“In 1932 a commercial partnership began between the Roman Catholic Church and the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation (later known as Motorola). The product was a vacuum-tube radio in a rounded and streamlined Bakelite case. The radio’s brand name, “Mariola”, was emblazoned on the case, right above the speaker grill, in Art Deco slanted lettering with a red heart on either side. The radio was marketed exclusively to Catholic congregations across the United States as well as to missionaries. What made the radio unique was that it would only receive devotional broadcasts…”

Now that can’t be true! It must be one of those net satellite feed issues which happen now and then when the temperature exceeds 95 degrees. Somehow a Wikipedia article from an adjacent timeline shimmers across the divide and I see anomalous HTML docs from a forked-off alternate version of our universe.

What I was looking for was information about Mariola, a wash-side woody plant which is very characteristic of this Chihuahuan Desert Scrub environment, most of which lies towards the south, in northern Mexico and West Texas.

Marioloa (Parthenium incanum) is a shrub in the Asteraceae family with serrated gray-green leaves and inconspicuous white flowers. The pure white of the flowers must have suggested virginity to a taxonomist, as the genus name, Parthenium, comes from an ancient Greek appellation used for presumably virginal goddesses such as Athena. The Parthenon’s name comes from the same root.

A description of the species at the SEInet botanical site contains this equivocal description of the odor of the plant’s leaves:

“Distinctive as a mostly low-growing, gray-green shrub with a strong scent (pleasant to some)…”

The leaves, when crushed, have a sage-like odor with musky overtones. I can never decide if I like the smell or not. During WWII there was a small pilot project somewhere in Arizona, an effort to determine if it was at all worthwhile to extract the two-to-three-percent of latex which the plant contains. Our government was worried about supplies of rubber during that period, as the Japanese had cut us off from Southeast Asian supplies of the commodity. Airplanes and jeeps needed tires! The project was discontinued, as was a similar trial of guayule, another related plant which grows in Northern Arizona.

This morning I was photographing an early-flowering branch of Mariola. While I focused and adjusted the camera Jennifer exclaimed, “Look! There’s another dead jackrabbit right behind the bush!”

You can see that deteriorated and half-consumed carcass in the photo — it’s to the left of the flowering branches. Luckily for faint-hearted viewers it’s out of focus! That jackrabbit is about the fifteenth dead one we’ve encountered in the past month. They are victims of a viral pandemic affecting both tame and wild rabbits. The disease was first noticed in this county in March.


According to some ethnologists who visited remnant Apaches back in the 1930s fresh Mariola leaves were boiled for a coffee-like hot drink which they called “gaxe”. I gathered a pocketful of Mariola leaves before we returned to the house, and this afternoon I boiled them in a quart of water. Aside from excessive bitterness it didn’t really taste bad — perhaps an infusion would be better. I did wonder about the advisability of drinking something which contains latex!

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Coachwhip Encounters

This morning we were out walking along a farm road. At 8:30 the sun was already becoming oppressive, and I was thinking, “Oh, now that the ground is getting so dry, there just isn’t so much to see on these walks! We should have just stayed home…”.

Of course, I was willfully ignoring one of the most basic of the Unwritten Laws of Walking: that serendipity strikes when you least expect it, but only if you get out there and allow chance to have its chance, so to speak. Life in a house is mostly predictable — that’s why we live in houses, trailers, or caves, to prevent constant assaults by the vagaries of weather, or unwanted encounters with people who might not have our best interests in mind — such as people who refuse to wear masks during a pandemic — but I digress!

Our house was just a couple of hundred yards away. We had just stepped over a narrow trench which our landlord had backhoed for a water line when Jennifer exclaimed:

“Ahhh! Look, a snake!”

She always sees snakes before I do! I glanced around quickly and saw a long and slender Coachwhip Snake which had climbed part of the way out of the trench. It had evidently stopped for a while to bask in the sun, and didn’t seem inclined to rocket away as the species usually does.

I approached it slowly, turning on my camera. I’ve encountered Coachwhip Snakes many times, but usually I would get just a brief glimpse. They are so fast, and they can disappear into a rodent hole in half a second. I’ve never had a good photo opportunity.

I squatted down close to the snake and admired the intricate shadings of color, a tapestry of scales like beadwork, pinks shading into salmon into reddish-brown, and highlighted by almost-random streaks of white. The snake watched me placidly. The black pupil of its visible eye was ringed with a narrow white band which separated the pupil from the marbled dark-brown iris.



I couldn’t help myself — I reached out and lightly touched the snake’s flank. This was evidently a breach of inter-species etiquette and the snake quickly coiled itself into a defensive posture. I tried to get a photo from above. It would have been a great photo, but an evil young tumbleweed obscured the snake’s head. A second later the snake had slithered into a hole in the ground.

There’s a scene of predation I would enjoy witnessing some day. Coachwhip Snakes have been seen waiting outside of mineshafts at dusk. As bats exit the shaft on their evening feeding excursions the snake will leap into the air and snatch hapless bats right out of the air.

I can personally attest to the leaping abilities of Coachwhip Snakes. Some years ago I walking out in the desert scrub. I walked around a large mesquite tree and surprised a Coachwhip Snake sunning itself at full length. Like many of the species this one was six feet long and about an inch in diameter. That snake launched itself into the air, right towards my face! My hind-brain instincts took over and I jumped backward, probably a life backward-jumping record for me. The snake was all of the way off the ground, and as soon as it saw me jump it actually turned around in mid-air, dropped to the ground, and raced away.

The entire encounter may have lasted three seconds. I didn’t have time to even think of trying for a photograph.

Today’s snake encounter made my day. It reminded me to get out walking if I want to see something new, or re-see something familiar with new eyes.



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Cartoons, Mesquites, and Acacias

I grew up watching Warner Brothers, Disney, and Max Fleischer cartoons. In general, these cartoons were labors of love, featuring intricately detailed painted backgrounds along with musical accompaniments taken from various classical, light classical, and jazz sources. Watching these productions was a cultural education of sorts!

Then, during the early 1960s, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons began to appear. Crudely drawn, these quickly-turned-out cartoons relied upon clever scripting and gave short shrift to any pretensions of graphic quality. They were cheap to produce and were deemed “good enough for kids” by the TV networks. The backgrounds were hastily-drawn scenes which repeated rapidly.

Only with the advent of computer animation by companies such as Pixar did real visual and story-telling quality return.

I was thinking about Hanna-Barbera cartoons one day while I negotiated my way through a mesquite-dominated desert scrub landscape. Mesquites have their qualities, but there are so many of them, and one clump looks so much like another, that re-finding a previously-visited spot can be difficult. The mesquite background seems to “repeat”, reminding me of the way Hanna-Barbera backgrounds did.

The ubiquity of mesquite makes the discovery of less-common tree species in the desert a cause for celebration. The best time to find the rarer species is when they are in bloom.

In a week or so the scattered clonal groves of Western Soapberry trees will be visible from miles away, as the tree bears prominent panicles of small but massed white flowers.

Until this week I was unaware of the existence of Acacia greggi, Cat-claw Acacia, in this area. There were other acacia species scattered around my former home eight miles south of here, but there were no Cat-claws.

Here the Cat-claw trees can be found as isolated individuals, often towering over stunted mesquites which had suffered diebacks during extremely cold periods, such as the winter of 2011. During the flowering period this Acacia can be seen from afar, as the flowers aren’t yellow tinged with brown as the mesquite flowers are, but creamy white, and more erect rather than dangling. One you get close to a Cat-claw you can see that the leaflets are tiny, much more fine-textured than the mesquite leaves.

My first encounter with Catclaw Acacia was soon after I moved to SE Arizona. I was returning from a walk through a canyon in the Dragoons when I found what appeared to be a shortcut. I ended up painfully making my way through a forty-acre patch of Catclaw and there I learned why the plant is called the “Wait-a-Minute” tree. A small herd of cows kept following me through the brushy patch; the the visibility was about eight feet. I was glad to get out of there!

Here’s a view of an Acacia greggii in full bloom. Insects love the sweet smell and nectar of the trees, and much honey is made from the tree’s blossoms.


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Handwheels and Irrigation

Cast iron weathers very slowly in this desert climate. The surfaces exposed to the elements acquire a brown patina after a few years and thereafter the further rusting slows to a crawl. In the Midwest old cast iron becomes pitted and its integrity suffers. That’s one difference between receiving twelve inches of rain per year and thirty-five inches!

I’ve always enjoyed looking at and using cast iron handwheels. The designs are simple — a rounded rim for comfortable use with a variable number of spokes connecting rim and hub.


You wouldn’t think that handwheel design would be patentable. There just isn’t much complexity in handwheel design! Surely handwheel innovation reached a steady state long ago, perhaps even devolving as cast iron becomes a more expensive material than formed or tubular sheet steel.

This handwheel was patented, though. Perhaps having six spokes was something new, causing a flurry in the industry. It was manufactured in LA probably in the 1940s. It was used to raise and lower a floodgate which fed a primitive concrete-trough irrigation system. It can’t be turned, though, as the threads on the vertical shaft have rusted solid. The open-topped brick structure, with walls about five feet tall, intrigues me. Someone painted the interior blue at some point and most of the paint is still adhering.



This flood irrigation system probably hasn’t been used for fifty years. The well which fed the system has been replaced by a new well, probably a deeper one due to the gradual decline in the water table level in this valley.


Notice that the handwheel has embossed directions so that a user will turn it the right way: “OPEN” <– “ABRIR”. I had to look up the Spanish word “abrir”!

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Barzun’s Primitivist Idea

One of my favorite thought-provoking writers is Jacques Barzun, who died several years ago at the age of 104. He had the rare talent of writing clear but substantial prose, free of academic jargon but accurately conveying his thoughts. He was an old-school Humanist, and his writing reminds me of the books of William James at the turn of the 20th century.

The last book he wrote was published in 2003, when Barzun was 93. “From Dawn to Decadence” is a readable and exhaustive account of Western culture during the last five hundred years. In an attempt to make sense of such a long span of cultural history Barzun defines several themes. One of them interests me, as I’ve seen so many examples of it. A couple of quotes from “From Dawn to Decadence”:

“A parallel theme is PRIMITIVISM. The longing to shuffle off the complex
arrangements of an advanced culture recurs again and again. It is a main
motive of the Protestant Reformation, it reappears as the cult of the Noble
Savage, long before Rousseau, its supposed inventor. The savage with his
simple creed is healthy, highly moral, and serene, a worthier being than the
civilized man, who must intrigue and deceive to prosper. The late 18C returns to this Utopian hope; the late 19C voices it in Edward Carpenter’s Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure; and the 1960s of the 20C experience it in the revolt of the young, who seek the simple life in communes, or who as “Flower People” are convinced that love is an all-sufficient social bond.”

Another quote:

“It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in?
By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new
faith or faiths. Dozens of cults have latterly arisen in the Christian West:
Buddhism, Islam, Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Dr. Moon’s Unification
Church, and a large collection of others, some dedicated to group suicide. To
secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts: fighting nuclear power, global warming, and abortion; saving from use the environment with its fauna and flora (“Bring back the wolf!”); promoting organic against processed foods, and proclaiming disaffection from science and technology. The impulse to PRIMITIVISM animates all these negatives.”

I’ve been through many Primitivist phases in my life, often not recognizing them as such until years afterwards. The “back to the land” phase, which led to purchasing, then living and gardening on a piece of isolated rural land for many years, several periods of hand-tool woodworking (“Make a chair from a tree!”), pursuing archaic forms of folk music… the list goes on and on. While admitting the impracticality of such pursuits, I have to admit that I learned quite a bit from these experiences.

The various non-scientific and sometimes mystical beliefs held by anti-vaxers, chemtrail worriers, anti-GMO zealots, and those who think Bill Gates is the devil incarnate are quite prevalent in the Bisbee area and I’ve learned to become tactful in response. The lure of Primitivism is strong around here.

“From Dawn to Decadence” is full of the author’s opinions, but they are reasonable and well-informed opinions. Even when you don’t agree with his assessment of an author, philosopher, or artist, he inspires you to revisit the roots of your own.

I like this portrait of Jacques Barzun when he was forty years old:

It was painted by Eric Robert Morse; he gave it the title “With Light From a New Dawn”.


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A Nearly-leafless Desert Plant

A couple of weeks ago we were walking through the desert scrub near the cabin I had lived in for several years. We were looking for Queen of the Night cacti, trying to find clumps of the plant I had seen in previous years.

The winter and spring rains had been plentiful and I kept seeing plants new to me. Odd how in such a bleak and dry environment I often see a plant or a colony of plants which I’d never seen before, and then I won’t see the species again for years.

One species seemd to be very well adapted. It was flowering profusely on a radial network of leafless green stems. What photosynthesizing the plants did seemed to be happening in the stems, as the only leaves I could see were so tiny as to be barely visible, just spike-like growths at the junction of the flower stalks with the stems.

The daisy-like pale blue-and-white flowers seemed to be floating a couple of feet above the ground, resembling a flotilla of floral flying saucers reconnoitering the ground surface, perhaps looking for a suitable spot for a landing.

Perhaps a Cosmos species?

It’s difficult to identify a plant when the leaves are so insignificant, almost not there at all! It’s possible that earlier, long before the flowering period, there may have been basal leaves — but if there were, they are long gone now.


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Blog Relocation News

I’ve decided to move the blog from the free hosting service to a paid host called Bluehost. This blog has been a blog for nearly three years now, after my old self-hosted blog (which I had started in 2004 as “Rural Rambles”) expired in a tumult of bit entropy.

Having a WordPress blog on a separate host gives me a certain amount of freedom. I can edit any theme, and photos can be larger. I also will be able to directly embed audio and video in posts, an ability available to users only by paying for a site upgrade.

Naturally this entails more blog-management work for me, but I enjoy such geeky chores. For a while, at least, I’ll post links to new posts here, but not images. Here are the first two posts on the new blog:

Site Changes

Town Of The High Plains

As you can see, the new theme needs a bit of tweaking, but these are early days.

Bev and I have been driving from Arizona to New England these past few days. We stopped and camped near the Buffalo River in NW Arkansas, a beautiful area I haven’t visited in many years. A few trilliums were beginning to emerge in the beech/oak/pine woodlands there. Here’s a pristine example:




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Desert Poppies

It’s easy to ignore common plants, just as it’s easy to ignore people en masse. The eye becomes surfeited easily and novelty is required to revive our flagging attentions.

This tendency can be fruitfully resisted, I’ve noticed. Magnification helps. I’ll shoot a few photos while out walking, then later find unexpected aesthetic delights lurking in the bundles of pixels disgorged into a USB cable.

The California Poppy is a common spring flower here in Bisbee. Our sub-species (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) is a strong clear yellow with just a hint of orange, unlike the orange-yellow form found in California. The plant grows from sidewalk cracks where there is sufficient sun. The foliage is a distinctive shade of blue-green. So far I’ve seen just two clumps in bloom, but I’ve noticed hundreds of plants girding their vegetative loins for the big reproductive push. The plants bloom sporadically for a month or two, but eventually the severity of the midsummer sun will sear the ferny foliage into green dust.

A couple of morning shots:





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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I enjoy walking in those increasingly-rare places neglected and ignored by most humans. Such places aren’t confined to pristine nature reserves, but can also be found in the nooks and crannies of any town or city.

Human development isn’t a uniformly pervasive force. It insinuates an environment by finding the paths of least resistance. These conduits or channels roughly correspond to the perceptions people have of potential profitability, intuitions which, thankfully, are often wrong.

Think of a lichen finding its own path of least resistance into the microscopic seams and flaws in the surface of a granite boulder.

There is one thing (among others) that makes an observational walk perennially popular with a certain sort of person: the sheer unpredictability of what might be seen. The potential for surprise is always there, even on a walk in a very familiar place. There are transient scenes, experiential ephemera which for the most part aren’t witnessed by anyone. Chances are you won’t see one on a particular walk, but you are guaranteed to not see such a scene if you don’t go on that walk.

I’ve indulged in enough generalizing by now, don’t you think? Here’s a concrete example, a scene I encountered yesterday while walking along a canyon slope on the north edge of Bisbee, Arizona. The manzanita trees have passed their period of peak bloom. Here’s a spray of blossoms on a tree which is still attracting pollinators:


The more hurried or impatient manzanitas have dropped their corollas now that the flowers have been fertilized and ovaries are bulging. The fallen waxy-white blooms make an appealing litter upon the debris-strewn rocky soil beneath the trees. This is a scene which sunlight and rain will soon destroy:


I can’t help but feel lucky that I happened along while the scene was still pristine. In this next shot I like the color of the dead manzanita leaf, and the way it caught the morning sunlight:




Filed under Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

A Late Spring In Arizona

Phenology is an old-fashioned discipline, dependent as it is upon an observer staying in one place for several years. Who does that any more? I did for quite a few years, but for the time being I’m unmoored.

You could think of phenology as a blend of chronology, accounting, and natural history. It boils down to keeping records of when certain natural events happen each year in a certain place. The observer, of course, must be able to differentiate species of plant and animals; otherwise the records would be completely subjective and difficult to share with other record-keepers. Linnaeus’s wonderful idea lives on!

In the pre-computer era (most of human history) phenological observations were kept in notebooks. Aldo Leopold and his family wrote their observations in the day-squares of a large calendar, another common approach. A year-end task was transcribing those notes to a notebook so that the calendar could be disposed of.

I must confess that any phenological observations I make are a byproduct of photography. How fortunate that digital photographs, like all computer files, are intimately associated with their date of creation!

Here’s my slender contribution to Southeast Arizona phenology.

The desert spring is quite unlike those of northern climates. Many of the trees (including many oaks) are evergreen here, so there isn’t the dramatic budding, unfolding, and awakening I grew up with. Many of the plants here wait for the late-summer monsoon rains to make their growth. Still, there are a few spring ephemeral plants. One of them is the Golden Corydalis (Corydalis aurea), a beautiful and dainty plant closely related to the Dutchman’s Breeches and Bleeding Hearts common in Eastern woodlands and gardens.

I first saw and photographed this Corydalis last spring, and I had a vague idea or hunch that the flower bloomed earlier last year. Sometime in early March, I was certain, but only the existence of the photos I shot last year provided me with evidence of the flowering date. Here’s a close-up I shot last year on March 6th:


This year the plants waited two weeks longer to bloom; I shot these photos a couple of days ago, on March 19th:



Naturally I wonder about the possible reasons for the delay. We did have an unusually chill and snowy winter. Many spring ephemeral plants bloom when the soil has warmed sufficiently. Now I wish I had records for previous years!



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos, Plants