Monthly Archives: March 2012

North To The Flatlands

How the time has flown! I arrived in Bisbee, Arizona early in January, exhausted from a harrowing bus ride and generally feeling and looking rather bedraggled.

That was about eighteen weeks ago, and during that time I’ve made sporadic efforts to chronicle my time in this fascinating part of the country, using both prose and photographs in an attempt to convey the feelings and impressions the landscape has sparked in me.

Later today Bev and I will set off in her van, following a meandering course, the interim destination being Quincy, Illinois. There I will retrieve some possessions (I’ve missed my guitar!) and revive my pickup truck, rudely awakening the mechanical beast from from a winter’s somnolence. Bev will proceed north and east to her house in Nova Scotia, while I will make my way back to Arizona.

This won’t be a hurried journey, as we plan to spend some time in the red-rock country of southern Utah. If the weather cooperates I should have some wonderful photographic opportunities: landforms during the day and moths at night.

This will be my thirty-fourth post from Bisbee and environs. I’ve had to make daily choices involving priorities. Should I write posts or explore a new trail or canyon? Usually I would pick the easy way out and go out walking, either alone or with Bev. Thus I’ve neglected certain experiences, such as the time I’ve spent mothing.

My first experiences photographing moths were several years ago when I worked the night shift as a clerk at a Hannibal, Missouri gas station. The BP station was just a few blocks from the Mississippi River and its associated bottomland forests, and the station lights attracted many beautiful species of large moths.

That when was I first met Bev. She was and is a skilled photographer of moths, and somehow she ended up at my blog and offered comments on the identification of certain moth species I had photographed.

This winter Bev introduced me to the practice of luring moths to an illuminated bedsheet, in this case a square of Tyvek agricultural row-cover material draped over an old bug-zapper with the zapper part disabled. The zapper’s light is an effective lure for moths, and several times during the night one or the other of us would venture outside and photograph confused moths clinging to the checker-patterned surface of the Tyvek. Here’s Bev kneeling and preparing to photograph:

She is holding a square LED lamp in one hand and her camera in the other. It’s sort of difficult to coordinate the two hands and end up with a focused shot, but it’s a useful skill.

Here are a couple of my moth photos. The standard view-from-above is more useful for identification purposes, but I also enjoy taking head-on shots.

This first one is probably Nemoria caerulescens, a species found only in the Southwest:

Here is Drasteria pallescens, a species found generally throughout the West:

One of my moth “character shots”:

And finally, here is a Dainty Sulfur butterfly (Nathalis iole) feeding upon a rosemary bush. The back side of the large patch of rosemary out in the courtyard is the exclusive province of the collie Sage, and while she was pooping back there I was on the near side, squatted down taking this photo:

I’ll miss Cochise County, as it is so rich in dramatic landforms and species of various organisms, but I’ll be back in a few weeks!



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Arizona Xerophytes

I do like the word xerophyte, along with its adjectival form xerophytic. The words begin with x’s and are pronounced as if they began with z’s. What’s not to like?

The words come from Greek roots meaning “dry”and “plant”. A related word, xerophilous, literally means something like “liking dryness”. The word is an adjective used to describe desert plants; a less anthropomorphic and more scientific definition might be “tolerating dryness”.

My experiences finding ferns in Missouri and Illinois didn’t prepare me for the xerophilous ferns I’ve been finding here in Southeast Arizona. Most ferns in the Midwest tend to live in humid environments, clustered around spring seeps and near streams. I didn’t expect to find ferns among the agaves and cacti.

The first fern I identified along the nearby canyon slopes was Cheilanthes lindheimerii, a common denizen which lurks around the edges of granite outcroppings. The ferns are also known as “Fairy Swords”, and you can see some photos in this earlier post:

Fairy Swords

Here’s a shot of a swarm of these flowerless plants taken some weeks later:

March Swords

A couple of days ago I happened across a clump of another species of fern, one I’d seen before a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I had completely forgotten just where the clump of ferns was located and several fruitless searches during walks had stymied me. Not a big deal, but I knew the ferns were out there and I was fairly certain that the plants had remained immobile. One reason I gravitate towards plants and fungi is that they tend to stay in one place, without that annoying tendency birds and mammals have of fleeing.

The Cochise Cloak Fern (Astrolepis cochinensis) is a beautiful organism, with its rounded leaflets and arching growth habit. Here’s a patch growing in front of a granite outcrop:

It interests me that two very similar subspecies have been identified; this one, subspecies arizonica, grows on weathered granite or feldspar-rich volcanics, while another form, subspecies cochisensis, grows among limestone outcrops.

A closer view:

I’m very fond of the gray-green hues of these ferns; the greens are muted by growths of tiny white hairs, some star-shaped, which I suspect help to shield the green tissues from the sun’s fierce summer rays.


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A Canyon In The Huachucas

As a musician, I’m baffled by the way words are visual objects to me rather than aural objects. I can always spell words but I have to work at it to remember pronunciations. I’ve noticed this during the course of this winter, as I’ve been exposed to common place-names around here which I still have to deliberately pronounce. The sounds don’t come naturally to me; presumably my Swedish and Scottish ancestors were never called upon to utter such sounds.

These place-names have a hybrid origin, as they are Native American names transliterated into Spanish. They simply aren’t pronounced as they are spelled; perhaps if I knew Spanish I would have an easier time with them.

Bev became frustrated with my halting attempts to pronounce words such as Huachuca and Chiricahua, the oft-used names of two prominent mountain ranges here in Cochise County.

“Damn, Larry, when are you going to get these right? It’s painful hearing you try to say those names. I suppose I’ll have to write the names out phonetically, as I’ve had to do for certain other visitors.”

She grabbed a pen and quickly wrote these phonetic versions of the names on a sheet of paper and handed it to me:

One fine day last week we decided to venture west to Ramsey Canyon, a biologically-favored cleft in the Huachuca Mountains. The canyon is owned by the Nature Conservancy and it has a reputation in the birding community as a wonderful place in which to see a plethora of bird species. We aren’t birders, really, but the descriptions I’d read sounded interesting.

The Ramsey Canyon property shares a border with Ft. Huachuca, a U.S. Army base. When world-views collide … wouldn’t it be interesting to see the reaction of an Elegant Trogon just arrived from Guatemala when it first encounters an unmanned drone aircraft? Or the reaction of the drone’s remote handlers?

[a crew-cut enlisted man dressed in fatigues peers at a brightly-lit LCD screen. He beckons to his commanding officer, saying:]

“Hey, Sarge, c’mere and take a look at this. Some sort of small aircraft with weird trailing streamers, and it appears to be taking evasive action! Can I try out the flechettes? Please?”

Bev and I drove up a mountain road and entered the preserve property. A visitor center staffed by friendly folks relieved us of some cash and escorted us to the door leading to the trail which follows the canyon. The trail was a civilized one, with occasional benches facing arrays of hummingbird feeders. It was a bit early for hummers, though, and we saw nary a one.

It’s interesting how most natural areas assume a distinct character in the human mind, and that character seems to be given form and shape by the nature of the vegetation growing in the area. Ramsey Canyon’s character is formed by the numerous contorted sycamore trees lining the rocky creek-bed, and by the Arizona Madrones and Alligator Junipers along the path.

The Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) roughly resembles the Eastern Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), but only to the extent that you can intuit that they are closely related. Both species have flaking multicolored bark which grows in layers, but the leaves have markedly different shapes and the growth habits are very different. The eastern species tends to grow straight and tall, with only a hint of the fantastic contortions exhibited by the branches of the Arizona species.

The Arizona Sycamore seems to have a protective trait which makes the tree have little appeal to loggers and humans in general with their practical and pragmatic urges. The species rarely grows a straight trunk, thus it is largely ignored by people with needs other than the strictly aesthetic.

Here are a couple of photos which illustrate the fanciful curves drawn by this species of sycamore:

It seems that these sycamores change the growth direction of their branches for the least of reasons, as if they were saying, “Oh, the breeze changed direction — I’ll veer off ninety degrees!” or “A bird has alighted upon that branch — oh, what should I do! Perhaps I’ll dither a bit, waver back and forth, before I decide which direction to grow…”

A couple more shots — the species is so photogenic, especially on a clear day with a blue sky!

Another characteristic tree species growing in that canyon is the Arizona Madrone, another lucky tree without much economic value. The madrones are distinctively Western trees, and they probably reach their vegetative and aesthetic peak in California and Oregon. The Arizona Madrone (Arbutus arizonica is the easternmost species in the genus. The tree has distinctive leathery leaves with pinkish-orange leaf-stalks. In less favored localities the tree is barely more than a shrub, but in Ramsey Canyon the species seems to have found a place where it can grow unfettered by environmental limitations. The madrones there are tall, and they have trunks with girths as wide as two feet. The leafy branches along with a glimpse of the bark:

A contorted madrone trunk firmly grasping stones:

Another tree species which contributes to the general ambience of the canyon is the adaptable and versatile Alligator Juniper, a dry-land relative of the Eastern Red Cedar.

Here’s a shot of Bev standing partially behind an uncharacteristically straight-trunked juniper:

Finally, I’ll present a view of one of the canyon slopes:

I’ll certainly revisit this canyon later in the year!



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Goons Of The Dragoons

I’m sitting at the kitchen table looking out at whirling drifts of snow, an unusual sight here in Cochise County, Arizona. The mountain slopes on the opposite side of the canyon are obscured from view:

An apricot tree next to the front door was in full bloom yesterday, but I imagine that the blossoming will resume in a day or so:

My thoughts wander back to memories of a hike Bev and I took a few days ago. We drove up to the Dragoons again, a range of contorted granite mountains which once served as a stronghold and refuge for the Apache chief Cochise and his tribespeople.

The sky was just perfect that day, with radiating spokes of high cirrus clouds providing a fitting backdrop for the rocky slopes and peaks. A few examples of the twisted shapes granite can assume when given sufficient time and heat:

The path we followed wound its way in. I would like to see one of those famed Southwestern flash floods someday, but from higher ground! The granite supported little vegetation, just the usual alligator junipers, scrub oaks, and piñon pines spaced a comfortable distance apart. Two more views:

The collie Sage led the way as we approached a peculiar pile of rocks. The heap bore an uncanny resemblance to some sort of squat sentient creature, like a species of stony troll. A shiver ran up my spine:

It was quite a remarkable illusion, but obviously just the product of my overactive imagination. I couldn’t help but think, though, of some Apache legends I had read about, dark tales of stony demons lurking in the local canyons. I was distracted from these disturbing thoughts by an encounter with a new flowering plant. What a charming sight! It was a yellow-flowered legume with contrasting reddish buds. The clump was growing amidst yucca and grasses. I liked the way one pair faced the camera while the other seemed transfixed by the sight of something off towards the right, perhaps the dog:

Once I was home again I determined that the plant is a species of Lotus, a close relative of the alien forage legume Lotus corniculatis or Birds-foot Trefoil. I think these Lotus greenei plants are much prettier, although I admit their native status predisposes me towards them.

We came across a boulder-field which required us to squeeze through crevices. Cave-like enclosures between the car-sized rocks probably serve as impromptu shelters for coatimundis and such-like small mammals. Here’s a scene which might appear to be an appalling example of animal abuse, but Bev really wasn’t punching out Sage:

We were walking by yet another tastefully-arranged grouping of boulders when Bev saw a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly nectaring at a clump of white flowers surrounded by the threatening curved leaves of Shindagger plants, a small species of Agave. I endured a few pokes from the Shindaggers in an effort to squat down and take a closer look at the five-petaled white flowers:

Later, after I had failed to identify the plant, Bev was able to make a positive ID. The plant bears an unlikely common name, Bigelow’s Bristlehead, and it’s a member of the Aster or Composite family. The Latin binomial is Carphochaete bigelovii.

I was standing near a large round boulder when I heard a faint rumbling reminiscent of the sound of a mild earthquake. I also could feel the stone pavement I stood upon trembling. Sage whimpered.

Bev said with alarm, “Look at those outcroppings up ahead! They’re moving!”

A thorny ocotillo shoot extended across my path, as if to warn me against proceeding any farther:

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Two of the enormous piles of granite boulders were moving across our path several hundred yards away. We decided to give them a wide berth and took a circuitous route back to the van. It always pays to be prudent when encountering ancient troll-like rock demons!

Larry, who has been known to stretch the truth at times…


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Good Conversation

How interesting to contemplate the varied channels which an idea can follow as it wends its way from mind to mind! Cicero, from his refuge in ancient Rome, speaks clearly, his experience as an orator causing his voice to easily pierce the mists of time. A journalist writing for the Economist summarizes Cicero’s orotund statements and writes his version for the magazine in 2006. The Financial Times this morning prints an article which quotes the journalist’s article, six years later. A blogger in Arizona reads the article and deftly guts it, presenting a key paragraph containing the quote right here for your delectation:

What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.

An aside: when I pasted the above paragraph into the draft of this post some unwanted baggage came with it. Evidently the web version of the Financial Times was troubled by my pilferage and an extra paragraph was pasted, a warning and admonition which I promptly deleted. The FT discouraged me from copying and pasting text from the article, fervently wishing that I would link to the article instead. Hah! Try and stop me from the use of fair quotes! But I relent a bit and just below I’ve included the link, which I was planning to include anyway:

How to have a conversation

Succinct and serviceable principles indeed that the ancient Roman has compiled. “Speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn” is in my opinion the key piece of advice in the series. How many times have I listened to too-detailed explanations exuded by knowledgeable folks who, to my chagrin, have turned out to be bores? I use these lamentable occasions as reminders, as it is all too easy to think the rest of the world shares your interest in hobby-horse minutiae.

A better, more humane approach is to briefly mention subjects dear to your heart, keeping your conversational antennae alert to signs of further interest. If none are forthcoming you can sigh inaudibly and allow the subject to join the verbal detritus on the floor, fragments of conversations which will be swept up in the pre-dawn hours by a weary host and set out in sacks at the curb — everyone knows indigent writers prowl the sidewalks for those fragments and eagerly make use of them, perhaps as text on ephemeral signage or blurbs in advertising broadsheets.

But I’ve strayed from my usual subjects! I’m behind in my blogging — photos of the Arizona landscape and close-up shots of native vegetation clog my laptop’s hard drive. Stay tuned!


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Fat Pepitas

This evening Bev and I were in the kitchen preparing a large Turban Squash for the oven. She halved the grotesque creature with her four-inch knife and I scooped out the seeds. A dialog:

Larry: “Aren’t these the fattest, plumpest squash seeds you’ve ever seen?”

Bev: “Hmm… maybe we should roast them…”

Larry: “Yeah, I could stand to eat some big fat pepitas!”

I seasoned the seeds lightly with Hungarian paprika and home-made Garam Masala, then spread them out in a buttered 9″ cake pan. Right now they are nestled in the oven next to some potatoes along with some chicken for the collies.

Pepita is Spanish for “little seeds”, by the way.

Here they are in all of their rawly glistening fat glory:



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A Sign In Sierra Vista, Arizona

Sierra Vista, Arizona is a small town which battens upon the presence of an Army base nearby, Fort Huachuca. The main drag of the town is Fry Boulevard, a miles-long commercial strip which ends at the gate to the base.

I happened to be walking along East Fry last week and saw a sign which amused me:

“Chicken” paired with “Shrimp” on one side of the sign — that makes sense. But “Steak” paired with “Fingers”? I’ve heard of “chicken fingers”, a food name which sounds anatomically weird and therefore unappealing to me, but just “Fingers”?

Naturally I couldn’t help but visualize a platter of browned human fingers, glistening with some sort of sauce and garnished with sprigs of parsley.


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