here the visitor should not expect any well groomed trails. A sense of calm, if one is comfortable with this prospect, may be expected when walking in this open desert country.

Perhaps this rustic frame is best left in this condition, where the picture of the desert all we need to be welcomed, go forth and discover!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Other Species"

This newly installed sign caught my eye today on my ride around a chunk of desert open space near my home. Two thoughts immediately came to mind. First is the fact that rattlesnakes are definitely not limited to "natural habitat" here in the Sonoran Desert. Just yesterday, I got a call from a friend down the street inviting me to come see a rattler that was resting in her front yard in the cool comfort of an aloe plant. Aloe is native to Africa. Rattlesnakes are indigenous to the western hemisphere. This cozy relationship is not natural to either the aloe or the snake.

Fortunately for the snake, my friend called a professional herpetologist for advice. He removed it from her yard and released it in a more remote piece of real estate where it was less likely to be discovered by someone who would prefer to chop its innocent head off.

Second, is the confusing line about "other species." What exactly did the author of this informational masterpiece have in mind? My guess is that they meant "dangerous species," or perhaps, "snake species." But "other species" is really wide open for interpretation. That other species "may be present" is quite obvious. You don't even have to open your eyes to hear dozens of bird species, for instance. If you care to note all of the other thousands of species that happen to live in this particular natural area, from the multitudes of soil bacteria to the noble saguaros, there is no "may be" about it!

Then there is the whole notion of "caution" implied by the presence of rattlesnakes. Was this sign installed here for liability purposes? Should we also warn of the numerous other hazards that may be present to anyone who chooses to walk here, including bees, excessive heat, air pollution, cactus spines, unleashed dogs and humans carrying concealed weapons?

This leads me to also wonder how much such a sign cost our city government to create and install. Clearly another well planned and brilliant use of our tax dollars!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crane Flies

It is Crane Fly season here in Phoenix. The house is full of them. They drown in my tea, in the bathtub, in the pool. They perch on the walls, windows and house plants. Fortunately they are harmless and actually quite elegant.

Crane flies are closely related to mosquitos, but don't sting or suck blood. The adults, if they eat at all, sip nectar. The larvae, called "leather jackets," because of their tough exoskeleton, are root eaters. Some people call them "mosquito hawks," but they do NOT eat mosquitos. The name probably comes from the idea that they look like large versions of mosquitos. My field guides boast that there are more than 4000 kinds of crane flies in the world, making them the largest family of insects in the insect order Diptera, or "flies". Over 1700 kinds roam North America. They range in size from a 2.5 inch long one to an itty bitty 1/16th of an inch one. How fascinating! Aren't you glad to learn this stuff?!?

The fragile long-legs of crane flies are thought to be adapted for escaping from predators and spider webs. Since the legs break easily, they can leave a leg behind and fly away to continue on with their mission of mating and reproducing. Like many insects, the adult phase is all about sex and not much else. Once that is accomplished they die. Ahhhhh!

Two weekends ago while camping on a sandy beach in Salome Canyon Wilderness, we woke one morning to see thousands of crane flies hatching out of the sand. We decided to call them "sand skimmers," since they hovered close to the ground, floating like a delicate gray fog in the cool morning air. The tubular husks of the larvae were scattered around on the sand, some just with the tips poking out, and many being hauled away by ants. Several mating pairs were observed "doing it," tail to tail as they flew in tandem or rested on the sand. As soon as the sun hit the beach, the "sand skimmers" flew off into the shrubs and trees.

These are one insect I don't mind sharing my house or my campsite with!