Monthly Archives: September 2012

Raindrop Suicide

I have a habit of re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire every couple of years. Nabokov’s verbal virtuosity combined with the novel’s extremely unreliable narrator always charm and stimulate me.

The novel is in two sections: a 999-line poem supposedly written by the narrator’s neighbor, a professor at a small Northeastern college, is followed by a rambling and demented line-by-line commentary by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, who claims to be an exile from Zembla, a “distant northern land”.

Yesterday I opened the novel at random and came across this passage:

Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide

How persistently our poet invokes images of winter in the beginning of a poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. In the lovely line heading this comment the reader should note the last word. My dictionary defines it as “a succession of drops falling from the eaves, eavesdrop, cavesdrop.” I remember encountering it for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy. The bright frost has eternalized the bright eavesdrop. We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the “svelte stilettos” and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme.

My dictionary (actually the ghosts of several dictionaries given new electronic lives in the mysterious bit-arrays of my computer’s memory-banks) defines the word stillicide for me:

Stillicide \Stil"li*cide\, n. [L. stillicidium;
     stilla a drop + cadere to fall.]
     A continual falling or succession of drops;
     rain water falling from the eaves.

I wonder why this word has fallen into disuse? I suspect that the “cide” ending leads to an unfortunate association with words such as suicide, parricide, and as mentioned in the note quoted above, regicide — but perhaps that confusion of two similar Latin roots could serve as a mnemonic for the word, a water-droplet’s suicidal act resulting in assimilation by the waiting earth.




Filed under Books, Words

Cypress Encounter

This afternoon I was walking down High Road here in Bisbee. I was on my way home from a walk up on the canyon slope. The monsoon season is about over, but there are still towering cumulus clouds slowly sailing by.

I stopped when I encountered an Arizona Cypress tree growing in someone’s yard down below the road. The Arizona Cypress is native to the higher canyons in the Chiricuaha and Huachuca Mountains nearby and the conifer is commonly planted in Southeast Arizona towns.

The foliage of the species emanates an appealing musky-resinous odor. The fronds of scaly needles have a primitive look. Like all conifers this cypress was thriving long before the slow advent of flowering plants and their broad membranous leaves. I’m reminded of other primitive plants such as mosses, ferns, and liverworts. Cypress foliage side-lit by a low afternoon ray of sunlight:

The cones are about 1-1/4 inches in diameter, roughly spherical with almost-hexagonal facets. Soccer balls and geodesic domes come to mind. These cones are still green and will darken as they ripen over the winter:

I enjoy seeing these trees slowly transacting their reproductive business, a refreshing diversion from the trivial political squabbles so prevalent in this election year!



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos

Man’s Role

Decades ago, back in the early 1950s when I was a toddler, a group of prominent academics from various disciplines were invited to present papers at a symposium. The papers were compiled and published in 1956; the theme of the symposium and the title of the resultant book was “Man’s Role In Changing the Face Of The Earth”.

I once had a copy (in two volumes) of a paperback re-issue of that book. Much of it I found to be unreadable, but Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer’s contributions stood out, because he could actually write well. Good prose is to this day uncommon in the manifold effusions originating in academia. Several of the essays were illustrated with aerial photos included in order to illustrate the big changes our species had wrought upon the “face of the earth”.

Reading these essays and looking at the ancient low-resolution aerial photos in the book I was impressed by the attitudes of the symposium contributors. They tended to share a placid assumption that the changes in the world’s landscapes were about as severe as possible, and that man’s ingenuity would soon ameliorate the troubling problems. Sixty years later it has become evident that the changes during the subsequent decades have exceeded their comfortable assumptions by an alarming margin.

When these scholars were pontificating the world’s rain forests were still largely intact. There were still large tracts of Midwestern tall-grass prairie. There were no shopping malls or fast-food restaurants. The final assaults upon the remaining forests of ancient Northwestern trees, organisms which predated European occupation and influence, were still to come.

So where does a sensitive observer hang out these days? In Arizona, certainly not in the wildly-developed and hot lowlands near Phoenix and Tucson. Up in the mountains, perhaps, where the need for non-human wildness is balanced with the presence of a select few, other folks with similar inclinations.



Filed under Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

Agave Flowers And Seeds

Driving into Southeast Arizona you can’t help but notice the agave stalks, no matter what time of year it is. The dead stalks, some over twenty feet tall, provide vertical accents to the landscape. These succulent plants are mostly Palmer’s Agave (Agave palmeri).

I enjoy seeing these odd plants, common as they are. There are several surrounding the house where I’m staying this summer.

Agaves live for ten to forty years and then die, sending up a fat asparagus-like flower-stalk which supports gracefully-curved branches. Each branch is terminated with flower-clusters which attract insects, humming-birds, and bats. The flowering period lasts for a couple of summer months. Here’s a typical stalk I photographed last June from my back porch. A municipal building can be seen in the background:

I really wanted to examine these flowers and photograph a few, but they were all out of reach! This was frustrating. I finally decided to cut one down. A nearby vacant lot had two agaves growing side by side.

One morning I walked over to the vacant lot and pulled one of the stalks over, bending it until it broke. I know this was trespassing and willful destruction of someone’s property, but I quickly contrived several convincing rationalizations.

I snipped off a flower cluster and took it back home, leaving the remainder to wither and die without having had the dim vegetative satisfaction of successfully setting seed. Doubtless the local javelinas which prowl the neighborhood at night will make short work of them.

Such an odd flower! There are no petals; the reddish tint seen from a distance is provided by the pistil and stamen stalks. The flower exudes a potent odor which attracts pollinators. Petals are superfluous when much of the pollination happens in the dark! These flowers are at the peak of their bloom. Notice the yellow pollen grains:

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that the agave seed pods were ripening. I was curious about the arrangement of seeds in an agave pod, but I was reluctant to pull down another woody stalk just to satisfy my curiosity.

A few days ago I was walking along a canyon slope overlooking Bisbee. I came upon one of the numerous old concrete house foundations which are so common around here. I have wondered how the inhabitants of the houses which presumably rested on these foundations accessed these aerie-like sites, as no access roads remain. Steps from below, perhaps?

This foundation is near the ridge-top, and the strong winds which sluice through the canyon evidently had toppled an agave growing from some concrete rubble. The seed-pods seemed to be still developing, so I concluded some connection to the disturbed roots had survived. The top of the stalk extended out of reach over the slope, but I managed to pull the stalk around so that I could cut off a pod-laden branchlet.

The pods are segmented into three chambers, and they average about 2-1/2″ long:

I cut a pod open and found these closely-packed seeds, hundreds of them in each pod. Most of the ripening seeds were black, but others were thinner and white. I suspect the white ones are unpollinated seed embryos:

The texture of the seed-coats was interesting, rather like pebble-finished leather:

I’m curious about the culinary potential of agave seeds. According to one source the Apaches made some use of ground agave seeds, although the major food produced from agaves was the starchy core mass roasted in pits.

Perhaps I’ll harvest and grind some agave seeds later this fall!



Filed under Arizona, Food, Natural History, Photos

An Anomalous Cactus

The area around Bisbee, Arizona lies in a transition zone between the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert. There are scattered cacti here, but nowhere near as many as in the drier Sonoran region. They aren’t as prominent, being mostly low-growing species. The picturesque Saguaro and barrel cacti which can be seen around Tucson are absent; the defining non-arboreal plants in this area tend to be the agaves and yuccas.

I’ve spent many hours walking up and down the canyon slopes surrounding Bisbee and I thought I had seen most of the cacti which call this area home. There are just a few species: the Arizona Rainbow, the Claret Cup, Cane Cholla, and a couple of prickly pear species. These succulent plants are scattered for the most part; ten minutes of a walk can go by without encountering a one.

One recent cool and cloudy morning I was traversing a slope which overlooks Brewery Gulch, one of the canyons which cradle the town. I was in an area which had burned off a few years ago and charred dead oaks and yucca stumps were the evidence. The sideoats grama grass was as lush as it gets, as this is still the monsoon season and the rains have been plentiful.

I was looking for a trail which would lead me home. I had only intended to take a short walk, but the air was so cool and pleasant that before I knew it I had gone farther and higher than I had intended.

I happened to look down. I’m always scanning my immediate environment while walking, as I’m a sucker for novelty. You never know what you might find!

I was surprised to see a large but low-profile round cactus nestled in the grass. It was about nine inches in diameter and had the nipple-like surface texture which led me to believe that it belongs in the genus Mammillaria.

It surprised me to see what must have been a fairly old cactus growing in a burned-off area. How did this cactus escape the fire? Why aren’t there more of them? I carefully transected the surrounding area and found no other cacti like this lone individual.

Once I was home I quickly determined that the cactus belonged to the species Mammillaria heyderi, one of a small group of species often called the Cream Cactus.

This find still intrigues me, and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for further examples. Could it be that the one I saw is the last one left in this area?



Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

A Matter Of Scale

Have you ever noticed that our attentions seem to be drawn to non-human organisms which are larger than us and possibly threatening?

Lions, tigers, cougars, elephants, sharks, giant squids — they all get ample
press. Masters as we are of the diminishing natural world, the idea of being eaten alive always captures our attention.

Though wildflowers, no matter how large and conspicuous, don’t seem to be much of a threat, we pay more attention to large flowers and tend to ignore tiny ones. Small flowers can be as interesting as large ones, and we now have the advantage of digital cameras and magnifying devices which allow us to see plant structures which are much smaller than our unaided eyes can easily see.

The visual net we cast over the local landscape as we indulge in a walk can be one with coarse meshes, especially if our thoughts wander through the mental landscapes of memory and speculation rather than paying attention to the natural world unfolding before us.

In a vegetative realm lying somewhere between the massive (trees, etc.) and the microbiological are the humble inhabitants, inconspicuous plants with small flowers co-existing with the tiny insects which pollinate them or feed upon them. Such plants are easily ignored, but just squatting down and peering into low thickets will often reveal miniature landscapes full of plants and insects quietly plying their trades.

Here are a few photographic examples gleaned from a short walk here in the Mule Mountains.

This species had me baffled for a while; it bears the evocative common name Scarlet Spiderling. The plant is in the four-o-clock family and is more formally known as Boerhavia coccinea. Like the desert morning glory I wrote about recently, this Spiderling sends out long vines which hug the gravelly ground. The flowers are borne in minute clusters which are about three-eighths of an inch wide.

A close-up of the flower-cluster; each individual flower is less than one-eighth inch wide:

I always get a kick out of wild relatives of our domesticated food plants. This plant is in the same genus as lima beans, and its common name is Slimleaf Limabean (Phaseolus angustissimus). The little bean is only an inch long:

Unlike the cultivated limas, where were bred in more humid and well-watered climates, this desert bean has narrow leaves, as larger and broader leaves would lead to excessive transpiration under the blazing mid-day sun. The vines are practically diaphanous, and they quickly climb whatever is available during the brief monsoon season:

Another genus of legumes is Desmodium. Several of the many species are called Tick-trefoil or Beggar-lice. The plants typically have little segmented pods which break apart and stick to clothing and fur. This Desmodium clump was simultaneously budding out new flowers and forming miniscule pods, a parallel strategy which ensures that at least some seeds will ripen if the rains stop.

A close-up of the intricate flower structure:

The common names of Bidens bipinnata are indicative of the ubiquitous plant’s reputation among humans: Spanish Needles, Beggarticks, Stickseeds, and Tickseeds are just a few. When the linear barbed seeds are ripe in the fall they cling to clothing and can be quite annoying. Stumble into a thicket of Bidens and Desmodium in the fall and you will regret it! The plant, in my view, redeems itself by being one of the larval hosts of the Painted Lady butterfly, and a feeding platform for this one-eight-inch crab spider which blended in well with the ragged and scanty petals of the plant. I had a hard time focusing on this predator lying in wait:



Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos