Sunday, May 13, 2012

Alluring, but not Quite Enough

The pea flower blooms of one of our indicator legume trees, the Ironwood
We're short-timers here, at least so far as the summer goes.  Two weeks from today the house-minders will be in place and we'll be headed north on I-25 to Albuquerque for a quick overnight enroute to our summer abode in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  The temp here just ticked over to 100.0 degrees this afternoon, though the mornings are still wonderful and you can open the house up at some point overnight to let in the cool night air and sounds of the howling coyotes.

Black-headed Grosbeak eyeing the bird bath (he did) from the creosote
The smothering yellow has faded considerably, being replaced by the more subtle mauve blossoms of the ironwood and desert willow trees.  It seems to be a heyday for birds, either residents or migrants, and we feel like we're being flirted with in hopes of keeping us here.  Tempting, but no -- and some of you, like the gorgeous fresh Black-headed Grosbeak who has visited us as we sit outside in the mornings and the brilliant male Summer Tanager that has flashed by, we'll see at the cabin.

Quail eggs in the petunias...
Others, like the Gambel Quail, we're trying to get our fill of as they are resident to this area.  Our faithful mother quail who sat so diligently on her eleven eggs in a large petunia filled pot in the busy barrio garden, hatched her brood during an exciting haboob (crazy wind storm) we had a few days ago.  They huddled in the pot, easily viewed from our kitchen window, all that afternoon and night but departed sometime the next morning a few hours after dawn.  This morning as we walked out the back gate to get a look at two coyotes passing through I startled some young quail chicks sending them scattering  They were about the right age for "ours" and I was glad the coyotes had cleared off by then.

We're doing our best to enjoy the last couple of weeks here in the Sonoran desert (we do love it, even when it's triple digits), but can't help dreaming of sweaters and wood-fires on chilly cabin mornings and wondering if the aspens will be leafed by the time we arrive or if we'll see the newly resident moose (!!!) around the cabin.  In the meanwhile we'll enjoy our Tucson friends, the early mornings, and our volunteer days at the Desert Museum before saying adios for the duration.
Tough love at this time of the year

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Now that I have your attention.

This palo verde has dropped its sesame seed sized leaves and put on this sulfurous mantle.

If you are in the Sonoran desert now and not in a coma, yellow is an inescapable fact of life, and who'd want to escape this?!  As I sat down to make this post I had to laugh.  I checked my email first and had a message from a friend and fellow docent (whom I greatly admire) at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum announcing a new post on her wonderful desert blog In the Sonoran Sun.  Her blog post topic?  The Yellow Moment.  Carole couldn't be more right.  This is a moment we anticipate annually, but I somehow always forget just how YELLOW it is.  It is a bittersweet time; most of the yellow blossoms will soon disappear under the searing platinum sun of summer in the Sonoran desert.

Here are some images I took this morning on a walk around our garden.

A Gila Woodpecker breakfasting on the hummingbird nectar
Golden Columbines in the barrio garden
Desert marigold tangled in a barrel cactus
An eruption of Mexican sunflowers
The scent from this chocolate flower can induce a relapse in a chocoholic
The fruit from last year's barrel cactus flowers
Prickly pear bloom, lemon yellow on the aqua and lavender pads
Variegated agave...what big, and purple, teeth you have!
Palo brea blossoms

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day and An Oldie but A Goodie

Here in the Arizona Uplands region of the Sonoran desert, spring always comes early compared with most of the rest of the country.  We have five seasons, and spring is generally considered to be February through April, with the season of Foresummer Drought following in the months of May and June.  Foresummer Drought is exactly what it sounds like; a time preceding actual summer with virtually a non-existent chance of rain.  It is not broken until the summer monsoons (changing wind patterns) and their resultant deluges begin, historically around July 4th.

It seems we are throwing "historically" out the window these days.  Today we'll probably hit 105 degrees or more, a degree or two hotter than yesterday.  Historic normals for this time of the year are the mid to high 80's.  We'll get back to normal late in the week, but climate change is real, and will have real repercussions.  Saguaros started blooming in late March, nearly a month ahead of schedule, and before their primary pollinators -- Lesser Long-nose Bats by night and White-winged Doves by day -- arrived in force (only a few scouts had shown up) from their northward-bound trip from Mexico.  Most of our annual wildflowers have long since reverted to seed form, practicing the desert survival strategy of avoidance, skipping summer altogether while lurking in the soil waiting for the right conditions to germinate this fall.  Cactus of all sorts are coming into their own in a riot of color, and the palo verde trees are crowding us with their sulfurous yellow clouds of bloom.

On this 42nd Earth Day (I was an impressionable 19 for the first one), I'm finding myself being more willing to own up to what I've know all along -- what we humans do matters to the health of the planet -- and it's getting harder for all of us to ignore that.

A delicious vegan breakfast!
I cut my environmental teeth on Diet for a Small Planet, but have only recently begun to walk the walk, sometimes more tentatively than others, of its message.  Last October I switched to a plant-based, low on the food chain, vegan diet and followed it quite successfully, in fact joyfully, for over five months (and NEVER felt better).  A two week road trip's challenges derailed me a bit, as did a few other considerations like a husband who didn't want to be on-board 100% of the time and friends and family who didn't know quite what to do with these new constraints.  I've added seafood, sustainably harvested per the Seafood Watch green light list, a couple of times a week, and also eat a few organic, cage-free (not ideal, I know) eggs as well.  This eases up the meal planning at home, making for better marital harmony, and gives us more options for going out, entertaining, or being entertained.  And yet, I feel the pull of a pure vegan diet still, and its unexpected benefit of knowing each day that no animal died or suffered to give me food.  I always knew if I really thought about it, faced the reality of factory farming from the misery of the animals involved to the damage to our planet and the whole unarguable unsustainability of it, I'd have to modify my behavior, and I have.  Some tweaking is still pending, but I know these changes of mine are making a difference.  I'm a better citizen of Planet Earth today than I ever have been, and hope to keep improving.

Today, in honor of Earth Day, we'll watch Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, not start our car, not eat meat, and go easy on the A/C.  One thing this dry desert heat is good for is clothes drying, and our sheets and the tablecloth and napkins from a dinner party we had last night (wild-caught Alaskan salmon) are outside instead of burning up energy in the dryer.  Here's an old post, but one I love, about drying clothes outside.

Happy Earth Day...

There’s something so wonderfully elemental and sensible about drying laundry in the fresh air of the out of doors. Here in the desert with its bountiful sunshine and low humidity, hanging wash outside is not only intuitive, but a pleasant and satisfying task which falls somewhere between a chore and an art form on the housework continuum. For many it is reminiscent of a time when life was simpler, if only made so by the passage of time itself.

Stuffing wet laundry into a machine that is noisy, heat producing, and a squanderer of a non-renewable energy source may be quick and easy, but it hijacks an opportunity to be One with Nature in a delightfully parsimonious and practical way: peeling all those sodden pounds of damp cloth off the inside of the washing machine basket, the outside layers dimpled from the spin cycle’s effort to strain them through the tub’s drain holes; plopping them in a laundry basket and ferrying them outside to endless blue skies and searing sunlight; feeling them instantly begin to give up moisture to the bone dry air.

The clean scent of the laundry soap mingles with the sharp smell of the desert vegetation and dry gravelly soils. My skin appreciates the slight rise in humidity in the immediate vicinity as I begin hanging the laundry. It gets me outdoors for a brief time in a climate that can be a challenge in co-existence during the daylight hours for much of the year.

For many of us, our home owner associations, in their infinite wisdom, have prohibited the traditional laundry line. In this day and age to discourage the almost effortless accomplishment of an unavoidable chore through the use of a limitless and non-polluting energy source can only be regarded as a patent crime against nature. The horror of being exposed to our neighbors’ sheets and boxer shorts is deemed a hideous affront to our sensibilities, instead of some lively and temporary yard art billowing and snapping in the desert winds.

Not to be deterred, I visited our handy hardware store and picked up a collapsible wooden drying rack. Occupying a space of about three square feet of the back porch when in use and extending to chest level, I can strategically arrange a full washer of laundry on this contraption, enjoying the accomplishment of a simple challenge well met. In little more time than it takes to cram my laundry into the gaping maw of my dryer, the damp laundry is efficiently hung on the rack’s dozen or so rungs. Before the last piece is draped, the first is showing the effects of our miniscule humidity, already feeling slightly dry to the touch. Depending on the contents of the load – heavy towels and jeans obviously are slower to relinquish all their moisture than pillow cases and unmentionables – the abundant breeze driven hot air does its job with amazing efficiency, quietly taking advantage of a free and inexhaustible energy source.

Then there’s the bonus of the finished product. Aside from blowing a cosmic raspberry at my HOA, I love the feel and smell of laundry dried outside. Removing the items from the rack, they have an agreeable stiffness, a gentle rigidity. Towels have a pleasurable roughness when first put to use after a shower, doing their job with astonishing effectiveness, and stimulating the skin in the bargain. Cloth napkins and dish towels dry to a pleasant smoothness and are not only satisfying to fold and store, but when retrieved from their drawers are a reminder of having gotten a nice assist from Mother Nature. Perhaps the greatest gratification comes from bed sheets hung outside, smelling of sunshine and dry sage and childhood, their solid smoothness a pleasure to slide into at night. Who could help but sleep better in sheets cloistering remnants of sunbeams shot across 93 million miles of our solar system, convincingly coloring dreams with the certainty of our oneness with the universe?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Road Trip

Entering Palm Canyon in Borrego Springs State Park
For the past several years we have been concentrating all our spare time, energy, and money on our Colorado Rocky Mountain property, especially the last three years while we built and set up a summer cabin there.  Now, with the cabin completed and my husband retired we have the time to travel elsewhere.  Recently we took a road trip to mostly old neglected favorite spots, like San Diego, and a few new to us, like Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, and saving the best -- a visit with my daughter and son-in-law in the Bay area -- for last.  Here's a quick survey of some of the highlights of the 12 day sojourn.

Finally...and better late than never!
Crossing over running water in the desert
Our lodging for the trip covered the gamut from camping to a three day stay at a luxury hotel (an Internet steal deal), and we both agreed we liked the camping the best, possibly because of the stellar locations.  First stop on our trek (fueled by lunch at our favorite Yuma eatery, Lute's Casino...which is not a casino) was my old haunt and first desert experience, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  Growing up in San Diego, we'd almost always take a day trip on Sundays, and would occasionally make the long drive (especially back in the 1960's) to Borrego.  I had hiked and picnicked in this very area several times as a kid and had made a couple of sentimental journeys back as an adult (one such trip in the late 90's was inspirational enough to play into my moving to Tucson over a decade ago), but I had never camped here, so camping overnight was a long-time fantasy come true.  We hiked up Palm Canyon in the fading light and later watched the huge pumpkin-colored full moon rise across the valley while a small and adorable kangaroo rat performed clean-up duty from our dinner under our camp chairs.  We slept soundly in our little tent and the trip to the bathrooms in the wee hours was pure pleasure and flashlight free under the bright moon by then overhead.

I didn't know he existed 15 years ago...
The trail that led me to Tucson
The next day we were heading to San Diego, but first I wanted to repeat a hike I'd done 15 years before while visiting the area.  The destination was the Pictograph trailhead, and as we drove the five single-track dirt road miles to get there in our Honda CRV, I could hardly believe I'd done it alone all those years before in a rented Dodge Neon.  That trip the desert had brought me to my knees with it's special beauty, and that hike had planted a seed that would later lead to my own transplantation to the Sonoran desert.  It was incredible to hike that trail again and marvel at the life changes it had played a role in...most notably that I was doing it with my husband of seven years who had been my neighbor when I first moved to Tucson.  We've been together ten years next month.  It was a very good move.

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

The lath house in Balboa Park

Cafe 222's famous peanut butter &
banana french toast
San Diego had been a favorite getaway before every possible vacation day was dedicated to Colorado.  It had been over five years since we'd been there -- insane considering what an easy drive it is from Tucson.  We stayed at our favorite (only) place, La Pensione in Little Italy, conveniently located on the same block as my favorite restaurant, Filippi's Pizza Grotto, with its funky ambiance, great food, and my over 40 year history eating there.  It had been nine years since we visited the San Diego Zoo, a place I visited frequently when living near Balboa Park back in the 70's, so we decided to take that in, and it's quite a bit to take in.  The following day we found a great breakfast spot, Cafe 222 (highly recommended), and enjoyed a bounteous brunch, the playful decor, and the urban energy.  After a trip on the Coronado ferry we walked some of that meal off by exploring the charming neighborhoods of that near-island town, only to return to San Diego and walk the city harbor front, having an early seafood dinner watching the boats sail by.

The view from our San Elijo State Beach campsite
I like our tent...
...but am lusting for this!

We had a short driving day leaving San Diego, heading only about 20 miles north to San Elijo State Beach near Encinitas, to our campsite on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.  Seagulls and patrols of pelicans, salt air, surfers, long walks on broad sand beaches, and some of the best fish tacos of our trip from the taco shack in the park, eaten outdoors overlooking the blue Pacific from our wonderful perch.  We spent two wonderful nights sleeping to the sound of the surf, being woken up -- pleasantly -- once in a while by the train going by a quarter mile away on the coastal route.  We fit in a trip to the San Diego Botanic Garden (formerly Quail Gardens) and loved wandering through the eclectic mix of vegetation, proving that coastal San Diego is one of the best growing areas in the world.

Shades of home in the San Diego Botanic Garden

Chard and red romaine
in the herb gardens

Our next stop was Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, which meant, unfortunately, braving the LA traffic, unpleasant even in off-peak times.  But it was worth it, just, to visit that amazing place.  My favorite spots were the Herb Garden and the Desert Garden (go figure).  For my husband, Bob, an avid desert gardener and volunteer with the botany department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum here in Tucson (where I am a docent), it was a pilgrimage.  Watching the other guests, we found their faces had the greatest sense of wonder in the Desert Garden -- "It's like something out of Alice in Wonderland!" -- and we were not surprised...just pleased.  We spent that night at the home of long time friends of Bob's in the hills of LA.

Bob next to the world's biggest Joshua Tree

Carmel River Inn
The next day we were off north, destination Carmel via Highway 1.  After lunch in San Luis Obispo, where we used to visit my daughter and her husband, we wound our way up the western edge of the continent.  The day was cloudy and threatening rain and we only caught glimpses of ocean from time to time, but it was nonetheless spectacular.  We easily found our next lodging, The Carmel River Inn, a charming collection of cottages in a garden setting (very reasonable and highly recommended).  After wandering the paths and gardens of the property and watching a very vocal Red-shouldered Hawk, we headed over to a nearby wetlands where the best bird sighting was a White-tailed Kite.  Noting the dates and locations of these and some other bird sightings in my Sibley's, we headed out to the historic and very (some might say too) precious downtown area for dinner.  Knowing we didn't want a fussy dress-up restaurant, I'd done some homework and found a place that promised great food, Tommy's Wok.  We were NOT spicy eggplant I've ever had in my life, from a wok so hot it had caramelized the edges of the veggies.  And it was one of the most reasonably priced meals we had on the whole trip.  Don't miss it if you're in Carmel.  My kids were mighty impressed we'd found it as it's some kind of "insiders" secret.  On our way out of Carmel the next morning we stopped at the Carmel Mission on my daughter's advice...and it was good advice.  It's a gorgeous mission with fabulous gardens and the colors of it all were so delicious that it's proven to be one of the most indelible memories of the trip for me.

On the mission grounds in Carmel

One of our favorite exhibits...the jellies
at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
We headed to Monterey Bay and the aquarium the next morning to meet my daughter and her husband.  It was a joyful reunion, especially after not having seen them for just over a year (and that is NOT happening again).  As members of the aquarium, they treated us to our visit there.  It was our second time, the first being nearly eight years ago, and it was just as good the second time around -- better if you consider I got to share it with my daughter.

My daughter Summer
Husband Bob and son-in-law Chris

The next two days were spent cramming in as much together time as my daughter and I could manage.  Our trip, planned long in advance and dictated a bit by when our friend could visit from the Cleveland area and dog-sit for us, wasn't perfect timing for them.  My son-in-law who is working AND going to grad school was cramming for finals and they had just MOVED the weekend before from a nice but tiny apartment in San Carlos to an adorable two bedroom duplex in Mountain View.  My daughter and I explored their new town, took in a movie, shopped for food and prepared meals while one guy studied and the other enjoyed a traveling break for some March Madness hoops watching and a solo (except for Dusty, the dog) sic-fi DVD extravaganza.  The three days went much too fast, and after an Asian food feast in downtown Mountain View (Asian food lovers -- move there!), we had to say our goodbyes.  I WILL be visiting again, and for a bit longer, this summer.

Home sweet home
The next morning I couldn't get out of that overly-extravegant hotel fast enough, and we were in the car and heading south by 6 AM.  It paid off as it was our longest driving day.  Hoping to miss LA traffic altogether didn't pan out as the pass we'd wanted to take was closed due to snow (!), so there we were again, braving the frenzied freeways of the north side of LA, taking the 210 to I-10.  I was so happy to get over the pass and back down into the desert.  We slept in Palm Desert after a wonderful last road trip dinner in Rancho Mirage at Las Casuelas Nuevas, a lovely and graceful Mexican restaurant with none of the tourist trap hysterical decorating that is so discouraging.

The final day, happy to be back in the desert on open highways and looking forward to getting home, we celebrated crossing the Colorado River and returning to our own state, Arizona.  Tucson welcomed us with its lush vegetation, bolstered by a recent rain.  I slept well in my own bed, french doors open to the Sonoran night, the quiet punctuated by coyote calls, and woke to my favorite place on the planet.  It was a great trip, but it was great to get home.

Home again and not bad for the first view of the day!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Stewardship and Petunias

The Sonoran desert is a unique environment.  Many think of it as a place filled with things that are too-tough-to-die, a place with incredibly hardy flora and fauna -- wouldn't it have to be? -- and that there's little we could do to impact it. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Every native plant and animal is exactly where it has to be and this challenging environment is exactly what it needs.  If it rained more most of the life in this area of the Sonoran desert, the Arizona Uplands region, would be replaced by other vegetation and critters.
Home, sweet home

Well, except for humans.  We like to move into an area and turn it into our own personal idea of paradise, regardless of how it conflicts with the reality of a place.  It could be that we want our yards to look like they did back on the east coast with manicured lawns, rose bushes, and pest-free vegetable gardens.  Maybe our motivation is our recreation, like golf courses.  Humans seem to want what they want regardless of where they are, and so long as they can afford it, the reality of the environment in which they find themselves, fast disappearing resources and the needs of the native plants and animals fall off their radar.

Worth the cost?
Today we're saying goodbye to an old friend that I've spent a lot of time appreciating from my kitchen window and across my neighbor's fence.  The arms are being amputated one by one.  The body will be sectioned and removed in manageable hunks.  It's probably older than my grandmother's great-grandmother's great-grandmother, and should have lived until my daughter was a much older woman than myself.    In a few hours this stately saguaro, icon of the Sonoran desert, will be gone, apparent victim, in this climate, of the excessive amount of irrigation water required to keep the petunias at its base alive...petunias the appropriate color in the appropriate spot for feng shui garden in one of the most beautiful deserts on the planet.  In a climate where the plants are so good at storing and managing their resources (a hydrated saguaro is about 90% water), too much of what we like to think of as a good thing will kill a plant that is much easier on, and infinitely more critical to, this environment than we humans are.

Symbiotic relationship between the White-winged Dove and the saguaro...
food and a nesting site for pollination services rendered
Phyrrhuloxia at the feast
And so much more than this huge multi-armed saguaro will be lost.  There were probably close to 100 nest cavities in its flesh, providing wonderful safe temperature-regulated places for our desert birds to raise their young.  Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers excavated every one of those holes, but they were eventually occupied by many different birds as well, from Screech Owls and Pygmy Owls, Purple Martins, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Brown-crested Flycatchers, House Sparrows, and American Kestrels.  Many other birds, from doves to hawks, build nests in the crook of the saguaro's arms.

We felt so lucky to have such a magnificent "bird condo" so close to our yard and loved being part of the extended habitat (birds only care about fences for sitting on).  It is doubtful that our yard will any longer be the flight training ground of the Gila Woodpeckers youngsters, being called between our two younger, and cavity-less, saguaros by their diligent parents.  The screech owl that flew from that saguaro to our mesquite like clockwork every evening just minutes after the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains, coughing up a pellet of indigestibles from last night's hunt, pooping, and having a rouse to realign his feathers before silently flying off in the darkening evening to find dinner will be very missed.  We used to say that he lived next door and we were the outhouse.    

Nectar beyond the pollen is the lure
Of course it's not just about shelter.  That saguaro, with its many arms, bloomed magnificently and with regularity each spring, providing desperately needed nectar in the dryest part of the year for any bird or animal who could get to the blossoms, most importantly bats by night and White-winged Doves by day.  If these primary pollinators were successful, large juicy fruits would ripen a month later, once again providing sustenance to all animals, including humans, who could reach them.  Each fruit, filled with an average of 2,000 seeds, would have these chances at procreation scattered by the birds and mammals that ate them.  Of the four and a half million seeds the average saguaro will produce in its lifetime, it will be lucky to reproduce itself once or twice, though the seeds will not be wasted, but eaten before or after germinating by innumerable insects and animals.

A sad and premature end
Even after falling a saguaro can bloom for another year or two, relying on its store of water and its continued ability to produce energy through photosynthesis.  When the inevitable happens, these huge rotting plants provide food and shelter for millions of insects and many mammals, and return it's nutrients back to the environment.  Except, of course, when they are carted off to the landfill, the sad and wasteful fate of our neighboring saguaro.

I am more aligned with the Native American notion that we don't really "own" land, but are simply temporary stewards of it.  Unfortunately, I have little faith that we humans will recognize what we have before it is gone.  I'll take a saguaro over petunias any day.  And the senior saguaro next door will be greatly missed, though most importantly, perhaps least of all by me.

Goodbye, Old Friend

Monday, December 12, 2011

Back and Gone Again

Old sign in South Tucson
I'm not usually highly distractible, but I must say that the last two and a half years of planning, building, and settling into a summer cabin in the Colorado Rockies certainly has tested me.  It was a great project, and as much as I love the Sonoran desert, a great place to escape the worst of the heat.  Now that the cabin is completed and we've settled in and spent four months in it over the summer, I'd like to think I'm back to my favorite place on earth and ready to give it my full attention, but we are about to head back north to spend Christmas and New Years at the cabin.  One of my resolutions for the coming year is to be wherever I am at the moment FULLY, but for now I wanted to take a little walk down memory lane.

We recently replaced an aged and expiring computer.  When they transferred over our data all my pictures from years ago, prior to my beginning this blog, became wonderfully accessible.  I wanted to share a few of them with you.  They are all reasons I love Tucson and the Sonoran desert.

The wonderful old Barrio Viejo market turned B&B where I used to stay
Some of my Moon Take Night Make Day hikers and part of the
reason I have been a volunteer ranger with Saguaro National Park
for almost ten years
A Virgin of Guadaloupe shrine in Barrio Hollywood
Ancient pictographs along a favorite trail
The screechless Western Screech Owl, a frequent visitor to our yard
The saguaro cactus, icon of the Sonoran desert
A not atypical sunset out our back door

How Christmas looks when we're in Tucson
These are just a few of the reasons I love Tucson, a place I have lived for ten years this month.  It has brought me many good things, including my loving husband, and is my chosen place on Earth.  It is my spiritual center and my home.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and terrific New Year, surrounded by those that mean the most to you and in a place that you love.