Thursday, January 21, 2010


When it rains here, the park fills up to make a lake, so we roll up our pants and wade! Today has been one of those rains, all night and all day. If it were snow there would be three feet of it...but alas, we are too warm, so we measure about 3 inches of rain.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Changing Views

Living on the fringe is very temporary here in Phoenix. When my in-laws moved to their brand new home in 1958, they were surrounded by agricultural fields to the north, and feeling quite rural just four miles from the city center. Now they are thirteen miles south of the northern fringe, and the regional population has swelled from 500,000 to 5 million.

Similarly, we have seen our neighborhood become engulfed by other developments in the six years since we moved here at the end of 2002. Last week I was visiting the site that I've chosen to post as the banner on my companion blog, Natural History of Deem Hills, and realized that the view pictured there no longer exists. Between Pyramid Peak and the once wild wash where I took the photo, there is now a soccer field and hundreds of two story 4000 square foot homes. The photo above was taken in March of 2005. Below is roughly what the same view looks like today (though January lacks the blooms). This, people say, is "progress." I'm not so sure.

January 2010

Of course, I realize that our neighborhood, which was built in 1999, has also contributed to the changing views and loss of wildlands in this part of the desert. It is easy to ignore our own impacts while watching the landscape transform around us. A neighborhood just to the west of us is an extension of our own, built within the past four years. From the top of Deem Hills, a 900+ acre desert preserve to the north, I chronicled this progress in a series of three photos. Unfortunately, I had never taken a photo before the bulldozers came, but the first two photos show "before" and "after" views of what it looks like from ground level. I imagine the first is similar to what our yard looked like prior to 1999.

February 2005

March 2005

October 2007

January 2009

My stomach turned another flip yesterday when we hiked to the top of Deem Hills and noticed for the first time the march of a new expressway across a broad span of desert to the north. Light poles and power lines have been erected. The swath of bulldozed lanes that will soon be covered with cement and asphalt is now clearly visible. It's called the "303," logically following the "202" and the "101," a series of expressways that circle around Phoenix. When this road is completed, and surrounding lands similarly developed, the "fringe" will be five miles north of Deem Hills.

This is a good time to get out my copy of "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau" by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, and remember just how constant changing views of the landscape are. And maybe find a new "fringe" to occupy?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's a Jungle in Here!

Late yesterday afternoon I noticed a sweet fragrance wafting through the house. Following my nose, I was led to a plant in the corner of our dining room and was surprised to see it blooming! Copious clear viscous nectar was dripping from clusters of small white flowers. The plant is an eight foot tall Dragon Tree, Draceana fragrans, also known as a Corn Plant since the leaves look sort of like corn leaves. They are loosely related to lilies, but are in their own plant family, the Draceanaceae. This species native to West Africa, Tanzania and Zambia where they can grow to twenty feet tall in the wild. I couldn't find any information about what pollinates these plants in their native environment, but whatever it is must be active at night, because when I woke up this morning the flowers were all closed up and the fragrance significantly diminished. Maybe I'll try a little hand pollination and see if they produce fruit!

This is just one of the species of plants we share our home with. Since I'm not a great green thumb, most of what we grow inside are nearly indestructable vines like Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and Philodendron (P. scandens), both of which thrive as cuttings in jars of water all over the house.

We also have Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura) and Peacock Plant (Calathea makoyana), which really love the misty atmosphere of the bathroom. All of these are indigenous to tropical forests in South America.

Another one that survives benign neglect as a house plant is the Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa), which was once native to China. Now this species has been completely domesticated and is no longer found in the wild.

Interesting that we recreate a bit of jungle inside with our "house plants." Is this a deeply embedded biological thing, going back to our roots? (pun!)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

550 Steps

One of my favorite morning rituals is walking to school. We are lucky. From our doorstep to the courtyard entrance of my son's elementary school is exactly 550 steps. That takes the two of us six minutes to navigate, including a thirty second wait at the crosswalk to let cars pass. We leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and he is at school well enough in time to make the 8:45 bell.

On the way, we talk, we laugh, we hold hands (if no one is looking), we watch birds, notice clouds, feel the air, get our blood moving, and maybe finish up a few bites of breakfast if we are in a hurry. If it is raining, we carry an umbrella. If it is cold we put on a hat. If it is hot, we get hot. But it is always, always, a great way to start the day.

Last year I did a little bit of research to find out how many other students chose this archaic method of travel to school, under the auspices of promoting "Walk to School Day," an international event celebrated annually, usually in October. Using an in-school student survey in tandem with my street observations, I was able to summarize the results thus: Recent surveys estimate that of the 1126 students and staff that come to Stetson Hills School about 4% ride their bike or scooter to school; about 10% walk to school; about 40% ride the bus; and about 50% come to school by car. About 300 private cars drop off and pick up kids and teachers every day.

It should be noted that any child who lives over a mile from the school is eligible for free bus transportation. With this in mind, the statistic that alarms me the most is the last one, because at least 50% of the students live within a mile of the school. I'll cut some slack for the harried mom of two preschoolers plus a kindergartner who lives the full mile away, but I know that two of my neighbors, who live one and two houses down from me (10 and 20 steps, 10 and 20 seconds) actually drive their kids to school and pick them up by car again every day! This is the norm around here. This is pathetic. I will even go so far as to say that this is killing us, this habit of feeling like we need to use a car to travel three blocks or a mile.

We could do some even more crude calculations and come up with estimates of how much wasted fuel, how much CO2 and other pollutants added to the atmosphere, how much added traffic risk, etc. is accumulated by the thousands of vehicles district wide, state wide, and nationally because of the inclination of parents to chauffeur their children to and from school every day. Add to that the cumulative impacts of idling while waiting for school to get out, with heat or air conditioning blasting, depending on the weather, for up to 20 minutes per vehicle, usually rather large vehicles with inefficient engines. Plus the more alarming knowledge that these kids are being trained to never walk anywhere. As you might guess, this really ticks me off. It makes me feel sad. Thank you for listening.

But what is even more infuriating is that I did it too, for three and a half years! Not to the elementary school, but to the high school, which, is about a fifteen minute walk, but I haven't counted the steps. I confess. I enabled. I caved.

Thankfully, there are some bright spots on the horizon. First, if I were to amend the transportation survey today, I could add that .1 percent of students unicycle to school! One of our neighbors rolls three times as far as we walk, loaded with a backpack and a trumpet case! A much greater accomplishment is that my daughter, after much cajoling, has agreed to walk to high school for the rest of the year (her senior year), and even lets me walk part of the way with her! YES!!!!

How many steps will you take?


I'm going to tackle three questions from "Where You At?" all at once, because they are all so closely related:

24. What energy costs you the most money? What kind of energy is it?
25. What developed and potential energy resources are in your area?
26. What plans are there for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

Here in Phoenix, Arizona, if we are talking about the sort of energy that powers our cars, homes, computers and other appliances, (versus psychic energy or fuel for the body) I'll guess that what we pay for nuclear energy probably tops that of gasoline, coal, wind-generation, solar cells, hydropower or natural gas, all of which factor into our transportation, household and lifestyle uses of electrical energy. But, what we pay on our utility bills and what the various forms of energy actually "cost" are two different things. This is because all forms of energy that we are billed for rarely account for unseen and unknown costs of extraction, generation and massive changes to the landscape and environment that are necessary to produce that energy.

Solar energy is the most abundant and most under-utilized source of energy in Phoenix. If every roof and every billboard had solar panels, if every building had incorporated passive solar design features, this city could probably power the nation. But we are woefully behind on these efforts.

Fortunately, new interest in renewable resources has inspired public utility companies to invest in solar, geothermal and wind generation. Unfortunately, these "green" energy sources aren't exactly benign when implemented at a massive scale. Before you rally behind solar utilities, understand that in order to create a multi-acre solar field, the landscape essentially must be sterilized and graded. The beautiful photos of sheep and cattle grazing in green meadows beneath solar panels are a myth. This is what those places really look like:

Is this a better use of the landscape than, say, the suburban sprawl that ultimately uses the energy produced by the utility? Or, for instance, a fully functioning ecosystem that supports multitudes of lifeforms? Or agriculture? Rooftops, yes!!! But taking more of our precious wildlands, no!!!!!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chronic Movement

In his book "House of Rain," Craig Childs attempts to connect clues to the mysterious disappearance of the ancient puebloan cultures of the Southwest (aka Anasazi). Their dissolution is most often thought to be due to a combination of drought, civil unrest, disease and overuse of resources. But another factor comes to light in his own extensive travels: chronic movement. In other words, these people just liked to move around a lot. Since they couldn't carry everything with them, they often left behind villages full of household goods and food, taking only what was necessary for their journey at the time. Traces of their travels are evident in the pottery they did bring with them, and the new pottery they made wherever they went, importing particular designs and styles to other regions.

Having just completed a 700 mile round trip journey to Zion National Park and back, I'm thinking about those folks, toting food for the trail, a change of clothes, a blanket and a few other essentials such as fire-making tools, some hunting gear, and maybe some medicine. For us, it is much the same: we travel with a bag full of snacks, some clothes, sleeping bags, a lighter, and enough cash to purchase food at the next town (that's our hunting gear!). Some ibuprofen and bandaids. We left our house and refrigerator back at home full of many other worldly goods.

In the event that we decided not to come back, or couldn't, we could certainly figure out how to go on without all the loot we left behind. We would just start over. Anyone who then entered our house once it was realized we weren't returning might wonder why we left so much behind. But we wouldn't have disappeared. We would have migrated.

This makes me think about how rare it is for any family to stay in one place for more than a decade, much less for several generations, as some of the ancient puebloans seem to have done. Our society is certainly afflicted by "chronic movement" in more ways than one. Not only do we tend to change dwellings many times during our lives, but we move around each and every day at paces and distances that are far beyond the norm for most people on the planet. In our culture, traveling is regarded as glamorous, adventurous and mind-broadening.

But I have to wonder at times: Could it be that the most radical act a person could do is to stay home?