Friday, December 5, 2014

Mandala Evolution

Over the past six weeks I've been experimenting with forms and tools to create mandalas, or circular designs, during a 100 Day "Mandala Challenge" started by artists Kathryn Costa and Megan Warren. This may seem like a stretch to relate to suburban natural history, but it does, because ultimately, my images are inspired by forms I find in nature. Today I paused to look at how my drawings had morphed depending on tools I used, color palettes I chose, and the basic shapes that each drawing began with. 
At first I was inspired by a formulaic approach suggested by an accomplished mandala artist who has been practicing mandala art for years, Maga Merlina. This is my very first mandala using a tutorial she posted on her website. Maga Merlina's work continues to amaze me, because for me it is so hard to draw a circle freehand!

Nine days later, my forms, shapes and tools (a set of gel pens and a yellow highlighter) hadn't changed much. I was learning to appreciate  how the mandala drawing practice helped me to focus and to let go of trying to make my drawings "perfect." A little bleed here and a little coloring outside the lines did not matter when looking at the whole.
After three weeks, I started to experiment with incorporating natural forms into the mandala formula. I also invested in a set of graphic artist fine point pens. In this one, I was inspired by a desert marigold flower blooming in my backyard. I decided not to color it because it seemed just right in black and white!
A few days later, I discovered the joy of using brush markers, which changed my color palette quite a bit.  In this one, I was inspired by an evening primrose flower.  
During an on-line Mandala Magic course offered by Scottish artist Julie Gibbons, I learned a new formula based on the patterns of lotus blossoms.   I like this methodological approach because it is very simple, but offers endless variation depending on how you choose to color your design.
By Day 34, I decided to combine the original formulaic approach with the lotus design and a floral center. I also discovered that I really enjoy working with colored pencils, which expanded my color palette dramatically! Still can't draw a circle. :(

Something snapped the next day and I went back to a very basic mandala form, the spiral. This was partly because I was trying to draw while traveling in a car, so it was too bumpy to do anything very detailed. But in the process I realized, my own style was beginning to emerge, which is much more organic. I felt a new sense of freedom and creativity blossoming!

Rapid metamorphosis continued to happen over the next few days.  I created this mandala based on the shape of a thin crescent moon. This was also made while traveling in a car, but I really LIKE the organic, not-at-all "perfect" lines and shapes.

Today, which is day 45 for me, I created a mandala in black ink, colored pencil, water color and metallic marker inspired by the leafy rosette of a winged buckwheat I photographed in Canyonlands, Utah last weekend. 
The entire process fascinates me for so many reasons. It is teaching me better focus, to experiment and to notice patterns in the natural world around me. But it is also teaching me to appreciate how we all evolve in the way we think and do things. Sometimes we change very slowly. Sometimes we have leaps of awareness. Sometimes we combine information from many sources to create new realizations. This is also very much like the process of biological evolution, which combines and recombines genetic material to create new and completely unique lifeforms over the millennia.


Thursday, August 21, 2014


Earlier this year, back in February, I visited a favorite toad-spotting area along Skunk Creek wash. Things were looking pretty crispy then. 

About two weeks ago, on August 12th, I stopped by again to check on the toads, because we had a big rain in late July. The place was loaded with tadpoles and other critters!

On Tuesday this week, Skunk Creek flashed and cleaned out this tank, demolishing the vegetation and flushing out mud and debris that had collected there over the years. Any tadpoles that were there were taken on a wild ride downstream.

This didn't seem to bother the toads there though. When I arrived the morning after the storm, the first thing I heard was a male red-spotted toad calling. All over the muddy swales below the tank, there were toad tracks, evidence of a very busy night before! Soon, there will be a brand new crop of tadpoles!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Crack Botany

Some of the most interesting botany is in the middle of the road. A couple of weeks ago, you might have seen me in a meridian or on my hands and knees in the middle of the street photographing plants that grow in cracks. Over thirty species were found growing in cracks in one block of our neighborhood in North Phoenix. These are the plants that will eventually take over. They can handle the extreme heat and aridity, poor nutrient soils (or no soil), and they can handle human abuse. How long would it take, I wonder, for the streets to be covered with vegetation if we just left them alone for a while?

Here are some of the specimens I documented on my most recent crack botany expedition:
African Mustard (Brassica tournefourtii)

Spurge (Chamaesyce ssp.)

Brittle Bush (Encelia farinosa)

Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum deflexum)

Filaree (Erodium cicutarium)

Hairy Rupturewort (Herniaria hirsuta)

Hawkweed (Hieracium ssp.)

Stinkweed (Oncosiphon piluliferum)

Grass (Poa ssp.)

Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Caltrops (Tribulis terrestris)

Cheeseweed (Malva parviflora)

Buffle Grass (Pennisetum ciliare)

Russian Thistle (Salsola tragus)

Ground Cherry (Solanum ssp.)
Whitlow Grass (Draba cuneiofolia)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Joshua Tree Rescue

On a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Monument, I overheard a ranger lamenting about the imminent demise of the park's iconic species. "Joshua trees," he sighed, "are dying out." In an NPR story on Joshua trees, climate change and the absence of giant sloths are blamed for the predicted loss. Although individuals can live for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, there does not seem to be enough recruitment to keep up with natural losses of older trees. With the looming spectre of more arid conditions, lack of dispersal by animals that eat the seeds could severely limit their range in the future. Biologist Ken Cole states that "no modern animal is capable of helping the Joshua tree migrate long distances" as, we presume, the giant sloth did. 

However, I found this last statement contrary to my observations at a local garden center recently, where I found a few young Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) for sale, each with an official salvage tag from the State of Nevada to declare legal transport from its homeland. These specimens had traveled at least two hundred and fifty miles from the nearest yucca forest in Nevada, and humans are certainly modern animals. This may not be sufficient to make up for the loss of giant sloths, but it's good to know that we can help out a little bit.  
Just across the street from the garden center, a fine specimen has flourished into a decent shade tree even more spectacular than the largest Joshua trees I had seen in the National Park. Of course, this does not constitute a healthy population unless there are other Joshua trees nearby to mingle pollen with. Oh, and the important fact that certain species of moths are necessary to facilitate the pollination. Without the moth, no seeds, and without the trees, no moths. Life is complicated. 
Joshua tree in a suburban Phoenix landscape
Fortunately, for now anyway, the Joshua tree is not considered rare or endangered, although when developers or National Park road construction crews feel the need to bulldoze through a forest, they are required to salvage them, just as is also required for giant saguaros in the Sonoran desert. If you live in the desert southwest and have the enough space in your yard, you can do your part as a modern animal to disperse Joshua trees to more hospitable climates. In this case, slothful behavior would be a virtue. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Hackamore Acres

When our local grocery store was built six years ago, I was glad that I could now walk just a mile to do my shopping, but grieved a little for another patch of desert that was transformed into seventy-five acres of asphalt and concrete. Fortunately, the other half of this island surrounded by a moat of roadways between Hackamore and Happy Valley Road, still remains for me to wander and to study the natural and unnatural history there. From the air, the desert side shows a maze of trails created by wildlife and the occasional human passing through. The mall side appears to have nothing growing at all, but this is hardly true. 
This week I made a comparative floral inventory of the two parcels of land. Creosote bush is the dominant plant on the wild side, with a few mesquites, palo verde and wolfberry shrubs mingling in.   Patches of globe mallow (Spaeralcea ambigua) and African chamomile (Oncosiphon piluliferum) flourish wherever there is a little cover from deadfall or a dip in the landscape where soil and water accumulate.  Over forty other species of plants seek refuge in the shade of the larger shrubs. A few hardy annuals, especially plantain (Plantago ovata) and burrcomb (Pectocarya recurvata), colonize the wide expanses of otherwise bare earth.  Quail, ground squirrels, desert cottontail, white-crowned sparrows and lizards are some of the critters that make a living here too. 

Crossing the curbed boundary between the two sides of Hackamore Acres, the diversity of plants and animals that occupy the parking lot are entirely different. Well, obviously. Except for a few token creosotes and triangle leaf bursages, all of the forty-one species that have been selected to live in the sea of asphalt are not found in the wild desert next door. Landscapers do a thorough job of weeding out the few introduced species that have established on the desert side.  Even the birds are different. Over in the parking lot and on sidewalks, you're more likely to see house sparrows, pigeons and grackles. This is a distinctly urban ecology. But this is also a miracle! That anything can survive in this radically altered landscape is, in some ways, a testimony to the power and resilience of life.

I've come to appreciate both sides of Hackamore Acres. I admire the trees and shrubs that can survive (albeit with an IV of sorts, water and nutrients provided through a drip system) in the super-heated environment of the parking lot. Emu bush, rosemary, oleander and lantana are year-round sources of nectar, pollen, seeds and leaves for birds and insects to feed on. Willow acacia, if left untended for more than a few months, will sprout many seedlings. Surely they would form a forest in the future if we ceased pruning, weeding and hosing the gravel with herbicides.

I romanticize the wildness of creosote flats that smell so sweet after a rainstorm. Arizona poppies and spiderling that erupt from seemingly barren soils after a good monsoon rain remind me that no matter what abuses we torture the earth with, seeds blown in will restore the land in time. Life is patient.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stone Buster

You gotta love a plant that was given the name Hairy Rupturewort (Herniaria hirsuta). With a name like that, you better be tough, and tough it is. This inconspicuous little plant lives in cracks, or ruptures, in the asphalt of our neighborhood streets, one of the hottest, driest environments a plant could take root in.  Peering at it through my hand lens, I saw that the leaves are covered with soft hairs. Although the cracks probably began due to the natural heaving of the earth, rupturewort and other plants that occupy this microhabitat help to widen the cracks. Oblivious, or at least unhindered, by the local traffic, rupturewort adds sinuous stripes of green to the road. The plant's natural habitat in northern Africa is probably in similar cracks in rocks.

Rupturewort was imported to North America as a horticultural marvel and herbal remedy. Another species, Herniaria glabra, or smooth rupturewort (i.e. not hairy), is marketed as a "carpet" plant to use in walkways, and as medicinal tea or extract. You can even purchase a poster that includes a botanical illustration of rupturewort.

Moroccan urologist, Fouad Atmani, has been experimenting with rupturewort to better understand its effects on kidney stones. His 2004 article, Effect of herb extract from Herniaria hirsuta on calcium oxalate crystallization in vitro; and another published in 2003, Effect of aqueous extract from Herniaria hirsuta on experimentally induced calcium oxalate nephrolithiasis in rats, document that the herb is indeed useful in dealing with kidney stones, although it does not actually rupture, or break them. What it does do is inhibit the stones from adhering to kidney tissue, which helps to reduce mineral build-up and the excruciating pain and other side effects that comes with it.  Extracts from the plant have been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy to treat kidney stones and as a diuretic. Now Dr. Atmani's research has shown that early herbalists seemed to know what they were doing.

Is it a divine synchronicity that my fascination with this plant coincided with my own personal episode of kidney stones? The world works in mysterious ways! Time to make some rupturewort tea. Fortunately, there is a plentiful supply in the street.