Monthly Archives: January 2012

Chaos On High Road

Bisbee, AZ is a hill town, a place which would never have been thought of as suitable for occupation but for one factor: the presence of abundant copper-bearing rocks, entire mountains resigned to their exploitative fate.

Many hill towns have an elevated road which offers a panoramic view of the entire town. Bisbee has one, as does Ennis in County Clare in the west of Ireland; both roads are known as “High Road”. Singer/songwriter Tim O’Brien wrote and sang this moody song of a lost love while “up on a high road, lookin’ down…”:

I’ve been working for a friend of a friend up on Bisbee’s High Road, doing some trim work on a house. Getting there has become a pain in the butt lately due to the presence of crews of predominantly Hispanic workers and their dump trucks. The road is narrow, perched on the side of a canyon as it is, and I’ve had to back up in order to allow a truck to lumber past me. The street has many sets of stairs which allow access to several of the houses, reminding me of a game of chutes and ladders, and the steps are often lined with a row of workers kibitzing their peers. In general the street feels inordinately crowded these days.

You might wonder what these crews are doing on a residential street. It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the mining company is attempting to curry favor with the city of Bisbee by replacing yard dirt contaminated by heavy metals and other poisonous results of decades of copper mining with new dirt of unknown provenance. The mining company would like to open another open-pit mine within the city limits, creating or adding to the garish moonscape on the south edge of town.

A few scenes up on High Road:

Above is a view of the 180-degree Hairpin Turn, a corner which demands careful driving. That’s how you get on the High Road. I cropped this view from one of Bev’s photos. The following photo is also one of Bev’s, a typical High Road house looking like a page from a Dr. Suess book:

Work crew scenes in the side yard next to the house I’ve been working on:

The workers seem to be unnecessarily numerous and many can be seen throughout the day looking like this:

I asked one of the workers where the new soil comes from. He tersely replied , “Cochise.”, which is the name of this county. It might be sewage sludge composted with sand and wood waste.



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Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Music, Photos

Fairy Swords

Yesterday afternoon I was troubled. There was an unresolved issue in my life which demanded attention: I was unsure of the identity of a common fern growing amongst the granite outcroppings jutting from the canyon slopes. I needed a genus name and preferably a species name to go along with it.

I had photographed the fern but I really needed a frond sample in order to make a positive ID. I set off up the dusty slope, trying to avoid being pierced by thorns borne by agaves, yuccas, and other plants which discourage overly familiar walkers.

I was also hoping to avoid an unpleasant confrontation with a nasty recluse who owns part of the canyon slope. An unpleasant character, he tends to skip the pleasantries and dive headlong into shouted invective. I haven’t met the man yet, but I’m sure I will one of these days.

I ranged back and forth, wending my way past scrub oaks and manzanitas, but couldn’t find the ferns I sought. Last time I was up on that slope I seemed to find the species everywhere. Finally I located a colony of the fern growing on and around a granite outcrop. Such a quiet and charming scene! I reclined and contorted my body in order to get these shots:

I plucked a couple of four-inch-long fronds and within moments I was back at the house, cruising the net in search of a visual match between my sample fronds and photographs of Arizona ferns. I was surprised to learn that there are quite a few fern species in this arid state which grow in desert and mountain environments.

I found one species of Cheilanthes which looked similar to my specimens; close, but not close enough. The web page which featured the species, a visual guide to Arizona ferns, mentioned in passing another related species, Cheilanthes lindheimeri. This brief mention compelled me to feed the Latin binomial name to Google Image Search. A profusion of images of the fern species scrolled down the screen of the Ipad, and each one matched my specimens in every detail. Cheilanthes lindheimeri is one of several lip ferns in Arizona which thrive around rocks and dry up and become dormant during dry spells, patiently awaiting a rainstorm which will come in time.

Visual matching is a quick-and-dirty method of plant ID which is enhanced by the ‘net. Books and binomial keys are the weapons kept in reserve for resolving the tough and subtle distinctions between species.

Some might question the value of knowing the scientific names of organisms with which we share this planet. I do enjoy erecting straw-man opponents! The Latin name of a plant, fungus, or animal is the ultimate organism search term for engines such as Google. The search results will include scientific accounts as well as photos and descriptions from informed amateurs. Why not optimize your searches so as to favor the educated?



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos, Plants

Manzanita, Madrone, Mnemonic

As I walk through the desert and mountain landscapes of this Chihuahuan region of Arizona I try to make sense of the profusion of tree and plant species new to me. Compared to the lowland vegetation of the Mississippi valley the plants here might as well be on a planet in another star system.

I’ve been puzzling over the differences between two genuses of trees and shrubs in the Ericacae family, the Heaths. Manzanitas, in the genus Arctostaphylos, are very common around here, while the single local species of Madrone, Arbutus arizonica, is quite rare.

I wanted a quick rule of thumb for distinguishing madrones from manzanitas. The trunk bark is one clue, as madrones have rough oak-like bark while manzanitas have trunks with the same orange-brown bark exhibited on the branches of both manzanitas and madrones.

This evening I came up with a mnemonic which I think will be a help. The leaves of the madrones grow in opposite pairs; the name “madrone” has an “o” in it, which stands for “opposite”.

The leaves of manzanitas grow alternately along the branches, first one leaf growing from one side of a branch, then another growing from the opposite side, but a bit farther along. The name “manzanita” has three “a”s in it, any of which could stand for “alternate”.

A few photos (not mine); the first two are of details of the madrone tree. An English translation of the Spanish word “madrone” is “strawberry”; the name comes from the resemblance of the madrone’s fruit to a strawberry. The other photo shows how the bark of the main trunk becomes gray and blocky, hiding the characteristic brownish-red tones the madrone shares with the manzanita.



Two photos of a manzanita tree:



Soon I’ll be able to distinguish the two similar genera with unerring accuracy!



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos, Plants

Coping With Mac Stuff

A couple of weeks ago when Bev picked me up at the bus station in Tucson I was in bad shape. Two days on a Greyhound bus with little food or sleep had taken a toll on me. Bev took a circuitous route back to her place, a route which gradually increased in altitude. She was wanting to show off the dramatic landscapes here in Southeast Arizona. I was impressed, but the combination of fatigue, hunger, and the tenuous air brought on auditory hallucinations. There was a faint background chorus of voices,or sometimes a group of cellos, playing simple tunes over and over. It was quite annoying, and only sleep would bring surcease to me, I thought.

We finally climbed the steep driveway to Bev’s house perched on the side of a canyon near the south boundary of Bisbee. Once inside she said to me, “Let’s get this Ipad set up so you can check your e-mail.”

An Ipad? I’d never used a Mac product in my life. Bev showed me the basics of stroking the screen to scroll down and how to use the weird three-mode touch-screen keyboard. I resisted, as I was just too tired to deal with a new (to me) computing paradigm. I made a half-hearted effort before I crashed.

The next day I was still light-headed due to the mile-high altitude. Bev realized that using the Ipad was difficult for me in my shaky state, so she showed me how to use her Imac. Oh, no, more Mac weirdness! No real delete-forward key, no page-up and page-down keys, but at least it had arrow-keys, something the Ipad keyboard lacks. In addition, the Imac has an accessible directory and file structure, something the Ipad seems to keep well-hidden. That spooky aspect of the Ipad troubled me. What was going on in that slim black case?

The Imac is set up to use a stylus and tablet rather than a mouse. It took me days to become comfortable with that stylus. This involved creating a whole new collection of muscle memories and reflexes.

A few days later I was acclimated to the altitude and feeling pretty chipper after walking through miles of spectacular Arizona landscapes. I looked again at the Ipad, sitting there on a bookshelf, quietly sipping electrons from the charger. Both Bev and I spend quite a bit of time on the ‘net and I thought it would be nice to access the net from another room in the house, or outside in the courtyard. I girded my loins and opened the black book-like case of the Ipad.

I’m getting the hang of it now. Positioning the cursor had been a problem for me. Tapping the screen to position the vertical blue line works erratically at best, but I discovered a little magnifying glass gizmo which is activated with a sustained finger-touch and allows me to accurately place the cursor where I want it (usually to correct a typo). Stroking the screen up or down is an intuitive and quick way to scroll, but I do miss the “Home” and “End” keys.

The Ipad doesn’t have a slot for a camera memory card, so I process blog-post images on the Imac downstairs and upload them to the WordPress server. I create a skeleton post, just a title, category, and image links, and publish it. The Ipad has a WordPress app installed which allows me to easily add the text to a post, then update it, while Bev laughs at my ham-handed efforts to use the too-sensitive touch-screen keyboard. Typos galore!

So here I am at the kitchen table, pecking out this post and occasionally pausing to watch the sun gradually illuminate the opposite canyon wall. I miss my familiar Linux system, but it probably did me good to try something new!


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Cardamom Comments

People who cook from scratch these days have an unprecedented degree of access to spices and condiments from around the world. Every culture has its favorite flavorings, and we have the luxury of being able to experiment with spices and come up with new combinations.

Herbs and spices often seem to have natural affinities with each other and with certain foods. The Italians and Greeks learned long ago that basil, oregano, and garlic can merge their flavors very effectively and pleasantly with that of the exotic New World vegetable, the tomato. One spice duo of which I have become very fond over the years is the pairing of cinnamon with cardamom. Cinnamon is a familiar spice, but cardamom is less well-known in the general American cooking world. The seeds come from an Indian tropical plant in the Ginger Family, the Zingiberaceae. I love the word Zingiberaceae! It sounds exotic and tropical to my ears.

Here is a painting from an old herbal showing the various parts of of one of the cardamom species in the genus Elettaria:


Cardamom seeds are best bought still in the pods, which have a triangular cross-section. The pods are symmetrical and top-shaped, but the seeds are shaped in a seemingly random fashion, as if the species is still unsure of what the shape should be. Some look like little round pebbles, while others look for all the world like tiny dog turds:

Here’s Bev pouring a mixture of honey and lemon juice over a pan of baklava. The pastry has a filling of chopped nuts and butter flavored with cinnamon and cardamom. The flaky crust is made of multiple layers of phyllo dough:

Imagine these cardamom flowers languidly opening in a steamy lowland tropical forest as the gibberings of a troop of monkeys echoes from the buttressed tree trunks; epiphytic orchids watch from their perches in mossy tree-branch crotches as the cardamom blossoms open one by one:


A final note: in Iran and some other Middle Eastern countries people often flavor their coffee with crushed cardamom seeds. Sometimes the cardamom seeds are ground with the roasted coffee beans. I’ve tried this and like it; the Scandinavian practice of chewing cardamom seeds also has gained my favor lately.



Filed under Essays and Articles, Food, Photos

Riding A Mule (mountain, that is…)

This morning, after writing the previous post about a scorpion encounter, I was feeling restless and in need of a walk. Yet another beautiful sunny day — residents here in Bisbee, Arizona assure me that such days are common here.

I stepped outside and regarded a wall of mountains rising behind the house. These are the Mule Mountains which surround the town of Bisbee. The slopes were covered with patches of stunted oak and manzanita trees, and granite outcrops jutted forth here and there. It occurred to me that I had no idea of what sort of landscape would be visible from the top; probably more of the same, but really, there was only one way to find out!

The ascent wasn’t too arduous. I stopped now and then to shoot some photos of scenes of interest and to extricate myself from clutching thorns and dead branches. I’m used to making my way through thickets and brush. The trick is to move at a leisurely pace, turn sideways when necessary, and don’t lose patience and try to bull your way through.

About three-quarters of the way up I took this photo of the house Bev is renting and where we are staying. It’s the stucco house with a courtyard enclosed with a wall at the center of the photo:

I noticed clumps of gray-green wooly ferns growing from crevices in the granite outcrops. I was surprised to see ferns, which I associate with moist and humid environments, growing in such a dry and droughty place. This fiddlehead must have emerged just a few days ago:

I didn’t see many cacti on the slope. This young Rainbow Barrel Cactus has found a sheltered spot nestled up against a granite cobble and with partial shade from a gnarled oak tree:

I hovered my camera directly over the eight-inch-tall cactus and shot this photo of the intricately-interwoven geometry of the multi-colored thorns:

A starburst of sotol leaves surrounds the plant’s lofty flowerstalk, which might stand erect for a few years before the very slow forces of desert decay take their inevitable toll. Unlike the agaves, which die after setting seed, the yucca-like sotol can bloom repeatedly. A dead oak keeps the spiny-leaved sotol company:

An agave dies after the seed has been set near the top of the fibrous stalk; eventually the remnant of the basal leaf clump along with the roots falls over, with the stump of the seed-stalk still attached:

Manzanita bark exhibits curls which look like plane shavings, or the metallic curls which cascade from the cutting tool of a metal lathe cutting bronze. I liked the play of sunlight on this scene, which made me forget all about any worries I might have:

The manzanita is usually a gnarled shrub, although some species can attain the stature of a tree in favored situations. Manzanita branches can assume fantastically contorted positions, as if they were doing some sort of tree yoga:

Ocotillos are just plain weird at any time of year, extraterrestrial visitors who favor deserts. After their leaves have fallen the stems take over the photosynthesis chores, while wicked-looking thorns keep intruders from bothering the busy chloroplasts:

I saw a few prickly pears on the slope. I enjoy seeing how the thorny pads grow at right angles in order to maximize the amount of sunlight gathered at various times of the day and year (I assume).

I returned to the house all bristly with seeds and thorns, as I sometimes had to lie down in various positions for certain shots. A good walk, though, and I got to see what is on the other side! (more of the same…)


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Scorpion Belly

Yesterday morning Bev and I were making batches of a couple of Greek pastries to take to a party that afternoon. I had never made either of them, but now I know how! One was baclava, a sweet pastry with nuts and honey flavored with cinnamon and cardamom, while the other was spanakopita, a savory spinach and feta cheese pastry. Both pastries are made with multiple layers of diaphanous sheets of thin dough which I suspect is about one molecule thick. a dough which I cannot imagine rolling out by hand. A perfect job for a machine! The sheets of dough can be purchased in grocery stores; it’s called phyllo.

Once the pastries were out of the oven I looked through the cabinets for a suitable cover for one of the pans. Bev said, “Look way in the back — there’s a plastic cake container which ought to work.”

I pulled out the plastic container and we saw something in the bottom of it. Bev exclaimed, “It’s a scorpion!”

The scorpion looked flat and dry; as I tilted the clear plastic container it slid back and forth. I really thought it was dead and reached out to touch the seemingly lifeless creature.

Bev exclaimed, “Don’t touch it! Any scorpion you can see is alive.”

The scorpion must have heard that, as it quickly got to its feet and began to madly scuttle around the container. I said, “I’ll take it outside and shoot a couple of photos.”. Here’s one of the shots:

This scorpion species is small, about two inches long, but it can deliver a very painful sting. It is known as the Arizona Bark Scorpion. Bev got stung twice by that species last year.

I cropped two details from one of Bev’s scorpion photos. The first one is of the wickedly
effective tail and stinger. This is deployed in a unique way, arching over the arachnid’s head and discouraging the overly curious.

The second detail you might want to skip, as ii is rather disgusting, but in a creepy way it fascinates me, at least! The bars across a scorpion’s belly look provisional and improvised to me:

I can imagine a scene in a mythical Organism R&D Workshop. A demiurge is designing a prototype which will be used for the various scorpion species. The deity muses under its breath:

“They wanted a hardy little predator for the desert regions, one that needed little water. So far so good, but I wish we’d spent more time on it! That problem with the guts spilling out has been a bear to solve, and frankly I’m tired of looking at the vile beastie! To hell with it — I’ll just stick a few chitinous bars across the disgusting abdominal opening and call it a day!”



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