Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Sprawl Of Morning Glories

I’m fond of the collective nouns in the English language. The fact that they exist at all is simply yet another linguistic quirk. “a murder of crows”, “an exaltation of larks”, “a wedge of swans”… these terms aren’t really used all that much, but they have a certain poetic potency.

There are several collective nouns which are so embedded in our language that we use them reflexively. Nobody ever refers to an aggregation of cows as a “flock”. For no rational reason, that term is reserved for descriptions of groups of goats or sheep.

I’d like to propose a new collective noun, one which is unlikely to be used by anyone other than myself. “Why is that?”, you might ask. My noun refers to an obscure species of Morning Glory, Ipomoea longifolia, a peculiar species which is only found in Southwestern desert environments. A Sprawl of Morning Glories! I like the sound of the phrase.

This species doesn’t climb like most Morning Glories; there isn’t much to climb on in the desert. The plant sends out ground-hugging vines which make their way across rocks and gravel.

The flowers are beautiful, and I can’t help but wonder how such fleshy and large blooms can grow in such an arid environment. I surmise that the plants might have a fleshy tuberous root, like another member of the genus, the sweet potato. A fetching cluster of flowers which I captured one cool August morning:

Here’s a shot of a shoot making its way across a barren expanse of schist. The seeds of these plants mostly die of desiccation, or are eaten, but a favored few find a cleft in the rocks which has accumulated a pocket of humus, yucca and oak leaves slowly decaying in a crevice or crack which was somehow shielded by topography from the sluicing torrents of the monsoon rains. The wandering vines of this Morning Glory can be ten feet long.

Only once have I seen the vines of this plant actually climb, something temperate-zone Morning Glories do routinely. Here is a shot of a vine climbing up and over a dead yucca clump, a mass of dead vegetation which takes decades to decay:

Right now, during the peak of the monsoon season in the Mule Mountains, the normally barren canyon slopes are cloaked with showy blossoms of this Morning Glory, as well as the pink and fuzzy blossoms of a leguminous shrub which I think might be a species of Mimosa. A nice time of the year for a walk!




Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos, Words

The Night Of The Hunter

Bisbee, Arizona has a population of just six thousand people, but this summer I have learned that the local public library is an invaluable resource. The Copper Queen Library, along with a good book collection, also has an extensive library of classic films on DVD.

Last night, as I ate freshly-made pesto with home-made bread, I watched a movie which impressed me deeply, the 1955 film The Night Of The Hunter. Charles Laughton directed this dark film, and the amazing cinematography of Stanley Cortez has the feel of German Expressionist movies of the 1920s.

Robert Mitchum’s performance as the evil and psychotic preacher is the role of a lifetime. Shelley Winters shines as a widow who falls under the preacher’s spell.

This review of the film effectively explains its power, even fifty-seven years later:

Noir of the Week article

You can watch the movie in seven parts on Youtube; here’s the first fourteen minutes.



Filed under Essays and Articles, Video, Visual Arts

Inhabitants and Features of Castle Rock

Tombstone Canyon is a cleft in the Mule Mountains. It runs from the northwest to the southeast, and along the bottom of the canyon are the buildings and roads of Bisbee, Arizona. Houses perch on ledges blasted out of both canyon walls. People wanted to live close to the copper mines, back in an era when commuting was not an option.

Northwest of the downtown area two towers of limestone known as Castle Rock rise one hundred feet or so from Tombstone Canyon Road. This is the main drag which takes the place of a seasonal creek which presumably once carried off run-off from monsoon rains. A network of canals now handles that duty.

Castle Rock is an anomaly, a massive chunk of Martin limestone which somehow resisted the erosion which has carved and deepened Tombstone Canyon during the past few million years. The limestone towers are frustrating to this photographer, as there seems to be no really good vantage point from which to shoot photos. From down in the canyon the view is obscured by trees and power-lines, and foreshortening hides the details of the strata. A view from below:

A sidelong view from my back porch shows the layered structure of the higher of the two pillars, but the outline is indistinct due to the lack of contrast with the canyon-wall background.

Oh, well! It remains a pleasant and nearby destination for some of my walks. The rocks are also a popular party spot, judging by the broken beer bottles which unfortunately litter the site. If nobody picks up that detritus it will be there for millennia.

The rocks are easily climbed, as step-like ledges seem as if they were deliberately placed for easy ascension. This plant, a new one to me, caught my eye during my last visit. Roving Sailor (Maurandella antirrhiniflora), a charming vine in the Figwort Family, as far as I know isn’t normally found growing from a crack in a rock-face, but here it was, blithely blooming away and doubtless attracting hummingbirds.

A victim of local gossip was moved to paint this illustrated statement on a nearby rock-face:

I saw several examples of this modest flower, some species of Scuttellaria, I’m certain, but I haven’t identified it to species. Skullcaps are so-called due to a fancied resemblance of the humped blossoms to the crown of a skull.

The first time I walked over to Castle Rock I was drawn by curiosity. Something was sitting on the higher of the two pinnacles which looked like some some sort of furniture. I climbed to the top of the rock and found a sofa, of all things! It hadn’t been there long as it wasn’t weathered. Who could have put it there and why?

I shot this rather blurred telephoto shot from my front porch after I got home. A week later the sofa was gone.



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos

Misty Walk On Juniper Flats

Lately I’ve been wondering how the granite ridge Juniper Flats has responded to the monsoon rains. Juniper Flats is just a mile or so north of Bisbee, a quick drive, so Friday morning I drove through the Mule Pass Tunnel and headed up the steep and switch-backed road to the top of the Flats.

The road, with its frequent rock outcroppings, straightens out at the top of the ridge. There’s an area about two miles long and one-quarter mile wide which is reasonably flat. On the west side the drop down to Highway 80 is a sheer cliff, while on the other sides many canyons dissect the slopes.

I stopped for a while at a pull-off where I had camped for ten days back in May. Ephemeral monsoon flowers were in evidence, such as this modest narrow-leaved morning glory:

This is a plant in the Lily Family which I’ve not been able to identify; I saw it scattered among the stunted piñon pines and alligator junipers:

There are two high points at the north end of the flats, and these have been dedicated to modern communications. The existence of the cell phone towers on those eminences is the only reason the road up there is maintained. I drove to the access road which leads to the lower of the two tower complexes, parked, and walked up to the top. A view looking north:

As I looked westwards I noticed that while the San Pedro Valley was dimly visible, the clouds moving in obscured the normally-visible Huachua Mountains:

I clambered back down and drove a farther on to a dip between the two tower complexes. There was an unlocked gate barring access to a rough jeep trail which parallels a canyon I’d never explored. I parked again and slipped by the gate, which was cleverly counter-weighted by a chunk of granite enclosed by iron bands.

I encountered a piñon pine growing from a crevice in the granite, it’s squat trunk shielded by a profuse growth of Fairy Sword ferns:

The jeep trail became rougher and it was obvious that a jeep hadn’t been back along this path for several years. Granite boulders had fallen into the trail, but someone had gone to some effort once upon a time to establish the road, even building up the downhill side with rubble walls.

The trail came to an end at a green, built-up and leveled platform. Eighteen-inch concrete walls had been hand-poured on top of what must have been a slanting granite ledge, but for what purpose? It seemed like a lot of work to have done just to have a level spot for a picnic or campfire:

Spring seeps converged on this platform and the runoff joined other temporary watercourses draining from the heights. I could see down in the canyon that a temporary creek was flowing.

I jumped down from the anomalous platform and saw that traces of a crude road continued. I suspected that mines might have been the reason, as only the prospect of material gain could justify the labor that pushing that road along the slope must have involved.

Before I descended into the canyon I ended up seeing at least half-a-dozen mines, crude slots and holes blasted out of the granite, such as this one:

Piles of rotten mine timbers could be seen now and then:

The road petered out and I descended to the canyon bottom, expanses of granite shimmering with sheets of water. There was a thirty-foot drop-off, and presumably a trickling waterfall, but the water-worn stone was slick enough that I dared not venture too close to the edge:

I began to make my way upstream. A flash of red caught my eye, a flowering plant sheltered beneath a massive boulder:

A closer look revealed a species of Coral Bells, Huechera sanguinea. This was a new one for me and I enjoyed seeing it in its native habitat:

A close-up of a flower-cluster:

The vegetation around the creeklet began to close in on me as I ascended, and it became difficult to find my way around some of the pools. I began to feel confined and thought I’d make my way back up-slope to the relatively bare rock. Unfortunately I ended up in a thicket of dead and living manzanita. The weathered dead branches, with their elbow-like contortions, seemed to willfully impede my progress. Here’s another remnant of the mining days I found buried in the thicket. Perhaps an iron boiler?

During this past drought decade the canyon slopes around Bisbee have experienced a die-off of perhaps half of the manzanita trees. The dead trunks and branches will take many decades to decay. This seedling piñon pine seems determined to take over the photosynthetic duties in this particular spot of desert:

I gradually made my way through the clinging dead branches. Surely, I thought, I’d get to the typical open landscape before much longer! I happened to look up as I rested for a minute. I was surprised to see billowing plumes of mist being blown up the canyon, and I noticed that the temperature was dropping. A rainstorm in the morning is a rarity during the monsoon season, but it looked like some change in the weather was imminent. The mist obscuring the mountains was quite beautiful and I had to shoot some photos.

As I left the thicket behind I had to remind myself that getting wet was not going to hurt me, but the instinct to seek shelter as a storm approaches is a strong one. I was hoping to find the jeep trail but it eluded me. Then I saw a most peculiar structure perched on a ledge, and there appeared to be no road or trail allowing access from the outside world. It was a cleft in the granite roofed over with soldered copper sheets, and it had two skylights! The edges of the copper roof had been sealed to the irregular contours of the rock. The entrance to the structure was surrounded by a high fence:

I noticed an electrical cable snaking its way down to the building, perhaps originating at the cell phone tower complex high above. From a rock-face above the structure a 3/4″ iron pipe protruded. A standard hose-faucet was attached to it and a coil of weathered green hose lay just below. Did someone once live here?

The mist was clinging to the opposite ridge-top in a most appealing way:

I finally came up to the jeep-trail just one hundred feet from my truck. I sat in the truck, eating some bread and cheese, and watched distant showers descending upon the Huachuca Mountains. As I drove back down from the flats I pulled over at one switch-back and watched a rain shower advancing across the San Jose Mountains in the nearby Mexican state Sonora

Ten minutes later I was home. It’s nice to have such an area to explore just outside of town!



Filed under Arizona, Photos, Plants

Orca And Young

I found this whimsical photo at the Botany Photo Of The Day site:

The bean babies are a variety called “Yin-yang”.


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Filed under Photos

Mural Hill In 1904

Driving into Bisbee from the south, past the commercial development and copper-mine tailing piles, I’m always delighted and intrigued when the slanting limestone reef atop Mural Hill comes into view. The stratum of limestone known as the Mural formation, securely ensconced upon a conical base of varied sedimentary and conglomerate rocks, was named for that hill. I’ve made a couple of tentative efforts to reach the hill on foot, but I never found the right path, and the monsoon season heat and humidity defeated my efforts.

Frederick Leslie Ransome was a geologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. In the early years of the twentieth century he was assigned to investigate the geology of the Bisbee, Arizona mining district. I can imagine what Ransome thought of SE Arizona during that boomtime period. He was born in Greenwich, England, educated in California, and by the time he and his crew got to Bisbee he was in his mid-thirties. His report, published by the USGS in 1904, contained many black-and-white photos of the arid landscape surrounding Bisbee, a landscape which looks much the same today. The photo at the top of the post is from that report, which along with economic geology contains a few impressionistic passages, such as this one:

Note how Ransome allows his just-the-facts geological prose to briefly relax, back in an era when such statements were allowed in a report on economic geology.

One of these days I’ll get to that hill and take some close-up photos. Until then, isn’t it good for the soul to have prospects on the horizon which haven’t yet been visited?

Here’s one more photo from Ransome’s report. This is Bisbee in 1902, when the mines were in full swing and sulphurous fumes filled the canyon. One hill in this photo, a darker irregular eminence visible just behind the mineshaft workings at the right of center in this view, once was known as Sacramento Hill. In later years the mine switched over to open-pit methods and now the hill is an immense cavity in the rock, the Lavendar Pit. It always seems boosterishly ironic to me that the city has a sign by the pit: “Scenic View!”



Filed under Arizona, Photos

Geological Musings

During the first half of my life, encompassing three decades, I lived in the Midwest. I didn’t know any better, I guess. I had traveled through the west at times, and I was impressed by the landscapes, but once my ex-wife and I had kids we were more or less stuck there for quite a few years.

Almost a year ago fate stepped in and changed my life. I met a woman from Nova Scotia and she convinced me to leave my old life behind and come to Southeast Arizona, and here I am.

My attitude towards geology in the Midwest was casual and intermittent. The areas I lived in were blanketed by glacial till and the pre-cambrian rocks were buried, just a subject of imagination. Limestone cliffs could be seen along the major rivers, such as the South Fabius, but the region had been quite static for many thousands of years, ever since the last Wisconsan glaciation ten or twelve thousand years ago.

The Southwest desert regions opened my eyes. Such geological tumult! Uplifts and volcanoes were followed by millions of years of placid oceans; fragments of limey shells shed by dying phytoplankton and zooplankton drifted down from ancient seas. Those fragments formed layers of sediment which became limestone reefs, and these reefs were uplifted by violent mountain-building events caused by tectonic movements of the continental plates millions of years ago. This was followed by eons of years of erosion. The valleys in this area became filled with thousands of feet of alluvium, sandy and gravelly soil which doesn’t retain the scanty rain which falls; it all filters down into a water-table which is being sucked up by people, those who have settled in the valley and can afford wells.

If you look at the satellite views of the valley using Google Maps you can see the agriculture in the valley. Circles of green show the tracts being irrigated with circle-pivot irrigation, much of that hay land. I was surprised to see,when I first drove through the valley, how many new pecan orchards there are. Young groves of pecans growing on irrigated land. At the local Safeway grocery store in San Jose I also noticed that pecans these days cost about twelve dollars per pound.

Sitting on my back porch I can see the southeast wall of Tombstone Canyon. A band of limestone is very evident near the top; here’s a photo:

This layer of limestone was violently heaved up during a mountain-building episode millions of years ago, and there it remains, showing evidence of fossil organisms which lived in a long-dead sea.

You can’t escape geology in the Southwest. It’s in your face if you have a contemplative and observant nature.



Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles