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!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cactus Flowers

Prickly Pear Cacti are blooming in the Sonoran Desert right now, AND in my back yard! I could just sit all day and stare at these flowers and all the cool insects that visit them. Prickly Pear flowers come in all different colors, because there are lots of different species. The one in my backyard is the pink one, a perfect delicate but vibrant pink! If these plants weren't so prickley, I bet they could incite a collecting frenzy equal to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600's!

Monday, April 5, 2010


Almost a year ago, I began a series on this blog addressing 27 questions asked in a 1985 publication by Bill Devall and George Sessions called "Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered." The last in the "Where You At?" series is:

27. What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

The answer, of course, depends on how you define "wilderness" and "bioregion." For me, I'll use the Sonoran Desert, which is actually a really broad category, since ecologists often divide this up into six more tightly defined bioregions. Phoenix is in the transition zone between two of the largest, which are the Lower Colorado River Valley, which includes vast stretches of creosote dominated scrublands and the Arizona Uplands, best known for saguaro studded hills.

Wilderness, to me, is any area of land that is not dominated by human settlements. An official "Wilderness Area" is designated based on more specific criteria, including the lack of developed roadways. The roadless criteria is very limiting, because humans have managed to create an intricate web of roads just about everywhere on the planet, which leaves only small patches of geologically difficult to navigate land as Wilderness. Only 2.7% of the land area of the lower 48 state is designated wilderness. The balance of the total 5% is in Alaska, for the time being.

For designated Wilderness category closest to Phoenix, we've got the Superstition Wilderness, an area we backpacked into a few weeks ago on our spring break. But that isn't even truly roadless, since the main route we used into Reavis Canyon was originally a road built for motorized use in the 1930's. The USFS just doesn't allow vehicles on it anymore, since the late 1960's, after the Wilderness Act was established. The Superstition Wilderness comprises 160K+ acres or about 250 square miles, but probably half of that is Woodland/Chapparal, not Sonoran Desert. Definitely wild and scenic though.

We've been lucky to spend time in a few other island wilderness areas that include Sonoran Desert territory in southern Arizona, including Aravaipa Canyon (19.4K+ acres/~30 square miles); Salome Wilderness (18.5K+ acres/~29 square miles); Salt River Canyon (32K+ acres/~50 square miles); Hells Canyon (~10K acres/~15.5 square miles); and Kofa Refuge (516K+ acres/~806 square miles).

But by far the largest stretch of wilderness, although with a few roads running through it, is the combined territory of the Papago Indian Reservation (2.7+ million acres/4340 square miles), Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge (803K+ acres/~1,250 square miles), Organ Pipe National Monument (~312K acres/~488 square miles), and Barry Goldwater Military Proving Grounds (2.7+ million acres/~4340 square miles). Together, this vast section of mostly undeveloped (though slightly pocked by bombs and gashed a bit by roads) region of Sonoran desert is over four million acres or nearly 6400 square miles of wild land. Over 400 miles of this is on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. If you add in the area that would be rightfully called wilderness south of the border, you've got a wilderness that is probably greater than all of the combined official "Wilderness Areas" in the lower 48 states. And you better carry water.

This is where the jaguar lives

This is where the United States tests lethal weapons for warfare.

This is where 20,000 or so of an indigenous tribal culture of Native Americans live.

And this is where the United States Government is building a huge fence to keep out "illegal immigrants."


So that's the answer to the question, although I could write a lot more about the concept of wilderness, especially as related to these concluding observations. For now, I'll just end that series, and encourage my readers to answer the "Where You At?" questions for themselves, mostly because it was really challenging and fun to discover a little bit more about the region I call home for now. As if nature matters.

1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
2. How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?
3. Describe the soil around your home.
4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?
5. Name five native edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.
6. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
7. Where does your garbage go?
8. How long is the growing season where you live?
9. On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?
10. Name five trees in your area. Are any of them native? If you can’t name names, describe them.
11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.
12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion during the past century?
13. What primary geological event/process influenced the landform where you live?
14. What species have become extinct in your area?
15. What are the major plant associations in your region?
16. From where you are reading this, point north.
17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?
18. What kinds of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?
19. Were the stars out last night?
20. Name some beings (nonhuman) that share your place.
21. Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?
22. How many people live next door to you? What are their names?
23. How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?
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?
27. What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?