Monthly Archives: July 2012

Barnaby’s Raven

I’ve been reading and re-reading the novels of Charles Dickens for over forty years and I still stand in awe of the writer’s powers. Although his novels could stand to be edited substantially, it must be remembered that he was writing for his nineteenth-century audience, and the readers of that era seemingly liked maudlin and sentimental passages suffused with Christian values.

Dickens is commonly praised for the vigor and imagination of his portrayals of human characters, but he also had an uncanny ability to portray birds and animals, shamelessly personifying them and imagining the thoughts creatures might be having.

Recently I re-read Barnaby Rudge largely due to my memories of a non-human character in the novel. Grip is a raven, the boon companion of the half-wit Barnaby Rudge. The first time I read the novel I thought, “Dickens must have been around a talking raven at some point!”. The verbal ejaculations of the bird seemed just as would be expected. Some quotes from the novel:

“Look at him!” said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. “Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!” The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth. “Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!”–And then, as if exulting in his infernal character, he began to whistle. “I more than half believe he speaks the truth. Upon my word I do,” said Varden. “Do you see how he looks at me, as if he knew what I was saying? To which the bird, balancing himself on tiptoe, as it were, and moving his body up and down in a sort of grave dance, rejoined, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil,” and flapped his wings against his sides as if he were bursting with laughter. Barnaby clapped his hands, and fairly rolled upon the ground in an ecstasy of delight. “Strange companions, sir,” said the locksmith, shaking his head and looking from one to the other. “The bird has all the wit.”

Here again the raven was in a highly reflective state; walking up and down when he had dined, with an air of elderly complacency which was strongly suggestive of his having his hands under his coat-tails; and appearing to read the tombstones with a very critical taste. Sometimes after a long inspection of an epitaph, he would strop his beak upon the grave to which it referred, and cry in his hoarse tones, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil!” but whether he addressed his observations to any supposed person below, or merely threw them off as a general remark, is matter of uncertainty.

“Call him down, Barnaby my man.” “Call him!” echoed Barnaby, sitting upright upon the floor, and staring vacantly at Gabriel, as he thrust his hair back from his face. “But who can make him come! He calls me, and makes me go where he will. He goes on before, and I follow. He’s the master, and I’m the man. Is that the truth, Grip?” The raven gave a short, comfortable, confidential kind of croak;–a most expressive croak, which seemed to say “You needn’t let these fellows into our secrets. We understand each other. It’s all right.”

Dickens created a believable character in Grip and gave the bird a somewhat diabolical cast. I just learned two remarkable facts, though the second might be more of an inference. The first is that when Dickens was contemplating writing the novel he actually acquired a pet raven. So there was a real Grip! The second is that Edgar Allan Poe read Barnaby Rudge in serial form and it is likely or at least possible that Dickens’ depiction of Grip inspired Poe’s poem The Raven. Thanks go to writer Jennifer Ouellette, who blogs at Cocktail Party Physics, for this link which goes into more detail:

Poe’s Raven Stuffed At Free Library

I’ve always wanted a pet raven, but at least here in Arizona I can see them flying by, uttering their guttural croaks!




Filed under Books

A Monsoon Walk

The monsoon season is in full swing here in Bisbee, Arizona, and I have to say that cloudy skies and showers are welcome after the unvarying sunlight of June and late July!

The canyon slopes are becoming greener, although the scrub oaks are remaining wary. They won’t vegetatively respond to the unfamiliar moisture for a while, as if they fear being duped.

It’s been raining every night lately. Lately I’ve had my eye on several sprawling patches of a peculiar species of morning glory. The plant grows like a cucumber vine and has narrow strap-like leaves held upright from the stems, very unlike most morning glories, but the flowers are typical of the genus Ipomea. They are growing in the gravelly scree up on the canyon slopes and I dearly would like to photograph these plants at their peak of bloom. Unfortunately, I found only one somewhat tattered flower. Another day!

The sky was filled with patches of shifting clouds and cloud shadows drifted across the slopes. I looked up at the very crest of the ridge. I’d been wanting to make my way up there for some time, but my previous attempts had been foiled by sheer steepness. This time I thought I’d found a feasible route; a path I’d never seen before diverged at an angle from the main trail.

Here’s a view of Bisbee’s historic district, known as Old Bisbee. Notice the scarred and terraced mountains on the edge of town, the remnants of 20th Century industrial copper mining. Beyond the zone of devastation can be seen a newer part of Bisbee called Warren; beyond that community is the vast Sulphur Springs Valley and in the distance the Chiricahua Mountains serrate the horizon.

[Later note: Bev tactfully let me know in an e-mail that the distant mountains are actually in Mexico, a range called the Sierra de los Ajos, and the fragment of valley visible in the photo is the Naco Valley]

Turning towards the east I saw Zacotec Canyon. Bisbee extends partway up this side canyon along Brewery Gulch Street:

As I neared the ridgetop, making my way through rock outcrops which bore witness to a distant past filled with unimaginable geological tumult, I began to see patches of a plant with scarlet tubular blossoms. It looked like a species of Penstemon, but the leaves weren’t right for that genus. I later determined that the plant is Bouvardia glaberrima, a showy plant which oddly enough seems to lack a common name. I imagine hummingbirds make much use of it.

As I walked along the crest of the canyon-top I hit upon another trail which seemed to lead to a high point, and of course I wondered what I might be able to see from up there. Minutes later I found myself a comfortable niche in the rocks and saw a new prospect towards the north. I was pleased to see Juniper Flats, an elongated and flat-topped mountain upon which I had camped for several days earlier in the summer. You can just make out the clusters of cell phone towers as spiny growths towards the left end;

As I was walking along the narrow gravelly path I noticed a small plant growing beneath a dying scrub oak. I half-slid down the slope a ways and shot some photos. I haven’t been able to identify this plant, but I was pleased by the elegant structure of the 3/4″ flowers. Note how the pistil arcs so gracefully over the petals, probably a lure or inducement to attract some unknown pollinator:

[Later note: see Bev’s comment below for an ID for this plant. Thanks, Bev!]

The ridge-top was dotted with patches of a very charming plant which has been given the interesting common name Arizona Mala Mujer (Cnidoscolus angustidens). Supposedly the plant has stinging hairs, but perhaps the plant recognizes an appreciative soul, as they don’t sting me:

Nestled in a rocky hollow I saw a patch of Bead Ferns, probably a species of Cheilanthes. The ferns were responding to the monsoon rains, and I enjoyed seeing these fronds slowly unfurling:

The upper slopes of the canyon had evidently burned sometime in the recent past. Dead and blackened oaks, yuccas, and manzanitas could be seen, but most of the woody vegetation had survived. Then I saw this arresting sight:

Imagine a species of enormous eyeless rock-worm which tunnels through the mountains, emerging at night to devour small mammals and reptiles. This one had the bad luck to emerge during the fire and died without being able to withdraw to its dark stony lair deep within the mountain. I could almost hear its screams of agony as the wind-whipped flames seared its chitinous hide. Wait… pardon me, it’s just the core of a yucca which didn’t survive the fire.

On my way back down the mountain I encountered a small orange-flowered plant with succulent leaves:

Later I determined that the plant is called Orange Fameflower (Phemeranthus aurantiacus). The plant blooms during the monsoon rains. A closer view of the flower:

I wended my way back to the house, descending hundreds of feet in the process. It rained again later in the day, so I was glad I got out when I did!



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos

Calvin And Hobbes Revisited

Many years ago members of my family enjoyed reading the best, most philosophical, and funniest of the newspaper comic strips, Bill Watterson’s “Calvin And Hobbes”. Compilation paperback books circulated freely amongst the motley crew of the Ayers family, a heterogenous mix of Christian believers and shameless atheists.

In 1995 Bill Watterson decided to quit writing the Calvin and Hobbes tales. He felt that he had explored his comic realm thoroughly and had nothing else to add. Fans just had to accept this decision. Years later a blogger had the temerity to write and draw some sequels to Watterson’s stories. I got a kick out of these comics, and you might like them too!


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Barn Dance In The Valley

Bisbee, Arizona, is located improbably in a narrow canyon just a few miles north of the Mexican border. The town wouldn’t be here if there weren’t substantial deposits of copper ore, but the mines closed down thirty years ago. The town remains as a tourist destination, many people coming for the ideal climate and the picturesque buildings.

I was invited to play the fiddle for a barn dance down in the Sulphur Springs Valley, a vast expanse of flat land between the Chiricuahua Mountains and the Huachuca Mountains. The area encompassing the valley and the mountains was the homeland of Cochise’s band of Apaches, and the county was named for that famed chief.

Before the music started I had an interesting conversation with Dennis, the co-proprietor of the ranch. He and his wife run 400 head of cattle on 30,000 acres of dry mesquite valley land. Naturally Dennis was concerned about the drought conditions which have prevailed in the valley for the past twenty years. I learned much from our discourse.

It’s been a while since I played fiddle for a dance. This dance was a good one, and luckily somebody shot video and edited this one:

I was invited to play by Mark, a skilled mandolin and guitar player.



Filed under Arizona, Music

A Brindled English Mastiff

It’s been a drizzly and cloudy evening, now that Southeast Arizona is in the midst of the only wet time of year, the brief Monsoon Season. It’s such a nice change from the relentlessly sunny and dry days of early June.

I was out walking, just before dusk, when I happened across a couple of men walking a massive dog which outweighed either of them.

I was amazed; I exclaimed, “What kind of dog is that?!”

“He’s a brindled English Mastiff.”

The other man said, “I’m not sure who is walking whom!”

The dog was the size of a small pony. I peered at its wrinkled self-satisfied face. What would it be like to have a pet which out-weighed you?



Filed under Arizona

A Town Of Stairs

Here I am, a Midwesterner, in a Southeast Arizona town just a few miles from the Mexican border. This is the subtropics, a desert region of drought during most of the year. This time of the year is known locally as the Monsoon, when most of the scant rainfall comes. It’s been raining almost every day, quite a change from the earlier weather, with humidity down to eight or nine percent and relentless sunshine.

The house where I am living is up 133 steps from the main drag in this town, Tombstone Canyon Street. Many houses in this town are only accessible by climbing concrete steps, usually around fifty to sixty. If weren’t for the presence of copper, gold, and turquoise, this town wouldn’t be here.

This morning I took the opportunity between rain showers to walk for a while. I was ascending the steps to the house when I encountered two little girls — they may have been six and eight years old. I greeted the girls, but their attention was captured by a man out in the canyon; I surmised that he is their father. The man had a pair of wooden salad tongs in his hand.

I kept on my way up the steps and encountered a woman who was watching the man in the canyon closely. Okay, this was the mother of the two girls and the wife of the man.

I said to the woman, “What’s going on?”

“Oh, we found a big old centipede right by the front door and Ed is trying to dispose of it.”

Ed came up, after dropping the arthropod once and retrieving it with the tongs. His wife said, “Why don’t you just take it down to the storm sewer?”

Ed said, “Good idea!” and went on down the steps. The centipede was about ten inches long and had red legs, quite an impressive and threatening creature.

I introduced myself to the mother as her daughters came up the steps.

“I’m Larry; I’m living in the house up at the top of the steps.”

“Glad to meet you!”, she said.

I wish now I had taken possession of the large centipede and photographed it, but I’m sure I’ll encounter another. A quote from the woman:

“Now that the monsoon rains have started, you’ll be sure to see your fill of creepy-crawlies!”



Filed under Arizona